My goal with this blog is offer you examples, tools, and insights for improving your sex life. If you have followed my posts for the last couple of months, you have been prompted to have many conversations with your partner about your history and your sex life. You have reflected on how you got to where you are in your relationship and hopefully come to better understand your partner and yourself. Now that you have identified the problem patterns, it is time to change them. Below, I describe my primary tool for helping couples overcome their challenges, what I call the Giver/Receiver exercise.
The Giver/Receiver Exercise Will Be Your Tool
This exercise is a great place for the experiential work you need to do to change your sex life. Here, you can practice everything we’ve talked about so far. Even though it is contrived and may feel awkward, an exercise gives you a framework for change. It is time limited. It is focused on specific tasks. The rules are (relatively) clear. Each person has a job (again)! This exercise gives you a chance to experiment and learn. It is an experience meant to evoke responses that give you information about where you struggle. That is the point—you get to sit with your experience, notice what comes up for you, and learn more about what’s in your own way. Then you can use it to change how you’re thinking and what you’re doing. It becomes the laboratory where you change the dynamics.
For 10 minutes each, one of you will be the Receiver and one the Giver. The Receiver is in charge for that 10-minute stretch. Set an alarm so you don’t have to be looking at a clock. The Receiver asks for and directs the Giver to provide whatever type of physical touch will feel best to the Receiver in the moment. The Receiver should talk through most of their turn, directing and giving feedback so the Giver can provide as “perfect” a touch as possible. The Receiver retains “ownership” of their experience, not passing responsibility to the Giver to know what to do or to create the experience.
Concentrate on letting go of all expectations. The touch can be sexual or non-sexual. There is absolutely no expectation that either of you become aroused, and there is certainly no goal of orgasm. It is not necessary to match each other’s choices during your turns as the Receiver; you can want and request vastly different forms of touch. The exercise is a study in moment-by-moment pleasure, with no attachment to an outcome.
The Receiver’s Jobs:
- Access desire.
Whether you know what you want or whether it’s hard to come up with anything, part of your work as the Receiver is to find pleasure in touch.
- Ask for what you want.
Ask for exactly what you want and give instruction and feedback. This requires being explicit and specific—enough so the Giver knows exactly what you want them to do. The intention is to ask for what would be best for you, without censoring yourself at all. Let go of trying to please your partner or keeping them in their comfort zone. This is a chance for it to be only about you. (The Giver has their own job of saying no, if necessary, so the Receiver is freed from taking care of the other person. If the Giver says no to your request, you should just pick something else.)
- Allow yourself to receive.
Be present with the touch. Relax and enjoy. Take as much delight or pleasure as you can in receiving touch.
- Pay attention to your experience.
Notice what it is like for you in your turn as the Receiver. Did you ask for the touch you really wanted? Did you censor yourself? Could you articulate what you wanted? Was it difficult to receive? Were there things you noticed in your partner that had an impact on you?
The Giver’s Jobs:
- Say no if you NEED to say no.
You need to say no if the request will be painful or physically uncomfortable in a way you don’t like. You also need to say no if providing the Receiver’s requested touch will be upsetting or traumatic to you. If you do need to say no, the Receiver should just pick something else. Only you can discern whether you need to say no or just want to.
- If you just WANT to say no, then choose to do it anyway.
If your first reaction is to want to say no, thinking things like, “I’m not sure I like this,” “I am not really in the mood for this,” “this makes me anxious,” or “I’m not sure how I feel about this; we haven’t done it before,” then I ask you to choose to do it anyway. It may get worse, at which point you can say no, but getting out of your comfort zone is where the real work is. In this case, you will learn more about where your discomfort comes from and, over time, whether you can shift that response at all.
- If it’s neutral or easy to do, see if you can get in an open-hearted space of wanting to give.
It is not necessarily easy to feel generous with your partner. But this is a chance to practice inhabiting a space of generosity, working to want to provide the “perfect” touch your partner is requesting.
- Pay attention to your experience.
Notice what it’s like for you in the role of Giver. Did you need to say no? What thoughts and feelings arose as you were in the exercise? What light does that shed on where your challenges are? Were you able to feel openness and generosity? Did you read anything in your partner that had an impact on you?
When the alarm goes off, stop no matter what you are doing. Remember that there was no goal with the 10-minute turn, so you don’t need to finish anything. Switch roles and do the other 10 minutes. Again, when the alarm goes off, stop there. That is the entire exercise, and you can stop wherever you are. You have the option of doing it again, spending more intimate time together, or having sex, but that should be a separate decision, not considered or made until the 20 minutes is over.
Some Important Notes
You can’t do this wrong. This exercise is first meant to get information: what are your obstacles? What thoughts or feelings come up and shed light on where you are starting? What challenges can you focus on next time? You don’t need to argue over the instructions or feel like you’re failing. No matter what happens, you get information.
Don’t be discouraged if things seem to go badly. I think of this exercise, in its early use, as getting the monsters to come out from under the bed. Instead of being a way around your sexual issues, this exercise will take you straight through them. If it’s hard, that means the exercise is working. The struggles you have are not a coincidence; they relate directly to the issues in your sex life. Each time you do the exercise, you have the opportunity to grow and change. That said, do be mindful of pacing. While you want to stretch yourself, you do not want to break. It’s okay if the exercise is hard, but it shouldn’t feel traumatic or disastrous.
It takes intention to do this on a regular basis. If you say, “We should do the exercise,” it is unlikely to happen. There is no “should” used in taking action, and don’t wait for “we.” I encourage each of you to take ownership of it, suggesting it in a concrete way. I suggest language such as “I want to do the exercise” or “this is important to me.” Suggest it in a moment when you can do it or be concrete and suggest a specific time in the next day or so.
You do not have to be feeling great to do the exercise. While I recommend not leaving it until last thing before bed (when so many people are likely to be exhausted), you can do this exercise in any mood and with any amount of energy. Part of what you get out of the exercise is a chance to practice shifting gears, showing up, and becoming present and open. If you are feeling down about your partner, use this opportunity to find the warmth you have toward them that’s under the surface. If you are tired, you can participate with less energy, but still work to bring yourself to the activity. If you are distracted or stressed, you can use the time to practice letting go of those thoughts and try to engage with your partner.
The more you do this, the more you will get out of it. This exercise has subtlety to it. There are layers of information you can uncover because each time you try the exercise, it is slightly different. As you learn more about your individual challenges, each repetition of the exercise gives you a chance to practice moving further along. And because you are doing this with a partner, their experience and growth affects you, too. Take your time with this. Allow your experiences to unfold slowly.
Keep in mind that each of you is responsible for your own side of the court. Don’t focus on your partner’s issues; avoid the temptation to help them manage their growth. Focus on your own issues, working to make progress each time you repeat the exercise. Know what you’re trying to improve each time you do it.
The exercise will mirror some of the desire politics of your relationship. You will probably encounter the same pattern around initiation of the exercise that you have with sex. Figure out who is the partner with the higher desire for the exercise and who has the lower. Think about how that is likely to impact you bringing it up or doing it. Anticipate the challenges that come from the pattern with your partner, and plan ahead to navigate those differences. Resolve to approach this differently than you’ve approached sex so far.