Friday, December 28, 2012

Mindfulness: You Don't Have to be a Hippy to Use it to Improve Sex and Relationships

Mindfulness is the act of being aware, and it's a skill that can dramatically improve your sex life and interpersonal relationships. Specifically, it's the act of being aware of the the present sensations you're experiencing, how you perceive them, and an awareness of your thoughts, feelings, physiological state, and emotional state. 

In other words, it's the art of not being distracted.
Humans have a fairly unique ability to think about thinking, or meta-cognition. Even if we manage to silence the buzz of our environment, we're still distracted by our own thoughts. We fret about our past. We worry about the future. We can't stop obsessing about the grocery list, how our spouse insists on putting the toilet paper roll on backwards, the kids' homework, or that run-in with that bitchy neighbor. 

Mindfulness is also the art of overcoming habituation. When we're presented with a particular physical sensation, we notice it... for awhile. Eventually we "get used to it", though. This is why freshmen boys and elderly ladies apply fifteen applications of cologne or perfume. It's why you no longer feel the chair under your ass or the feeling of your underwear (for you prudes that insist on wearing them.) :-) Mindfullness will allow us to continually re-focus on a particular stimuli so we can perceive it longer

So how does it improve sex or even relationships? In short, it makes us aware of what's happening around us and inside us. It allows us to take a step back and assess ourselves with a detached curiosity, which leads to a greater understanding of ourselves. Once we begin to understand ourselves, we can take steps to influence ourselves.

In the realm of sex, it allows us to "turn off" our inner monologue that distracts us. We might worry about how our body looks. We might worry about our performance. We might be thinking about something unrelated to sex. All greatly diminish our ability to really savor the physical and emotional experiences of the sexual experience. 

In the realm of relationships, it allows us to assess our thoughts and emotions relative to our partner. If we experience a negative emotion like anger, resentment, insecurity, disappointment, clinginess, jealousy, ... whatever, mindfulness allows us to mentally take a step back and assess why we feel the way we feel. It allows us to uncritically assess the emotional state without being blinded by the emotion.

Most of us have probably heard of mindfulness in the context of meditation, which congers images of barefooted hippies sitting in circles in the lotus position repeating a particular mantra. Indeed, many Eastern traditions (like Buddhism) use mediation as a means of achieving mindfulness, and they're exceptionally effective. The problem? Not everyone wants to adopt everything that comes with this style of achieving mindfulness.

It's understandable. When I first started teaching people about barefoot running, the first step usually involved dispelling the stereotype associated with barefoot runners. The new barefoot runners didn't have to look like they were transplants from 1967. They didn't have to be semi-homeless. They could normally wear a three-piece suit. They could be doctors. And lawyers. And teachers. And carpenters.

I had to teach that barefoot running was a tool that could be used by anyone; it did not require a wholesale lifestyle change.

Mindfulness falls in the same category. You don't have to adopt a completely different lifestyle to take advantage of the power of mindfulness. A few simple activities will do the trick. As it turns out, practicing mindfulness increases the size (and presumably the function) of a part of the brain called the insula. We don't understand exactly how and why it works, but we do know it is involved in communication within the brain, especially when processing emotions. 

Mindfulness exercises seem to increase our ability to focus and process physical sensations (handy during sex.) It also moves emotional processing from the lower brain areas to higher brain areas. This develops our ability to process and analyze emotions instead of simply reacting to them. This makes us more peaceful, calmer, and more empathic... all great qualities to bring to a relationship.

The Raw Materials for Mindfulness

Curiosity: We have to have a desire to understand our inner and outer world to fully benefit from mindfulness. Shelly and I were having a conversation about mindfulness and realized we've used mindfulness in one form or another beginning in childhood. Both of us had a deep curiosity about the world, both externally and internally. We were surrounded by people that didn't really answer questions we had, so we searched for the answers ourselves. This curiosity led to the tendency to analyze stuff objectively, which is at the very heart of mindfulness. Our problem, however, was attribution. Both of us had a problem objectively experiencing stuff due to emotional baggage. For both of us, therapy was required to understand that baggage. Once we understood it, we could set it aside and simply observe.

Focus: Mindfulness requires us to be able to shut out noise to fully concentrate on one particular thing (or nothing depending on the application.) This is why most mediation newbies find a quiet place free from distractions. Personally I get to this place when doing physical activity. It's one of the reasons I love long-distance running. It gives me the solitude and time to focus on my thoughts.

Dedication: Developing mindfulness requires some degree of dedication. It can be very difficult to actually practice mindfulness, especially if we're busy. Worse, mindfulness can be difficult if we're experiencing severe negativity in our lives. It's hard to step back from negative emotions, but it does get easier with practice. The key is not to throw in the towel at the first sign of difficulty. It also helps to realize developing mindfulness isn't a destination, it's a journey. Like many life skills, you'll never reach some arbitrary point and declare success. You'll spend a lifetime improving your abilities.

Give Me Some Exercises!

  • Exercise 1: Learn to relax and silence the chatter. Do this exercise for 10 minutes twice per day. Find a nice, quiet place to lie down. Close your eyes. Slow your breathing down by breathing in while slowly counting to three, hold it for two seconds, then slowly breathe out by counting to three. Focus on your breathing. If your thoughts start to wander, just slowly refocus on the breathing. Do this for 10 breaths. Next, we're going to tense up specific muscle groups, hold them for five seconds, then slowly relax. For each muscle group, focus on the feeling of tension when tightened, then notice how relaxing the tightened muscles makes your entire body feel more relaxed. Focus on the feelings of the muscles. If your thoughts begin to wander, slowly bring them back to the muscles. Tense and relax in this order. When finished, take 10 more deep, slow breaths.
    • Feet
    • Lower legs
    • Upper legs
    • Butt
    • Abs and back muscles (core)
    • Chest and upper back
    • Shoulders
    • Upper arms
    • Forearms
    • Hands
    • Neck
    • Face
  • Exercise 2: Pay attention to physical sensations. Set an alarm clock or other timing device for 30 minute intervals. When the timer goes off, spend 30 seconds paying attention to your bodily sensations. Notice the feeling of your clothing, the smells around you, any muscle tightness, your skin temperature, etc. Do this for an entire day. Repeat every other day.
  • Exercise 3: Pay attention to your thoughts. Use the same method as above, except this time you'll notice your thoughts. What are you thinking about when the timer goes off? Don't do anything else except acknowledge the thought.
  • Exercise 4: Pay attention to your emotional state. After one week of doing exercises 1 through 3, try this one. Use the same methods, except this time you're going to notice your emotional state. Are you happy? Content? Sad? Angry? Horny? Again, just acknowledge the state then go on with your day.
  • Exercise 5: Pay attention to other peoples' emotional states. Use the same methodology, except this time you'll pay attention to other people. Observe them. Based on their body language, tome of voice, and other indicators, can you guess their current emotional state? Don't try to analyze why, just observe and move on.
  • Exercise 6: Look for correlations. Repeat each of the five exercises from above. This time, observe other things that are happening at the same time. You're looking for relationships. Don't try to figure out why two things may be related, just look for things that seem to occur at the same time. 
  • Exercise 7: Look for causations. Use the same methodology as the correlation exercise. Once we begin to develop the ability to self-assess and look for relationships, we can begin to see if those relationships are causal. Does a particular thing cause a certain emotion or behavior? This exercise can be especially powerful when applied to your own inner thoughts and emotions because you'll start to see patterns emerge. Specifically, certain situations or people may be responsible for either positive or negative thoughts and feelings. Once we identify that, we can apply Pareto's principle to increase the good and decrease the bad in our lives.
Remember, the goal of these seven exercises is to train yourself to be more mindful. We're actually causing a change in brain function, which requires some time. You'll notice an immediate effect after the first day or two, but really significant changes will occur after only a week or two. 

In the near future, I'll share a few "recreational" uses of mindfulness. Stay tuned! ;-)


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Meeting Your Partner's Needs Self-Determination Style

All of us have a wide variety of physical and social needs ranging from the need to breathe to the need to belong. Abe Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" is one of the most-disseminated ideas in academia:

Some of these needs are met in our intimate relationships. Self-determination theory, a comprehensive theory of human motivation, gives a slightly different take on our needs. Specifically, our needs encompass three spheres:
  •  The need for relatedness- We have a need to want to care for and help others and feel they care for us and want to help us in return. We want reciprocal relationships.
  • The need for autonomy- We have a need to be the original source for all our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. We want to feel like we're in the driver's seat of our lives.
  • The need for competence- We want to feel like we're capable and effective decision-makers. 
When all three needs are met, good things happen. We feel happy, complete, and secure. When one or more of the needs aren't being met, we suffer.

These needs can be met from a variety of social sources. In fact, many people will get these needs met from different sources. However, the people that help us meet all three needs are the people that we bond with the strongest.

If the person meeting the needs happens to be a romantic partner, even better things happen. Relationships that feature this dynamic have stronger attachment between partners, are more satisfying, and are more secure, all of which are predictors of relationship success.

If a partner doesn't meet one or more of these needs, the relationship may end... unless the person not getting their needs met have a high degree of separation anxiety. In that case, the relationship is likely to continue even if it is unfulfilling. Most current research suggests these individuals feel they are not worthy of a fulfilling relationship... which is another topic for another day.

Anyway, how can you make sure you're fulfilling your partner's needs? Let's take a look at each variable:
  • Relatedness: This one is simple- help your partner and be open to them helping you. This can take pretty much any form from chores to career decisions. Learn the art of altruism.
  • Autonomy: Autonomy is usually about choice. Allow your partner to make decisions without your influence. Learn the art of trust.
  • Competence: Give your partner positive feedback on a regular basis (and avoid negative feedback.) Learn the art of the genuine compliment.
That's it. That's all it takes to meet those needs. Of course, it may be easier said than done, especially if we're controlling, not inclined to be helpful, or like to be critical.

These needs don't have to be met by a partner; they can be met by others (friends, family, etc.) However, having a romantic partner that does meet these needs dramatically enhances our relationships.

My advice- work on it. Your significant other (and relationship health) will prosper!


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Taking and Setting Your Emotional Temperature: A Handy Communication Tool

Communication between significant others can be difficult at times. Shelly and I use a useful tool on a regular basis- emotional temperature (ET.) We use a slightly less formal version than the idea I'll toss out below, but it's still exceedingly effective. 

The goal is to assess how we currently feel about our relationship. This always leads to a discussion of what we're both feeling, both positive and negative, and what may be causing the feelings. Since we both have a history of unhealthy coping mechanisms, this helps keep us from falling into the self-destructive behavior patterns of the past. In essence, it prevents the buildup of anger, resentment, disappointment, and a host of other negative emotions that plague relationships.

A more formal version can be used, especially in the beginning. Any couple could use the following seven point scale (hey look, a Likert scale!*):

  1. Frozen: You have total and complete indifference to your partner. You do not show any love/warmth/attention to them other than for day-to-day needs. When they say 'I love you" you ignore them. You don't initiate any conversation that is not logistics/schedule related. Your response when they initiate conversation about anything else is aimed at "ending" the conversation as soon as possible.
  2. Very cold: You give minimal response when they show you love. You give very brief responses to their attempts to talk to you.
  3. Cold: You respond to "their" loving overtures, but with a little less enthusiasm than they are showing you. You don't initiate any loving gestures.
  4. Room Temperature: You mirror their emotional affect. When they are warm and loving you give it back. When they are reserved/not initiating loving gestures, you don't make an attempt to initiate any loving response.
  5. Warm: You initiate some loving stuff but let them do most of the work.
  6. Hot: You initiate most loving gestures, initiate most conversations, and give your partner frequent attention.
  7. Blazing: This is where you are initiating almost all loving gestures/kind acts in an aggressive fashion. This is actively and overtly doing everything in your power to sweep them off their feet. They are the center of your universe.
Each partner can share their current "number" with each other, then discuss why they're at that particular number. The goal isn't to magically arrive at the the highest number possible, but to communicate how you feel and why you feel that way. In other words, the "emotional temperature" scale is a tool to gain a deeper understanding of both yourself and your partner.

The "emotional temperature" concept is more of a thermometer, not a thermostat. It measures how you feel; it doesn't change how you feel. HOWEVER, once we begin to understand our deepest feelings, we realize we have some power to control how we feel. We're in the driver's seat. If we're currently at a "2", we can take steps to move up to a higher level.

Far too many treat relationships as if they're a lifeboat without oars aimlessly floating around the open ocean. They act as if they're completely at the mercy of the wind and currents, then wallow in the negative self-pity and helplessness they've created. Realizing you have control over how you think, feel, and act is incredibly powerful and will immediately improve a bad relationship. Helping your partner realize the same will often eradicate most relationship problems.

Game Time!

Once you master the idea of using the scale as a tool to aid communication, it can be used to have some fun. Remember the seduction post? Seduction is nothing more than intentionally moving up and down the emotional temperature scale. Some people will strive to always be a "6" or "7." 

That's a mistake.

While everyone loves being the center of attention, we DO habituate to it. Giving your partner flowers is a great affectionate gesture. Giving your partner flowers every day for six months gets old. 

For animal lovers, the goal is to be a cat, not a dog

To use the ET scale for seduction, just vary things up from day to day. Some days you can be a 3. Other days you can be a 5. The farther you get to either end, the less you should use it. For example, don't toss out the 1's or 7's very often. Spend most of the time closer to room temperature.

The cool thing about this game is it works even if your partner knows what you're doing. That's the beauty of great communication- you can intentionally manipulate attention to make each other more interesting without the underlying resentment that would result if each knew it was just a game.


* Experimental psychology joke

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sex and Aggression: Innate Drives or Learned Behaviors?

Few people would argue sex isn't an innate drive. We crave it. Why? Based on research, we know sex is rewarding on a variety of levels. Also, it's needed for the survival of our species. The evolutionary value is unquestioned.

But what about other human behaviors like aggression? Could we have a drive to engage in aggressive behavior? In some cases, it could serve an evolutionary function like defense of territory, hunting for food, or protecting young. It can also backfire if we're killing each other.

In an attempt to answer this question, some researchers conducted a fascinating experiment involving mice. They manipulated their environment then played with the brain chemical dopamine (same neurotransmitter that makes us feel really good). They found that blocking dopamine decreased the likelihood of mice engaging in aggressive encounters. In short, aggressive behavior was rewarding. The researchers speculated that a similar mechanism could explain why humans engage in aggressive behaviors.

Why would we have these aggressive tendencies? There's a pretty good chance they served an evolutionary purpose

Based on this idea, it is easy to see why events like the recent Connecticut shooting have taken place- we're innately aggressive.

Or are we?

Like any question in science, there's support for both sides of any issue. Alfie Kohn, the author I discovered as a teacher, wrote an excellent piece summarizing the argument and supporting evidence that humans are not innately aggressive. This is a MUST READ. I really like Kohn's point about more "advanced" societies being more violent, which hints that aggression could be a function of the individualistic/materialistic lifestyle we choose to live here in the United States.

Personally I think this issue is far more important than issues like gun control. This hits at the very heart of our destructive behaviors, especially when answering the question of why.

If aggressive behaviors are innate, we can take steps to redirect the behaviors in a more socially-acceptable way.

If aggression is learned and engaging in aggression just promotes more aggression, we can take steps to become more peaceful.

For example, how should we treat violence in the media? If aggression is innate, slasher flicks could alleviate those violent tendencies and would have a positive effect on society. If aggression is learned and increased by exposure to violence, slasher flicks would have a negative effect on society.

Unfortunately there's strong evidence supporting both positions. Pundits use said information to promote their agenda, but they're doing so from a position of ignorance. Once we answer that question of the origins of aggression, we can go about actually reducing incidents of aggression. Until we do, any steps we take to curtail violence may actually make the problem worse.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

"I Suck at Sex": Things We Never Hear

A few days ago a friend made a comment on Facebook about being pretty good in bed. For whatever reason, the comment made me think about our self-perception of our sexual prowess. I couldn't recall too many examples of people admitting they weren't very good at sex.

I'm going to eliminate sexual rookies from the discussion because their inexperience is almost always going to affect their self-perceived abilities. 

A quick search of the 'Web brought up this post at The author came to the same basic conclusion I did... nobody seems to think they're bad at sex.

This isn't entirely surprising. As much as we like to think Americans have rather poor self-esteem, we're actually ridiculously self-confident. We consider ourselves to be above average at anything and everything... except for a few isolated things we acknowledge that we suck at. It's just enough to create slight humility to offset our otherwise oversized egos.

Anyway, sexual prowess is the one thing that never seems to fall in that "I suck at this" category. People will use partner feedback and their ability to replicate skills observed while watching porn (or other sources) to affirm their abilities. Of course this feedback loop is inherently flawed. We don't have too many partners that will bluntly tell us "Wow, you're a terrible lover." And porn? You'd be better off doing the exact opposite of the techniques the actors use. If you ask anyone that's had multiple partners, it's clear some are better than others and they range from excellent to terrible.

So does everyone think they're good in bed, even those that are terrible?

Not necessarily. 

I've actually known a few people that have claimed they're not very good at sex. Why? In every case, the individual actually studied sexuality. As a student of sexuality, they were acutely aware of their own lack of knowledge. They may study some of the same sources as other people, but instead of believing they know everything, they're aware of how little they know.

It's no different than the college experience. Some people graduate from college and believe they have all the answers. They spend their days flaunting the knowledge they gained, blissfully unaware that their experiences were merely the tip of the iceberg. They shut themselves off from learning new stuff because they believe they're already well above average.

Others graduate college with a different perspective. They're acutely aware of just how little they know because they're vaguely aware of the giant chasms in their knowledge base. They recognize they only acquired a minuscule fraction of all the information floating around in our universe.That void fuels an insatiable thirst for knowledge, which ends up proving them with a far superior body of knowledge than the other group.

For whatever reason, most people take the latter approach when self-assessing their sexual skills. They believe they have superior skills because they're blissfully unaware of their lack of knowledge. The handful of people that have willingly admitted they're not very good at sex recognize their sexual knowledge is extremely limited relative to all that can be known.

The paradox, of course, is that the "I'm not very good at sex" group is actually significantly better than the "I'm great at sex" group because they recognize their deficiencies and seize every possible opportunity to learn all they can.

How can this help you?

It's easy- recognize that all of us aren't as good as we could be. Become a lifelong student of sexuality. Study thinks like interpersonal attraction, anatomy and physiology, and the psychology of seduction. Understand motivation and desires. Read published sexuality research, websites, and sexuality blogs. Recognize variability among individuals or the idea that we all like different things. Familiarize yourself with the wide variety of sexual activities humans practice. Understand your own thoughts and feelings about sexuality. Consider your own inhibitions and how and where your sexual morality comes from.

Regarding the FB comment that stimulated the entire thought process- I suspect that person actually is quite good given the way the conversation played out.

What do you think? Do you know people that claim to be great at sex, but really fall short? Tell us the story (no names, of course!) How about people that claim to be good and actually are? Do you know anyone that claims to be bad at sex? 

Leave a comment!


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Overcoming Inhibitions and the Role of Morality: Learn to Loosen Up

Inhibitions are feelings that makes one self-conscious and unable to act in a relaxed and natural way.

Morality is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and behaviors between those that are right or wrong, often thought of as deciding between "good" and "bad."

The inhibitions we feel toward our sexual expression are usually the result a blending of our previous sexual experiences and our sense of morality. I touched on the ingredients with my playing card analogy in the mismatched libido post from a few days ago. I didn't go into much detail about morality, though.

Note- The point of this post isn't to promote one belief system over another or argue about specific morality... you can choose to classify anything as "right" or "wrong." This post is geared toward those that have learned something is "wrong", later changed their minds, and are struggling to overcome the resulting inhibitions.

Our morality, or our sense of right and wrong, develops over the course of our lifetime. Sometimes our moral development is based on a preset system like organized religions. Other times it's based on the social rules that govern our particular society. Parents play an obvious role, as do our friends. The media even plays a role in moral development.

Over time, the process we use to decide right and wrong changes. Larry Kohlberg produced one of the most comprehensive frameworks to understand how we develop morality over time, which is an extension of Piaget's work. As small children, we have a concrete view of right and wrong based on rewards and punishments. As we age, we begin to factor in motives. Eventually we begin to see the influence of behaviors on others, then all of society. Some people continue to develop and make moral judgments based on abstract concepts like justice.

Anyway, our sense of morality greatly influences our sexual expression in the form of inhibitions. Some activity may interest us, but we feel inhibited because at some point we learned that activity was "wrong." That discrepancy between our thoughts and behaviors causes an uncomfortable psychological feeling known as cognitive dissonance. This feeling is usually expressed as anxiety and/or fear. That cognitive dissonance manifests itself as inhibitions.

The fear and anxiety usually comes from social rejection. We worry about what our partners, friends, or family will think of us. Will they still love us? The fear could also be a fear of punishment that could have been instilled in childhood or a more diffused fear like going to Hell. This fear will also likely pop up after a behavior and take the form of shame or guilt. All of these issues can be addressed using a variety of methods.

So how do we lower those inhibitions that result from morality?

The most common advice is to "just get over it." Unfortunately if it were that easy, it wouldn't' be an inhibition. Having said that, most people will lose their inhibitions in the right environment. That fact gives us hope... you can conquer inhibitions. Here are some better solutions:

Acknowledging the inhibition is the result of a moral decision can go a long way toward breaking the shackles of cognitive dissonance. Understanding the source allows us to analyze where the moral decision came from and what motives were behind it.

In some cases, we may recognize other people may have instilled that specific moral judgment because of their own insecurities. In other cases, we may come to see that the specific moral judgments were instilled to control us or repress us in some way. This is common for women that were raised in a patriarchal religion.

Once we understand the inhibition and underlying moral code, we can begin processes that will break down the inhibition. The following is a list of techniques that can be used separately or in combination to break down morality-based inhibitions.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol is a great truth-revealer. On a chemical level, it slows down the part of our brain that control inhibitions. When we drink, we strip away the facade and reveal who we really are. Alcohol doesn't make people do crazy shit; alcohol allows your true crazy self to roam free. Alcohol is an excellent method to lower inhibitions... except it usually doesn't do so permanently. It does nothing to reduce the guilt and shame felt after the effects wear off. Because of that, think of alcohol as a tool, not as a solution.
  • Systematic desensitization: This is an "easing into it" solution. Slowly introduce any particular behavior over a long period of time. Let's say we want to experiment with anal sex. Start by reading about it (educate ourselves on the ins and outs of the butt). Then watch some anal porn (don't replicate their behaviors, though). Then experiment with touching the anal area. Move on to inserting a finger. Then move up to a toy like a butt plug. Finally move on to a penis (if that were the goal). By breaking down the behavior in stages, we can tackle the "this is bad" feelings and anxiety a little bit at a time, which will eventually lead to a breakdown of the inhibition.
  • Flooding: This approach is pretty much the opposite of systematic desensitization. Instead of easing into it, we're jumping in head-first. Let's say we want to eliminate the inhibition of public nudity. We'll overcome the anxiety by dancing naked at a party. It's going to cause an extreme bout of anxiety (manifested as terror), but that's the point. The human body can only maintain that high level of anxiety for a finite amount of time (usually 10-20 minutes) before exhaustion sets in. Once exhaustion sets in, we relax. Once we relax, our brain accepts the behavior. We'll be unlikely to experience the anxiety next time we do the behavior. The key to flooding: We can't escape the behavior while we still feel terrified. That will only increase our anxiety.
  • Distraction: Our brain's ability to pay attention is limited. If we engage in a behavior that causes anxiety, we can reduce the anxiety by focusing on something else. Let's say we're afraid of having sex with the lights on. A simple solution is to distract ourselves by The novelty of not seeing will distract us from the anxiety of having the lights on. This specific example is especially effective since we can't see... it makes us feel invisible which alleviates some of the specific anxiety of this particular inhibition.
  • Role-playing: Role-playing is a method of temporarily re-framing ourselves as someone else. We're becoming an actor. When we're pretending to be someone else, we free ourselves from our inhibitions. If we're pretending to be a police officer, maid, or UPS driver (heh), we can engage in behaviors we wouldn't otherwise try. The single best role-playing scenario I'd suggest- play a prostitute. Why? It sets up sex acts as a business proposition. Let's say we want to try doggie style, but feel to inhibited. Regardless of which role we play (male or female), if we're paying or being paid for it, the inhibitions disappear. I'd suggest going as far as exchanging real cash (no checks, please).
  • Talk to your partner: Our inhibitions are often based on the fear of being rejected by our partner. It keeps us from talking about (and acting upon) our deepest fantasies. As simple solution, which I've shared before, is to exchange a "desire list" once every few weeks. Both partners write three or four desires on a piece of paper. Exchange lists. Discuss each item on both lists. Partners can cross off one item they don't want to do. Over the next few weeks, do the remaining items on the list. This is a excellent non-threatening way to open lines of communication about sexuality.
  • Relabel/ reframe yourself: Role-playing temporarily reframes our self-perception by suspending our inhibitions. It's possible to make these changes permanent just by reframing who we are. Let's say we were raised in a strict religious environment where sex was associated with shame and guilt. The result is severe anxiety. We continually see ourselves as the product of our upbringing. If we make a conscious decision to see ourselves differently, our inhibitions will decrease. I'd recommend adopting the exact opposite personality- be a slutty hedonist that focuses on nothing but pleasure. We don't actually become a slutty hedonist, but thinking like one will cause our inhibitions to disappear. Hypnotists make a fortune by capitalizing on this idea of reframing the self... they just use the power of suggestion to help us believe it's possible.
  • Break down smaller inhibitions first, celebrate victories. Work toward stronger inhibitions: All of us have some stronger inhibitions and some weaker inhibitions. If we start with the weakest first and eliminate them (using any other method from the list), we set ourselves up to eliminate all of our inhibitions. To use this method, we can make a list of the things we wish we could do. Then we rank them based on the anxiety we feel toward the activity, lowest anxiety first. Then we just go down the list. Eliminate the first inhibition first, then we reward ourselves with something we love (shopping, food, a day at the beach... whatever).
  • Imagery + rewards: This is an old sports psychology technique that works well with sex, too. Pick an inhibition you want to eliminate. Find a dimly-lit, quiet place. Relax. Close your eyes. Imagine doing the behavior, then immediately imagine something you love doing. You're imaging being rewarded for the anxiety-producing behavior. The mental association between the two eventually causes the inhibited behavior to stop producing the anxiety response.
  • Learn to think less and act more: As humans, we're plagued with meta-cognition. We can think about thinking. This makes it nearly impossible to just do something without engaging in some form of analysis. Admittedly some people are better than others at thoughtless action. It can also be trained. If we just jump in and do something immediately, we don't give ourselves the chance to think about the consequences. This is the exact opposite behavior we're taught from a very early age... but has great value. Practice doing things spontaneously without thinking of what others may think. Just do it. If we start with non-sexual behaviors first, it's easier to learn this technique. Tim Ferriss gave a good example in "The 4 Hour Work Week." He'd spontaneously lie down in a public place. It's a really odd behavior and people are going to judge you. The value comes from the spontaneity of doing it without thinking. Do it enough and we build the "courage" to bring this spontaneity to the bedroom.
  • Classical conditioning: This basic form of learning has all kinds of sexual uses, which I discussed in this post. Overcoming inhibitions is another use. In this case, we're going to turn a neutral stimuli into a pleasurable stimuli, then apply it to our inhibited behaviors. I like music because it's easy to use in a variety of situations. Find a good song. Listen to it (on repeat if necessary) while masturbating. Make sure you orgasm. Repeat 10-15 times over the course of a few weeks. By the end, the song itself should cause immediate arousal. Play this song while preparing for and engaging in the inhibited act. The feelings of intense arousal will overshadow the feelings of anxiety, thus letting you do the inhibited behavior. This technique can be combined with several others... think of it as an enhancement tool.
  • List fears, actualize worst-case scenarios. Discuss: The fear of the unknown is scary as Hell. Most inhibitions are the result of a vague fear. We can overcome this fear of the unknown by listing our fears. Do one at a time. Brainstorm the worst-case scenario that could result from the behavior. Discuss that scenario with your partner (or consider it yourself depending on the situation). Figure out what you would do if the worst-case scenario were to come true. Once we identify that outcome and develop a plan should it occur, our anxiety decreases dramatically. Shelly and I used this technique to make the decision to quit our jobs and travel the country... and it worked like a charm. The same tactic can be invaluable when applied to our sex lives.
  • Spend time around those that have fewer inhibitions: If your free time is spent in Bible study discussing why God punishes people for your sexual activities, it shouldn't be a surprise if you have a lot of inhibitions. Conversely, surrounding yourself with uninhibited people will lower your own inhibitions. Surround yourself with people that have a crazy streak.
  • Embrace YOLO. Yes, the term is overused and often used as a rationale to do self-destructive behavior. It DOES make sense, however. You're going to die one of these days... maybe even tomorrow. Do you really want to go through live repressing your deepest desires? What's the point of repressing your desires? Hope someone delivers you a "world's greatest martyr" award on your death bed? We often regret the things we didn't do FAR more than we regret the things we did do. Life is too short not to embrace pleasure.
Overcoming our inhibitions requires us to assess the source of our morality, then systematically eliminate the anxiety that fuels the inhibitions. Instead of being a passive slave to our self-imposed limitations, we can make a conscious decision to take charge of our lives and actually make our deepest desires reality... but we have to be willing to act. This list of techniques gives you more than enough tools to overcome your inhibitions... you just need the willingness to make it happen.

Now get off your ass and start enjoying life!


Monday, December 10, 2012

Childhood Sexual Abuse: Honest Shit Every Parent Needs to Know

In my recent post about fixing mismatched sex drives between partners where one wants more sex and the other wants less sex, I mentioned that sexual abuse is one of the factors that can influence our libido. My friend Zap commented that she's never surprised when friends confide about childhood sexual abuse with her. 

Indeed, the numbers are quite startling. Based on reported cases (many incidents go unreported), 20% of girls and 5%-15% of boys are sexually abused as children. The overall number is somewhere around 10%. Remember, those are reported cases. While nearly impossible to determine, it's estimated that only about 10-15% of cases are reported.

As parents, it's impossible to protect your children from every possible danger. However, there are some basic steps you can take to help prevent your children from becoming victims of sexual abuse. I have the good fortune of having a good friend in law enforcement that specialized in investigating childhood sexual crimes. Our conversations were both informative and scary as Hell. The vast majority of the public has no idea how to protect their children from sexual abuse. Here are a few tips:

The first thing you can do is talk to your kids. Start by giving them correct anatomical names for their body parts. Yes, they will talk about their penises and vaginas in public on occasion. Yes it will be embarrassing. Suck it up and teach them accurate information.

Also teach your kids that's it's inappropriate for anyone to touch their genitalia. If someone does, instruct them to tell you even if threatened. It's important they feel comfortable confiding in you.

You can also take steps to avoid placing your kids in positions where they may be abused. The first step is understanding the two types of abusers- crimes committed by pedophiles and crimes of opportunity

Pedophiles are people that are sexually aroused by children. This is the classic perpetrator we think of when we think of child abuse... the cheesy mustache, the windowless van, etc. Pedophiles are likely going to engage in fairly predictable behavior, like befriending your kids, giving them gifts, or engaging in systematic behaviors that allow them to be alone with your kids (think Jerry Sandusky).

Crimes of opportunity are committed by people who are aren't necessarily aroused by children, but are placed in a position where they may impulsively molest a child. This is the group that often evades parental radar- the close family friend, the relative, the local teenager (33% of perps are minors themselves), etc. This group is nearly impossible for most people to predict because they may not have overt behaviors. They're just normal people that are put in a situation where they cannot resist a temptation (and we're terrible at resisting temptations). In all likelihood, they're trusted by the parents. The parents allow their kids to be alone with this group because there's no reason to believe the kids are in danger.

Together, both of these groups make up around 85%-95% of all cases of sexual abuse. The key- these are people you know and you won't always recognize them as a potential abuser. Only about 5-15% of child sexual abuse cases are committed by strangers. Clearly stranger danger ISN'T the greatest danger.

So... what are some warning signs? Here are a few predictors that should raise red flags:
  • Males. Yup. That's a big one. Males commit around 90% of all child sexual abuse cases.
  • Anyone who voluntarily wants to spend time with your kids. Kids are annoying. Adults generally don't like being around other people's kids... especially if those people are male. 
  • Adolescent males. If they've hit puberty, they're possible perpetrators of a crime of opportunity.
  • Unusual attention paid to kids. This is pretty much the same as #2... be weary of anyone who talks to kids more than adults.
  • Victims of sexual abuse. These numbers vary widely, but anywhere from 40-80% of perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse were once abused themselves. Again, the "male" rule applies.
  • People who hold very conservative sexual views that encourage suppression of sexuality. Repression of sexual desires will be manifested in some way, and sexually abusing children is common.
Some situations to avoid:
  • Don't let your kids be alone with strangers (the most obvious step even seemingly oblivious parents usually follow).
  • Don't let your kids be alone around male teenagers and always ask if male teens will be in a household where your kids may be staying. This is especially true if the teen comes from a home with strict conservative sexual values.
  • Don't let your kids be alone with anyone post-puberty who seems to want to befriend them or gives them gifts.
  • Be suspicious of anyone that befriends YOU, then seems to pay a lot of attention to your kids. single moms, this rule REALLY applies to you.
  • Don't let your kids be alone with male relatives or friends regardless of their age, especially if the adults were the ones who recommended the "alone time."
  • Don't let your kids be alone with people who are habitually drinking or using other drugs that lower inhibitions... especially males.
The major take-away: Don't automatically trust people. I realize most people want to see the inherent good in others, but that adolescent cousin, friendly uncle, or helpful neighbor are greater threats than a stranger lurking in the bushes.

Most of you probably read that list and laughed at the absurdity of the recommendations. There's a pretty good chance the parents of children who have been sexually abused also would have laughed at this list, too. There's also a pretty good chance the adults that were sexually abused as children who read this will wish their parents would have read a similar list and taken it seriously.

If you think it is completely unrealistic, I'd like to once again point out out that ten percent of kids are abused. It's up to you to do everything in your power to make sure your kids aren't part of that statistic. 

I'm not usually the kind of person that uses scare tactics to motivate people to act, but I have FAR too many friends that were abused as kids to not care. If you're a parent and choose to disregard my advice, please seek other sources to educate yourself.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mismatched Sex Drives: How to Fix the Problem

Courtesy Frank's Photo Essays
Edit - this post has proven to be one of my most popular posts on the blog. Since writing it back in '12, my thoughts on the issue have expanded greatly. In fact, this post is what eventually motivated me to write No Bone Zone, which greatly expanded on these topics. If mismatched sex drives are a significant issue, I'd highly encourage my readers to check out a recent series on the nature of women, especially the fifth "The Nature of Female Desire" installment in the series.

I discussed this issue previously and gave a few options- live with the difference, get out of the relationship, or find another partner while still maintaining the relationship. The article was really more about assuring you find a partner with a similar sex drive than fixing a relationship where there's a significant discrepancy.

Mismatched sex drives appears to be one of the most common relationship problems we face. Data suggests about a third of all couples have a serious issue with libidos that don't sync. One partner wants more sex; the other partner wants less sex.

This difference usually creates a significant rift in relationships due to the resulting negative emotions generated in both partners. One person begs for sex, the other rejects them. Guilt, shame, resentment, anger, and feelings of inadequacy are common byproducts of this dynamic. Those feelings spread to every area of the relationship, and the toxicity usually either ends the relationship or assures year after year of bitter unhappiness.

The issue is complicated because there's rarely a simple solution. Magazines like Cosmo and Redbook offer dumb advice that isn't sustainable (dress seductively, light candles, masturbate, etc.)  Religion often plays the morality card and tells us to suppress our desires or submit to unwanted sexual advances. Self-help books give us pop psychology solutions that ignore the underlying dynamics.

Note- I basically give pop psychology advice, so I'm not knocking that approach. But my advice is better because it kills less trees. ;-)

For this explanation of our sexuality, I'm going to use the analogy of a poker game. At various points, you're dealt cards. Sometimes you'll be dealt new cards, discard some others, and decide what to keep and what not to keep. Some cards are easier to discard than others. Every time we have a sexual encounter, we play the hand we're dealt. We can play the cards in different ways but always get the same cards for each hand. 

Anyway, few "solutions" actually fix the problem of differing sex drives. The "fix" isn't really a cure so much as mutual understanding. Our sex drive is an elusive, fluid concept. The basic foundation was probably laid during early childhood or earlier. These are the first cards we're dealt. This is where our unique biology and social environment shaped ideas like how we see our bodies, if we were encouraged or discouraged to explore, or if shame and guilt will introduced and associated with sexuality. These are the cards that are exceptionally difficult to change... we usually can't simply discard them and get new cards.

Those early experiences were then dragged through adolescence where some behaviors may have been reinforced or punished. Those that were punished were likely suppressed and may have been manifested in other behaviors. These cards are easier to change, but still require work.

How sexuality is modeled also plays a role in the development of this foundation. The openness of our parents is a strong influence. Were they overtly affectionate and/or sexual? Did they hide their sexuality? Did they avoid sex? These cards are fairly easy to change. Parents also tend to instill our sense of sexual morality, which often comes from an external source like religion or society's prevailing sexual norms. We learn what is "good" and "bad." This morality will eventually influence our openness to cards that will come along in the future.

The media also plays a role by modeling sexuality. As a society, we tend to begrudgingly accept sexual references in the media, including advertising. We sense it is bad, but secretly (or not so secretly) enjoy seeing sexuality, so we do little to suppress sex in the media. Interestingly, it's not the display of sexuality itself that's bad... it's the display of bad sexual habits that's harmful. If you rely on the media to learn how to be a good lover, you're in trouble. Furthermore, the media promotes the idea that there's little difference between individuals. Men are often portrayed as sex-hungry dogs; women are often portrayed as either overtly sexual teases or wholesome, virginal girls next door that constantly defend themselves against unwanted male advances. These cards are very easy to change and have a lot less permanent influence over our beliefs and behaviors than we think.

At any point in those first 14-18 years, any sexually-traumatic experiences further influence our sexuality, which may associate a cocktail of sometimes conflicting emotions to our self-concept of sexuality. These cards can be nearly impossible to change without outside intervention.

All of these concepts result in the basic hand you'll play for the rest of your life. New cards will be added based on life circumstances, but you'll maintain the same basic hand you got dealt in those earlier years. 

So what life circumstances result in new cards?

  • Jobs: We have a tendency to throw ourselves into our careers, with negatively affects our sexuality. 
  • Kids: Having kids is stressful and results in the addition of new individuals that force couples to share attention and affection.
  • Conflict: Fighting with your significant other can alter your relationship both temporarily and over the long haul.
  • Body image: As we age, our bodies change. That may lead to insecurity and feelings of unattractiveness.
  • Negative communication habits: Use of nagging and complaining deep-sixes sex drive due to repressed anger or resentment.
  • Lack of variety: We all have different tolerances for boredom, which we'll reach at some point in a relationship unless both partners are open to continued experimentation.
  • Health issues: Many health issues influence sex drive, usually for the worse.
There are countless other life situations that will result in being dealt different cards. Sometimes these cards are simply added to our hands from our early years; sometimes the cards replace the cards we were dealt previously.

It IS possible to get rid of undesirable cards... but some require more effort than others. Some may be close to impossible to eliminate without outside help. Be open to that possibility.

At this point, both partners have a handful of cards. When they have a sexual encounter, they play some of the cards in their hand. Ideally, both partners are going to win and the experience is overwhelmingly positive. Sometimes one partner wins and the other loses which is good for one but bad for the other. Occasionally both partners may lose and the experience turns out bad for both. 

If a couple has mismatched sex drives, one partner usually wins and the other loses. That can happen if the high libido (HL) partner initiates sex and the low libido (LL) partner consents. The HL wins and the LL loses. If the LL doesn't consent, the LL wins and the HL loses. 

We want to create a situation where both partners win despite their HL and LL status. The best way to accomplish this is to understand and acknowledge that each person is playing a different hand. Strive to understand why you have the specific cards in your own hand and communicate that to your partner. Have them do the same. The goal is to understand your own cards and understand their cards, too. Once we know which cards each one holds, we can then communicate which cards each can play so both win as often as possible.

When we take this approach, not only do we acknowledge our different sex drives, we communicate exactly how we can come to an understanding to bridge that gap. The potential solutions vary greatly and it will likely take some imagination to bridge the gap.

Part of this process is understanding that your own cards cause you to value sexuality for reasons that may be different from your partner. For example, we may use sexuality to:
  • Relieve stress.
  • Foster feelings of closeness to our partner.
  • Experience the rush from an exciting experience.
  • Satisfy an obsessive/compulsive-like thought and behavior process.
  • Alleviate feelings of failure or inadequacy.
  • Satisfy an addiction.
  • Satisfy our need to please others.
  • Satisfy our need to control others.
  • Satisfy our need to feel loved and desired.
  • Cum. Hey, it's not always complicated. ;-)
There are other possible meanings we attach to sex, but the key is understanding our meanings are dictated by the cards we hold. Our partner's meaning is also dictated by the cards they hold. Don't assume your partner has the same hand you have!!!! 

Personal Experiences

I usually don't like to go into too much detail on my own sex life, but this issue is important enough to pull back the curtain a little bit. Shelly and I both came from relationships where our partners had significantly lower sex drives, which contributed to the end of each respective relationship. We're intimately familiar with the issue of being the HL person. 

In our relationship, we're fairly evenly matched. Sometimes our libidos match up perfectly. Sometimes she's the HL person. If averaged out, though, I'd probably be the HL person in the relationship. It's a non-issue, though, because we do a great job of communicating needs and developing solutions.Here are some of the things we do to bridge the gap:

  • Guilt-free masturbation. We both masturbate, acknowledge it, and even encourage it. While it's not a great substitute for shared sexual activity, it does the job. Sometimes one of us will masturbate in the presence of the other if only one is in the mood. It's far more intimate than masturbating in isolation, which often satisfies several needs at once.
  • Foster variety: We're very open to experimentation and have adopted a "try it once" attitude. The novelty keeps things exciting, including what some would classify as "boring sex." As a side benefit, we've really learned how to please each other in a wide variety of ways. Phenomenal sex is a function of these variables, and we practice what we preach. If your partner isn't into experimentation, here are some tips that may help convince them to loosen up.
  • Recognizing that sometimes the desire to have sex isn't about sex: Sometimes we want sex for reasons other than just sex. Maybe we want to feel reassured or need that intimacy. In those cases, other activities can be substituted for sex.
  • Recognizing that sometimes the desire to have sex is only about having sex: Sometimes we just want to have a good, hard, animalistic fuck. Other times one of us may want a quickie. We recognize that neither one of us want a long, drawn-out session every single time.
  • Recognize the power of seduction: Sometimes we intentionally ignore each other's needs to build desire. If one of us is in the mood and the other isn't, the one that's not in the mood will resist and subtly tease the other until we're both in the mood. This requires the understanding of the power of pulling away to bring you closer. Unfortunately many people have an aversion to this relationship dynamic. Here's a basic technique we use frequently.
  • We acknowledge the influence of our instilled sexual morality: It would be inaccurate to say we don't have sexual morals. We're more likely to acknowledge we've learned some things are "good" and "bad" through various channels, then decide if we wish to be bound by said morals. Work to understand why you think various acts are "good" or "bad", then question if it's logical or not. 
  • Harness the power of outside influences: We both acknowledge that we'll get turned on by other situations or people besides each other. Instead of being defensive, jealous, and angry, we embrace it.
Will these tactics work for all? Probably not. Remember, we all have different cards in our hands. So do our partners. The cards each of us have are based on biology, early life experiences, and life situations. We can change the cards through varying degrees of effort. We can bridge any gap in libido if we truly work to understand the cards we have in our own hand and communicate with our partner to understand the cards they have in their hand. 


What if the Idea Doesn't Work?

This goes back to the original post on differences in sex drive- what do you do if you can't negotiate that difference? Living with that gap is possible, but the resulting friction is going to pollute other areas of the relationship. In essence, the relationship is on a fast track to Shitty Town. Population: You. 

Many people seem to be more than willing to make that sacrifice (cough, cough, martyrs, cough), and use a litany of excuses to justify the decision. The most common rationale: We're staying together for the kids. They end up with a loveless, unsatisfying relationship. Is that really a good role model for the kids? Yeah, splitting up sucks... but is modeling a terrible relationship really a better alternative? It's something few people consider.

Another alternative is for the HL to find another partner. Society tends to frown on this practice, whether it's an extramarital affair or occurs with full knowledge from the LL. This rarely works out well, but may be a better alternative than drudging through life in a loveless relationship.


Based on messages I've received and comments posted here and on Facebook, many of my readers have issues related to differences in sex drives. If you're one of these individuals, consider this approach as a possible solution. Whether you're the HL or LL, this method should be a good tool to help open lines of communication and begin to bridge the gap. It probably beats the alternative solutions of living with unhappiness, immediately ending the relationship, or seeking love, affection, and sex elsewhere.

Since this topic affects so many people, help spread the idea that differences in libido can be managed. Share this specific post with anyone you know that may be struggling with the issue, whether they're the high or low libido person in the relationship.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Restraint Bias: We Don't have As Much Control As We Think

Ever wonder why some people will be vocal opponents of an idea, then it turns out they secretly supported the idea? 

For example, people like Mark Souter (abstinence and family values advocate caught having an extramarital affair), Randal Tobias (fought to cut US funding to countries that supported prostitution, was later confirmed as a client for the "DC madam"), Larry Craig (chastised Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinski, was later arrested in a Minneapolis airport restroom for soliciting in the men's restroom), David Drier (ardent gay rights opponent, was later outed after relationship with his male chief of staff) routinely publicly state one thing, then privately do the opposite.

Why this difference between overt beliefs and behaviors?

While a lot of explanations can be given, part of the explanation comes from an erroneous thought process all of us do- the restraint bias.

We dramatically overestimate our ability to ignore our inner drives and resist temptations. That inflated sense of control causes problems because we believe we believe we can avoid temptations. In many cases, we can... for a short period of time. Eventually we succumb to the temptations, however.

If that behavior conflicts with our beliefs, we experience an uncomfortable feeling called cognitive dissonance. Becoming outspoken opponents of the very behavior that tempts us is one method to alleviate that discrepancy between our behaviors and our beliefs. We're able to "forgive" our inability to resist temptation because we're helping to prevent others from the same behaviors. Also, being an outspoken opponent of the behavior reinforces the restraint bias- we think our advocacy will help us resist the inner temptations.

Of course it doesn't. Our inner drives are decidedly biological. Try holding your breath. Eventually the buildup of carbon dioxide will force us to begin breathing again, no matter how much "willpower" we think we have. The same rule applies to all drives- eating, need for love, need for belonging, need for sex... whatever.

A great deal of shame, guilt, and other negative traits can be directly attributed to this denial of biological needs. In short, denying our inner desires is a recipe for psychological instability. If we fail to acknowledge and act on our inner desires, we develop anxiety which pollutes every facet of our lives. Why are so many people so unhappy? Odds are good they're suppressing inner desires. They're relying on their ability to resist their temptations, which is inflated due to the restraint bias. Eventually the succumb to the desires, which causes extreme guilt.

Think of a person that's dieting. They resist eating cupcakes even though they really love cupcakes. They resist for a few weeks. One day, someone brings cupcakes to work. They try to resist, but eventually give in. In most cases, they'll rationalize the behavior beforehand to preserve their self-concept. Afterward they're riddled with guilt because they couldn't resist the temptation.

So how can we avoid this trap? 

The easiest way is to acknowledge their inner needs. Strip away morality and other judgmental processes. They are what they are. Instead of denying these desires, develop an acceptable way to indulge. Satisfy the needs. 

Great communication is one of the hallmarks of great relationships. Why? The relationship participants are free to honestly communicate their deepest desires which avoids that need-denial trap. 

If you're in a relationship where you enjoy such communication- great! Savor it. If you're not, work to develop that level of communication. If it's achievable, stick with the relationship. If not, either get out or accept that you'll always be stuck in the unfulfilled desire trap. 

If you're not in a relationship, start your next relationship on the right foot and foster excellent communication from the beginning.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

The People that Exploit Those that Suffer from the Martyr Complex

My former student Dave (who happens to be an excellent student of human behavior) made an excellent observation about the martyr complex post. The comment warranted another post on the topic because this dysfunctional dynamic is so prevalent in relationships.

[For a quick primer on martyr behavior, check out this link shared by my friend Michael: The Martyr Victim Complex Described]

Dave talked about the fact that it's easy for others to exploit martyrs. Since their own needs are a very low priority and they derive pleasure from self-sacrifice, they rarely if ever say no. They will dutifully do whatever is asked of them. On the surface, the martyr seems like a great person. Their seemingly helpful, generous personality characteristics easily draw people in.

Unfortunately, that comes at a heavy price. The martyr is acutely aware of their exploitation, and expects recognition for their sacrifices. The exploiter rarely gives said recognition, however. Worse, the exploiter isn't willing to make the same sacrifices as the martyr. Both of these dynamics create intense anger and resentment within the martyr. Since the martyr gains their feeling of self-worth from their perceived sacrifices, they're powerless to change. 

What results is a vortex of negativity. The exploiter continues to use the martyr who willingly complies, but that complicit behavior creates overwhelming negativity. That negativity manifests itself in a variety of ways, but is never overtly attributed to the martyr behavior. After all, that behavior has to persist. The martyr can't stop being a martyr. The only way to break the cycle is to escape the situation. The exploiter has to separate from the martyr.

I grew up in an environment where martyrdom was the norm. So did Shelly. It took us a long time to recognize the martyr pattern and fully understand how and why it was so destructive. The difficult part of dealing with martyrs is disengagement. Martyrs will do anything you ask them to do, but the costs are monumental. It's extremely difficult to free yourself from a martyr.

Our solution is simply avoidance. As a result of our experiences, we appear to be fiercely independent. In reality, we're just hyper-vigilant about letting martyrs in our lives. Martyrs aren't always obvious... one the surface they may appear like genuinely nice, helpful people. Both of us hate when people do things for us unless we're absolutely positive they do not exhibit martyr tendencies. We both have an extremely strong aversion to anyone that appears to need attention, constant affirmations, are overly agreeable, compulsively want to "help", or seems too nice.

Why avoid those characteristics?

Those are the hallmark signs of the martyr. They need recognition for their sacrifices. Not all people that exhibit these characteristics are martyrs, but we're acutely aware of the difficulty of escaping the martyr trap. Observing people's long-term behaviors across a wide variety of situations will reveal the difference between martyrs and other non-martyr personalities.

As a result, we tend to surround ourselves with fiercely independent introspective people that seem to have a high level of self-awareness. These are the same characteristics we strive to instill in our children.

Is it overkill?

Perhaps. But experience has taught us a valuable lesson. It's tempting to get sucked into the martyr's world, but the cost is far too high. Martyrs don't change unless they recognize their behavior as dysfunctional... and that rarely happens. Martyrs see their behavior as evidence that they're good people... saintly even. In the unlikely event they are aware of their behaviors and the negative effects, the patterns are so deeply ingrained change is impossible without extensive therapy. The solution requires the martyr to learn an entirely new behavior pattern and constant vigilance to avoid regressing back to the dysfunctional behaviors.

My advice- avoid martyrs like the plague. If you are in a relationship with a martyr (romantic, friendship... whatever), you're probably trapped. If the relationship is valuable, they can change... but it requires a lot of work on their part. You can also learn to adapt to life with a martyr, but you'll be on a significant emotional roller coaster on a regular basis. If it's not a valuable relationship, it's probably best to move on. Life is too short to waste with those that breed negativity.

So what's a healthy focus we should all strive to accomplish? I would propose we should take are of needs in this order:
  1. Take care of your own needs (feed yourself).
  2. Take care of the needs of your significant other (feed your relationship).
  3. Take care of your kids.
  4. Take care of everything else of consequence (feed your job, religion, hobbies, friendships, etc.)
Fir yourself, strive to follow this order. It's okay to deviate if necessary. If your kid catches on fire, it's probably best not to finish that turkey sandwich. Strive for following this order most of the time. If you have a significant other that falls into the martyr pattern of behavior, encourage them to follow this order as often as possible. If the behavior is serious, consider professional counseling. It IS possible to overcome the martyr complex.

Does anyone have experience with the martyr complex? Do you have a martyr in your life? Are YOU a martyr? Share your story in the comments!


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Martyr Complex: The Poison That Kills Relationships

In the post from a few days ago, I discussed an idea that will acquire and maintain your significant other's attention. In short, it was a very basic seduction technique. Yesterday I wrote about the difference between "good" and "bad" ways people influence their significant others. Today's topic explores another element of relationship dynamics- taking care of your own needs before you take care of others' needs versus playing the martyr role.

In the original post, an anonymous commenter objected to the idea by citing a situation where the concept seemingly wouldn't apply- the death of a child. I disagreed on the basis that it's necessary to take care of your own needs in order to put yourself in a position to be able to take care of others' needs, including a situation involving extreme emotions like grief. After all, this is the most fundamental advice given to people involved in any sort of crisis situation- make sure you take care of yourself first... you need the energy to take care of others.

One of the biggest problems in relationships is what psychologists call the "martyr complex." In short, it's a tendency to seek out suffering in the name of love or duty. People suffering from the martyr complex make unnecessary sacrifices at the expense of their own needs. Over the short term, this behavior appears to be helpful. In fact, our society rewards this behavior.

Over the long term, martyrs typically experience negative symptoms including psychological and physiological stress, resentment that others aren't making the sacrifices they're making, and displaced anger at the object they're focusing on. If they're in a relationship, it's not uncommon to ignore the partner and/or play the role of a victim.

Here are a few situations where the martyr complex rears its ugly head:
  • New parents that take on most or all of the parenting duties.
  • Long-term caretakers of the gravely ill.
  • "Momma's boys."
  • Employees that throw themselves into their job.
This is a very partial list; martyr behaviors are extremely common.

The problem with martyrs is they intentionally induce self-suffering by ignoring their own needs to meet the needs of others. Just like breathing or eating, we have a finite amount of time we can go without addressing our own needs. To make matters worse, the martyr will induce guilt with anyone that isn't willing to make their irrational masochistic sacrifices. They demand recognition for their martyr role and hold everyone else to the same unrealistic standard.

Normal, healthy people address their needs first, then address the needs of those around them. This is the only way you can maintain mental and physical longevity. Furthermore, it assures you don't pollute the relationships with those around you.

Shelly and I have a simple method to combat the martyr tendency. Since we're both prone to postpone our own needs to "power through" and get stuff done (usually related to caring for our kids), we call each other out. If the kids are especially annoying and I'm stressed, I need to get away from them. As soon as Shelly sees this, she tells me "Don't be a martyr. Go take a break."

It's a brilliant system. It keeps us personally sharp because we never experience the burnout and other negative emotions associated with the martyr complex. Resentment is rarely an issue because we communicate with each other. We keep each other from becoming martyrs.

We also extend this idea to our relationship. Many people put their kids first. We don't. We put our relationship first. Kids come next. First, we're FAR better parents when we can be a cohesive team which is built from the intimacy we develop when spending time together as a romantic couple.  Second, it assures we'll always be good role models for our kids by demonstrating good relationship behavior. 

If we're planning a date night, we go even if our kids cry and beg us to stay. We need our alone time and we're not about to fall into the martyr trap by putting our kids' "needs" before our own. 

The lesson- always be on the lookout for martyr behavior. If your significant other is playing the martyr role, talk to them. If you're doing it, change. You'll appreciate the results.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Everybody Should Learn to Manipulate Their Partner

All human interaction involves at least some degree of manipulation.

Understand that idea and life gets a lot easier. 

In my last post, I gave a simple road map to become more attractive to your significant other via a classic seduction technique- alternate between periods of attention and inattention. 

An anonymous commenter referred to the tactic as "playing mid games." This isn't surprising, most people seem to have an aversion to the idea that our thoughts and behaviors have any tinge of persuasion. Unfortunately that perspective has two negative consequences:

1. It handicaps us in all our social interactions.
2. It makes us nearly powerless when others try to manipulate us.

I'm guessing most people reading this right now are telling themselves "Manipulate others?!? I don't do that!"

Ah, but you do. Here are some examples:
  • Parents: Ever try to get your children to eat a new food or brush their teeth? You used manipulation.
  • Employees: Ever try to get a raise from your employer? You used manipulation.
  • People in couples: Ever try to convince you partner to have sex? You used manipulation.
Once we understand we use manipulation all the time, we can effectively drop the holier-than-thou moral objections and have an open, honest talk. Our goal shouldn't be to not manipulate our partner, but to use manipulation techniques that help the relationship as opposed to hurt the relationship. If it helps swallow the pill, you can exchange the term "manipulate" with "persuade" or even "influence."

Here are a few ways people use manipulation that results in negative outcomes:
  • Complaining.
  • Nagging.
  • Inciting jealousy.
  • Clinginess.
  • Using guilt and/or shame as a persuasion tool.
  • Using blame.
  • Play the victim by becoming a martyr.
  • Use of name-calling.
  • Failing to accept your partner's flaws.
  • Use of physical or emotional abuse as positive punishment (operant conditioning terminology).
All of these behaviors are extremely common in relationships, and all have unhealthy results. We could pretend we're not using manipulation when inciting any of these tactics, but it merely justifies their use. 

A better solution is to recognize each of these tactics for what they are- an overt attempt to manipulate the thoughts and behaviors of our partner. Once we recognize them as such, we can work to replace them with positive manipulative techniques. Some examples:
  • Use of seduction (see previous post).
  • Bargaining.
  • Use of positive reinforcement.
  • Use of classical conditioning (can be used for negative things, too).
  • Mutual sharing of needs and desires.
  • Learning to frame discussions with pro-relationship language.
  • Compliments.
All of these tactics can be used to influence your partner's behaviors in a way that will ultimately help strengthen the relationship. Compare the two lists from above. Is there any doubt the latter list is far superior to the former list? 

Of course!

The latter list is just as manipulative as the former list, but makes use of tactics that will make your partner feel loved, build up their self-esteem, and bring you closer together. The "bad" list incites anger and resentment which ultimately creates a toxic environment. 

But wait, wouldn't it be better to just talk about these issues?


Open, honest communication and the use of positive manipulative techniques are not mutually exclusive. Shelly and I use these tactics on each other all the time. In fact, we often discuss how and when we use these tactics. In many cases, it results in more open communication. The net effect is overwhelmingly positive. Not only do we always get our needs met, we're in an excellent position to always make sure each others' needs are always met. 

The lesson- admit you use manipulative tactics in your relationship. Identify methods that have a net positive effect. Repeat those. Identify those methods that have a net negative effect. Stop using those. Learn more positive manipulative tactics. Practice them often. Your relationship will improve dramatically.