Everybody loves sex baby? Everybody wants you and me? Whilst its easy to repeat the words of this popular number- sex and relationships are rarely ever that simple…
So what are relationships and sex really about?
One of the theories of relationships that we can consider is the evolutionary perspective. This theory proposes that people’s innate instincts are governed by natural selection- to promote survival. For example, females are limited in the number of offspring that they can produce, therefore they will be more selective in whom they mate with and will select mates who give them offspring with the greatest chance of survival. Males may be less selective and strive to mate with as many females as possible to increase the chance of their offspring developing. For example research suggests that men prefer women with wide child bearing hips as this promotes easier child birth. According to some research, most women may prefer tall strong looking men as this represents strength. However there are many issues with the evolutionary view- for example- individual differences. Not all men like women with an hour glass figure or not all women are attracted to tall strong looking men!
The social exchange theory proposes that relationships are focused on rewards. According to this view, people value their relationships according to how much reward they receive and costs they give. For example, people may base their relationship outcome based on their comparison level which refers to the outcome that people think that they deserve or expect in a relationship. E.g. a person with high comparison level may have a high expectation e.g. financial contribution from partner and may end the relationship if they feel that they are not receiving their expected ‘reward’. This may also result in disruptive ‘Justice Hypothesis’ where if a proportional relationship does not exist (where one receives a proportion of the perceived reward) then we may feel cheated and end the relationship. Whereas one can agree that most people may expect to mutually ‘give and take’ in a relationship there are always contradictions. For example, people who stay in a relationships and seem to make more of an investment than the other person e.g. financially, household chores etc. one could argue that eventually such a relationship may end up breaking down or even lead to an ‘justice hypothesis’. Some even proposes during the honeymoon phase, high costs are dismissed. This hypothesis also fails to take into account ‘love’ or how people may marry due to romance rather than seeing the potential relationship as an exchange of reward and costs.
Whilst reflecting on my own practice I can see where elements of both the social exchange theory and evolutionary theory of relationships may come into play. For example, I recall one client stating that she was very much naturally drawn to ‘alpha’ males, even when these relationships would end in disaster and the man would turn out to be controlling or dominant. This client could not understand why she was attracted to such destructive relationships and the evolutionary theory may potentially be an explanation.
The social exchange theory may reflect a lot of relationships in today’s society, that is very much based on a mutual exchange of rewards and costs. For example, I recall working with a client who was very frustrated at her boyfriend’s lack of contribution around helping out more at home. Both the client and her boyfriend worked but she found herself cooking, and doing the household chores without any support. Using the social exchange theory approach the client was close to a disruptive justice hypothesis as the relationship had been costing her much more reward than she was receiving. Whereas she had ‘mention’ the lack of help to her boyfriend he seemed oblivious to the seriousness of the situation. The client decided to have a ‘serious’ talk with her boyfriend about helping out more at home. When she came to see me at the next session the boyfriend had started to cook as a means to help out- which the client was pleased with.
Some of the sexual issues that can affect intimate relationship are as follows; illness, hormonal changes can also cause a woman to develop a low sex drive. There may be difficulty becoming aroused, sex may even be physically painful for some women/men. In addition there may be problems with achieving orgasm. Body image issues can also cause a man/woman to feel a lack of confidence in how they look and therefore may cause performance anxiety during sex or even just a complete aversion to sex as a result. Erectile dysfunction and Performance anxiety can also cause difficulties with achieving an erection where partners may feel pressurised to perform well. In addition, depression can also cause a lowered sex drive. Finally, there may be more deep rooted issue. For example, if a person was sexually abused they may require psychotherapy to help with dealing with the trauma. Similarly there may be problematic sexual dysfunctions or obsessions/ compulsions. E.g. odd or problematic fetishes or dominant play that they partner might not feel comfortable with. Fears such as fear of rejection, losing control and fear of feeling ‘dirty’ after sex. There may obviously be medical issues and some medications and recreational drugs may also affect sexual performance and as a result, have an impact on the intimacy of a relationship.
Whilst considering my own practice I found that a person centred approach works best whilst exploring relationships and sexual issues. For example, a client I worked with was reluctant to engage in sex with her husband as she had body image issues. If she did have sex it would be in the dark with the lights closed. We explored ways that the client could feel more comfortable with herself as well as her body. The client decided that she wanted to start going to the gym to tone up and we talked about the importance of communication. After the client opened up to her husband about her body image issues her husband was supportive and told her there was no need to feel like this as she was beautiful. The husband began to be increasingly supportive with regards to encouraging his wife and they began to communicate better- as they communicated better the client reported feeling more confident about how she looked.
To conclude, I have personally, have had some challenging relationships in my past and have overcome the emotional impact that they have had on me. I have worked with clients with relationship issues and have found that I have been able to offer more therapeutic empathy and support as I can relate to their experiences better. I believe that the relationships you have in life are integral- as those relationships are also your support network- and when the going gets rough- those relations are there to support us. I have experienced relationships breakdown and know the loneliness that this can bring which is why I always ask my clients about a support network. Sometimes in those dark moments- when you’re alone in the world, it may be that one person that offers some light.