Imagine a new couple in their early 20s. Their relationship is fraying at the edges. She complains that if she doesn’t have sex with him, he mopes for days. If she does have sex with him, he’s happy for a few days before he begins complaining again.
He reports feeling lonely, that she’s not prioritizing their relationship, and that he’s tried everything to spark her desire, but nothing works. He has two affairs in a year. She’s devastated and betrayed.
If my wife and I had been wise (and wealthy) enough to go to couples therapy at the lowest point in our marriage, this is how a therapist might have described us.
Shortly after my second affair, shocked and ashamed by my behavior, I began to read books about relationships, got into a men’s support group, started going to therapy, and expanded my friend circle so that my sexual relationship didn’t have to meet all my needs for human connection. Today, I provide therapy for couples in the area of relationships, sex and consent. In particular, I help men improve their relationships.
Because I’ve made these mistakes myself, I know I want to be loving, kind and generous. Most of my clients do, too. Here are four things I wish more men knew about consent.
Pressure kills desire.
I used to express feelings of rejection, resentment and hopelessness because my wife and I “had not had sex in so long.” My wife would then go to the calendar and identify the numerous times we’d had sex recently. I could see she was right, but I also couldn’t change my feelings, because I was dependent on her to change my mood. This inability to soothe my emotions created sexual pressure for her.
This is a dynamic I see in my office regularly. When you can’t regulate your emotional responses when a partner declines your offers for sex, the emotional consequences of turning you down creates pressure for your partner. This negative pattern then taints any invitation, offer or initiation of sex inside a relationship. When your partner feels pressured, there’s no room for them to have their own desire, because your desire is taking up all the attention.
The absence of no is not the same as the presence of yes.
One of the most common questions I get about this is whether ensuring you receive explicit consent will interrupt the flow of a sexual experience. But that should be the least of our worries. Do you know what interrupts the flow? Feelings of hurt and violation.
While learning consent communication, it may be awkward. But as you get more proficient in consent skills, it will interrupt the flow less, it will get sexier, and you will eventually find that it is a part of the flow with this partner. There will be a smaller learning curve with the next partner, as there is with everything in a new relationship.
The author with a copy of his book.
Don’t get defensive.
Men, even if you think you’re a “good guy” who would “never do anything like that,” you need to understand that men’s violence against women is pervasive. There’s a reason that women are afraid of men. They have more than likely been a victim of a man’s violence or threats, or are close to a woman who has been a victim of a man’s violence.
If your partner is trying to navigate around past trauma, you can collaborate by asking a new partner, “Is there anything you need me to do, or not to do, to help you feel safe throughout this process?”
If you do trigger their trauma, even inadvertently, don’t get defensive.
I once decided to go for a walk in a recent ex-partner’s neighborhood. Coincidentally, my recent ex sent me a text asking me where I was and I replied that I was down the street. Women readers have probably gasped.
When this triggered fears exacerbated by her experience with a past stalker, I acknowledged that I had made a mistake, apologized, left, and didn’t repeat the error. She later thanked me for changing my behavior and helping her feel safer. If I had gotten defensive, I’d have only worsened the situation.
Consent is for you.
Men aren’t used to the idea that consent is for us. This is an essential lesson for us to learn.
Eighteen years into our marriage, my wife and I agreed, after almost two years of talking and preparing, to open our marriage to non-monogamy. As I became more confident dating as a polyamorous man, I learned I also needed to use consent to protect myself and my heart.
I had a friend who expressed interest in me, but in her polyamorous relationships, there were some broken agreements and conflicts between partners. Most of those issues weren’t her fault, but they did affect her. This didn’t create a feeling of safety for me, so I said “no thank you” to her offers. But after engaging in many consent conversations, I eventually felt comfortable enough to negotiate a very memorable sexual relationship. I had protected myself with “no,” until “yes” felt right. If it stopped feeling right in the future, I knew I could return to “no.”
Consent isn’t about trying to get consent from our partner. Consent is for people of all genders and all levels of desire. Consent makes us feel better about ourselves and our relationships. I hope to teach more men to prevent harm and increase their capacity to maintain healthy relationships.
Eric FitzMedrud is a therapist specializing in relationship and sexual issues in the San Francisco Bay Area. His specialty is helping men learn to regulate their emotions, removing sexual entitlement, and honing their sexual consent and negotiation skills.