This is an edited interview with Dr. Lori Buckley and Thomas Haller.
Dr. Lori Buckley: Today we are going to be talking about how to improve your intimacy and your sex life.
Dr. Lori: The first thing I want to ask is what do you mean by “great relationship”?
Thomas Haller : What we’re working towards is knowing that there is an undeniable link between the words that we use in a relationship and the level of connectedness that anybody has in that relationship, that the way that we relate to one another is a large portion how we interact, but it’s also in what we say to our partner and how we say it. So then, I’m not going to define what’s great for you in your relationship. You get to define that, and what you think is great under your definitions, and you don’t get to do that solely on your own, because it is a relationship, so you define that with your partner, and decide, “what is great for us, and how to we feel good and connected together?” And, but, how do you do that? You have to do that through communication.
Dr. Lori Buckley : That was exactly my question. Because, because I love what you’re saying, “connectedness.” I mean, that’s a beautiful thing. But I know a lot of couples have trouble having any kind of communication. How do they even bring up that subject, about, how, how do we have this great relationship, and how do we even define what that is? What are some ways to even just bring the first step up?
Thomas Haller : Well, I, you know, as you begin to communicate, you have to talk about yourself. What, who am I, and what do I know about me, and what do I like, and what do I enjoy? So I have to be pretty clear about who I am as a person. And so, sometimes I might have to do some self-exploration to discover who I am, and get better at knowing me, and when I can know me, then I can communicate that to my partner: these are, these are the things that I like, these are the things I that don’t like, this is where I like to be touched, this is how I like to sleep, this is where I like to snuggle, this is how I like to love, or be loved, okay? So I have to know that about me first, and then I can ask my partner, I can solicit information from them, I can offer information to them. And what we find out in the communication process is that often times there’s one person that tends to communicate better than the other. So if we’re just going to go after communicating, and let’s get this couple better at communicating with one another, you’re going to raise both their levels of communication, but there’s still going to be this divergency [sic] between who communicates better and who doesn’t. You’ve got to create some balance between that. And so, that’s what we want to start with, how, ways that we can begin to see my partner as someone who can give back something about themselves in this process.
Dr. Lori Buckley: So the first thing is that you have to clear about what you want, sexually, non-sexually in the relationship, how you want to be loved. We know that that can be a challenge, but once you discover that, then you want to be able to talk about that with your partner by saying, you know, “I really like this” and “I want that.” Do you find that there are–and I guess I’m going to be a little stereotypical here, because I think it’s probably them men more often than not, but it could be the women, too, who might get a little offended or defensive, thinking that when their partner is saying, you know, “I want this,” or “I want more of this,” they feel like they, or they may be hearing something else, like, “well, you’re not giving me this” or “you’re not good enough”?
Thomas Haller: Well, we…let’s throw this all the way back to Socrates for a minute, when Socrates was really big in asking questions in philosophy, he…we started under that premise that it’s better to seek first information from somebody else, seek to understand, and try to get information, before trying to be understood. So you don’t start from the position in communication–and particularly when I talk about this in the book, Couple Talk–that you want to ask more than say, initially. So I’m going to seek to understand you first. I already know me. Now I don’t know you. So now, let’s…even if you’ve been together in a relationship for a number of years, we change, as we develop and go through developmental stages, so I continually want to know my partner and where they’re at at any given moment. And in that, it creates opportunities for my partner, then, to know me back. But first I’m going to seek to understand her.
Dr. Lori Buckley: That is really great advice. I’m just imagining as a woman what that would feel like having a man partner taking his time and really wanting to understand you, and know exactly what you like and what you don’t like, and the things that you, that you want. I would love to be asked what is it that, that you would like, how would you like me to love you, what can I do to make you happy? And I think that that comes with just everyday conversation, or when, when a woman is feeling distressed or disconnected in some way. I’m wondering what you want to say about that.
Thomas Haller: Certainly one of the initial steps that I talk with men about is that, we don’t want to get caught up in all the theory. There are specific phrases that you can use. How it works is you don’t have to worry about, oh, how am I doing, oh, what if I didn’t do it that way. You just say the phrase. So, so one of them that’s a really key initial phrase for men to use–and it works with women, as well, so I don’t mean to just be one-sided here, but, you know, we are on a show for men, so–I would say, “How can I be most helpful right now?” So that when my wife walks in the door, she’s–my wife’s a kindergarten teacher of eighteen years. And she comes walking in the door, and she’s got a particular look on her face. And I can guess at what that is, I mean, I have a pretty good inclination, because we’ve been together for awhile, however, I don’t know what to do with how she’s feeling or where she’s at. I want to find out. How can I be most helpful right now? What role would you like me to play? In the communication process, do you need to just, like, offload, and dump on me? Do you just want me to take, like, the sounding-board position, where you’re just going to go, “Bleh!” and just, bam bam…and I don’t do anything with it, but just let you dump. Maybe you need to do that. I also want to…but maybe, maybe you need someone who’s going to do–typically they call it, it’ll be like, brainstorming. I call that soulstorming. I want to soulstorm with my…I want to get into the emotional parts and just ask her some questions around how she felt about that, or how did that affect her, you know, when the parent confronted her that way. And, is that my role? Am I the soulstormer? Or, am I the problem-solver? Well…and then I get into asking particular questions, like, well, how, what would be a way that you would like to work through that, or how did you feel when this happened, and what if you did it this other way? And we’re just kind of, you know, going around the issue as sort of, looking at the problem from different points of view. Or maybe, the last one that I have men think about in the role to play is, am I just the fixer? Do you need me, is this one of those where you’d kind of like me to just get it done, to do it, to take care of this one for you? You know like, I live on a horse rescue and retirement ranch, and so, you know, my–sometimes the horses get a little, you know, rough, or they’ll break a fence, they’ll get through. And my wife comes in all frazzled. She just, sometimes she just needs me to go take care of that, so that she can, you know, take care of these other things that she’s feeling more concerned about. I don’t know that, so I’m going to find that out first.
Dr. Lori Buckley: Yeah. And what I love about this is it’s such a great model, because we know that men typically like to fix things, they want to make us happy. I know that. You know, ultimately that’s the intention, although it doesn’t always come across that way because often times men are just so quick to fix it the way that they want to fix it, or love us the way that they want to love us. So in this sense, we’re all getting what we need, because the man is able to help us and make us happy, but in a way that he finds out exactly how to do it.
Thomas Haller: Yeah. Now you’re focusing it down to when we get into loving situations and making love. I want to know what you want in this moment. Yes, we’ve been together for 15 years and I know the right moves to push your buttons and enable you to have an orgasm, but maybe that’s not what you want in this moment. So I have to be willing to say, how can I be most helpful right now? What role would you like me to play in the lovemaking process? Or in the…is it cuddling?
Thomas Haller: I tell men this all the time that come into my office, and I say, look, let’s just get cut right to the chase. You want to have sex with your wife tonight, you start in the morning. How you talk to your wife all day long and the connectedness that you work towards creating all day long will pay off later in the evening. And how, because, where she starts is emotionally, and her desire kicks in after she’s emotionally comfortable. Well, if she’s been emotionally uncomfortable with you all day long, she’s not going to just click over and become emotionally comfortable. So think about that as you communicate, not always with what you say, but often times how you say it.
Dr. Lori Buckley: What do you mean by that?
Thomas Haller: Okay. Well, you know that, it’s…sometimes it’s in your tone. If you have a certain tone to, [harshly] “Well, what do you want me to do right now?” Or [gently] “What would you like me to do right now?” It’s a little bit different, in how it’s just presented. Or, [harshly] “Can you just take care of the kids for a minute?” Or [gently] “I’m busy over here, and I’m just finishing this. Can you quiet down the kids for me for a moment.”
Dr. Lori Buckley: That’s, that’s really a critical thing, because some people don’t even realize–they’re so in their own emotions, they don’t even realize how it’s coming across sometimes.
Thomas Haller: So that, so that’s, yes, how you’re going to begin. So we have to stay very mindful, for awhile, and as men we have to continue to sort of practice some of the phrases, think about our tone, think about our attitude towards the, our partner, beyond the stuff we’re into for the day. How are they into their day? And then, in the evening, as the evening comes around we can begin to say, how would, how would you like to create more closeness? We’ve created a time for, you know, that…we have adult time at our house. I have a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old, and there is a certain time at which, whether they’re asleep or not, they’re up in their rooms, because now it is our time to have adult time. I’m going to capture some time when we can snuggle, or we can even be sexual, and I don’t want to be interrupted. And they begin to know this as kids.
Dr. Lori Buckley: Okay, now this is something that is so important, because I hear from so many couples, “Oh, we have children and we just can’t.” And, and what you’re saying I agree with, just, a hundred percent. But we have to throw in a little reality here. Sounds like you’re doing it, and I know our listeners want to know, okay, how do you do that? How do you, I don’t know, teach them or show your children or get them to understand that you have this adult time and that they are not going to interrupt you. I mean, just, if you could just talk about that for awhile, that’s so important.
Thomas Haller: So you start this at any age, and you start this right now, on letting your children know that, I have a tremendous amount of focus on you. And my job is to help you learn about the world. It’s not my job to punish you through this, it’s my job to teach you through it. So I’m going to teach you some things. One of the things that I want to help you learn is that there comes a time when adults need to do adult things. And so, I don’t have to answer a lot, I don’t have to answer specific questions–depending on the age that your children are at, and teens, it gets a little bit different. But I do want to begin to set what we’d call some boundaries around how you can just invade everybody else’s space. We have personal space, we have, we’ve created a space for them, we created…and so, we have created adult space, too. So, we may, my wife and I may just choose to…the traditional thing that we like to do, the…is the way that we begin our connection, because as a therapist I work well into the evening when people are out of work, so I don’t get home sometimes til, you know, nine o’clock at night, and my wife greets me with a big bowl of popcorn and something to drink, and we just sit down, and I connect with the kids. And then after that, they–unless it’s an emergency–they stay away. And we begin the connecting with just sharing popcorn, talking about the day, talking about her experiences, my experiences, what were some high points of your day, what low points of your day, what were some ways that we could create a next-time opportunity so if there was a low point, we could stop that low point from happening. Do you see how I’m building connectedness? We haven’t even talked about sex yet, but guess who starts feeling real sexual towards me as I’m engaging in this process. My wife.
Dr. Lori Buckley: Yeah, I love it. And all what you’re saying is, it fits right in, and you’re saying this exact same thing, I’m just going to put it in different words, but that men typically have sex that connects them to their women. You know, that’s something, that’s a way that they connect. Women work a little bit differently. And that, you know, again, I know these are blankets, general statements, but for the most part, women need to feel emotionally connected and cared for before they desire sex. Before they want to, they want to please you and be with you in that way. And so what you were talking about, it’s just, it’s really quite brilliant, I love the idea with the kids, too, because you’re creating not only these boundaries for your children–and what I’m hearing is, probably the earlier you start that, the better, and being real clear about that–but you’re also modeling really loving, effective adult relationships.
Thomas Haller: So now we can take that same concept, that same idea of boundaries that we just talked about with my children, and now I put that in with my relationship. What are some boundaries that my partner has, and what are some boundaries that I have when we connect? There are some ways that I don’t particularly like to be touched. Well, I need to be able to communicate that to you. There are particular ways that you do like to be touched, and I don’t, I’m not doing it quite right. Well, we need to just open that right up and say, please touch me like this, please touch me here, or, hold me for awhile, this is…wait, stop, you’re going too fast, this is where I like to go nice and slow, through this part of our…whatever that is that you’re going through. But we have to be able to know that about ourselves, and then know the boundary, and where it can open up. And sometimes it’s like an accordion, then. Sometimes my boundaries are a little bit different today than they were yesterday. So I’m going to communicate that to my partner, and she’s going to communicate that back.
Dr. Lori Buckley: So that’s why you have to keep communicating. This is not just a one-shot deal.
Thomas Haller: Right. Once we’re, once we, we’re going to focus it right back down to talking about a sexual relationship–once we start in the sexual play or that part of the process, which I don’t mean just sexual intercourse, I mean that whole intimacy part–we want to be communicating all the way through that, and, even if it is through sex, we want to talk right through it all. That doesn’t mean you have to jibber the whole time through it all, but hey, if that works for you, go for it. But we want to be able to say, through that, where I’m at, what I like, what I don’t like, where are you at, what you like, what you don’t like, or how can we do this different, and continue to just move through that process always using our verbal skills, and it opens up that pathway of connectedness.
Dr. Lori Buckley: Yeah, and what you’re talking about, I mean, what we’ve talked about today so far, which is the couple talk, and the connectedness, and how that happens out of bed, how that happens in bed, how it happens as parents and as partners, is such wonderful information. And I love it, I know our listeners are going to get a lot out of it. I just want to ask you a couple more questions before we have to wrap up. One, I’m just wondering for you, in your experience, in your professional and your personal experience, what mistakes do you think men make the most often in relationships?
Thomas Haller: I think one of the key mistakes is that they make assumptions. They make assumptions about what they think their partner feels or knows or at any given moment is thinking, and I call that the myth of the glass head. I don’t know what you’re thinking, and I can’t see in your head to see the thoughts coming out, either, so I have to move past making assumptions and put that over onto my partner, and say, what…and that’s where I’m, again, seeking first to understand now, I’m trying to draw from her where she’s at and what’s going on in her head, and how can I stay open to receiving whatever it is.
Dr. Lori Buckley: So don’t assume. I think also what falls into that, I talk about connections sometimes, and how we think that because we’ve been with our partner for so many years or so many months, that we know everything about them, and we assume we know everything about them, and the truth is, we never do. So we always want to be interested in learning more about them, because there really is more to learn.