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The Secret to Good Sex and Happiness in a Long Relationship

My clients come to me with fixed ideas about relationships. But I try to challenge their assumptions -- and my own.

I tried so many times to learn to ride a bike. When I was an 8-year-old, my dad ran beside me. I remember screaming when he would let go, fear clutching my small body in a King Kong grip. The ground seemed sinister, and balancing on tiny wheels felt impossible. Watching other kids whiz around didn’t make me believe it was possible; it was clear to me that I was just not the type of person who could ride a bike.

I’m a married psychotherapist now, living in a city of hills and bicyclists. Often my clients bike to my office. They walk in wearing one pants leg rolled up and put their helmets next to them on the sofa/couch. Each time I feel a wave of admiration.

This morning a very bright, sexually adventurous 28-year-old woman came for her weekly consultation with me. She has a strikingly pretty face, no makeup, a shaved head and a mischievous boyishness. Her bike helmet has stickers that declare “Question Gender” and “Geeks Do It Better.” She works in tech. Last week, she moved in with her new partner, whom I’ll call Aaron, a very bright and sexually adventurous 28-year-old man who also works in tech. They spent the last six months falling deeply in love. Their compatibility is obvious to everyone. She came to therapy because she wanted greater emotional intimacy — and she is in the process of building that — but she is still afraid that she doesn’t know how, afraid that not knowing how means that she is incapable of greater intimacy, that she isn’t the type of person who has a stable long-term relationship. Perhaps she had been damaged?

It’s a popular and powerful belief, this belief that we should always already know how (to do anything, everything) and that not already knowing means we are a type of person who can’t, who is incapable of — perhaps even barred from — this activity. Almost every person who consults with me suffers from this belief in some form or another. This young woman, let’s call her Shay, believed that because she hadn’t had a stable romantic relationship yet, that she was perhaps incapable of one. Being older than 28, I see the humor (and anxiety) in thinking that all of the self must be expressed, lived, demonstrated before 28. We are always becoming, always changing.

In the last six months, Shay fell in love with Aaron, and I rode a bike for the first time. Both feel like flying.

My work as a therapist is often about helping people clarify or shift their identities. But I’m not interested in helping people only achieve the normative markers of identity.  When I was in graduate school, we would read “case studies.” I was annoyed by the way they read like one-minute mysteries.  The client was the mystery.  The therapist was the detective, then the judge and finally the doctor.  Proof that the client had been cured was the fact that the client had, after therapy, married.  Case after case ended with marriage, like fairy tales.

The use of marriage as the signifier of mental health is pretty easy to disprove.  Know any married people who still struggle?  Know any single people who seem OK?

Shay came to me because she wanted a therapist who wasn’t biased, specifically she wanted someone who doesn’t think monogamy is the only way, or better than other ways, to live and have relationships. And I don’t. I also don’t think that people have to be in romantic relationships to be happy. But I still have my biases — I don’t like ideas that tell people they have to be in a relationship to be happy, and I also don’t like ideas that convince people that they are the type of person who can’t have a stable relationship.

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