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Reauthor Your Sex Story

July 7, 2014

All sorrows can be born if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.

Isak Dinesen

Sex therapy clients have usually done their own research, mining the Internet and talking to friends in an effort to solve their problem before coming to the wise decision that it might be helpful to seek some expert advice. Therapists at the Council for Relationships offer a variety of approaches that share the common belief that problems are multidimensional. Additionally, those of us practicing Narrative Therapy hold that the problem is external; it does not live as a pathogen inside the individual. Sexuality is relational—a dynamic tangle of biological, psychological, social, and spiritual threads that connects two people. Each of these threads contains countless specific issues. For example, the social domain contains the competing influences of cultural beliefs, the power of taboo, legal and policy issues, and media influences; the psychological domain includes affects, emotions, and temperament; and the biological domain includes physiological functions, physical structural, and illness. Just as no two snowflakes are the same, each client, as well as each couple, is a unique expression of multiple influences generating dancing patterns.

Narrative Therapy is a useful guiding therapeutic model because it allows us to make sense of each couple’s unique combination of dynamic factors by organizing them into stories. The essence of Narrative Therapy is that clients tell their stories and therapists ask questions, looking for clues in those stories to draw out healing alternative stories. My job as the therapist is to listen to stories and find the clues to the healing stories that are waiting to be reauthored by clients. We all share stories to convey our joys and sorrows as we navigate through life. Narrative Sex Therapy challenges sexual problem narratives that have led clients to seek therapy and brings forward healing stories through collaborative conversations.

There is no magic pill that can guarantee a happy sex life. Medications such as Viagra may address specific physiological limitations, but once that is addressed couples often find sex is more complicated than achieving a good erection. For most couples, the medical model that we can treat sex problems like a physical illness is not fruitful. Sex is relational, so collaboration is key. Collaboration is also a keystone of Narrative Therapy, which is why it is a good fit for couples work. Narrative Therapy professionals do not prescribe cures; they collaborate with clients to uncover or discover solutions. Partners collaborate on shaping a happier sex life together through a new telling of their love story, a new erotic story, or a surprising new way to make sense of their lives. Their stories reveal a new breadth and depth of their uniqueness, and this leads to a reinvention of their sexual life.

Healing stories are more than a wishful rearrangement of plot lines and landscapes; they intersect with the vast inner world of each partner. Narrative Therapy achieves more than a superficial adjustment of what we say about our sex lives. The inner world that holds generational stories and our emotional histories gives rise to our fundamental sexual identity, that is, how we view ourselves in sexual relationships.

There is an old adage—“as above so below”—that speaks to the systemic shifts that happen in therapy. The collaborative stories that arise in sex therapy must resonate at both the external and internal levels. Therapy is more than a negotiation or a place for a therapist to act as a referee. Rather than a negotiation for concessions—you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours—collaborators agree to explore new vistas together. It takes courage, and it can be exciting.

In order to accomplish good collaboration I help partners learn how to be fully present with each other and how to listen carefully. I teach a simple way of taking turns, listening and telling small stories. The listener can clarify by asking questions; even though he or she may not agree or feel defensive, the listener stays the course and attempts to see the world from his or her partner’s perspective. This is where the healing change really begins. These explorations may begin with the external world but they also link into the internal world of the psyche. Sometimes partners need to explore emotions that are too difficult to put into words. Here, too, through resonance with a partner’s felt experience one can see a glimmer of a new story. The amazing development is that through listening, two individual true stories lead couples to co-create a new shared story.

The stalemate between the sexual problem and the desire for happiness that brought a couple to therapy is transformed into the love, closeness, and meaning they both desired. Not always, of course. There are no guarantees, but this process works for many people. It may not have the result someone had wished for but we do not know if the outcome is the end of one story or the beginning of a new story. Inherent in Narrative Therapy is the search for meaning, which requires a willingness to let go of old stories that perpetuated suffering. As Victor Frankl observed, “Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning.”