Relationships and sexual problems

Relationships - whether family or intimate relationships with a partner - can  be a great source of love, pleasure, support and excitement. However they can  also be a source of grief and anguish if they go wrong. The issue is made more  relevant for students by the fact that most people in a university are in a  period of personal change, which can make them feel less sure of what they want  or how they can expect others to react.

Research into what makes relationships work successfully - whether family  relationships, friendships or partnerships - tend to come up with the same few  things:

  • Acceptance of difference
  • People in successful relationships do not try to force the others to be  exactly like them; they work to accept difference even when this difference is  profound.
  • Capacity for boundaries
  • People are aware that there is a point where they stop and the other person  begins. Sadly, it is unrealistic to expect others to solve all our problems or  meet all our need - even though we may hope for this at times. 
    Operating  mainly in the present
  • Once relationships either focus on repeatedly picking over past events, or  else are based only on the hope that things will be better tomorrow, they tend  to go off the rails.
  • Respect for individual choice
  • It is accepted that each person has the right to decide their own direction  in life: the relationship then adapts to follow this.
  • Skill in negotiating
  • Once each individual has decided what they want, the couple or family are  able to work out a way to fulfil these different goals without anyone having to  compromise totally.
  • Sharing positive feelings.
  • In a couple this may be sexual intimacy; however it can also just be  pleasantness and kindness, as it is in a family.

The headings come from research carried out by Beaver (1985)

Thus it might seem that a relationship requires quite a lot of individual  skill and self-sufficiency which can be a bit off-putting at first. However it  is comforting to consider the research of John Bowlby on attachment (1975). He  concluded that human beings are innately social and tend instinctively to know  how to form close attachments to others.

Relationship problems often arise not because we never learned what to do,  but because we have lost touch with this instinctive good sense and become  over-anxious about our relationships.

This may be because we have lost our own self-respect and sense of our  personal worth; it may be because we are in personal distress and so putting too  much pressure on our relationships; it may be because we have had unfortunate  experiences in past relationships and so have temporarily lost our ability to  trust.

We may have been out of touch with our ability to make successful  relationships for so long that we may doubt if we ever had it. However most  people seem able to recover these skills if they put their mind to it.

Much work on improving a relationship can start with the individual. If one  person is clear and reasoned about what they want and more consistent about how  they ask for it, the whole relationship can begin to be put on a different  basis.

Dealing with problems in your personal relationships

Large books and lengthy courses have been created to explore the infinite  complexity of human relationships. Problems can arise from a large number of  sources and it can frequently need some care to help disentangle the mixture of  influences. These problems can be intensified by the pressures from others to  form or end a relationship and the general pressures from the media which give  an idealised view of couples which is often at odds with the reality many people  experience.

Here are some simple guidelines to help you explore and resolve tensions  which you may be feeling about relationships.

  • Do you know what you are looking for in a relationship? There are many  different reasons for entering into a relationship - for companionship; for  sexual experience; to have a long-term partner; to create a family and so on. Do  you know what you are looking for? Have you discussed this with your partner? If  not there is a distinct possibility that you may both end up seriously at  cross-purposes.
  • Are you asking too much or expecting too little from your relationship? A  good relationship can provide support, sexual expression, companionship and  eventually an opportunity to build a joint life. If you are looking to it to  provide more than this - for example to give you a sense of purpose and worth or  protect you from some deep personal fear - you may be trying to get a partner to  provide things that in fact only you can achieve. If on the other hand a  relationship brings you continual grief and unhappiness you may be accepting for  yourself a far lower level of interaction than you have a right to expect. In  particular no-one deserves to be on the receiving end of physical or sexual  violence. Do look for the support you need to change or end a relationship if  abuse is happening to you.
  • Have you got a model for the relationship you are trying to build? Many  people find it helpful to picture a relationship that they admire and to which  they wish to aspire. It may be the relationship of someone you know or a  fictional one. Consider how the people in this relationship resolve differences  and difficulties. If it is not obvious and the relationship is a real one, ask  them. If they have never been seen to have any problems, maybe they are not a  terribly realistic model after all! Finding such a model can be a particularly  difficult and important task for gay and lesbian couples
  • Can you talk about problems? In all relationships there are going to be  times of serious disagreement, where a conflict of interests has to be resolved.  This doesn't mean there is something wrong with the relationship. However,  arguing the point out and reaching agreement does take a bit of skill and  practice. Many relationship counsellors suggests the best way to resolve a  relationship problem is to speak for up to fifteen minutes about your view of  the problem. The other person listens carefully, interrupting only to clarify  and to help you express yourself clearly. Then you swap over and the other  person takes a similar time to explain their point of view. Finally take  half-an-hour to talk together to see if you can resolve the difference. If you  don't succeed this time, return to the problem a few days later and try again.
  • If you are not in the habit of talking in your relationship, it might be  interesting to give it a try. Relationships are one of the curious features of  human existance and can be well worth exploring.

Dealing with problems in your family

Family problems can be difficult to get a handle on as there might be a lot  of people involved. Also most of us are not used to looking at our families  objectively - we tend to think they are just our family and that is how it is.  However a bit of reflection and analysis can take the heat out of a lot of  difficult situations.

Try and think objectively about what you are trying to achieve. Give yourself  the benefit of any doubt and attribute the best motives to your behaviour. Get  together all the examples you can of where the plan has worked for others etc.  Maybe get a friend to help you. You don't have to write it down, just think it  through. If at this point you realise you're doing the wrong thing, you might  want to make a strategic withdrawal! However let's assume you end up convinced  you know what you are doing and you have a bit of evidence to back this up.

Think about why your family is disagreeing with you. There is probably more  than one reason. Maybe they don't understand your plan; maybe they had a course  of action decided for you; maybe they have some worries and anxieties of their  own. Make a real effort to think yourself into their shoes even though their  behaviour may be very frustrating to you. Imagine discussing the question with  them - think of what you might say and how they might reply. When you've thought  of what might be worrying them, think creatively of ways of reassuring them. If  it helps, make a list of their worries and reassurances.

Find some way of discussing it. That's easy if your family are talkers, but  many families aren't. However you can still find an opportunity to calmly  mention your plans, to give a few examples of others who have done the same, to  reassure their fears and sympathise with their disappointment. You may have to  drop your points into the conversation over a time. Don't expect a miracle -  people rarely change their opinion overnight. Don't feel you have to have total  agreement; stop the discussion while the going is still good and come back to it  a few days later. If they see you're serious and that some of their worries have  been considered they will probably be a bit more agreeable the next time.

This is obviously a very simple example, but a similar approach can help in  many situations. Frequently the conflict can be the other way round; many  families find a son or daughter leaving for university is the catalyst for them  to make changes. Sometimes it can be impossible to find agreement. If you are  interested in dicsussing the situation further or if find you can't use the  techniques described in this simple example - maybe the problem is too complex;  you find it too upsetting; someone is too entrenched - counselling with the  Counselling Service may help you to clarify what is going on and to find a way  to deal with it.

Golden rules for arguing constructively

Do:

  • Know why you are arguing before you start
  • Devote some time to resolving the problem
  • Sit down and make eye contact
  • Speak personally about what you feel
  • Acknowledge when the other person makes a valid point
  • Agree to differ if you cannot agree
  • Stick to the matter in hand
  • Cease arguing and separate if there is any likelihood of violence

Try not to:

  • Behave aggressively or disrespectfully
  • Argue deliberately to hurt the other person's feelings
  • Generalise
  • Bring up old unresolved disputes
  • Walk away without deciding when discussion will be resumed (unless violence  threatens)
  • Bring other peoples' opinions in
  • Argue about something for more than an hour
  • Argue late at night or after drinking
  • There are a great range of relationships and of relationship difficulties.  Counselling can be a great help in allowing to clarify complex relationship  problems. 

Sexual Problems

Sexual Problems

Note: (Sexuality is dealt with on a separate page).

No one would expect a child to speak fluently without having to learn and  practice. Most people would be surprised if the Halls of Residence only gave one  choice of breakfast or if all students were expected to dress the same. Ordinary  people expect to have good days and bad days when it comes to working or  performing a sport. However, when it comes to sex we have a tendency to  completely forget that we are all human and all different, and we expect to have  instant expertise, total conformity and complete predictability.

A relationship therapist once noted down what helped his clients resolve  their sexual difficulties. He found the largest number of clients were helped by  being given permission - to talk about sex, to express their feelings and to be  as they were. Limited information helped the second group of clients -  information about the range of human sexual response and about how certain  problems came and went. Specific suggestions about different approaches,  positions or techniques were the third most useful therapeutic tool. For the  final group of clients whose problems were not helped by these techniques, he  offered intensive therapy. He referred to the approach as PLISSIT for short and  it has become the basis for much sexual therapy. Use it to help you solve your  own sexual difficulties.

Permission 

Give yourself permission to think about sex, to fantasise  about it and to talk about it and to accept that it is perfectly alright for you  to have your own likes and dislikes. Sadly many people have grown up with the  idea that it is wrong to have sexual feelings and desires. Most people find  their sexuality is enhanced when they stop making rules about what they and  their partners ought to like and begin to consider what they actually do enjoy.  We have to keep our sexual activities within the bounds of what is safe and what  does not threaten the freedom of others. However that does not mean we have to  strait-jacket our thinking. The books recommended below are intended to be  permission giving as is confidential discussion of concerns in counselling.

Limited Information 

Ignorance perpetuates many sexual difficulties. Most  peoople can expect to experience a loss of sexual desire when they are stressed.  The simultaneous orgasm invariably depicted by film-makers and novelists is not  the experience of the majority of couples. Most peoples' sexual appetite and  preference change as they grow older. Lack of knowledge about contraception and  sexually transmitted diseases can lead to great unhappiness when events occur  which might have been avoided. There is a lot of information available about sex  - in some ways there is so much that it has maybe become devalued.

Specific Suggestions 

Many distressing sexual problems such as pain on  intercourse, inability to achieve orgasm or erectile problems can be greatly  helped by simple changes in sexual routine or position. Books, medical advice,  conversations with friends or counselling may all help you find these  suggestions; alternatively you may wish to speak to a sex therapist.

Intensive Therapy 

The very thought of sex therapy raises most peoples'  anxiety level pretty high! However this anxiety is misplaced as sex therapy is  not the invasive or exposing form of treatment the tabloids may like to imply it  is. Don't let these fears stop you finding the help you need. Counselling is  offered to couples irrespective of their sexuality, and some therapies are  available to individual clients as well. Problems are normally resolved by means  of discusssion, the giving of appropriate information about human sexual  functioning and by simple behavioural tasks which are completed by clients in  the privacy of their own home between sessions. The therapy has a very high  success rate, although it does require a commitment to following the treatment  programme.

Although inhibition and ignorance is a major cause of sexual problems, some  people find themselves trapped in a different way. They have become used to  unusual sexual behaviour which can begin to leave them feeling dissatisfied and  possibly socially isolated. A similar programme to the one above can still be  greatly beneficial.