Uncommon Relationships; Uncommon Love

//Uncommon Relationships; Uncommon Love

Stuart: Hi there, and welcome to The Couples Expert Podcast. This is Stuart Fensterheim, The Couples Expert. Today is Friday, February 26th, and I’m here in my office in Scottsdale with my good friend, Ollie. Ollie and I have been spending the day seeing couples, trying to help them with their most intimate relationships, their relationships with their partners, their wives, their husbands, and really trying very hard to just have people recognize how important they are to one another. And it leads me to thinking a little bit about yesterday.


Yesterday, I got home after a long day here at the office, and it sort of… I guess I’m going to admit it, but I really like American Idol. As some of you may be aware, I used to be an actor, and made my effort at being a theatrical actor in New York City. I wasn’t very successful, but this podcast is my way of really having that niche, that love for theater, and I’m just really hooked in on those shows – American Idol, and The Voice – just about all of them is something that I love.

And yesterday, on American Idol, Kelly Clarkson was on, and I don’t know how many of you saw it, but it was the most incredible feeling, watching her up there singing her new song, Piece by Piece. And if some of you are not aware about that song, it’s a song about her past traumas and abandonment by her father, and one of the things that the song really was portraying was the love she had for her husband. And she’s now pregnant with her second child, and as a result of the connection that she and her husband have established, she’s been able to let go of some of the traumas that have occurred for her in her past.

And that’s really what EFT is all about, Emotionally Focused Therapy. It’s really about being able to make a connection with a significant person in your life, feeling secure, loved, and important to that person, and through that love and through that connection, to be able to really let go of some of the pains and anguish that we have.

And we now know, with all the studies that we’ve done on love and relationships, that it is not just a guessing game anymore, and that we know how to help people develop that kind of connection. And, we now have MRI studies, and we have all sorts of studies out there that really demonstrate to all of us that with that connection, through a connection with a significant human being, all your past hurts and pain can be minimized because when we have that in our presence, when we have a present relationship with someone who truly loves us, authentically, anything is possible. And I’m thinking I’m probably going to do a podcast on this topic because it really is why I’m so passionate about what I do.

Today, on my show, I have an exciting guest, Gina Senarighi. Gina is a counselor out of the Portland area. When I started this podcast, one of the things that I wanted to make sure that I did, is really deal with all people’s relationship issues, and some of you may have heard my podcast a little while back on the Transgender Remembrance Day. That was an exciting podcast for me because it really was a way for me to say, this podcast, my practice, is one of those places that all people with all lifestyles, all relationship needs, (and we all have that relationship need), can really find a place in joining this journey of mine to help couples have a strong, connected relationship.

Gina and I met on social media, and I’ve never met her in person, but I’ve been interacting with her over the course of some time now. And she has a practice in Portland, Oregon, and has been working with sex-positive, gender-affirming, LGBTQ relationship folks, people who are LGBTQ and are in a relationship, and are needing someone like Gina to really help them feel strong, feel positive about themselves and their relationship. And she really gives and offers them something pretty unique and special, which is her, because Gina is really this wonderful woman that I’ve met, who I know is someone that really has a sincere heart, and that what she offers couples who come to see her, is couples that have all different kinds of relationships. She’s helped thousands of couples really open up the communication that they need, to have a relationship that is about integrity and being compassionate.

But, what’s sort of special and unique about her is, she deals with a non-monogamous partnership, a long-term, where they create agreements about play, and having a relationship that’s filled with all sorts of sexual experimentation, a fetish community… So, I want to learn a lot about that community and how couples who are involved in a non-monogamous relationship can really develop this secure relationship. She and I may differ with some of this, and that’s what’s sort of exciting, because what I know about Gina is, she’s open to debate and to really having relationships and helping the world establish relationships that feel so good to one another. And what she offers is, also, an exploration within a sexuality and really learning that through our physical intimacy, the emotional intimacy can follow.

So, I wanted to have Gina, and I want to welcome you to the podcast. So, welcome to The Couples Podcast, Gina. Thanks for being here.

Gina: Thanks so much for inviting me to join you. You know, I’ve been listening and I really love this podcast, so I’m excited to talk with you today.

Stuart: Yeah, well, I’m excited to have you on, as well. One of the things that I wanted to start with is really trying to get a little sense about your path to becoming a couples’ counselor, and more importantly perhaps, is what led you to really work with this population.

How Gina was Introduced to Uncommon Love

Gina: Yeah. I love love. I mean, I think ultimately, deep down, I’m really a hopeful romantic and that’s probably the core of what got me into couples work. But, I was in grad school, and I’d entered into a program where we really emphasized couples and families work more than individual work even, and I also was going through some pretty major relationship transformations. I was breaking up with my partner and trying to decide what I wanted to do with my romantic life, and so I was thinking a lot about relationships. And I fell, sort of luckily, or happily, into an internship at the Gottman Relationship Research Institute while I was in grad school and couldn’t believe just how clearly his research had broken down ways that people could build trust by just paying a little closer attention to small interactions that they were having throughout the day, and I got really excited about helping people with that.

I, at the time, was working at an internship site where we worked mostly with, almost only with, LGBTQ clients, and so that was really a great time for me to be looking at relationships for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer identified folks, and through that internship, I started being introduced to people who were in polyamorous relationships. And as I was thinking about my own relationship history, thinking about, how does monogamy fit into my life and how is it fitting into these clients’ lives. I couldn’t find a lot of research about non-monogamy, and so I turned my graduate thesis into focusing on non-monogamy. How do people make this work? What are some of the best practices out there to apply to this particular kind of relationship? Because it’s not the same, and yet, it turns out, after doing all this research, most of it is pretty much the same. Like we were talking before about building trust and the kinds of connections that people are looking for, that’s the same even for people who have many relationships.

Terminology; Definitions; Context

Stuart: You know, what’s interesting, the other thing that happened before we went on to recording, you and I were talking about your biography, and what you just made a mention of, a word that took me back a bit, and that was the word “queer”.

Gina: Yes.

Stuart: And as someone who was raised in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s sort of like, my immediate reaction was sort of a little bit offensive because that was the word that was the last thing I’d want to be associated with growing up, being that I grew up, that people with an alternative lifestyle, calling someone “queer” was the same as calling them a “fag”.

Gina: Yeah.

Stuart: And that word was just a horrible word, and as someone who is a Democrat (sorry, guys, I am), and a Liberal (sorry, I am), that would be the last word I’d want to use. And when we talked about it, you said, “No, that’s really okay now.” I mean, so it’s such a difficult thing to know, sort of, how to work with a certain population, for yourself or people that meet people, and what’s acceptable and not acceptable because we don’t want to be thought of as prejudiced.

Gina: Yeah.

Stuart: How did that all come about?

Gina: Well, you’re right, there are historical and geographic contexts that are at play when I use that word. I identify as a member of that community, too, so there’s a difference in the place of privilege when I use that word or when you use that word, or the perspective.

But, it’s something that activists have kind of been trying to use to reclaim that word because there isn’t a word that means “not straight”. There’s not, like, and umbrella term, and as we’re finding, more and more people have really fluid gender or fluid sexual identities. They might date men only for a while and then be really interested in only transgender women, and then realize that they like lesbians but they…people who just change a lot. And so, the word “queer” has been used to kind of have an umbrella that can mean all of those things at the same time.

Stuart: So it’s like a catchall phrase, really.

Gina: Yeah, and it’s much shorter than saying “LGBTQ”, and sometimes people don’t know what those letters stand for. But, the thing is, you’re right, there are definitely generations of people who, that is not something they’re comfortable saying or hearing, and the word “queer” gets used more so on the West Coast, (or where I grew up, they called it the Left Coast), and then, like in New York City and where there’s more activist communities actively kind of reclaiming that word. So, I wouldn’t use it all the time, and working with these populations, I think it’s really important to just use whatever language somebody uses to describe themselves, right?

Stuart: Right, the respect goes to what’s respectful to one may not be respectful to the other, so trying to do that. But, I guess language is such an important thing because whether you call someone a homosexual, or heterosexual, or gay, or lesbian, or queer, it’s really what I think, the part of this that I think, goes to our conversation today is about trying to make everything okay, and that whoever you are, and whatever feels good, and whatever sexual experiences you want to have, I want to send the message and I think you want to send the message that, well, it’s okay because if you’re comfortable in your own skin, that’s all that matters.

Gina: Yeah, and it’s okay when you’re on your own. What you and I talk about is couples, right?

Stuart: Right.

Gina: Once we’re introduced to somebody else, now we have to talk about consent, and how am I going to negotiate that with you, whether it’s around polyamory or whatever kind of sexual behavior I want to engage in, with you, you know?

Stuart: Right.

Gina: And it’s the same, you know, there’s lots of different words that get used to talk about non-monogamous relationships. “Polyamory” is certainly the one that I think most people really know, but similarly, I like to use the word “non-monogamy” as kind of my umbrella term because plenty of folks in open relationships don’t necessarily identify as polyamorous. There are some folks who identify as swingers, are part of a swinger community, and there are some folks who identify as sex-positive, are part of a sex-positive community, and then there are people who kind of bounce around in between and cross over all of those. So, even though most people are more familiar with the term polyamory, that’s definitely not what all of my couples would use to describe themselves.

Stuart: So let’s talk about definitions because there’s a number of listeners of mine that I feel like this is going to be a brand new topic for.

Gina: Great.

Stuart: So, you’ve used a couple of terms. I think “monogamy” is something, routinely, we all know what that means. So when you talk sex-positive, or non-monogamy, or polyamorous, open marriages, why don’t you sort of go through, if you would, and define what each one of those are, just from a definition standpoint.

What Does “Monogamy” Really Mean?

Gina: Yeah, well, you know, I think you hit on something that is really important when you said monogamy’s something that we mostly all know what it means, and what I find is that many of my couples actually practice monogamy. A lot of my couples are just thinking about, do they want something other than monogamy. And I think it’s really important to get clear about what we mean when we say that because sometimes we mean, “I’m married to just one person at a time,” sometimes we mean, “I’m only in love with one person at a time,” sometimes we mean, “I have sex with only one person at a time or over a time period,” sometimes we mean, “I’m only ever going to be attracted to this one person.” You know?

Stuart: It’s not as easy as I thought.

Gina: Right? Yeah!

Stuart: That is true. So, if today, I just want to sort of say, “Oh, I’m attracted to this one, she’s pretty,” so that’s my monogamy, and then I can go have sex with whoever I want, as long as I’m only attracted to one.

Gina: Well, I think that’s what you and your partner need to talk about, right?

Stuart: That’s right.

Gina: Because that’s where so many couples get into trouble, is we assume we’re working under the same idea of “what monogamy means to me, means the same thing to you” and you end up having an extra-long conversation with a waitress somewhere that I perceive as flirting and attraction, and feels, you know, and my perception is that it’s an emotional affair, and your perception is, “Oh, but I didn’t have sex with this person, I don’t even know their phone number. So how can this be an affair?” Right? And so, if we’re not talking about what we mean about monogamy in relationships, even if we never think about having sex with multiple partners or dating multiple partners, then we can really miss an opportunity to have that trust built, that, “Okay, we’re operating on the same definition here. I know that we’ve at least talked about this once.”

Stuart: Right, and you know what that brings up for me, is that the couples that you deal with that have these alternative lifestyles, it’s even more important, perhaps, than the couples that I have in my practice, that their communication is very, very crystal-clear, and we don’t make assumptions. It’s really a better form of communication, isn’t it?

Gina: Sometimes I like to think so. I mean, I don’t think that…

Stuart: In other words, it’s clearer, is what I guess I’m saying.

Gina: When it’s working well, yeah. Yeah.

Stuart: That there’s a requirement to have it be really understood what we’re talking about, we don’t just use terms or we don’t just say, “Well, you know, I talked to the waitress, that was okay or not okay?”, but how do you define what’s acceptable in this relationship.

Gina: Yeah, yeah. And I think because intimacy… And I think you’re the one who knows more of Sue Johnson’s work, but she talks about a lot of different kinds of intimacy, right?

Stuart: Right.

Gina: And I, often, will talk with my couples about, you know, there’s emotional intimacy, there’s like a sensual intimacy. So, I might have emotional intimacy with my friends, with my partner, with my family. I’m going to have a different kind of sensual intimacy, meaning I might share physical experiences. Maybe my girlfriends and I go to the spa, and we relax and we get massages. We don’t touch each other, but we have this beautiful bodily experience, right? We relax for the day, we eat delicious things, we share all of our secrets. I’m not having sex with them, I’m not even sexually attracted to them, but I share sensual and emotional intimacy with them. And then, with my partner, I might have sex and maybe we go to the spa, or maybe we get a couples massage, or maybe we share our secrets.

And that works for me, but if I’m not able to kind of break down what some of these different kinds of intimacy are and how they’re important to my different relationships, it’s really hard for me to even think about having intimacy with more than one person in a way that might feel threatening.

Stuart: Right, and I have a question about that, but before I get to that, I want you to… We got off on monogamy, but define polyamorous, sex-positive too, and then I want to ask some questions about what you were just sharing.

Gina: Yeah, so, like I said, I like to use the word “non-monogamy” as kind of an umbrella term for anything specifically not monogamous. And then, within that, some folks identify as polyamorous, sometimes that means they’re part of a community of polyamorous folks, and polyamory just means “many loves”. So, when we look at polygamy, polyandry, those things tend to mean more husbands or wives. It’s about marriage, versus, polyamory is about love. So, you could get married or not. You have emotional connections.

Some folks don’t want to have emotional connections, maybe at all, or outside of their primary relationship, and those folks tend to use the term “open relationships” when they’re talking about that. So, they mean, “My relationship with my partner’s open so that I can have sex or other intimacy with people, but I’m not really looking for love or long-term relationships with other people.”

And sometimes, within that, there are folks called “swingers” that are part of a swinging community. They might share partners within a group or share their partner at a party with other people, and those folks tend… There are also, within these, tend to be, some of these communities are more heterosexual and some of them tend to have more homosexual identified people in them.

So, those are kind of some of the bigger terms that I hear a lot of my clients using to self-identify.

Stuart: You know what’s interesting is, all of this, in itself, each one could be a separate podcast.

Gina: Absolutely.

Stuart: As I hear it.

Gina: Absolutely.

Stuart: And maybe this is going to be more than one.

Gina: You should do a series.

Stuart: Just from a time perspective, I wouldn’t mind doing that, at all.

Keeping Jealousy and Insecurity at Bay

But, part of what comes up for me when I hear you talking about some of this, is a couple of things. One is the whole concept that we started talking about, which is the idea of emotional affairs or security in a relationship, that what we now know is that there’s nothing more important than having a secure, stable relationship to people. So when we start talking about open marriage or swinging, what tends to come up for my couples who have participated in something like that, is they feel it would be fun, it would be something to do, and then all of a sudden, rather quickly, it becomes not so fun anymore when you begin to say, “Who are they interested more in having relations with?” The fact that it was supposed to be just “always just the four of us” or “the three of us”, and now they’re going off and having these, you know, after-hour meetings and going off and doing things privately, it no longer becomes a whole lot of fun. And usually, the couples, at least that I’ve seen, it ends up quite often ending the relationship.

Gina: Mmm, yeah.

Stuart: So, how do you deal with that concept of jealousy and security in those types of relationships?

Gina: Yeah. Well, one of the things that I see is that, you know, I would say about, at this point, maybe half of the couples who come and see me are just starting to think about, maybe they want to try non-monogamy and they’re not sure what that would mean. And I love that because I think if you’re considering it, it’s worth bringing in a consultant to talk through this decision-making process, and it says a lot to me about how they value the health of their relationship, that they’re willing to proactively, before they’re ever at a party, before anyone has a crush, to talk about, how can we talk about our other attractions in ways that won’t undermine the security of our attachment, the connection that we have. And I love that because we often kind of work through either testing the water a little bit before, (and I use this metaphor a lot with my clients), like, “We’re not going to just strip naked and jump into the deep end, here.”

Stuart: Right, “Let’s go to the shallow.”

Gina: “We’re going to, together, take a look at the pool. Is it safe? Is there anything in there we don’t want to be in there with? Can we step in together and step out, step in a little deeper and step out, so that we’re really valuing our connection above other things that might be happening?”

I have another, I would say, half of my couples come to me because they have been practicing non-monogamy, polyamory, whatever, for 14 or more years, and they just want a therapist they don’t have to explain it to. You know, we’re talking about things like parenting, when to come out to kids about being non-monogamous. “Should we buy another house? What are we doing with our finances?” Like the stuff that every other couple is struggling with, you know, “I’m having a spiritual revelation and I’m not feeling like I can share it with you,” that kind of stuff.

Stuart: Right.

Gina: Yeah. We were talking about… Oh, jealousy.

Stuart: Yes. I think that’s the big one that I hear. I think even more than the jealousy, because the jealousy I think… is when you begin to disclose to these other folks, personal things about your relationship that most couples would say, “This stays….” that, “We have a boundary here.” The boundary is, “We’re playing, we’re having sexual experiences, but the love stays between the two of us,” which involves emotional vulnerability. And here, someone is being vulnerable and emotional, and inclusive of this other person.

Gina: Right, right. So, with the couples that I’ve worked with, I see the most success in couples, you know, when I use that metaphor about getting out of the pool together, I hear in the example you’re kind of giving, at least one partner is feeling the need to kind of put the brakes on things a little bit. We’re not saying we’re never getting back in the pool, but we need to just reassess here and, potentially, do a little bit of repair work.

And some of the things that I talk about with my couples who are thinking about this, one is, are you willing to do serious repair work. Because we can try and anticipate all kinds of things, but you never know where some kind of insecurity might show up, and if we’re not able to and willing to do real repair work, which means me taking my partner’s good will and their emotional stability into account, or the impact of my behaviors on my partner into account, me taking accountability for my actions – “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t realize that holding this person’s hand was going to be the thing that would upset you more than anything else. I didn’t realize that and I’m really sorry. I get how that hurt you,” if I’m not willing to own that, and then apologize and work through it with my partner, then I might be needing to think about, maybe I’m not interested in being in a relationship. Maybe I’m more interested in my own needs and I need to think about separating so that I can be dating, or something else, something other than being in an open relationship.

Because we’re not talking about being single. “Open relationship” includes the word “relationship” for a reason, right?

Stuart: Right, right. So it’s really having side-by-side relationships, not just having sex. It’s not just about having sex, is what you’re saying.

Gina: Yeah. I mean, for some people it is, but I’m saying, within the primary relationship, like if my partner and I are open and we both are seeing other people, I need to be willing to take into account the impact on my partner. If I say I’ll be home at midnight and I come back at 12:30, maybe he’s really worried about me for that half-an-hour. Maybe he’s worried that, did the car break down or am I stranded somewhere. And if I come home and he’s upset, I need to be able to, even if I’m coming home from a date I’m excited about, I need to be able to say, “Oh, my gosh, I am really sorry I was late,” even though from my perspective it might have felt like a short period of time, a half-an-hour. “I get you were worried about me and you really care.”

And then, I need to be willing to repair that and not be late again, and really take into account what my partner’s needs are there. Even though we might still date other people, we just have to be able to repair from the tiny infractions that are going to happen over time.

Dealing with Perceptions

Stuart: What do you see as some of the family issues that come up with these couples? And, I guess, some of them are ‘out’ and everyone knows about it, and a lot, I would assume, it’s a very private thing, they don’t share it. But, what do you see as the dynamics that get created when family learn about this? And, obviously, there’s a lot of societal disapproval for these types of things, so how do you help families with that element of their own emotions to feeling that rejection?

Gina: Yeah. I mean, I think I will say most of my couples are not ‘out’ to their extended family, and the ramifications of that are that there’s really not a lot of familial support for what they’re doing because their families have their own stories about what non-monogamy looks like or might mean, and so most of my couples don’t talk about it a lot with their extended family. Most of them don’t talk about it at work. I mean, I talk a lot with my couples about the kinds of isolation that they feel, specifically around their non-monogamy because they don’t want to share it with other people for fear of what it might mean to the other people, and sometimes for their own kind of shame about what’s going on, that they’re not doing things in a traditional way.

Stuart: Right. Well, what are some of the myths, do you think, that the non- sort of…

Gina: Yes, thank you for asking.

Stuart: How would you generalize the different populations? I don’t want to say “normal”. It’s part of what I…

Gina: Yeah. “Traditional” and “non-traditional”, that’s what I say.

Stuart: There you go, I like that better. I like that a lot better.

Gina: Yeah.

Stuart: What do you see as some of the myths and misconceptions that really have caused pain and anguish for people that are out there?

Gina: Well, one of the big ones is that if a partner says to you they want to consider an open relationship, that means they don’t want to be with you or that your relationship has to be over. It doesn’t mean that. There’s no, like, “have-tos”, once you decide, “Okay, we’re going to try non-monogamy,” that means you have to try it forever. There’s not like an either/or on-and-off switch.

Most of my couples, especially the ones who’ve made it a very long time together, they’re non-monogamous and both dating other people for a little while, and then one of them gets a new job and is really stressed out, so that person doesn’t date as much, and the other person might date more because they’ve got less time with their partner. Or, they move to a new place and they say, “We’re not going to date other people for a little while, while we get settled.” Or, “We’re trying to get pregnant and we just want to be really clear, it’s important to us that, biologically, this child’s related to both of us, so we’re going to not sleep with other people right now.”

So, there’s a lot of kind of back and forth, being willing to negotiate coming and going rather than it being like an all-or-nothing either/or, either we’re monogamous or we sleep with anyone. That’s not the way that this works.

There’s also a lot of people who think that this is a mostly LGBTQ thing, and honestly, there are just as many straight identified couples doing this as there are, if not more. And, there are plenty of communities that are kind of specific to straight identified folks, or more welcoming of straight identified folks. So, there’s plenty of straight people who are doing non-monogamy.

Stuart: Right, right. And I think, sort of, that it’s perversive, I think is one of the other biases or myths, that it’s about that there needs to be something seriously wrong with a person, either that they’ve been sexually abused or some sort of weird thing in their past, which is why someone would be interested in this.

Gina: Yeah, well, and that it’s all about sex, right? I mean, there’s a piece of that that’s about, it’s about a sex or kink or fetish, or something that is unusual or wrong or weird.

I recently worked with someone who just came out to their spouse about some of their own sexual needs that are unique, they’re non-traditional, and this person just, I mean, I can’t even tell you the decades that this person has been sitting with shame and self-loathing about this interest that they have. And he told his wife and she was like, “Oh, I kind of always thought that was a thing. I’m not into it, so if you want to do it, we should find you someone else to do that with.” Like, no big deal, no problem whatsoever, but all of his own worry was just so heavy for him for a really long time.

Stuart: So, it sort of opens up… The question that came to my mind is sort of an odd one maybe. Maybe I need to think about this, but I think a lot of people who might have, and I think you just sort of approached a different topic, which is more about being more open sexually, because that couple you’re talking about, and some people may have been brought up in very conservative, straight-laced backgrounds that want to expand their horizon, and not so much expand it from a multiple partners, but within their own relationship. How could someone, other than just getting a book, really begin to sort of, not do something too far off from a two-person relationship, but really learn about some other things that might help enhance their emotional connection with their partners?

Gina: Yeah. Well, so, okay, this is some of, kind of, where the grey area of non-monogamy comes in, too. I’m kind of glad you asked about it because, you know, specifically with this particular couple even, and many of my couples, they only have sex with each other. There’s only penis and vagina sex happening between these two people. So, by some definitions, when we go back to what the definition of monogamy is, that sounds like monogamy. They’re legally married, man and a woman only having sexual intercourse with each other.

However, she has previously, but many years ago, she has dated women, but she doesn’t identify as bisexual, but she will say other women are attractive and men are attractive. They will say that to each other, so is that monogamous or not?

Next question: he has this sexual fetish that is not sex. There’s no genital stimulation happening, but both he and sometimes the person he plays with will orgasm near each other, within the room, but without touching each other, or themselves, on their genitals. So, are they non-monogamous if he’s doing that with other people?

Stuart: You mean, where they’re not having intercourse or they’re not really touching, right.

Gina: They’re not having intercourse, but something’s exciting them.

Stuart: So would mutual masturbation fit with that? No, no, that’s touching your genitals, though.

Gina: Yeah.

Stuart: So that wouldn’t fit.

Gina: Yeah, that’s not what they’re doing.

Stuart: Yeah, it’s other things.

Gina: It might be like tickling feet or tying someone up, or something like that, you know?

Stuart: Right, right.

Gina: And so, it’s a sexual energy that he’s sharing with someone else, but it’s not sex. So, you know, this is where it gets really grey about what is monogamy and what’s not monogamy. She’s fine with it, but she doesn’t want to watch or be a part of it. Or, for some of, when we talk about the non-traditional sexual sex-positive community, you know, some people really like to have sex in front of other people, and they consider the people watching them part of the sexual act even though they’re not actually touching. That voyeurism is part of the act for them. Now, the people who are the voyeurs in those situations might not consider themselves a part of that act or scene, they might just be passing through for snacks or something, but…

Stuart: I just need some popcorn while I’m… Yeah! I mean, really, if you start thinking about this, everything is really not… See, I think our society is just so caught up in wanting to pigeonhole everybody, and it’s really sad.

Maintaining Self-Worth

Gina: Well, and the thing, the hardest thing I see for most of my couples is when we start to get wrapped up, there’s this narrative, like, “You complete me,” from Jerry Maguire, remember? There’s this narrative that, “My partner should meet all of my needs as a friend, as a partner, as a business manager, as a co-parent, as a sex partner, for all of eternity, and will complete me as a human being.” And there’s a lot of my own self-worth, then, wrapped up in their attraction to me, or my ability to co-parent, or whatever. When I get my self-worth wrapped up in that, like, “you complete me” narrative, then it’s really hard if they are attracted to somebody else. You know?

Stuart: The “you complete me” isn’t something I necessarily disagree with and I think the research does say that does fit, both Gottman and Sue Johnson would probably say that is what happens, in a relationship. Where I think it’s different than what you’re talking about, which I think is what we’re really trying to say, that I think sometimes people don’t quite get, it’s the “you complete me because you meet my attachment need”. It’s not “you’re everything for me”.

Gina: Right.

Stuart: My wife, we have a relationship where I know that she is the best person out there for me. She understands, I can be authentic, and all my deep need to feeling love and secure, she is able to do, but that doesn’t mean we have to do everything together.

Gina: Right.

Stuart: That doesn’t mean… Now, I tend to be someone that’s pretty jealous, so I know, for myself, being in a sort of off/open relationship is not something I can handle. That’s just who I am as a person. She couldn’t do it either, so that’s why we fit.

Gina: Yeah.

Stuart: You know?

Gina: It’s not for everyone.

Stuart: But, if she goes off and she has lunch with an old friend of hers, I’m good with that.

Gina: Yeah, yes.

Stuart: If she wants to… She and her friend, Diana, quite often go every Saturday, they spend hours and hours walking the dogs, and I don’t know what the heck they’re doing, and I’m really okay with that, too, because I like having that alone time.

Gina: Yeah.

Stuart: That doesn’t mean that we don’t meet each other, that we don’t complete each other. That’s what I think people get caught up in.

Gina: Yeah, well, and I think it’s that when we start to get our self-worth wrapped up in that, right? Like if your worth is wrapped up in her, you know, she has another friend, she goes out to walk the dogs with her friend, has a great time and is getting all this emotional connection and friendship needs met, and she comes hope and you’re like, “Well, how could you talk to someone else? I want to be the only one, and your favorite one, and the most important one you ever talk to, all the time!” That’s that attachment piece you’re talking about, right? That’s where I start to wonder, “Oh, am I a good enough partner because she has friends? I wouldn’t do that.” And then, it’s kind of, that’s where we need to have a conversation when people are thinking about opening their relationships.

Stuart: But that’s the internal dialogue that gets in the way.

Gina: Yeah.

Stuart: And, actually, I’ll make it even harder. It’s when I go to her and I say, “I know that Diana and you do this, I’d like to come with you this week,” and she says, “No, I don’t want you there. I’d rather just be with her.” Whoa!

Gina: Yeah.

Stuart: You know what your brain will do there if you’re not secure! And that’s really, I think, with all the things we’re talking about, is how to have these different kinds of relationships and allow yourself to feel good about who you are, who the two of you are, and really identify yourselves as in love no matter what is happening.

Gina: Yeah, I mean, the thing about the self-worth, and this is, I think, some of what you’re getting at too, is that people who can do non-monogamy well have strong self-soothing skills. They’re able to see, or know about, their partner’s doing something else, even if they have a really basic agreement that says, you know, “I know that once a year, you go to this research conference, and it’s in another country, and I know that you have some attraction with other researchers and you might have sex with one of them, and I’m never going to meet them and I’m never going to ask about it, but that’s our agreement. You do what you want at your conference, even if it’s that while you’re at the conference, some insecurity might come visit me.”

So, I’m like, “Well, that person, do they know you better, do they understand you better, are they sexier than I am, or more beautiful, or funnier?” And, you need to be able to self-soothe, to say, “You know, they might be really funny, they might have a great time, they might have great sex, and I know that what we have is special, and who I am is special and unique and wonderful, loveable, regardless of what’s happening at the conference.” And, you know, that takes some pretty intense self-soothing.

Stuart: Right.

Gina: Not everybody’s up to that, and that’s okay, but you know, that’s part of what we really work on when we’re talking about, “If you do want to go down this little path into the land of non-monogamy, if you want to stick your toe in that pool, before we get to the pool, how are you taking care of yourself? How are you repairing after an argument? How are you self-soothing when one of you has a visit from insecurity?”

Stuart: Okay, we’re almost out of time and I want to end with a little bit of a more intense discussion, perhaps, which is, which type of… I think the question for debate would be, which type of relationship is healthier?

Gina: Oh! For who?

To Swim or Not to Swim?

Stuart: I know, I know. That’s where I was going, too. But, I guess I’m thinking, you know, if someone comes to you and says, “Okay, I really haven’t had too many relationships in my life, I’m trying to figure out which would be best for me, and I want to make it the one where I’m going to feel more secure and healthier, and feel the love, and really feel a sense of importance to my partner. And I’m trying to decide if we should be open, I’m trying to decide if we should just be the two of us in a more traditional way, which would give me more peace and satisfaction.” And, I don’t want it to be about, you know, it depends who you are and all that stuff, but just as a general kind of philosophical kind of discussion.

Gina: So, I would say, I see it… And this is, I mean, this is par for the course for how I see things in general, but I see it almost as that then we’re creating this, like, non-monogamy’s one option and monogamy’s the other end of some spectrum. And I would say it’s somewhere in the middle, only in that the problems I see with monogamy aren’t that you only are partnered with one person. That works for tons of people, and that’s way preferable for many people for many reasons. But, monogamy where you can’t admit that you have other attractions and other people are important in your life, or monogamy where my self-worth is wrapped up in your responses to me, that’s not healthy monogamy, at all.

And, the same thing with, some folks will say they’re polyamorous or in an open relationship, and they can be very deceitful or misleading, or not be willing to take into account their partner’s experience. That is not healthy non-monogamy either. So, I mean, I definitely see…

Stuart: Yeah, I see what you’re saying.

Gina: You know, there’s like something in the middle.

Stuart: And maybe a better question that I didn’t ask, but this is maybe the question because you see both types of couples. You see heterosexual couples who are very, very traditional, and then non-. Do you see a difference in the vulnerability that people allow themselves to go? Because to me, being authentic is what it’s about, and which means, authenticity and vulnerability, I believe, goes hand-in-hand. Do you see one type of relationship as opposed to another have more authenticity in the relationship?

Gina: Yeah. I mean, I think that the folks who’ve been non-monogamous for a long time, they have like this rock-solid self-worth and trust and connection that is, like, I mean, it’s just unshakeable. That’s not to say it hasn’t been weather tested, right? I mean, they’ve been through ups and downs, usually.

Stuart: And they’ve repaired.

Gina: Yeah. And it’s also not to say that that’s because of their polyamory, but I do think their polyamory forces them to have conversations and look at themselves in ways that we don’t have to if we’re choosing not to do that. And, I think, sometimes not having to have conversations about, what does it mean for me when my partner gets flirted with by the waitress or bartender, or what does it mean for me if somebody else lights up their face for a minute and how do I deal with that, if I’m not having that conversation, it’s pretty hard for us to… I mean, that’s something that’s pretty important to get vulnerable with your partner about, I think.

Stuart: Right, and I think the offshoot of that is, also being vulnerable about your own sexuality and saying, you know, “I’m bored out of my mind. We do the same thing all the time. All I want to do is tie you up, but I can’t tell you that because if I do, you’re going to see me as this perverse guy.” And am I authentic now? I would say not, and I’m cutting off a part of me that, yes, I could live the rest of my life not doing this, but I would have a fuller, more complete emotional connection with you if you share those things with me that I only want to share with you.

Gina: Yeah. You know, we should have a whole other podcast just about sex-positive relationships.

But, I think that’s true, and if I’ve worked through my own stuff about my sexuality enough that I can say I want to tie you up, then by all means, I’m going to be able to have the kind of sexual conversation most couples need to have about, like, a little to the left, I like it a little harder, you know, keep going, don’t stop, do it again. That basic conversation is missing from so many couples. I’m sure you see this, too. And if I can get to the place where I can say that… You know, our bodies change over our lifetime. When you’re 80, you’re not having the same sex that you had when you were 20 because your body functions different, and if you’re not able to say, “A little to the left; I need a pillow,” you’re going to have a hard time.

Stuart: See, I think it’s bigger than that because what I’ve seen, particularly as we get older, women who do not want to tell their partners that they’re in excruciating pain when they’re having sex, and they’re raw, and “I can’t tell my husband that, right now, I have a dryness problem that we could probably alleviate if we talked about it”, and the horrible, horrible things that come from that.

Gina: Yeah, absolutely.

Stuart: So it’s not just “a little to left”, it’s “you’re hurting me!”

Gina: Yeah, yeah. And, “I want to do this, but we’ve got to figure out how to make this work.”

Stuart: And maybe it’s only doing it every other day, but “we can’t be doing it every day right now because all I want to do is scream,” and not in a good way.

Gina: Yeah.

Stuart: Well, thank you very much for coming on, and actually, I think it would be a whole lot of fun to do a sex-positive dialogue.

Gina: I think so, too!

Stuart: So, maybe we do something in a couple of months or something.

Gina: Great talking with you.

Stuart: So, thank you again for coming on the show and… Oh, before we end, I want to have people be able to get hold of you. Why don’t you talk a little bit about your contact information, your website, and are you involved or doing any programs right now that you want to sort of let people know about.

Gina: Yeah. Well, I have a practice in Portland, uncommonlovepdx is my website, so uncommonlovepdx.com, and I’ve been getting a lot of interest from people outside of Portland who want support, and so I have two online programs, one for the therapists who are interested in working with this community but don’t have a framework that they can use or aren’t sure about where to start. So, I have a training for therapists I’m developing, and then, I also have an e-course all about jealousy, and how to work through jealousy and insecurity, because it’s so important in this kind of relationship.

Stuart: Is that for a traditional and non-traditional relationship?

Gina: Either one, yeah.

Stuart: And they can find information on the e-course, because I think there might be a lot of people who have an interest in that, on your website?

Gina: Yeah, uncommonlovepdx.com.

Stuart: All righty, great. And folks, as always, I’ll also have this on the show notes, her contact information, and we’ll probably come up with something to give you a link to get to that information. So, thank you again Gina for joining us and, hopefully, we’ll do this again soon.

Gina: Thanks.

Stuart: Take care. Bye-bye.

End of Transcription




About the Author:

Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW helps couples to overcome the disconnection in their relationships. As an author, blogger and podcaster, Stuart has helped couples around the world to experience a unique relationship in which they can feel special and important, confident in knowing they are loved deeply and that their presence matters. The Couples Expert Podcast consists of weekly provocative conversations offering the perspectives and insight of experts from a variety of relationship related fields. Stuart also offers daily relationship video tips on The Couples Expert YouTube channel and by subscription in Stuart's Daily Notes. Stuart is happily married and a devoted father of 2 daughters. His office practice serves the greater Phoenix, Arizona area including the cities of Scottsdale, Chandler, Tempe, and Mesa.

Leave A Comment