Your relationship health – sex and intimacy 

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others. 

Dr Anvita Madan-Bahel holds a PhD in Counseling Psychology from Columbia University and the majority of her work is based on psychosexual and relationship therapy, reducing sexual violence and gender disparity, and mental health and diversity training. She has extensive experience in diversity and cross-cultural training and she specializes in issues related to sex, sexuality, sexual health, and provides psychosexual and cultural therapy. Now Anvita, tell me in the context of what you do, what is wellness to you?

Dr Anvita Madan-Bahel: Wellness for us is more holistic. And so, I’m speaking particularly here, because we are going to talk about relationships and intimacy and sex. Normally when we think about sex, we always think about it physically actually. There’s a more holistic point of view to it. You have to look at well-being from the emotional, the cognitive, the thoughts that you have around it, the physical, and the relational. People never really give weight to that. But how is your relationship health— that has a direct impact on it and even to a certain extent like societal, like what is the impact of the spiritual on your sexual well-being? So, it’s a more holistic way of looking at it and not unidimensional.

AB: Okay, that’s wonderful. Coming straight into our topic, how should people optimize their relationship health?

Dr AM: Optimizing relationship health for me— a big one would be communication and intimacy. And I think, both those areas… like we always talk about communication, communication, communication. Because this idea that he or she should just know they’ve known me for so many years doesn’t really exist. Nobody is a mind reader. And what you need is your needs and you need to be able to share it and there needs to be communication. And the other aspect is intimacy. And what that means is I think you need to work on a relationship. So, it’s the small things, not the big gestures, not flying somebody to Paris or having a massive weekend away or something. It’s about holding hands and watching TV. It’s coming and giving a hug when you enter the house. It’s just putting an arm around the shoulder or just very gently with your fingers touching somebody as you pass them. These are all things that build on communication and intimacy. They both build on the trust and safety and security of the relationship and it just makes the relationship more robust to go through any crisis if they were to come.

AB: And tell me what are the most important elements you would say in a relationship? You’ve talked about communication and relationship health. You’ve talked about intimacy.

Dr AM: Just stretching on the idea that I was talking about communication and intimacy. What I would say is that people really need to know themselves. And it’s really important for any relationship, for people to have two individuals in it. There has to be two individuals in a relationship. And so, you need to know yourself. You need to know who you are, what are your needs, what’s important to you. And that is true for both people. I’m not saying it’s one or the other for both people. That’s really essential. And I think once you understand your own non-negotiables, your own, like, what is important to you, you can actually bring it to the relationship. Knowing yourself and then building on the communication, trust, and intimacy become important aspects.

AB: Okay? And I loved what you just said about letting there be some separation in the relationship. That’s invaluable advice, which not a lot of people think about when they’re getting into a relationship.

Dr AM: The media, society, everybody personifies these relationships which are very enmeshed relationships where, oh, we can’t be separated or anything. But it’s what an individual really needs, to be able to grow and it needs to have interdependence. Like, I love the word interdependence. So, you are independent, but you are interdependent on somebody else. So, there’s a two-way street. What we really need to understand is that when dependency becomes really high, the fear or chances of power imbalance can happen. It can happen that one person’s needs can be looked at as not important and not looked at all. And for somebody else, only one person’s needs in a relationship are being attended to. So, the power imbalance becomes very problematic. Whereas if you’re an individual, you’re independent, you have your own thoughts, you have your own ideas and then you have somebody to share it with. Like, I’m not, for one, saying that the interdependence shouldn’t be there, but the dependency is problematic.

AB: Wonderful. That’s wonderful advice. Now tell me something. This is something that gets confused a lot. How would you define the difference between sex and intimacy?

Dr AM: It’s a good question because when people come in with sexual problems, we rarely start by asking them to work on the sexual behavior between two people. What we start is with them working on intimacy. So, if we had to think about building blocks, intimacy is the first building block. In some ways it’s the massive foundation in a relationship. So, it has got to do with how safe and secure you feel with someone, how comfortable you feel with someone. Because any relationship requires us to be vulnerable with our partner so that intimacy allows us to feel like, okay, we can be emotionally, physically, sexually, be naked with this person and feel safe about it. So, there’s that intimacy there. Whereas sex is the physical act of sex that can mean different things for different people. It could be oral, it could be penetrative, it could be verbal sex. So, sex could be anything. But I see more sex as a physical behavior or action versus intimacy as more of building a safe relationship and trusting relationship.

AB: And tell me, what is trust? You just said trusting relationships. So, how would you describe trust in a relationship?

Dr AM: What I want to really say and what I think is really important when we think about trusting a relationship is trust in the relationship is dependent on what two people decide. And I’m going to use a word which might seem harsh to people, but the contract, they decided, right? What did they contract? So, they are two individuals. Going back to my point, you as an individual should know your needs and everything. So, you get into a relationship and you say, okay, these are my non-negotiables. This is really important for me, this is what I will bring, this is who I am and this is what I expect from you. Like if you are somebody who believes in non-monogamous relationships, you’re not for me or somebody else will say I want a monogamous relationship or I want a polygamous relationship. Whatever your needs are, you bring them to the table. And each couple, and this varies individually for each partnership, they decide what are the contracts of this relationship. They’re not based on what society says are the rights and wrongs or morals, yeses and nos about it. The partnership decides this is how we want our relationship to be. And I think trust is broken when one of the partners breaks that contract. And so that for me is the breaking of the trust, whatever the contract was between you. And I also think when people misuse the vulnerability of their partner, in some ways misuse what they know is their vulnerability or their weak points, that also breaks the trust. But people who actually cheer you on, based on your weaknesses or vulnerability, and all of us have them, nobody is perfect, but that really builds on the trust and the safety of the relationship.

AB: You see a lot of people and with your extensive experience, you’ve seen people come with lots of issues. What are some of the main issues when someone is getting into a relationship or getting into a new relationship or even someone who’s been in a relationship for really long? What are some of the main issues that you want people to look out for, that you want to warn them about before things get worse or bad or get to a stage where they cannot handle the relationship anymore?

Dr AM: Once again, it’s a difficult question because I think every partnership is different and the circumstances could be different. What’s important to know is that every relationship needs to be worked at. When you get into a partnership, you’re in a different time and phase of your life and your needs are different. And as you grow, your needs change. Where’s the relationship then you contracted for something else, you decided on something else, but now you’re saying, oh, but I want something different. Like I need something different. What do you do then? And have you kept your partner with you? Have they been part of your journey? Have they seen your journey? Are they with you on your journey? Are they understanding your journey? And once again, this is gender agnostic. So, I think that’s really important that you need to have the person be part of your journey. Otherwise, the distance can be very far apart and people just go in different directions. But I also think what happens a lot of times is people start making assumptions about the relationship, about them, about the other person. And the favorite line that everybody said after so many years, she should have known or he should have known. And it doesn’t work like that. You have to constantly share what had troubled you, what you had not liked, because it’s very easy for things to fester. One small thing happens and you are like, I’m not going to say anything because he or she should have figured it out. I’m not going to say anything. And next thing you know, something else has happened and it’s become so big because you decided not to say anything. So, it just creates the gaps and the problems and what could have been handled by one normal small fight or a conversation just becomes this massive thing in some ways. So don’t be fearful of sharing what’s going on. Trust your partner to try and understand your problem or understand it. So, give them that opportunity.

AB: That is very good advice. Now tell me, how important is sex in a relationship?

Dr AM: Sex is amazing. Sex is, so I’m not coming from it from a moral perspective. And I think we’re all sexual beings. There’s a reason that we were created in a certain way and we had hormones and bodies and all of it. So, we were meant to have sex. But what we’ve also learned is that people’s relationship with sex is very different. Some want to have and some want to have loads of it and have very high libidos and some kind of feel like asexual they don’t want to have sex at all. So, there’s just so much diversity that I think it’s a personal relationship, your personal relationship with what your sexual identity is and what you like about it. What would be important is that— don’t be a mismatch. People will say, “Oh, I didn’t mention I don’t like sex before starting a relationship, but I just have to get along with it. I have to go along with it.” It doesn’t work because five years later, that partner might still be there and you still don’t like sex. So, it’s better from the beginning if you share what your sexual choices or identity are so that you can find a partner. And that’s something when we look at all the matchmaking sites and other things and everything, a lot of times that is maybe overlooked— do you match sexually? Do your sexual choices match with your partner’s choice?

AB: Okay, great. So, we’re talking about relationships here. So initially there’s all this excitement in a relationship, whether it’s sex, whether it’s communication. You see a lot of people in new relationships constantly talking to each other. How do you advise them to keep things exciting in all the different areas of their life as they proceed with a relationship?

Dr AM: So, relationships definitely need to be worked on. This idea that we’ve been together for like 10, 20, 30 years, and why do we need to work on it now? We’ve known each other for a year, ten years, five years, 50 years even. At that point, relationships need to be worked at. It’s really easy for a person to feel that they might be taken for granted or their needs are not being met, or they’re not being seen in a relationship. It’s really easy for that to happen. So, to constantly see and be seen is really important, and you have to keep doing that, and you have to work on it. When you want to see someone or notice someone or let them know, I see you, I know you, you’re here, you have to work at it. It doesn’t just happen. And similarly, you need to be seen. So, you need to bring something to the table as well.

AB: You know what happens when people have been together for some time. They started off on the same page, but somewhere along the way, they started wanting different things sexually later on in their relationships. They didn’t know this at the beginning, but the way they developed was different.

Dr AM: When we look at relationships, we don’t see them as individuals. We see it as a dance between couples. So, if one is pushing more, the other one is pulling more. If one is pulling more, one is staying stuck. So, it’s not the responsibility of one person in the relationship in that sense, it is a joint responsibility. Why is somebody pulling? Because somebody is just standing still and not moving at all, and that’s why they have to pull. Similarly, why is somebody pushing? What we need to remember is to understand what has changed and why has it changed and where is this person coming from? A lot of times we hear that… a lot from women, where they say, “Oh, now we’ve had children, we’ve had it. Now what do we need to go and keep having sex for?” And my partner wants sex and it’s just like, it’s too much. And I just want to go to bed or watch some TV and get into my pajamas. Who wants to get into some lingerie or get ready and everything. It’s too much effort. And it could be gender agnostic. There could be a woman who might say I really want to have sex and the partner is like I’m really tired. A male partner and things. So, you could be at different points. But it’s understanding what’s happening because it literally sometimes is that one of the partners must have had a really busy day. So, if you want to have sex and you need to have sex and the libidos are being mismatched, what you could do is help them out and say, “Oh, why don’t we have sex on Sunday because you don’t work that day?” Or, “Why don’t we go away for dinner or order in? And that way neither one of us needs to clean up the kitchen or anything. And then that way we’ll feel refreshed and we will not feel tired and everything.” So, they are easy solutions a lot of times. But once again people are not seen and then they feel frustrated by their struggles. Or they get frustrated saying “Oh, the other person doesn’t even notice the amount of work I’m doing.” Then you can see how that is festering. “That person doesn’t love me. He doesn’t see or she doesn’t see how much I’m working. They don’t like me any longer or they don’t care about me any longer.” And you can just see how this just becomes a bigger issue. Try and understand and empathize from where somebody’s coming and then say there is an impact where people are in different places. It is amazing how every relationship, every partnership comes up with a solution for them. But it is particular to that partnership, whatever it might be. Some might give more, some might take more, some might compromise more, some might say okay, let’s bring in another person if this is an issue. So, it is very creative and it is totally based on the partnership of a couple.

AB: My favorite line of the whole chat we’ve had was— “A relationship is a dance between two couples, between two people.” That’s so lovely and that really puts it into [perspective]… it’s so clear.

Dr AM: Especially when we do family therapy. One of the tenets of it is that it’s a circular causality. It’s not linear. And we see that a lot with children. So, children, we say, are mostly symptoms of a problem that’s happening in a family. So, a child is acting out in school, but when you will actually go back and see how come the child is [the way they are], it might be a symptom of their problems at home. The parents are not getting along or there might be some financial problem happening or stress happening at home and the child doesn’t know what to do. So, it comes out as a behavioral problem. But as you can see that it’s all connected. It’s rarely to do with and what normally people end up doing is saying, “Oh, we need to send the child to a detention center, or we need to send the child for therapy.” But the problem is not with the child. The problem is that there’s something happening at home that is impacting the child, and then because they’re stressed from school and the school is calling the parents, the parents are like, see, it’s your fault. And then that problem becomes bigger. So, how is everything connected? My husband tends to be the disciplinarian and I am the soft person. But what we have analyzed and discussed is that if I activated myself a little bit more, if I disciplined more, he would be put in less in those situations. So, it is this dance of what am I doing and what is he bringing? And if I activated myself more, he would deactivate. And if he deactivated himself, I would activate myself. So, it’s not caused by one person, it’s caused by that dance, that push and pull.

AB: Yes, absolutely. Do you have any advice for the people listening to this chat?

Dr AM: That’s always a tough question because as therapists, we only work with individuals in their context and their circumstances. I cannot stress enough on ‘knowing yourself.’ Knowing yourself emotionally, physically, sexually, and relationally. Knowing yourself is really important because only then can you form those boundaries. Only then can you ask for your needs. Ask what you need. Bring yourself in the relationship. Very often people don’t know, and then they keep feeling something inside, thinking, oh, it’s not working, it’s not working, it’s not working, but what is not working? So, knowing yourself is really important in any relationship. And then to have people around you who will support you no matter what, I think having that support is very important. People who listen to you will edge you on. Today, go communicate, go talk, go get help, whatever. So knowing yourself and having support around you, I think are two of the most important things in my mind.

AB:  That was brilliant. Are intimacy and lust related? 

Dr AM: So, intimacy and lust. Lust is an interesting word as well. Sometimes it’s seen as a dirty word, and it’s seen as, oh, people who lust are not nice or not good. But lust, after all, is just another sexual connection, right? It’s something that makes you feel lustful somewhere. So, it’s mostly only a sexual relationship with someone. I think you can lust for someone and build intimacy with them. But I think it’s a little bit different. I think intimacy has lots more to do with emotional and relational. And in my eyes, and I might be wrong, lust for me is more sexual.

AB: Okay, thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to have you here.  Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you leading your best life.