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Intimacy Obstacles

Some obstacles to sexual satisfaction, and some cures - a short interview with Dr. Tiffany Kisler

(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)


TV clip

Male 1:             Hey Niles.

Male 2:             Maris found a gray hair.

Male 1:             Daphne, get Niles a brandy.

Male 2:             It was right at the apex of her widow’s peak.

Male 1:             Better bring the bottle!

Male 2:             She blames me, dad. She said it’s from the stress I caused her last night when I thoughtlessly turned on the light when she was getting undressed.


Dr. Kenner:      And that’s Niles on Frasier and his relationship with Maris is not something any of us want to emulate. They definitely are having problems with sexuality and that’s what we’re going to talk about today with my guest, Dr. Tiffany Kissler, who is an assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Rhode Island. Dr. Kissler teaches courses in couple and family relationships and in sexuality and sex therapy. She’s also the co-founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Sexual Health in Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome Dr. Kissler!


Dr. Kissler:      Thank you for having me.


Dr. Kenner:      What are some of the factors that affect sexuality?


Dr. Kissler:      One of the big things that we see is really your attitude about sexuality. In particular, having an unhealthy attitude, thinking of sex as dirty or sinful or non-personal, so focusing it on the object of somebody else, versus that intimate connection. Those are some things that interfere.


Dr. Kenner:      That’s pervasive throughout our culture, that we’re taught that it’s something, “Don’t touch there,” as little kids. We’re just taught that it’s something that’s very unhealthy. I know religion does some damage. I don’t know if you see that at all?


Dr. Kissler:      Absolutely. We see very conservative, strict, certain beliefs about sexuality that bring with it a sense of shame and a sense of sin that can cause problems for people, even once they’re in a marriage and they’re saying, “We know that it’s sanctioned within this relationship, but it’s really hard for me to let go of all of these beliefs I’ve learned about it from childhood.”


Dr. Kenner:      Right, and that’s very, very hard to uproot. I heard one therapist say that sex is something dirty, but why are we supposed to keep it for the person we love, wait until marriage? And it’s such a contradiction, yet people are so flooded with conflicting ideas about it. Of course they can develop an unhealthy attitude about sex too that’s not good. What’s another factor that affects yours or mine or anyone’s sexuality?


Dr. Kissler:      I think a big factor is body image. How are you feeling about yourself? This can undergo a lot of changes over the life course, when you age or after the birth of children and if you’re feeling insecure, uncomfortable with your body, it really shuts down some of that ability to be open and share it with your partner.


Dr. Kenner:      Like Maris wanted the lights turned off, because he would see her body, not because that's just a preference. Some people really do like the lights turned off. If the mirror is your enemy, then how are you going to make love with a partner?


Dr. Kissler:      You want to have your eyes closed, the lights off, and that’s really taking away from intimacy instead of opening up intimacy. We like to encourage people that you see each other for more than just your body and to be able to touch and experience. It doesn’t need to be compared to some media image that we think we need to uphold to be attractive.


Dr. Kenner:      So if your thoughts while you’re in a romantic moment with your partner are, “Is my belly too fat? Am I too big? Is he noticing my gray hairs?” Where is your mind?


Dr. Kissler:      Yes. Then you’re not tuning into the experience at all. You’re doing what is called spectatoring, so you’re outside of yourself, watching. You’re not tuning into your body, your partner, experiencing the sensuality, the sensation.


Dr. Kenner:      So it’s like you’re in the bleachers looking down, watching yourself in a romantic moment that’s no longer romantic.


Dr. Kissler:      And judging yourself, in fact.


Dr. Kenner:      it’s not like, “Hey, go for it!” It’s not like you’re a cheerleader, which would be a better image. But it’s more like a critical parent looking over you saying, “What the heck are you doing? You look ugly.” What about selflessness? A lot of people feel like that’s a factor that affects sexuality, that they don’t feel worthy of pleasure.


Dr. Kissler:      I’ve really tried to encourage people that you need to value yourself and you need to give yourself permission for pleasure. Part of giving yourself permission for pleasure also means exploring your own body and your own self and finding what is pleasurable to you at this point in time, because that can change. And inviting in your partner and communicating about it and sharing it with each other.


Dr. Kenner:      So really valuing your own sensuality. I know during a workshop that I went to recently that you gave, you handed out hand cream to everybody. The point of that was what?


Dr. Kissler:      That was just a little mini experiment as you feel the different sensations, as the receiver and the giver, so that you can tune into yourself and it was really an experiment in mindfulness. We want to encourage people to be mindful, be present in the moment. Not that judge, evaluating yourself, sitting off on the bleachers. Tune into your body. Tune into your partner.


Dr. Kenner:      So you had us take one hand and pretend that one hand was the giver and the other hand was the receiver, and just to really feel the sensations, feel what it’s like to be the giver. Feel what it’s like to be the receiver, when you give yourself, just rubbing your hands.


Dr. Kissler:      Symbolism.


Dr. Kenner:      Symbolic of allowing yourself to feel the sensuality. Allowing yourself to be present in the moment with your partner. What’s another big killer or something, a factor that messes up sexuality for partners?


Dr. Kissler:      I think what we see in the literature is that one of the strongest predictors of sexual satisfaction is sexual communication and a lot of times, we’ll see that people never learned how to communicate with their partner around these issues. If we’re taught it’s dirty, it’s shameful, or you just do it and don’t talk about it, then we can’t make adjustments as time goes on. We can’t learn from each other and share with each other. We might also have unresolved or frequent conflict that gets in the way, so improving communication and resolving conflict is really a critical aspect of developing your sexual potential.


Dr. Kenner:      It’s definitely a skill. You can say, “It feels better here,” instead of, “Why are you doing that?” or expecting your partner to read your mind. He or she should just know. That’s the stupidest thing.


Dr. Kissler:      Yes, the mind reading.


Dr. Kenner:                  It’s just really developing an increasing comfort with saying, “This feels better.” Tell your partner about what you want rather than what you don’t want.


Dr. Kissler:      Exactly.


Dr. Kenner:      Focus on what works and being willing to experiment a little with each other. What’s another factor that gets in the way of romance, of sexuality?


Dr. Kissler:      I think another thing that gets in the way is not making pleasure time a priority. This is just something that comes last or expecting that it should just emerge spontaneous. In fact, when we look at arousal patterns of women versus men, women don’t really have the spontaneous desire in the same way as men do. So you have to make it a priority. You have to take time for and value pleasure. Let yourself relax. Take the pressure off and enjoy.


Dr. Kenner:      So it’s really helping more so women than men, but it could go either way, to just learn to value their sensuality, to get in touch with it and to share it with a partner and to make it more of a priority in their day. Listen, thank you so much for joining me today. This is Dr. Tiffany Kissler, who is an assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Rhode Island. And if you also want some information on sexuality, check out my book that I wrote with Dr. Ed Locke, The Selfish Path to Romance, how to love with passion and reason. Check Ellen Kenner and Dr. Ed Locke on and enjoy your sexual life.