How Psychotherapy Helps Us Understand Sexual Relationships shows how the work between therapist and client is a process of learning together, which is at times painful and deeply moving, but can also reflect a renewed vitality and hope for the future, particularly when it comes to talking about sex.
As a psychotherapist, naturally, I believe that talking is the best way to understand our deepest feelings however irrational and seemingly full of contradictions. I also know that many of us find talking honestly about our behaviour in our intimate relationships, and particularly our sexual feelings, fraught with embarrassment, and even guilt and shame. But for many clients, even if they come for help because they are suffering from anxiety or depression, talking about relationships, including their sexual relationships or lack of sexual relationships, often turns out to be an important part of their therapy. I knew we were talking about dilemmas and choices many of us face at times in our intimate sexual relationships. I wanted to reach out beyond the consulting room and share these conversations with readers and to enable readers to feel less alone with a subject that is all about intimacy yet notoriously leaves many of us feeling isolated. That is why this book needed to be written.
My starting point was also personal. I was a writer before I trained as a psychotherapist. As a writer I have always been interested in sex, gender differences, intimate relationships, what motivates us, why we feel what we feel and do what we do. I have also always been interested in how psychoanalytic thinking can provide insights into the complexity of human relationships which is why I decided to train as a psychotherapist. Add my desire to understand my own complex history of sex and relationships and you have my motivation for writing this book.
Freud paved the way for insights into gender and sexuality, but he got female sexuality badly wrong, which subsequently damaged generations of women, including me when I was a young woman. Many in the LGBTQ community in the 20th Century were also damaged by misguided Freudian analysts. I was young in the heady days of second wave feminism in the 1970s when the sexologist, Shere Hite published her ground-breaking report on female sexuality and later in the 1980s on male sexuality. Way back then I idealistically believed we were changing attitudes to sex and gender which was bound to improve the chances for fulfilling sexual relationships for both men and women in future generations. Whilst the millennial generation is struggling with new problems, such as Internet dating and the visceral onslaught of on-line pornography, it is also still grappling with many of the same issues that we were struggling with decades ago. Far too little has changed. This book is for both men and women. I feel passionately that for real change to happen it is vital for both genders to join the conversation. That’s yet another reason why this book needed to be written.
Journalists and the media are interested in psychology, sex and relationships. They are great at tackling urgent questions such as childhood sexual abuse, the me-too movement, the effect of pornography on children, problems faced by the LGBTQ community, emotional abuse and domestic violence etc. I talk about many of these important themes in the book. I also explore some less sensational but no less important themes that cause a huge amount of unhappiness, such as:
- The split between our need for a secure relationship and wayward sexual desires. How we behave
and how we think we ought to behave. Fear of how we may be seen by others. The pressures and
moral expectations of our social group and our culture.
- How the love, or lack of love, we received as children continues to affect our adult love relationships.
- Why some men debase and/or idealise women.
- Addiction to pornography and prostitutes.
- Women’s misogyny and self-hatred which can lead some women to be attracted to sadomasochistic
sex or seek liaisons with dangerous men.
- Passion, envy, rage and hate in sexual relationships.
- How psychoanalytic thinking can help us understand the roots of misogyny.
‘They fuck you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to, but they do’ is one of the great lines in poetry and it’s often true. But it is also the attitudes of our culture and society to sex, gender, power and relationships that have messed us all up, the grandparents, the parents and the kids. My client’s stories and my own stories don’t exist in a vacuum, although the confidential space of the consulting room can feel like a room apart. Confidentiality is important, it keeps us safe, but it can also perpetuate a culture of secrecy, embarrassment, guilt and shame. I am hugely grateful to those of my ex-clients who believed in this book and gave me their permission to use their stories to help others.
The main thing that sets this book apart from others in the psychotherapy field is my personal voice. My starting point was my desire to share with readers my own journey towards understanding the kinds of sexual and relationship problems that frequently come up in a psychotherapist’s or counsellor’s consulting room. But my personal journey started long before I trained as a psychotherapist, which is one reason why I decided to occasionally include some of my own experiences. This wasn’t an easy decision; when I am working as a psychotherapist my focus is my clients, I don’t talk about my own life. So why did I include some episodes from my own life in the book? Partly it was necessary for me to regain my voice as a writer. There was also a lot I wanted to say about all I had learnt as a psychotherapist from my relationships with my clients and from psychoanalytic theory. Being a psychotherapist and a group analyst can sometimes feel like being in a hall of mirrors – I have often encountered aspects of myself or my past life in the problems my clients bring to the consulting room. But I also knew that the motivation, the passion and even the anger driving what I wanted to say originated way back in my own life story, and in my parents’ life stories, and in the shame and the unhappiness caused by societies’ messed up attitudes to sex and sexual relationships.
I want to normalise talking honestly about sex and relationship. I want to boost both men and women’s confidence in talking about sex to their partners, and to boost psychotherapist’s and counsellor’s confidence when talking about sex to their clients.
Many books about psychotherapy include case studies. But I wanted to bring stories of my work with clients in the consulting room alive, I wanted them to read like short stories. My aim was to demystify psychotherapy, to engage readers in what it feels like to be in therapy, how therapy can help, and to encourage readers, should they need to, to seek help.
Many books in the field are dense and difficult to read for members of the general public who just want to improve their understanding of themselves and their intimate relationships. I wanted to write a book that was readable and accessible as well as useful to professional psychotherapists and counsellors.
Gender differences are an endless source of fun and curiosity for toddlers and young children when they are busy exploring sensations in their own bodies and differences with others’ bodies. This is normal and not to be discouraged. But I think the most important driver for change is to give children a more gender-neutral start in life. Stop reinforcing feminine and masculine stereotypes.
Improve sex and relationship education.
The impact of the ease of access to pornography on children as well as adults is an important issue for society and the problem of regulating on-line content is increasingly being addressed in news and current affairs. In the book I discuss how Paula Hall’s research into sex addiction shows how exposure to pornography on children and young people when their brains are still forming can be the start of problems such as sex addiction in later life.
In the book I also discuss how pornography can normalise unrealistic and abusive models for sexual behaviour. Whilst pornography can provide healthy sexual stimulation for some couples, too many people are learning how to behave sexually from the porn stars. This can have a negative affect particularly on young men’s performance anxiety and self-confidence, whilst women are learning to be better actors rather than tuning into their body’s real sexual feelings. The impact on both sexes for forming fulfilling sexual relationships is not good.
Rage, hatred and misogyny on-line and in society generally is an important theme in the current toxic political climate. In the book I explore various ways psychoanalytic thinking can help us understand some of the roots of rage, hate and misogyny.
Cherry Potter is a UKCP-registered psychotherapist, group analyst and couple therapist. She was formerly a writer and film school lecturer, and she has run screenwriting workshops in many countries. She has published three books and many articles about film, culture and relationships. She sees clients at her private practice in Brighton.