Money, Sex and Honesty: Still The Three Hottest Topics in American Politics and in Relationships

AffairsWith the latest challenges among the Republican candidates focused on Mitt Romney’s tax returns and Newt Gingrich’s adultery the spotlight highlights the three main issues that still trigger the American psyche and bring clients into my private practice office for treatment.  Yet the third topic is somewhat inferred and is almost the elephant in the room, and no I’m not referring to the GOP’s symbol here.  I’m talking about the secret issues that no one wants to address head on.

Honesty is what challenges these candidates, leaving Romney sputtering on a podium when asked if he’ll reveal his tax returns.  He is unsure of what voters might think of his posturing as an every day Joe when he talks about getting pink slips when in fact he has made a lot of money and uses the tax laws to gain the most out  of his profits.  While he tries to present as an honest man, he comes off as both insecure, cagey and arrogant at times regarding his financial success.  What is he trying to hide other than his success for which he states he is unapologetic.

When couples come in to my office to say they are having communication problems, I am struck by all the expectations they had before their wedding including: financial, sexual, and sexual boundaries.   Couples believe they have implicit understandings with one another through non-verbal agreements and trust that their love for one another will get them through any disagreements in the future.

For example, when both people are working full-time before marriage and neither of them discuss their expectations if children come along, a lot of resentment, guilt and frustration can arise.  Perhaps a wife expects to slow her career down a bit or stop working outside the home all together to be a full-time homemaker and her husband expected her to continue bringing in the same amount of income.  I encourage couples who are thinking of moving in together or getting married to hammer out expectations and the realistic consequences of choices which might include seeing a financial planner so they are on the same page regarding what their lifestyle would look like and how their spending habits might need to change.

The other hot issue highlighted by the ABC interview with Gingrich’s second wife Marianne is the statement that Gingrich asked her for an open marriage after he had been having an affair with Calista for six years.  I want to talk about the terms being bandied around here.  First of all, an open marriage is one in which both participants discuss the option of allowing other partners into their lives.  It is done ethically and responsibly before another relationship is entered into.

It is a complex system to create and uphold and usually there are many rules  set up beforehand to deal with issues of jealousy,  attachment limitations (for example are the lovers outside to remain secondary to the primary relationship, are they to be seen outside the primary home, are they to remain secret from the children), and  sexual limits (use of protection, testing for STDs, sexual behaviors that should not be shared with an outside partner, etc.).  There are couples who create these types of contracts in what is termed the Polamory community. Polyamory is about loving other people including your partner as a lifestyle that you have chosen with your partner. Polyamory is distinct from people who swing, which is more about a couple knowingly having sex outside their primary relationship and quite often is done together.

For the record, Gingrich was already keeping an outside love and sexual relationship secret from his wife with Calista Gingrich at the time, so in essence if perhaps he did ask for an open marriage, it was his last ditch effort at trying to come out looking like a stand-up honest, open guy rather than a man who wanted his cake and eating it too. He was also a man who already had a track record of cheating on wives while preaching family values in public.  According to an interview with his former wife who challenged what he was doing by having an affair in his private life versus the moral code he was publicly advocating, he responded: “It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say.  There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live”.   This is the voice of someone who is so narcissistic (that is, self-involved) that he sees himself as a chosen messenger while ignoring the feelings of anyone else around him. In other words, he believes his own press.  If he wanted to be more “open” about his desires you would think that he and Marianne having begun their relationship as an affair might have reason to discuss future boundaries before they decided to wed.  Perhaps they did and he broke those rule anyway.


These possible threats or changes in feelings arise within marriages and as a couples therapist I recommend couples create a Sexual Prenup™ in which they discuss what each of them expect sexually, how they differ, what compromises they might be open to, and what they consider cheating or infidelity. However, many couples who have discrepant sexual desires, or have different interests sexually have a difficult time discussing what their expectations are once they are wed. They are afraid of hurting their partner’s feelings or fearful they will lose the person they love entirely.  Avoiding these issues might lead to a lifetime of sexual frustration, secret sexual relationships outside the marriage or other consequences.  It is helpful to seek a therapist who can provide a safe space within which these feelings can be explored.

I also see couples after one partner discovers her/his partner has cheated and there are understandably high emotions all around and much recovery work to be done.  In this day and age one partner watching porn might be considered cheating, while another partner holding hands and flirting at a bar with a stranger would not be.  The agreement a couple makes to allow sexual contact with an outside person if one spouse is not interested or able to have sex might be put in the contract with the provision that protection be used and no pregnancies could ensue.

Although individuals grow and change during their marriage and people can’t see into the future, there are so many feelings that people have at the outset of a relationship that are known and never addressed that by at least talking about the white elephant or elephants in the room beforehand through the creation of a Sexual Prenup ™, a couple could set a tone of honesty and understanding that could help them manage issues before and during their marriage.

Sex on the Brain, Do Men and Women Differ All That Much?

How Men and Women Think About Sex Differently: Surprising Results

Last week, I interviewed researcher Terri Fisher, Professor of Psychology at The Ohio State University at Mansfield about her recent study focused on how often college-aged men and women thought about sex. The study was published in The Journal of Sex Research (link is external)and since this past May, Dr. Fisher has received much attention regarding the outcome of the study. The initial idea she said, came out of the desire to see if the saying that men think about sex every 7 seconds had any basis scientifically since there had not been much in the way of empirical evidence to suggest it was factual.

In order to get her participants to accomplish the task easily and privately, she and her co-authors Zachary T. Moore and Mary-Jo Pittenger asked the male and female subjects to click a golf-counter each time they had thoughts about sex, hunger or sleep. She defined sexual thoughts as those simple enough to register an attraction to someone to full-blown elaborate fantasies. The outcomes revealed surprising results in many ways.

Most men aged 18-25 did think about sex more frequently than women but based on the median scores, men only thought about sex at the most about once an hour and in addition, many women had more sexual thoughts than some of the men. As well, the number of times men thought about sex were equal to the number of times they thought about food and sleep.

Dr. Fisher told me that most journalists “were focusing on the number of times men did think about sex” and that she felt they were missing some of the more “interesting results”. In fact, she said that since many men might feel less “manly or virile” if they don’t have as many sexual thoughts as women the study’s results should encourage men to feel less anxious and more educated about the wide range in libido among both women and men. In addition she added that this study suggests there is nothing more than cultural overlays which put pressure on men to boast about their sexual desire.

gender differences in sexual thoughts, desire difference between men and women,

The results that I found most fascinating about this study concerned the women’s responses. Before the women participants began counting their thoughts they filled out two specific questionnaires to measure how important other people’s opinions were to them (called social desirability) and how comfortable they were with sexuality in general (called Erotophilia). Erotophilia or what I term Sex Esteem, is a healthy comfort level with the natural sexual desires and thoughts that occur in one’s body and mind.

Dr. Fisher found in her results that the women who were most concerned with others’ views of them and the least comfortable with sexuality reported the lowest number of sexual thoughts. I brought up the Center for Disease Control’s recent report on Sexual Violence which stated that almost 70 percent of female victims experienced some form of intimate partner violence for the first time before the age of 25 and that approximately 80 percent of female victims of rape were first raped before age 25.

I asked whether she thought that perhaps the women (who were all between 18-25) who scored low on the two pre-measures and the resulting reported number of low sexual thoughts might not have been victims of sexual violence and therefore either afraid of their own sexual desires and less open to sharing them with others and/or less desirous of sex due to the trauma they had suffered. She had not put these two ideas together but thought it would be an important area of research in the future.

Based on the clients I’ve seen who have had some boundary crossing or violence in their past and who are struggling in their current sexual relationships this area seems critical for our understanding of women’s relationship with their own desire. A history of sexual trauma can wreak havoc on an intimate relationship with symptoms like flashbacks, body hatred, and distrust of one’s own or one’s partners intentions. In these cases it is important to see a sex therapist who has experience with these issues. If you are in New York you can contact me directly through my website www.www.saricooper.dev and if not you can find a therapist through AASECT or SSTAR.

body image issues, body self-hatred, dieting, sexuality and body issues, teens,

How Much Do I Weigh?
I also thought that Dr. Fisher’s correlations regarding women’s social desirability and their sexual thought frequency confirmed the issues I treat in my therapy practice. Many women with body image issues or eating disorders have difficulty allowing themselves positive sexual pleasure. They either feel their bodies are not worthy enough by their partner and/or they are too preoccupied with thoughts about their calorie count that day to be open to passing sexual thoughts. A wonderful experience to attend is the Women’s Therapy Institute Indwelling, an annual tradition of speakers, performances and films around the body image issues women deal with on a day-to-day basis. The next Indwelling is March 3, 2012 in New York City. Mark your calendar if you’re in the New York area. Otherwise, I’ll be reporting more on this later.

Although this was a study done only with college aged women and men, it gives us a lot to consider when educating children and considering age-old myths or sayings regarding sexuality and gender.

Friending Former Lovers on Facebook: Unknowingly Cheating Online

Can you Facebook “friend” an ex-lover and still remain faithful?

The American poet Robert Frost wrote: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I–I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference” about choosing a life that was not in keeping with the majority. He was referring to the life he chose as an artist, an outsider, a rule breaker or at least a rule questioner.

When people first meet a new romantic interest they fantasize the possibility of choosing them as a long-term partner and imagine what a life together would be like. These fantasies fuel the erotic and emotional feelings that are normally very strong at the outset of a new relationship. As couples mature past the initial phases of romantic couple-hood and settle into predictable rituals, patterns of daily life and sexual connection, the differences between them become more salient. The sexual ferocity that ignited their passion initially has worn off and they have most likely moved into a sexual connection driven by mutual love and respect, hormonal desire, a need to de-stress and a thirst for comfort. Many couples I see speak about missing that initial passion that drove them initially to tear each other’s clothes off first chance they could get.

Either due to boredom or increasing tension or stress in a monogamous relationship or marriage, sometimes partners begin to fantasize about the “road not taken” and the person(s) with whom they might have taken that road. In the pre-internet days one might have run into an old flame at a high school or college reunion, or if they happened to return to the neighborhood or town in which the two people had dated. However, with the advent of social networking sites like Facebook or professional sites like Linked In, it’s easy to click on a name of an old boyfriend or girlfriend and ask to friend them. If one takes into account that the growth of Facebook users in the year between January 2010-2011 among the 55+ demographic has grown 58.9%, one can assume that there are many folks in their mid-life looking up old friends and perhaps old flames as well.

While the friending of an old boyfriend or girlfriend seems innocent enough, especially if they are living in a far away city or if they are married, it is the crossing of the boundary of connecting with someone who you fantasize about that might be the seed of what some would call emotional cheating. By contacting them one is opening a door to more contact with someone on whom one has projected all sorts of happy ending fairy tale stories when there has been stress or anger in the primary relationship. One might say there leaves open the room for even more emotions to start flowing if there is intimate information shared about the marriage itself because this lead to quasi-real intimacy. I say quasi because there is so much to the larger context of the other person’s life that one is not seeing when communicating over Facebook, phone, Skype, or text. It’s like reading a novel in which one can fill in the blanks left by the author with one’s own details. Looking at the photos a person has selected to share on Facebook can also mislead about the reality of their lives.

A person may not think this is “cheating” per se and most people might say staying in touch with old friends is part of their right to have an independent, private life. However logically equating an old romantic partner on Facebook with a friend you go have lunch or a drink with once in a while, the critical difference to keep in mind are the sexual and romantic fantasies that have been attached to this person. In this way keeping up the relationship and sharing more and more with this person is crossing a boundary. The boundary of keeping the emotional, romantic, and sexual intimacy within the marriage or monogamous relationship is one that can and should be discussed with a partner at the outset of a relationship so that both partners are on the same page at the beginning, and side relationships are not “discovered” later with an explanation of: “I didn’t think it was such big deal!” I have seen many a couple enter my therapy office feeling terrible pain, hurt and shock when a side relationship in which there has been an intimate connection is discovered online. The damage to the trust bond when an online emotional relationship is discovered with an old lover takes a long time to heal.