Anyone who has known me more than a minute has heard me, probably ad nauseum, reference the renowned relationship researcher John Gottman. Gottman, originally an MIT-trained mathematician, changed direction to a study of psychology, mostly to try and figure out why he couldn’t get a date. The result – 40 years of longitudinal data about what makes relationships work and the predictive factors of separation and divorce. He also wound up with his long-term partner and collaborator, Julie Gottman, although I don’t know the story there.
I have great respect, admiration, and gratitude for good researchers. I certainly would not be able to do it, and probably wouldn’t care to, but research changes history, makes our work credible on a larger scale, and also can serve as an often much-needed guide, especially in something like psychotherapy which hovers somewhere between science, art, and some think alchemy.
One of my favorite tenets of Gottman’s research, which is central to my work, is the simple and undeniably well-proven principle, that in a relationship, to break even – not make progress and not backslide, but simply maintain equilibrium – the ratio of positive to negative is (drum roll) 5:1. Just to break even. That means appreciation, compliments, smiles, and gestures of affection. It can be most anything positive to the other, measured against complaints, criticism, grumbles, etc.
Certainly, in the neglect experience, these random shots of positivity are glaringly absent. Our best hope may be to exist, which may not be such a positive thing… So I am always looking to inject positivity whenever I can, which is not always easy in the bleak landscape of trauma and neglect. As we know from operant conditioning, the principle on which neurofeedback is based, the brain responds most favorably and learns from “reward,” so positive feedback is, by nature, re-enforcing. An additional win! 5:1 or better is a quick and sure way to change the “weather” in a relationship. A positive spin on “climate change!”
Gottman also reminds us, perhaps reassuringly, that evolutionarily speaking, relationships are significantly different now. It was not much more than a hundred years ago that our species did not live long past our reproductive years. Once the mandate to preserve the species was accomplished, monogamous partnership was not, at least biologically, essential anymore. Now we live decades beyond child-bearing and are challenged to maintain harmony, let alone eroticism, until death do us part. We are in a slow and trying process of changing nature’s design.
In the neglect household, as in much of the world, really, sex is not talked about. Certainly not in any kind of constructive or instructive way. In the world of trauma, and in general, we mostly hear or speak about sex in its worst light: abuse, exploitation, trafficking, harassment, commodification, and aggression, both micro and macro.
I thought, how about ringing in this new year with something positive about sex? Next week is Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rabbit. A lover of animals, I appreciate the tradition of each year correlating to one or another species. Besides their reputation for liberally proliferating, I also like the idea of jumping, rabbit-like, into this year.
“Sex-positive” has become something of a buzzy designation, kind of like “trauma-informed:” a sub-credential attempting to offer a space safe where people are free to speak or be open about sexual matters and be accepted and understood.
Drudgery and Begrudgery?
“Sex-positive” has become something of a buzzy designation, kind of like “trauma-informed:” a sub-credential attempting to offer a space safe where people are free to speak or be open about sexual matters and be accepted and understood. When I first started training for sex therapy, I quickly discovered the work of Peggy Kleinplatz, whom I think of as the best sex therapist in the world. Additionally, Kleinplatz is a researcher and a professor – truly a pro. When I first saw her at a conference, I was amazed at how such a giant could be so diminutive, with beautiful hair almost as long as she is tall. I hope it is not sexist that I describe her appearance, as I certainly do not mean to diminish any of her other attributes!
At one of those first conferences was an opportunity for “Breakfast with the Presenters.” I managed to be early enough to score a seat at the smallish round table with Peggy Kleinplatz! I was so starstruck I really could not speak or ask my questions, let alone eat! We have since become friends, and I have since been the presenter at one of those tables. It is a distant and sweet memory.
One of Peggy’s great achievements and contributions is that for several decades she has been seriously studying the positive: the elements of long-term, satisfying, monogamous sex. She has interviewed thousands of self-identified sexually happy long-term couples of every stripe to answer the question, how do they do it? How do they keep sex from devolving into “drudgery and begrudgery?” (Confession: I stole that catchy turn of phrase from Bono’s recent memoir. The book isn’t great, but that line is brilliant! I wish I could claim it!) Peggy came up with thousands of couples who could do it. (She studied non-monogamous couples as well, not to discriminate!) I was delighted when in 2020 she came out with a popular book, Magnificent Sex: Lessons from Extraordinary Lovers. Circumstances change, bodies change, and health intrudes, and yet these couples continue passionately going strong. How do they do it?
Not only sexual trauma but trauma in general, including neglect, can wreak all sorts of havoc in the sexual body of an individual.
I won’t spoil it. Everyone should read this book. I will simply recount a few highlights. Peggy describes her incipient interest in the project, which proceeded to span decades. As I have said before, therapists, or people in general really, enter the sex therapy field out of some particular fascination (preoccupation?) with sex. Admittedly true for me. However, I was also faced with couples with one or another iteration of a sexual impasse daily. Not only sexual trauma but trauma in general, including neglect, can wreak all sorts of havoc in the sexual body of an individual. Requiring a delicate balance between sympathetic (excitement) and parasympathetic (calm), the dysregulated traumatized organism is challenged. (Much more to be said about this expansive subject in future writings!) In the case of neglect trauma, abundant anecdotal observation has revealed complex sexual difficulties based on the profound ambivalence, if not crisis, about interpersonal need. The child of neglect is compelled by both interpersonal longings and terror, which creates an additional dilemma around sex. Again, much more to be said about this, but I promised to keep it positive today!
Peggy began her exploration by asking new sex therapy clients who came in complaining of (or being complained about!) “diminished sexual desire” to describe their time of greatest sexual longing, realized or not. Remarkably, they all had some. Says Peggy, if we want to inspire sexual desire, we must have a vision or experience of “sex worth wanting!” Seems so obvious, no?
I will jump ahead to the “lessons,” partly because I encourage you to get it straight from Peggy (and her co-author, whom I do not know, but do not wish to neglect, A. Dana Menard,) and because I want to leave you with something positive. And admittedly because I risk going on all day about this!
The top three ingredients of magnificent sex, according to Kleinplatz and Menard’s research, are (drum roll): presence, superb communication, and exquisite empathy. So it is not about novelty or rose petals, fancy positions or role plays, but the most longed-for and most tragically missing ingredients in the neglect experience, and in the world, really. What a magnificent world it would be if we all cultivated and practiced those three! So, there you have it. As Rabbi Hillel would say, “Now go and study!”
The welcome earworm in my head jumping into 2023 and the Year of the Rabbit is John and Yoko’s timeless 1969 classic Give Peace a Chance. “All we are saying is give peace a chance…” I would take it even further and add “Give Magnificence a Chance” (And my own additional verse, “Give Sleep a Chance!”)
Kung Hei Fat Choi!
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.