It’s confession time again.
In my two previous relationships, I was a master microaggressor. I didn’t know it at the time – in fact, I felt quite justified and righteous in how I handled our disagreements and disappointments. I was in the right, after all.
Looking back, I see now how damaging those little looks, eye rolls, & tiny sarcastic remarks were to the trust and vulnerability of our partnership.
You’ve probably done this a few times yourself.
That one word response you give in a clipped tone when your partner forgot to help out again.
The silent treatment you dole out when you’re completely annoyed.
The little snarky snort when they suggest something that you think is ridiculous.
Oh yes. That feeling of knowing you’re right and they’re wrong and why can’t they just get their act together and pull their weight or do it your way or at a minimum, get out of the way so you can do it right?
Relationship microaggressions in action. Or as John Gottman, a leading relationship researcher, calls it turning away or turning against your partner.
When your partner makes a bid of some kind – for attention, engagement, play, humor, or emotional support – and that bid is met with either a noncommittal, ignoring, dismissive response or a disparaging, critical, or defensive response your partner receives that as a rejection.
Turning away is usually dismissive or that silent eye roll implying you don’t have time for this. It might sound like, “Cool story, babe. Now what are you making for dinner?”
Turning against can be aggressive or passive-aggressive. A really common one is, “Don’t you think you’re over reacting a little?” By shaming the other person or denying their experience, this creates a you versus me scenario. No one wins.
Over time, these rejections, though microscopic, become a major part of how everyone is feeling in the relationship.
That isn’t to say you need to positively react to every single question and request your partner makes in order to have a healthy relationship.
You’re human after all.
But Gottman has found that partners who regularly turn towards each other by affirming bids have healthier, happier connections.
So what does this have to do with intimacy & desire?
Intimacy is based on trust.
Trust only blossoms when you feel safe.
How safe can you feel if you’re constantly being subtly dismissed, avoided, shut down, or negated?
It’s one of those things where you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you just don’t feel very…connected or affirmed.
Interestingly, this damage goes both ways. If you are the one doing the dismissing, avoiding, being rude, or negating, you’re driving a wedge between you and your partner by pushing them away and de-valuing them, which makes it harder for you to open up and bridge that gap.
If you’re on the receiving end, you don’t feel loved, supported, seen, or desired.
Sadly, many of us are both givers and receivers of these nasty little habits.
Showing up in a relationship means making mistakes, being seen, and taking responsibility for your experience.
No one teaches us how to have tough conversations in intimate relationships, so that can feel like a mine field. And since many of us fail to prioritize ourselves and our self-care, we don’t have the skills or the energy in many cases to show up – even if we wanted to.
When you aren’t rested and feeling good, it gets a whole lot easier to be snippy and dismissive, doesn’t it?
If your schedule is packed solid, if you’ve been prioritizing everyone and everything ahead of yourself and your partner, it’s so easy to keep turning away (or even against) your partner when you’ve got nothing left to give. Not to mention how not sexy you feel when you’re in this state of constant busy.
Beyond the day to day in a relationship, these little rejections can be even more damaging when they’re used against someone’s desire.
What happens when you take these microaggressions into the bedroom?
…imagine mustering up the courage to tell your partner that you’d like to try some role playing tonight only to have it met with a snort and an eye roll.
…imagine you’re in the middle of sex and you say something sexy and edgy, only to have your partner stop what they’re doing to laugh or tell you how gross that is.
…imagine wanting nothing more than to make love with your partner and when you reach for them, they shove your hand away, turn over, and start playing a game on their phone.
…imagine walking into your bedroom in a new piece of lingerie that makes you feel sexy and instead of an appreciative whistle, you get asked, “What the hell are you wearing?”
Can you feel the shame and embarrassment creeping in?
It’s one thing to get annoyed when they get the wrong kind of toilet paper.
It’s another to shame or judge someone when they’re at their most vulnerable.
Most of us have a lot of hangups when it comes to sex – from being embarrassed about our bodies to wondering if we’re normal when we need a vibrator to climax to wanting to share a secret fantasy but having no idea how to do it.
We want sex to be fun and easy, but there seem to be so many obstacles in the way sometimes.
When it comes to intimacy, desire, and sex, we need to be especially sensitive, self-aware, and kind to our partners.
One shaming incident about a person’s desire can silence them for years, if not decades.
So, here’s the thing.
You like what you like. You have your own set of turn-ons, turn-offs, fantasies, triggers, and ideas about sex.
Your partner (or partners) also has their own set of likes, fantasies, triggers, and ideas about sex.
No two people have the same ideas. And that’s a great thing.
It means you are in constant negotiation over what you need and want and what your partner(s) needs and wants, even if it doesn’t feel like you are.
Creating a safe space where you both can talk about sex openly doesn’t mean you’re saying yes to everything that’s shared.
A common assumption that people make is that when you share something sexual it means you want to do that thing right now with the person you’re talking to.
“I have a fantasy about being tied up” is received as “I want YOU to tie me up RIGHT NOW even if you have no idea how to do this thing. Ready set GO!”
It’s no wonder the person hearing your fantasy immediately gets defensive or freaks out if they’re hearing it as a demand, right? They may hear it this way because they’re ashamed or unsure or surprised.
So how can you avoid these microaggressions of desire?
First, talk to your partner about creating a safe space where you can talk about sex and intimacy openly. What would that look like? When would you do it? At your monthly relationship check-in? Or maybe you create a phrase that tells your partner you want to set aside some safe space time?
Second, be very aware of your responses to sexual bids from your partner. Don’t beat yourself up if you react negatively. But do call yourself out and verbalize it as soon as you notice.
Third, call your partner out if they do it to you. “Honey, that response feels like a rejection and I’m feeling a little embarrassed by how you responded. Can we talk about that?”
Finally, if there is something your partner does on a regular basis that really doesn’t feel good (maybe they ask for sex in a way that makes you feel pressured or obligated), and you’re constantly rejecting or turning away from them, it’s time to have a really open discussion (or discussions – sometimes it takes a few tries to get everything ironed out) about your needs, their needs, and how you both can try something new.
Your desires are important and valid.
The way you experience desire (or don’t) is normal.
It’s OK to ask for what you want.
Be sure you and your partner are supporting and turning towards each other more often than not when you make those requests, especially when it comes to desire and sex.
Where are you struggling to be heard or seen when it comes to your relationship? What is your most common way of turning away from your partner? Comment below and let’s see how we can support each other in this.[callout title=”Join the webinar” link=”https://www.dawnserra.com/reclaim-the-fun/” class=”hb-aligncenter”]Want to ask questions about relationships & intimacy? Join my free live Q&A webinar on Thursday, July 16th (a replay is sent to folks who register) and do just that. It’s like free coaching. Don’t miss it.[/callout]