Discover more from DIALOGOS - Meaningful Conversation
An Erotic Empathy Approach to Meaningful Couple's Conversation - Guest post by Amanda Luterman
How conversations about intimacy, sex and love can be transformative
I know that I had said I’d be stopping publications on Dialogos. However, I was fortunate enough to get a delightful contribution from Amanda Luterman, a friend and therapist in Montreal. I love how Amanda describes herself on her LinkedIn page:
“I am a sex-positive, kink-knowledgeable, inclusive Psychotherapist with an MA, MEd, in counselling psychology.”
In this piece, Amanda explores how to engage in conversations around intimacy and sex. It’s the type of conversation we should all be engaging in with our partners… yet, it’s not so easy. Please enjoy Amanda’s wonderful contribution!
Asking a therapist what makes for meaningful conversation is like asking a chef what makes food taste good. It seems simple enough but where do I start?
Being a therapist has taught me that I have a felt sense when conversations are profound. Time goes by faster but feels steady, directed, purposeful, and leaves me energized. I have often wondered if others feel it, too. No conversation will resonate the same way for everyone involved, but there are common ingredients in conversations that leave all parties with something meaningful.
I will begin by saying that nowhere are our expectations higher when it comes to deriving meaning from a conversation than in our romantic relationships. In no conversation do we crave being satisfied by words more than with our significant others. In no other adult relationship do we run a higher risk of being left hungry for more.
Meaningful Conversation in Couples Therapy: A Vignette
When Dana and Greg (names changed for confidentiality) first came to see me, their arms were crossed, legs crossed away from each other, blatantly incongruent from the friendly, charismatic demeanors they gave me individually as they entered the office. Within a few minutes of taking their seats, they were guarded, posturing, with teeth-grinding resentment and meticulously unforgiving composure. If these sessions were going to be meaningful to them, I was going to have to crack the veneer of perfection and protection shellacked over disappointment. If they were going to show each other their respective hurt again, it was going to need to go far better than it typically had.
When a couple first begins therapy, they typically look to each other for validation and approval as they provide limited answers to my questions. I am the stranger, and there is a semblance of them each not wanting to throw each other out of the covers. I note their bond; despite hurting each other, they will protect one another from others. This is normal, and I like seeing how couple
's have each other's backs despite waving fingers at each other. I use normalizing statements to invite their adaptive defensiveness with me and we move forward. I am curious about their uniquely separate experiences of each intimate moment. They do not have to be a unified front with me; even if they have similar values, we need to capture their differences. I want to know what makes them invest in the process with me. Sell me your relationship, and I will help you fix it.
I learned that Dana and Greg had a complex power dynamic at play; not between each other but within themselves individually. They each felt they vacillated between producing "amazing excellence" experienced as relief, not accomplishment, one minute, and "utter failure" felt as hopeless inadequacy the next. Their words. Thus, their relationship was often ripe for projections of judgment, criticism, defensiveness, rejection, and resentment.
Yet, their meeting story brought sheepish grins out of both Dana and Greg. As she described him asking her out, he rearranged in his seat. I felt him shift his want to touch her like a momentary lapse in judgment as he slid his hand under his thigh.
I asked, "Did you want to touch her just there?". With a polite smile, he shook his head, no. I'd caught his hand in the cookie jar. He denied wanting a cookie. Fair enough.
Just then, she touched his hand. He didn't pull away. She validated his feeling of love about their beginning, too. I asked them to observe a momentary lowering of the shields; we could agree on their beginning being worth a few therapy sessions without denying the pain of their now.
What helps connected moments maintain significance? As it turns out, I have found that meaningful moments in relationships stand the test of time; they do maintain their significance. They are the ones you remember. And the good news is that many people forget what they have fought about and don't forget meaningful conversations.
Homework one week early on in Dana and Greg's process was a simple exercise: arrive prepared to describe one instance in which you felt supported by your partner; one instance of service or affection well-received. Meaning, one instance you felt your partner was on your team in which you felt the communication of affection they intended to convey.
Dana described coming back into the house after a frazzled departure one morning. Greg was at the door holding her forgotten phone and a granola bar. He said, "Don't forget to eat. I hope you have a good day". She remembers eating the granola bar and it tasting better than it should have. He had surprised her with care and thoughtfulness. It nourished her.
Greg got home from playing a sport with a buddy and Dana offered him the gel ice pack for his elbow. This time, he didn't have to swallow the annoyed tone reminding him she wouldn't want to hear how sore he is tomorrow. She placed it on his elbow. The gesture lessened inflammation in his mind more than his elbow.
These meaningful moments occurred in calm. They occurred in moments of witnessing more than those of intellectual banter or romantic intention. Dana and Greg went on to briefly abandon the therapy process once or twice, and threatened separation a few more times. Their exchanges of hurt and frustration gained traction; the recipes for the same disagreements became clear and increasingly preventable. We were able to identify how they each prefer to be sexually satisfied by the other, never having been openly corrected more accurately or productively. The frustration of unmet needs lessened as their conversations began to serve up more complex dishes of their personal truths without complaint. No resentment went unvalued, not a single special occasion would go under-celebrated again.
Broad Strokes: Erotic Empathy in Practice
As Emily Nagoski's well-known dual control model for women's sexuality explains, it is just as important to have one's foot off the brake pedal as it is to have your foot on the gas. To have meaningful conversations, it is not enough to have sincere feedback and a loving approach, you also must feel unconcerned with regretting the conversation. You can
The therapeutic conversation is designed for the couple and the therapist to have a meaningful and helpful conversational dynamic. As early as possible, I encourage the couple's conversations to occur in front of me, compelling them to honor their own distinct vulnerabilities toward each other. I stir, I facilitate, I usher along, and expand on their interactions; they add the ingredients.
Prompts like, "Let's pause here, and check: what feelings do you observe in your partner?" can help add empathic insight and mindful attunement to the couple's communication. We often react to what we assume our partner is feeling, maybe not what or all that they are actually feeling. Similarly, furrowed brows and internalized frustration may be better served outwardly as acknowledged hurt, for example, or confusion, rather than accusation or impatience.
Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz, author of Magnificent Sex, has been known to say, "lovers aren't born, they are made". Somewhat of a controversial statement, it challenges the serendipitous nature with which some like to view romance. Sex is not going to magically be perfect because you're in love. Love doesn't save us from the need to express our yearnings and instruct our pleasure. As it turns out, eroticism can significantly improve with education, mindfulness, and feedback from the specific partner we want to arouse and by whom we hope to be pleasured.
The key to optimal erotic connection and sustainable sexual fulfillment in long-
On the surface, I have found that there are ingredients that, however subjective, when not over-stirred meld into mutually meaningful conversations. And in the context of long-term devoted relationships, being seen and valued through a lens of ongoing curiosity contributes immensely to sustainable eroticism.
In fact, one of the best ways to love each other forever without self-effacing for the sake of the relationship is to never presume you know each other completely. You might say: keep the conversations meaningful. Filling in each other's sentences sounds cute and all, but it doesn't keep things interesting nor accurate.
Meaning can be optimized by the setting in which you're talking; if you're sitting on the couch but where you live is winter more often than not, and it's July, go sit outside. You're more likely to remember the conversation and contribute to its essence because it will feel more special even before it starts.
Notice your tone, volume, and pace of speech. If one person talks louder, faster, and more than the other, the interaction will manifest as an unfortunate power dynamic rather than anything potentially meaningful. Try to match each other. Allow effusive sentences to end without interruption: no one likes to feel shut down while enthusiastic. I also believe people like to feel permitted to swear or 'cuss' and yet like to feel an absence of gratuitous vulgarity.
Euphemistic language is common and unhelpful when describing what you need. If someone refers to their vulva as “down there”, chances are they aren’t communicating their sexual needs with as much clarity as they could be. Choose your words by honoring their intended meaning and ask for a paraphrase to see whether your desired message was received.
Be mindful of the length of the conversation. Relationship talks needn't be over an hour ever and are probably most effective at 20 minutes. If your partner wants to share an important dream with you but only seems to remember a few specifics from the actual dream, be mindful of how much they want to share and for how long. Perhaps give an open-ended, "I'm all ears for whatever you'd like to share about this" statement for unpressured continuation taking note of your saturation point. When feeling impatient, say something like, “I wouldn’t want to seem impatient, but this feels like all I can process right now. I’d like to continue this at another point (and suggest one). Further inquiry shows respectful interest but can quickly become frustrating prodding for more than your partner needs to elaborate. To keep it well done, don't overcook it.
Meaningful conversations can be about absolutely anything. From the relief of confessing long-tolerated foods one secretly always hated, to the late-night writing of a parent's eulogy together by candlelight in a power outage, meaningful conversations cover the gamut of topics and circumstances. From sweet nothings to daunting vulnerabilities.
So, to a couple's therapist specialized in the erotic dynamic of relationships: what makes for a meaningful conversation? Curiosity, willingness to learn something new, willingness to stand corrected, ability to give and take feedback, anatomically correct language, open-heartedness, non-judgment, good conversational etiquette, attunement to each other, and the desire for ongoing mutual fulfillment.
The lesson we can learn from couple therapy is that accompanied discomfort isn’t nearly as difficult to swallow as ongoing avoidance of relationship difficulties. If your toughest times are approached without opposition, and perhaps with therapeutic support, you can be left a more pleasant aftertaste.
Above all, the decision to savor, intentionally create, or spontaneously experience meaningful moments, will allow the most sensuous, gourmet conversations.
About the author: Amanda Luterman
Amanda Luterman, M.A., M.Ed., (Columbia University) is a licensed psychotherapist with a clinical interest in the erotic dynamics of relationships. Her defining emphasis is on Erotic Empathy ®, a therapeutic approach designed to cultivate sustainable erotic intimacy. It is a framework that welcomes discrepant needs, wants, and conflicting experiences of the very same erotic moments. She is frequently interviewed on the topic of Erotic Empathy and has been quoted in numerous publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Men’s Health, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Psychology Today, and Refinery29, among others. Amanda Luterman's mission is to provide, as well as promote the provision of, sex-positive, queer-friendly, and kink-knowledgeable treatment of all individuals and relationships by focusing on connection rather than dysfunction. She enthusiastically collaborates for innovative opportunities for dialogue that reduce the systemic inhibition of erotic fulfillment.