Episode 184: Components of Sexual Intimacy

Jackie Pack, (a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist), and our podcast host talks about the childhood experiences that shape and inform our ability to demonstrate intimacy with other adults as we grow into adulthood. Many times, these issues are the origin stories behind problematic sexual behavior. When healing sexuality, it is important to explore deeper issues and not just stay on the surface, focused on the “yes” and “no’s” of sexual choice.  

TRANSCRIPT: Components of Sexual Intimacy

This is the Thanks for Sharing Podcast, the podcast where we explore all things recovery, healing, and relationship. Remember to subscribe and download episodes in the iTunes Store, Google Play, or on the Podbean app, and while you’re there, I’d love a review. Hi, everyone. Welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack.

As I said last week on my podcast, this month, we are going to be focusing on couples, we’re going to be focusing on relationships, and we’re going to be focusing on intimacy. Today’s episode, we’re going to focus specifically on sexual intimacy. When I work with clients on issues around sexuality, I often tell them that our sexual template or our arousal template is often influenced by nonsexual experiences that happen before our bodies even hit puberty. These experiences early in our life have a profound impact on how we show up later in life in our sexual relationships. As a CSAT, when I’m exploring the story behind problematic sexual behavior or problematic pornography use, there are four stories I’m particularly interested in knowing and exploring.

The first story I want to understand is the story around touch. I want to know, “How was touch handled in their family of origin? Was touch safe? Was it appropriate? Was it abusive? Was it dangerous?”

“Was it absent?” In families where there’s physical violence or physical abuse, touch is often a delicate issue. There may be confusion around touch, where sometimes it might have been loving, and nurturing, and comforting, and supportive, and other times it was abusive and damaging and it pushed us away. Like I said, touch can be associated with danger, and that’s the way that our brain and our nervous system respond to and read touch. Other times, touch maybe didn’t really ever happen, the family dynamic was disconnected or disengaged, and the children were touch-deprived. We know, I think it was in the ’80s or ’90s, it was shortly before I graduated from grad school, that we started studying traits of alcoholic families, so traits of addictive families, or where families had addiction present.

I talk about this much more in depth in my episode on the impact of family dysfunction, but we do know some of the traits around families where there was addiction present, and particularly alcoholism is where they started studying this. One of the things that they found was touch was often a complicated issue, where maybe it happened when a parent was sober in appropriate ways, but it also happened in very inappropriate ways when the parent was under the influence or was high or drunk, whether that resulted in physical abuse, verbal abuse, or sexual abuse, but the children of those families were learning and shaping their beliefs around touch. Now, when this happens, it can lead to an extreme need for touch, and it can also lead to a cycle of binge-purge, where maybe a person binges on touch.

A lot of times, the clients that I work with, they binge on touch that they can control, so this is where paying for sex or engaging in sexual behavior where they can maintain control is something that would be appealing for them. There may also be this belief that you kind of need to take it while it’s there, and so that would create that binge-purge cycle of when it’s available or when I’m able to sneak away or act out, I’m going to do it as much as I can because my belief says there’s going to be a shortage of that.

Again, sometimes that goes back to the family dynamic of like things are going well. Maybe the parent got sober for a stretch of time, and things were going well, and then everything collapsed. I’ve often found too, for clients that I work with, where touch was deprived, their acting out story often includes offline behaviors with people, which can make sense in a way that porn doesn’t really offer touch from another person. If touch is something that was dangerous or touch was something that felt like it was confusing, and the person felt powerless to that touch, then again, like I said, they’re going to move towards something where there is a sense of power and control.

Sometimes with pornography addiction, porn users may fantasize about the object or the woman in porn touching them, but it may not fully meet their need for touch, so most of my clients, just because porn is so accessible, most of my clients will engage in pornography, but it may not be their preferred method of acting out.

Again, when we’re looking at acting out behaviors, I often tell clients, “We need to flip the coin to find the trauma, or the dysfunction, or the attachment wound behind the acting out behavior.” Part of healing the pain around this part of the relationship template and arousal template is grieving the loss of this nurturing and supportive touch that didn’t take place, so often, when it was needed. When we grieve this part of our childhood, we can begin to more functionally own and meet this need for touch in ways that are appropriate, and that leads to connection. I’m going to talk a little bit more and circle back when I talk about touch as I go further into the podcast.

The second story I’m interested in is, “How was trust handled as a child and as a team?”

Because those can be very different stories. I want to know, “Could you trust the adults in your life?”

“Did they do what they said they were going to do? Did you feel like you were on your own, or that you couldn’t believe them? Were you able to attach to them in healthy and secure ways?” I find that when we can’t trust and feel secure with the primary people early in our life, we often can compensate by building the perfect body, the perfect home, the perfect job, and the perfect life. However, material success cannot make up for the lack of relational success and security.

Material security will not lead us to emotional and relational security. Healing these early wounds requires us to develop self-trust, self-care, and choosing people and actions that fit our values. It also requires us to develop an ability to ask for what we need and to ask that of people who are trustworthy. We can only share our security and trust with others usually after we’ve achieved it for ourselves, but we may have to learn how to achieve that through the process of therapy and in the relationships that we are a part of. I’ve shared this quote before by Harville Hendrix, who says, “We are born in relationship, we are wounded in relationship, and we must heal in relationship.”

Again, when we are practicing in safe relationships that are open, that people are centered in themselves and can help us learn to develop trust relationally, then we can begin to share that with others and bring that to the relationships that we’re a part of. We can share love, honesty, integrity, intimacy, healthy sexuality once we have secured them first within ourselves.

The third story that I’m often interested in has to do around needs and wants. How were these handled as kids? Now, as a parent, I have a perspective of being both the child of parents and being the parent of children, so I think this needs and wants, and how that is handled is especially important in the development of a healthy human being who grows into functional adulthood.

Now, I’m not saying as a parent that I’ve done it perfectly. In fact, just this past weekend, we had a little getaway as a family to celebrate my husband’s birthday, and one of the nights we were talking, my daughter’s boyfriend was with us, and he was writing a paper for one of his college classes. It was about parenting, and I’m not sure why because he’s a biology major, but anyway, it was about that, so they were just asking questions, and from that, led to a conversation.

My kids, one of the questions that they asked was, “Did you have any regrets as a parent?” Well, the list was long, and there were some things that I had regrets over that I had never really talked to my husband about, and yet, he voiced some of those same regrets. Some of that had to do with just not knowing well kind of how to do all of this.

A lot of this had to do with our oldest daughter, who she was like, “Why am I the one who you made the most mistakes with?,” and we said, “Well, because you are our first child,” like it’s a steep learning curve. By the time we were parenting the fourth, we did that in a very different way. We had kind of learned when to push and when to ease up, and some of the regrets had to do with, “We should have pushed here or we should have eased up over here.” One of the things we were talking about as a family is just some of the things that we also did well, and it was good to hear from our kids what they thought that we as parents had done well.

Now, one of the things that my husband, and again, this comes from the house that he grew up in, has always said to our kids, is that we do not fight over food.

He has always like, apparently, that was a thing in his family because it was something he said from like the beginning of us having two kids who could talk and fight. He would talk about and say, “Look, we have enough resources. We are not living in scarcity.” That wasn’t his word. That’s my therapy word, but he would say, “We have enough to get you what you need. Please just let us know and we will get it. Ask, and it will be provided,” which I think was an important part of, kind of, early on developing some of those healthy messages about needs, and even wants, right?

I’ve always had a list, like a grocery shopping list on the front of my fridge with the magnetic back, and I tell people like, I tell my kids like, “If you want something, put it on the list.” Now again, they’ve tried to sneak in some things that are not necessarily grocery items or even like necessary items, and I think they do that kind of with a sense of humor, but we’ve had other times when we had other people who weren’t family relations living with us, and I would tell them the same thing, “Just put it on the list and I’ll get it. I don’t know to get it for you if you don’t tell me or if you don’t write it down, so tell me what you want and I’ll get it.” I remember particularly one boy who was living with us for a period of time had asked, “Can I put down socks?”

I was like, “Sure,” like, “But you need to tell me. “If you want me to buy you socks and you’re not going to be there, you need to tell me what you want, what color you want, what brand you want, and I will get it within reason.”

Now, I also have felt like there are times where it was good for my kids to go without. Not in a way of scarcity and not in a way of anything that was really a need, but there were times that I thought, “This is an opportunity for them to learn to work towards, for them to learn for themselves that they can accomplish something piece by piece and a little bit over time.” Usually, that happened as they got older.

I think, again, this story of our needs becomes important later in life, how we view ourselves and how we view ourselves in relationships. I’m going to talk to about at the end particularly how all of these things come back together, these nonsexual experiences that we have that are just a part of childhood, that all of a sudden, can show up in some unhealthy or at least untrusting ways when we get into close, intimate sexual relationships.

One of the issues that I will sometimes share with clients, and I’ve shared this with my kids before, they know this, when I was in the sixth grade, where I grew up, we had junior high. We didn’t have a middle school, so elementary was kindergarten through sixth grade, and then seventh, eighth and ninth grade were junior high, and then we were in high school 10th through 12th grade, and so in my sixth-grade year, I was going to be going into junior high. It was towards the end of sixth grade or like right at the end of sixth grade, my mom approached me and sat me down and just said like, “If you want school clothes for junior high,” which again, in my family, we typically bought clothes three times a year, so we bought them back to school.

Like in the summertime, my mom would take each of us, and again, there were six. She would take each of us school shopping so we could get clothes for the school year, and then we also maybe got some clothes at Christmas, and then at our birthdays. Mine were evenly stretched out, so school shopping in August, Christmas was in December, my birthday was in May, so I was fortunate in that I had like something in every season to kind of buy my clothes for, but that was typical of like when we bought clothes. I wouldn’t just … My mom, we wouldn’t be out shopping. I mean, we didn’t go out shopping for clothes unless it was one of those times during the year, and so my mom had approached me, sat me down and said, “If you’re going to want school clothes for junior high, you are going to need to earn the money to buy those school clothes.”

That was a little overwhelming for me as a 12-year old, and so I remember the next day or a few days after my mom had sat me down, I was complaining to a friend of mine about this, and her mom overheard. My friend was like maybe the seventh. I think she was the seventh of eight kids, and so her mom overheard me complaining to my friend, and her mom stepped in the room where I was complaining to my friend and said, “I think that’s a great idea,” so of course, my friend kind of gives me this crusty look like, “Thanks a lot, Jackie.” She says, “I will help you earn money. If you show up here Monday at 6:00 AM, I’m going to help you earn the money so that you guys can have school clothes,” and I was desperate.

I didn’t know as a 12-year old how to earn money. A lot of the boys in my neighborhood started working at a local farm, picking things and doing whatever you do on a farm, but they typically hired boys over girls so that I didn’t see that really as an option, and a lot of older girls got all the babysitting jobs, and I wasn’t super interested in babysitting, but also there weren’t a ton of jobs for babysitting, and so I knew that I couldn’t count on earning money through babysitting, so I showed up Monday morning at 6:00 AM because I didn’t have any other option, and it was really important to me to have school clothes that I picked, and so I showed up that first Monday morning at 6:00 AM and she said, “I’m going to teach you girls how to make bread, homemade bread.” We would make the bread. We would make 48 loaves. I said that right, 48 loaves of bread every day, Monday through Friday.

Then, we’d pack up my brother’s little red wagon, and we would go through the neighborhood and walk around the city, selling bread for $1 a loaf at that point. We had wheat bread, and we also had white bread. Eventually, even maybe within a couple of weeks or maybe for sure, by the first month, we had some regular customers who would just place their order with us, and then we would just deliver that. Now, at the end of the first week, her mom sat down with us and she subtracted what we had spent on supplies, so plastic bags, the twisty ties and all the ingredients that we had used that week, and we had to pay her because that was part of our cost. Then, we had the profit and we split that in two.

We did this every week the whole summer, and at the end of the summer, I had money that I could spend to go buy school clothes for myself and clothes that I would want and feel comfortable and confident in. Again, that was an important lesson for me that I learned from my friend’s mom. I will say, my mom hated me telling that story, and part of that is because I think she was desperate. I see this now as a parent. I think she was desperate and probably felt a lot of shame having to come to her 12-year old daughter and say, “You’re on your own for clothes,” and especially at an important time, maybe seventh grade or going into junior high wasn’t an important time for most people.

I don’t know. It was important to me, and so I’m sure that my mom felt shame every time I talked about that story, which by the way, was not very often because I could feel my mom’s shame when I said that. I could feel that she was ashamed, that she didn’t have money to provide clothes for her kids. I could feel the shame that she felt at having to come and tell me that, and especially that another mom stepped in. I mean, I’m sure on some level, my mom was grateful to this friend’s mom, who my mom knew and liked and respected, but I think she also felt a lot of shame.

Like I said, that mom had eight kids, and then that mom stepped in, in a humble way, not in a way of judging my mom, but she stepped in and taught me like, “Hey, if you have a need, if you have a want, I’m going to help you accomplish that.” I think my mom was just in a place mentally and emotionally where she couldn’t think of that. I mean, she was an educator. She was a teacher. I would think that normally, that was something that she would probably say to a kid, like, “Well, let’s figure out how to help you accomplish this.”

“If you want this, if you need this, let’s help you figure out a way,” but I think when it was her own child and it was her own situation, she felt a lot of shame and it kept her from problem-solving. Again, I think how needs and wants are handled can become really important in our development, and again, in what we ask for, in what we hope for, in what we wish for in our relationships.

The fourth story that I’m always interested in is in connection. In the book,¬†Mirror of Intimacy, I don’t know if I’ve talked about that before. Actually, I have had Alexandra Katehakis on the podcast before around the time that this book and another one of hers was coming out.

We didn’t necessarily talk a lot about the book, but Mirror of Intimacy, if you haven’t heard of the book or you don’t have the book, I recommend it. It’s a great book. It’s a daily read with specific acts, and it helps work on relationships, it helps you work on intimacy, and it can help you work on sexual intimacy. Each day has a different topic and a reading, and then there’s questions and things to do at the end of that. It’s just one page of reading per day.

On page 21 in the Mirror of Intimacy, she says, “Not having grace of sexual skill is often a result of childhood marked by emotional invisibility. People who feel awkward in life, and especially in sex, we’re typically not seen, not heard, and not understood or cherished as children. Moreover, many others were sexually shamed, or worse yet, sexually abused. Shame creates sexual awkwardness, so overcoming sexual trauma is the first step on the road to recapturing our natural grace and ease.” It continues, “With practicing with patience from both yourself and your lover, the impossible will become nearly difficult, as your nervous system recalibrates to read sexual contact as something good, rather than a setup for danger or rejection. Eventually, the difficult becomes easy, and with time, you will experience your sexual ease as a thing of beauty.”

Again, when we talk about connection, I want to know what those early connective experiences were, and I’m also assessing for any of them. I know for me, one of my early relationships that was connecting for me and safe for me was not a person in my family. I don’t think I’ve talked about that relationship before on the podcast. That’s probably a topic for a different podcast, but he was somebody, like I said, not a part of my family, but he was somebody who my mom brought into our family as a student of hers.

My mom taught at the local elementary school, and he was a student in her classroom that year. He got to know our family and often babysat. This is one of those happy babysitting experiences or stories I hear a lot as a therapist about babysitting experiences that went ugly and resulted in abuse, but this was not a story of that, and so he was a relationship that I felt connected to. Even though he was only in my life for a matter of two years, I think I was at an impressionable time period because as I grew up an age, that relationship particularly stuck with me, and I think I often drew from that relationship more than I even realized until years, years later, that I realized how often I had drawn from that relationship that was really early in my life, and that was only there for a time period, just two years, and then he moved away and was out of my life.

When I’m looking at connection, I want to know questions about, “How did it feel for you to be seen, and how did it feel for you to see others?”

“Could you do both?”

Right?

“Could you see others and have empathy, and have connection and have understanding for them and feelings for them? Could you also allow yourself to be seen by others, and feel safe, and feel secure, and feel connected in being seen?”

Let’s talk about how these four stories, touch, trust, needs, and connection show up later in our adult relationships and in our sexual relationships.

Again, I mean, some of this may have been obvious as I was talking, but touch is a significant part of a sexual relationship, and if I react to touch or if I get jumpy, or if I withdraw from touch, that’s going to be a problem in my sexual relationship.

If I do a binge-purge process, where I take all the touch I can get, and then I expect it to be purged for a while, or I just am absent from touch for a while, that’s also going to do damage to this sexual relationship. Also, if my touch deprivation, going into the relationship is such that it’s one-sided and I need all the touch and I forget that I need to also give that and have my partner receive that, that’s also going to be a problem in sexual relationships. Then, when we talk about trust, well, trust isn’t always a part of sexual relationships, but I think it is an important part of deep, meaningful sexual relationships.

“Do I trust you?”

Sex is a very vulnerable experience. Okay. Let me back up. Let me say it a different way. Sex can be a very vulnerable experience. It isn’t always and it doesn’t have to be, but usually, in our primary relationships, we think that relationship goes better if there’s trust if I can be me and you can be you, and we trust each other outside of the bedroom, as well as inside of the bedroom.

When it comes to needs, again, this is something that’s going to be critical when we grow up and become part of sexual relationships. If I can ask for my needs to be met, if I can ask for my wants to be met, I’m going to fare much better in my sexual relationships than when I believe that I just have to take what I get, and that’s what I get for wanting or needing, or I defend those wants and needs so that who I am as a person actually isn’t showing up and being present in that sexual connection.

Then, the four story connection. Again, as I’ve said, sex isn’t always connecting, but I think when we have committed relationships, we understand that sex works best if it can lead to connection among the primary partners. This connection allows us, well, I would say, this connection, as well as the trust allows us to be vulnerable, allows us to be present in that moment, allows us to create a sexual experience with each other that results in connection and a deeper meaning in the relationship.

As I’ve said before, often in therapy, we are taking a three-pronged approach. We’re looking at experiences of the past, we’re looking at experiences in the present, and we’re trying to create experiences in the future that the client wants, and that the client is invested in. Often, the present difficulties that the client is coming to therapy for are informed by past experiences that are inadequately processed, so our job is to map out that emotional territory, those memories. Bring them into awareness and notice what comes up for the client. I find that it’s not my job as a therapist to tell them what this means or to tell them where they need to go with this, but I do want to help them notice it.

If there’s trauma around the memories, we can target them using EMDR procedures, which I’ve talked about before, that are laid out in a very straightforward, systematic way, and give the client the opportunity to reprocess those experiences now, so in the present, they don’t get triggered.

I’m also a believer that the brain is capable of moving towards healing on its own. However, the brain can get bogged down with trauma or create unhealthy neural pathways as a way of coping that can get in the way of healing. As we process these things in therapy, it begins to clear the tracks in the nervous system and pathways in the brain so that change can take place and the past experiences are adequately processed, and the person can move forward with an adaptive nervous system, unburdened from the past.

Margaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist, particularly popular in the ’60s and ’70s said, “Where we choose to put our attention changes your brain, which in time can change how we see and interact with the world.”

I think since her time, we have also learned that there’s not necessarily a conscious choice all the time as to where we put our attention. Danger, insecurity, attachment wounds demand that attention goes to those areas in order to protect ourselves.

I often say the number one rule for the brain is to protect the asset, and the asset is whoever the person is in which the brain resides, so these choices may be driven from an unconscious place, much more than a conscious place. However, as we work in a safe environment, as we’re able to explore these past experiences, and as we’re able to practice this in relationships that we choose and that are safe, we can change how we see and we interact with the world, and our choices can become much more conscious and much more intentional because of the awareness we’ve created.

At the end of this episode, I want to remind you that your story matters. Remember, there’s something meaningful in every chapter. Don’t wait to share your story until you’re finished. Until next time, Jackie.

The Legal Stuff. This podcast is solely for the purpose of information and entertainment, and does not constitute therapy, nor should it replace competent professional help.

The Prayer of the Perfectionist. Nobody has time for perfection. We are pursuing progress. Help me to remember the only step I need to focus on is the next right step for me. Help me to remember that life is a journey.

Help me to be able to separate all that I am learning from all that I have to do. Help me to remember that I am not alone, I can ask for help. Help me to strive for frequent awakenings, not mastery. I am enough. Amen.