Couples often come into counselling describing their struggle to manage the conflict provoked by manifest differences.

The beginning of a relationship is often a time of revelling in the similarities: the shared values and interests, the feeling of being known. Differences are minimised and can even seem exciting and enriching. The reassurance of connection and understanding is more important.

As the relationship grows and deepens the demands made upon it reveal the complexities and intricacies. The complexity of the partner’s character also becomes more apparent. Anxiety can arise when certain needs of each partner seem in opposition. The couple can get stuck in a negative behaviour pattern of trying to get the other person to change and fit in.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sexual relationship.

In her recent book ‘Come As You Are’, Emily Nagoski stresses the importance of accepting differences instead of being negatively judgemental and critical (of oneself as well as the partner). She suggests that a basic assumption should be that everyone’s body is different and everyone’s reactions are different. They are what they are!

She also draws the conclusion that, in a heterosexual relationship, there are basic gender differences which should be celebrated and not denied. Men and women are different! Her research shows that a woman’s sexual response often does not follow the same pattern as a man’s sexual response. And it can be so liberating when that is understood and accommodated. Women can frequently be more context sensitive. She may be more open to experiencing desire when there is closeness, connection and acceptance. She finds pleasure as a result of responsive desire. Sex is not context dependent. But pleasure for a woman is often context dependent.

Nagoski debunks many of the myths that can cause confusion, misunderstanding, and distress in a couple’s sexual relationship. The most destructive myth is the existence of a standardised ‘normal’. ‘‘Sexual arousal, desire and orgasm are nearly universal experiences, but when and how we experience them depends largely on the sensitivities of our ’brakes’ and ’accelerators’ and on the kind of stimulation they are given… We’re all made of the same parts, but in each of us, those parts are organised in a UNIQUE way that changes over our life span.’’

‘’In the right context, sexual relationships can be pleasurable, bond us with partners, flood us with happy chemicals, and satisfy deep biological urges. But the brain’s perception of sensation is context dependent. If you are stressed you tense and your brain is vigilant to threat. When you are relaxed you are open to erotic reaction. Same sensation, different context, and different perception and reaction.
Nagoski describes the best context as high affection, low stress, and concordant eroticism. She suggests that we all need to be cognizant that sexual arousal is the process of both turning up the ‘’ons’’ and turning down the ‘’offs’’.

Differences can be celebrated when it is not how your sexuality functions, but how you feel about yourself, your body, your sexuality, your partner. The context determines whether sex is characterised by confidence and joy. Context also can create anxiety as you become the ‘spectator’ to the event, focussed on ‘not good enough’, ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and preconceptions of ‘normal’.

Coupleworks works sensitively with clients when discussing sexuality and the sexual relationship that is uniquely right for them.

Kathy Rees