Never Have Sex Unless You Want To

There’s a devastating sexual myth that appears in the sheltered space of my office from time to time.

This myth has taken root in the minds of many people trying to make their relationships work. We circulate this belief in hair salons, happy hours and other places we share our secrets.

The myth begins early in a relationship, after the initial stages of passion wear off. One partner starts to notice that sex happens less frequently, as the typical complexities and rhythms of life demand more time and attention. The novelty and excitement of early relationship ecstasy begin to yield to the anxiety-ridden demands of two lives bound together.

What was once a free choice made by someone enraptured in the desire and mystery of a new love becomes a chore.

To make up for the shortfall of sex, we take Nike’s advice and “just do it.” It makes sense. We’re told our whole lives that sex should be treated suspiciously until marriage. Then, it’s absolutely vital and you better do it, and do it the right way.

For many women, sex becomes the thing you do for your partner. For many men, sex is the thing you do for yourself. We usually go through at least one major life crisis trying to unlearn these lessons. On the way to a healthier sexual ethic, many of us make a commitment to our spouses or partners that we’ll just say yes when they want sex. Despite what we want, we’ll be there for them even if we’re exhausted, when our needs aren’t met or when sex just isn’t appetizing. Our own desires aren’t considered.

Sex is important for a relationship, after all.

This choice, commonly made after a child first enters the picture - or some other major life change - makes logical sense if you just consider the needs of the relationship. But it’s a costly choice.


There’s pretty much three main motivations to have sex: 1) to have children; 2) to be intimate; and 3) pleasure. The first motivation has never really been about sex. Anyone who has had sex for prolonged periods of time for the purpose of having children knows that sex feels different when you’re shooting for a goal (no pun intended). The second motivation is pleasant, but actually is a recent social construction in human history. Intimacy and sex weren’t considered one and the same until around the 1970s when the culture’s opinions about sex started to shift. We started to ask more. And while sharing intimacy through sex may seem one and the same, there’s some unintended consequences, like super high expectations of what sex is supposed to be. As if we’re supposed to experience both physical and emotional orgasms. But no one ever promised that sex would create emotional pleasure, only physical.

That leaves motivation number three, one that is surprisingly misplaced among our sexual values. Sex is motivated by pleasure. It’s how our bodies are built. The female clitoris is the only organ across all known species that exists only for the purpose of physical pleasure.

We don’t talk about sexual pleasure much. It’s like the elephant in the room. It’s like we’re all going to our favorite pizza place and trying to argue that we’re going there for the Omega 3’s, as if admitting that we like sex for the sheer pleasure of it is somehow vain or immoral.

The problem with ignoring the importance of sexual pleasure is that by doing so, we deny a vital truth: sex only works well if we want it.

The problem with a lack of sex is usually not the sex. A couple of quick changes to your sex life can usually produce the spice you’re looking for. The problem is that you’re not looking for it. The problem with sex over time is that we stop wanting it. It becomes undesirable to us.

Thus, the problem with sex isn’t sex: it’s desire.

This is why obligating ourselves to sex so that we take care of the relationship is such a subtle, yet insidious problem. sex remains but desire doesn’t. Like scratching an itch. You’ve done your job for the night and you can go to bed, but the problem will re-emerge quickly.

Sex is like a person’s natural built alarm system. Unless you’ve been through some sexual trauma or you identify as asexual, when you stop wanting sex, it usually means there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. And it could be about your relationship, but it could also be something going on with you.

One of the first things to go when you live a life mostly caring for others is sexual interest. This happens because the desire for sex is inherently selfish - and that’s not bad. Imagine your partner came to you and said, “hey, I don’t want to have sex, but I’ll do it for you.” Does that inspire you to get excited about sex? But what if you’re partner said to you, “God, I’ve had a tough day. You look amazing. I can’t think of anything better than to hop in the sack and end the day on a good note.” That’s a totally different scenario, isn’t it?

Depending on your current state of mind when it comes to sex, perhaps neither of these appeal to you. But in general, knowing that your partner wants sex for themselves is much more appealing than knowing they’re doing you a favor.

So how do you change this?

Well, it’s unconventional, but the first you thing you need to do is start saying no. Don’t get me wrong. That’s not the only thing you should do. But it’s definitely first.

The sexual system needs a bit of a reboot when it’s been conditioned to turn on in response to a partner’s need rather than it’s own interests. When you give yourself permission to say no to the sex you don’t want, it gives you space to say yes to the sex you do want. And the only way you discover the sex you do want is to have space to think about yourself. Also, you may be surprised to find what problems you’re throwing under the rug by saying yes to sex you don’t want to have.

Now before you forward this blog on to your partner, keep in mind that this isn’t about them. This is about you. You need to establish your own boundaries without expecting your partner to do it for you by no longer asking you to have sex, or initiating sex. Establishing your boundaries is one of the first steps toward sexual self-mastery. You need to experience yourself taking that step. If someone else does it for you, then nothing at the core will change.

When you start saying no to the sex you don’t want, you deal with the root problem. You’re no longer just surviving. Instead, you’re suffering a temporary discomfort to deal with a chronic problem.

What turns you on?

One of the most common reasons that people lack sexual desire is because they’ve forgotten what turns them on and they never learned how to turn themselves on. If you’re aware of some insecurities about your body, then perhaps your body or the way you think about it needs to be worked on before you obligate yourself to sex again.

It’s hard to have great sex in a body you feel so poorly about.

Try the mirror test. Start talking about the way you feel and come up with a plan to deal with it. Does your health need to be addressed? Do you need to incorporate more movement into your day? Does your diet need to be addressed? Do you need to be more compassionate toward yourself? This is why it’s so important to listen to the natural alarm system of low sexual desire. Sometimes it’s trying to tell you that you need to pay attention to yourself.

Once you have a plan and you’re spending time and energy on your own body & mind, glance at yourself in the mirror on your more confident days. Are you turning yourself on? If so, perhaps it’s time for you to initiate sex.

I’m not suggesting you go cold turkey from sex. There are plenty of ways you can remain sexually active and gracious toward your partner without fully engaging in intercourse or other activities you’re not ready for. Talk to your partner. Tell them you’re working on yourself so that you can invest in the long-term sexual health of yourself and your relationship. Come up with a plan and execute it.

Don’t believe the myth. Sex isn’t meant for caretaking. Learn to say no so that you can say yes enthusiastically. Learn to say no so that you’re the one making the invitation. You may amaze yourself.

Dr. Mathis Kennington


Why You Need Emotional Life Insurance



I was 11 when my dad died. We had a distant relationship already, and I don't remember feeling devastated when he died. I do remember that devastation creeping up on me as an adult, taking many shapes across my life so far.

We used to collect X-Men cards together. It was a bit of an obsession of mine, and more importantly, it was one of the fear endearments I still allowed him in my grieving anger. These X-Men cards were one of the few places we could predictably connect.

Some time before his accident, he gave me his treasure trove cards to "hold onto" for him. I spent hours in those cards. There are 276 of them, and I scoured each of their faces and every plastic sheath in which they were stored.


Because I had imagined a fantasy in which my father left little messages for me tucked behind the cards somewhere. I searched for anything that had him in it. Every once in a while I would come across a post-it note with his handwriting, but the notes just reminded him to buy missing cards. There were no hidden messages.

Because my dad didn't expect to die.

What is emotional life insurance?

After my wife and I were married at the ripe old age of 21, one of the first things I did was get life insurance. I may have been the only graduate student in my program without children who had a life insurance policy.

I remember being obsessed with securing life insurance because my dad didn't have any. I remember thinking how my brother and sister's lives could have been so much different had he planned for all possibilities.

When my wife and I was discovered she was pregnant, it was on the heels of a miscarriage. The positive pregnancy test was a sober joy, so close was it to harsh reminder that all life can be lost, without explanation.

Loss is a hard teacher.

And for this reason, I knew that financial life insurance wouldn't be enough. As an adult, I would have traded any life insurance policy if my dad had hidden a few notes behind my X-Men cards.

Losing my dad without much to hold onto taught me that one of the greatest gifts we can give those we love is a tangible collection of our love for them. So that they never have to question.

Letters, pictures, keepsakes, tokens. All stored in a tightly bound leather journal.

The one I keep for my son is about two years old. It started the day his mother told me she was pregnant with him. I don't write in it as much I would like. But I come back to it on days like today when I'm reminded that life is so unpredictable, that any moment could take me away from him. 

If something terrible happens and I'm gone tomorrow, he'll never remember me. All he'll have is what I've left for him. And though money secures a future, it does nothing for a broken heart.

So write to those you love. Keep memories in tangible form and store them away as treasures to be rediscovered at a point later in time, with or without you.

Don't wait a single moment to make sure that the people in your life know you're nuts for them.


What I Wish You Would Have Told Me.



I still grieve my father's death. But it's a grief that unfolds over time, with each of my life's milestones unfolding a new way to miss his presence in my life.

Most recently, it's the knowledge that when I look at my son, I see his face. This unique grief is swollen by the fact that my father wasn't around much. I've spent many hours wondering why, a question deepened by my obsession with my own son, whose face I couldn't imagine missing for days on end.

My father left me with very little to hold onto after his car accident. It's a confusing legacy. I can remember flipping through the X-Men cards that he gave me before he died, looking for little papers or notes that he might have left me to tell me I was on his mind. I fantasized that maybe he left a little trail of paper breadcrumbs to close up some wound inside me that only time could heal.

I was really just looking for words that I don't remember hearing him say. Words I hope my son will hear me say so much that he grows tired of it: "Son, I love you. I love you no matter what happens to you or I."

Some of life's questions will just never be answered.

I can thank my father for this lesson. I still don't understand his absence to this day, mostly because the man I know as my dad is such a stark contrast. Even from the days when I called my step-father  "Keith," I don't think he ever questioned that I was his.

Despite a love in which I have total confidence, there's something painful about knowing you could have been loved by someone if they had just chosen to.

The legacy of my life, a beautiful one, is that some of the people who have loved me the most made the choice to do so. If I had but just one memory of my father telling me what I meant to him, it's possible that a young man's quest to reconcile his self-worth would have ended where it began - with the memory I wish I had of what he would have told me.

Virginia Satir

Virginia Satir

Renowned family therapist Virginia Satir believed that a child's self-worth develops out of what she calls the family triad of mother, father and child. Were she alive today, I think she would amend that rather limited definition of family, but the concept of children's self-worth developing under the umbrella of their caregivers is unquestionable.

What our children believe about themselves depends in part on what their parents tell them to believe.

Had I just one memory of my father's words over me, then perhaps my constant wondering would have been relieved by confidence instead of fragmented images, competing to narrate the final verdict on his memory.

Instead, I find myself more often fantasizing about what he would have told me if he were still here.

I take that longing, an unfulfilled yearning, and I turn it outward toward my son. A kind of emotional life insurance policy. I've learned never to get too complacent about expressing the love I feel for those in my life. Outside of a small gold ring and a few X-Men cards, the only birthright my father left me was an emotional debt, by which I was once encumbered and for which I am now grateful. I'm keenly aware of how desperately short this life is.

We should all be greedy for our partners' confidence in our love for them.

We get one certain shot at convincing the ones we love what they mean. We only have a few precious moments to make an embarrassingly big deal of our messy convictions for our people.

She needs to hear you say you love her. She needs to hear it again. He needs to know what you mean to him. Don't believe the lie that once you tell someone you care, they don't need to hear it anymore. Say it again. Say it in big ways. In small ways.

I spend hours in my day working with people chasing the American dream, many of whom achieved it decades ago only to find that the cost of the hustle left them without the loving confidence in which they once trusted. It turns out no dream will ever be able to compete with the strength and power that results from knowing you are loved.

Spend your life trying to outdo yourself. Don't take the risk that the thing you could have said becomes the thing that your loved one wished you would have told them. There is no time. There is no certainty that you will have another chance.

There is only this moment.

Dr. Mathis Kennington


How Love Letters Could Save Your Marriage.


I'm alive because of a love letter.

The original love letter, actually. The one my grandfather gave my grandmother as they sat together, nervously, beneath a spring blossom on the University of Chicago campus. It wasn't quite the love letter you might expect from one of the world's great loves stories, more of a crude confession of love that reflects my grandparents rugged and resilient romance.


This was all that was hastily scribbled onto a cafeteria napkin my grandfather, Fred Vance, handed to my grandmother, Betty Johnson, who by this time was no stranger to Fred's pursuits. This wasn't the first time he told her he loved her. But it was the first time she'd reciprocated.


From this one exchange, an entire family was built. My grandparents' love has lasted a lifetime. Perhaps more than one. And ever since I can remember, our family has told this story like a birthright at birthdays and Christmas parties, while gifts sit impatiently underneath their tree. And although the gifts are given by many, they are unified in a single script that accompanies the name of the receiver: ILY.

No matter how frequently I see these three letters, I'm always transported to that moment under the tree on the University of Chicago campus. And even though I was never there, even though I was perhaps the hint of a dream to these two new lovers, I feel like I was there. And that's because I so often go back as my grandparents re-tell the story. As do their children. And now, their grandchildren.

I tell my clients to write love letters to each other.

I tell them to remember where they began. This is because most couples who know what true distress really is, the kind of distress that has you emailing a couple's therapist at midnight, leaves you in a place where it's hard to think positively of your spouse or partner. You feel overwhelmed with stress and pain, instead.

But most of us are still tied together by a commonly shared experience, like those Christmas presents under the tree. Though we may be impatient, we all had some beginning that endeared us toward each other. Maybe it was even blissful, the kind of beginnings that lovers dream of. Maybe if you thought if it, really let yourself remember, you could recall what it was like to fall in love with the person whose very existence at the current moments feels painful.

But we need to remember.

In North Dakota State University's Department of Psychology, researchers examined the positive impact of nostalgia and found that trips down memory lane contribute to positive emotion and happiness. New York Times Bestselling author David Linden recently released a book called The Pleasure Compass, in which he writes that we are the only species of animal who are able to generate pleasurable experiences with just a thought.

When you and your partner are in distress, shared pleasure is like a desert's oasis. We can't get enough of it, but it's waters are absolutely crucial for the energy you need to overcome painful conversations. Sometimes, you have to go digging.

So here's a possible solution.

Remember. Remember what it was like to fall in love together. Remember what it felt like when he touched you. Remember what it was like when she fell into your arms in front of all those people, to hell with what they thought. Remember the way he looked when he wanted you that way that you haven't seen in years. Let yourself feel the pain of those memories, but remember all the same.

Then write that memory. Write as much detail as you can. Every little detail counts. Remember what it was like to feel, remember the color of your clothes, remember the smells, sounds, textures and noises. Write it all down. Then, hide the letter in a place only where your partner can find them. Cultivate fondness through nostalgia. You don't even have to talk about it. Do it without expectation.

The truth is that most partners in distress, even those who act apathetically or in cruel ways are hiding a deep longing and desire. Not all. But most. And sometimes that apathy or cruelty needs to coaxed away to reveal the desire beneath.

So remember your spring afternoons. Remember your crude love notes. And share them. Perhaps the memory may revive something you feel like you've lost.


Dr. Mathis Kennington


How to Deal with Monday on Tuesday

Pexels /CC0


Monday on Tuesday sucks.

You'd think it'd be nice to have a shorter week, but it only feels like a shorter week when you have Fridays off. When you have Monday off, Monday just ends up feeling like Sunday. I've always been a little suspicious of Tuesday. For all the talk about how much Monday sucks, personally, I think Tuesday is the worst day of the week. It's just got better PR. It's good at throwing shade at Monday, who is the obvious scapegoat.

Think about it.

At least Monday has the advantage of being the start of something. It may not be what you wanted to start. But that's not Monday's fault. That's the fault of a job you should probably have left last year. Monday's just there to remind you of the change you need to make. Tuesday, on the other hand, is national busy work day. You're getting caught up on the things you should have done yesterday, but were too busy complaining that it was Monday.

So all the crap you were dreading on Sunday evening, you're not even doing Monday morning because you were too distracted that it was Monday, so you're actually doing it on Tuesday, which brings me back to my main point. Tuesday sucks. Monday is better.

And weeks like this week, when you get Monday off, are just totally confusing. Because it's actually Tuesday, but it feels like Monday. And I promise you that by Friday, you'll look back and wonder why this week felt so long.

I can answer that for you.

It's because you worked Tuesday. And nobody ever took Tuesday off unless they were taking off the entire week. When is the last time you can remember doing something awesome on a Tuesday? Not ever.

Mondays are often holidays like Labor Day. Whenever there's a national holiday on a weekend, guess which day you take off? Not Tuesday. So pretty much as long as you're working on a Tuesday, your week will feel long. If you can skip Tuesday, then all of the sudden it's hump day and you can start looking forward to the weekend. You can't do that on Monday you're grieving the freedom of the weekend that just ended. You certainly can't do that on a Tuesday because...well, Tuesday just sucks.

What's the point?

Have you ever wondered why it's easier to remember forward than backward? If someone asked you what you were doing this weekend, as long as it's not Monday, you can probably tell them. But if that same person asked you what you did last weekend....

I think this is because our brains loooove to anticipate. We love to think about what's coming, not what's past. Because we still have hope for what's ahead, but what's behind is unchangeable. The events are, at least. We can always change the meaning of what has happened.

This is why we need to change the way we think about how we spend our time.

If you've managed to get to the bottom of this post, you may be asking yourself what the hell I'm going on about. Well, I'm halfway just venting because today isn't going as well as I'd like and I'm also halfway challenging myself to have a better attitude about my day/time/life. Because the reality is that even time is a social construct, meaning we call these 24 hour periods days and live within a predetermined eight hour work day mindset, a mindset that is known to cause depression, anxiety and other mental ailments.

I'm challenging myself to think creatively about how I spend my time, how much energy I spend complaining versus actually investing in things that bring me life.

I have the unbelievable benefit of loving what I do for a living. That's not the case for many, maybe most. A recent report revealed that as many as half of all Americans are unhappy in the work they do every day.

Are we meant to live mundane lives?

It shouldn't be this way, but the reality is that millennials like me are racked with debt that our predecessors have never known. So as much as we'd love to pursue our dreams and live life to the fullest, we've got student loans and consumer debt to deal with. Somewhere in there, I have to believe for my generation, that meaningful labor is achievable because, otherwise, we're going to have a mental health disaster on our hands in about 10 years. As if that wasn't already the case.

If, on Sunday evening, you're so preoccupied with the pending Monday that you're starting to notice symptoms of anxiety or depression, it may be a sign that it's time for a significant life change. I'm not sure what it is or how you'll do it. I know that it'll be hard. Maybe you'll fall flat on your face. But if there's anything I know about my generation, it's that we're more afraid of a meaningless existence than we are of failure.

So it's Monday on Tuesday. And I think Tuesdays kind of suck. But maybe this is the Tuesday that you finally take a deep breath and reach out for that thing you've been dreaming about.


Dr. Mathis Kennington


Mental Health Resources During Hurricane Harvey

Governor Greg Abbott has just issued states of emergencies for 50 counties in South Texas and federal states of emergencies for 19 counties. I, like many others, have people I love and care about who are riding out this storm.

For anyone who's ever lived through a disaster, the unexpected and silent outcome is the long-term mental health needs for folks devastated by the event, in this case Harvey. And the needs are going to be substantial.

Screenshot 2017-08-27 14.09.31.png

The San Antonio Fire Department chief just reported that he thought the support efforts following Harvey may be worse than Katrina.

Not that this is a competition, but people need help. Here's a list of all the resources I can find for people who need help now and in the days to come.


South Texas Disaster Resources

  1. If you're on WIC or SNAP food stamps, Governor's office is now reporting that you can use these resources for hot foods that you can't usually purchase. This is only supposed to last until September 30th, but most anticipate this deadline will be extended as the reality of Hurricane Harvey hits South Texas.
  2. The Department of State Health Services has a consortium that exists to coordinate mental health-related services in times of a crisis. Texas has set aside DSHS to coordinate care during and after Hurricane Harvey. On their webpage, there's a list of local individuals and services you can call to find mental health resources.
  3. Local Mental Health Authorities (LMHA's) are state-trained mental health agencies and organizations that exist to provide disaster relief. This is a list of all the current up to date LMHAs. MHMR of Houston is currently the only LMHA in Houston. Their phone number is 866-970-4770. They'll likely be unreachable, so there are other options available to Houstonians.
  4. FEMA has a fund to support crisis counseling during periods of disaster. Governor Greg Abbott has declared a state of emergency in Texas, so these resources will be available to Houstonians and all 19 counties where a federal disaster has been declared. It's likely that more counties will have access to these resources as the Governor's office evaluates whether further federal resources are needed for more affected areas.
  5. The American Red Cross has a Mental Health Line staffed by trained professionals to respond to your needs. The line is available now. Please don't neglect this opportunity to take care of yourself if you need it. You can text the word TALKWITHUS to 66746 and they'll respond to you to provide whatever support they can.

Don't Neglect Your Mental Health

Everyone who is impacted by Hurricane Harvey should be looking inward to make sure that they're getting the care they need. Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are common, even for those who aren't directly in the worst of the path of the storm.

For those who have loved ones affected by the hurricane, powerlessness can be a strong trigger for pre-existing conditions of mental health. If you can't do anything, take deep breaths and stay as connected to your loved ones as possible while taking necessary breaks from the news. If you need to do something, try and coordinate care packages or make donations to disaster relief funds.

I'll try to keep this list updated as much as possible. If you know of more resources, please don't hesitate to let me know.


Dr. Mathis Kennington


Why Multiple Orgasms Aren't Actually a Thing.

Image by Katie Tegtmeyer on  Flickr

Image by Katie Tegtmeyer on Flickr

As a sex therapist, I'm interested in how we use language to describe our experiences. That's because how we talk about what experience defines that experience. It defines our thoughts, what we expect and how we behave. So if there's a phrase that better describes an experience, we should use that phrase instead.

For example, take the phrase "multiple orgasms." This isn't actually a thing. We use this phrase to describe how women experience many orgasms in one sexual encounter compared to men who generally don't. What we're actually talking about in sexual health terms is something called a refractory period - which describes the amount of time our sexual organs are at rest before they can be stimulated again to reach orgasm.

Generally speaking, women's refractory periods are shorter than men's, which explains why they experience orgasm more frequently than men do in a single sexual encounter. So if you think about it this way, it makes sense why we've come to describe this as "multiple orgasms," when we're talking about women.

There's a sneaky little problem with this phrase, though: It's secretly sexist.

Our culture has always tended to define sex in very heteronormative ways, which is just a fancy way of saying that we're not very inclusive about sex. Just think about every magazine aisle you've ever seen. Popular publications are always geared toward women who have sex with men. And if we're being really honest, historically, sex has really just been about men's pleasure.

So when we say that women can have "multiple orgasms" during sex, what we mean is that women can orgasm more than once before a man ejaculates - which is when sex ends.

When we use the phrase "multiple orgasms," we're basically agreeing with an arcane societal standard says that once men are done with sex, women are also. This is a problem. What if the roles were reversed? What if women's refractory periods were the same length they were for men? Meaning, what if women came first and then sex ended?

What if sex ended before men ejaculated?

Or better yet, what if sex never got started because women's lack of interest just wouldn't let them have an orgasm at all, and thus, men never had sex? I'm pretty sure men would be rioting in the streets. We'd have pharmaceutical companies inventing all kinds of ways to shorten women's refractory periods. Our medical professionals would specialize in therapy dedicated to helping women recover more quickly.

I know that sounds pessimistic, but if you need evidence, just compare insurance coverage rates for medicines like Viagra or Cialis compared to common birth control.

Why does it matter?

When I was sharing this post idea with my wife, she asked me why it was important enough to write about. It was a good question, one I hadn't clearly thought through myself. When I did think about it, I realized that the problem with this phrase is that as long as we use it, we're basically agreeing with a sexual expectation that sex ends when men ejaculate.

Using the language of "multiple orgasms," if a woman doesn't have an orgasm before a man does, then it's possible that she just won't have one at all.  I can't count the number of times during sex therapy with heterosexual couples that sex has been described like this. If he ejaculates before she has an orgasm, then he's "premature." At this point, sex just usually ends in disappointment.

She keeps her disappointment to herself to avoid messing with his ego, making her own pleasure secondary to his. The idea that oral sex could extend beyond orgasm doesn't even occur guessed it. Sex was over.

The rules aren't the same for women. If a woman has an orgasm, then she can have two.

If she can't have two and he hasn't ejaculated, then she should continue intercourse until he does. If, during intercourse, she starts to become sore or tired - which is a common experience for women following orgasm - then it's generally expected that she'll engage in some kind of sexual act to make sure he does have an orgasm. The idea that men could have sex without an orgasm doesn't exist in the way it does for women. This is a hard truth to confront, but we've collectively decided that women's pleasure doesn't matter as much.

I've rarely heard women describe the number of orgasms they experience during masturbation as "multiple." If they have more than one, they just count them. We only use the phrase "multiple" to describe partnered sex with men.

This language has to change.

Orgasm is an exciting part of sex. Our bodies are designed or have evolved this way - however you want to look at it. But when the focus of sex is orgasm, then we're just going to end up counting or judging the whole sexual experience based on a 5-10 second moment. We're going to end up waiting for an orgasm that may not come because we aren't telling our partners what we enjoy.

The truth is that almost everyone can experience multiple orgasms if you extend the timeline out long enough. But knowing that you experience multiple orgasms tells me nothing about what sex means to you, how you like to be touched, how you want to feel or what you want to hear during sex.

This phrase is a distraction that puts pressure on both women and men to meet an impossible standard. It's bad for heterosexual women because it presumes a timeline that women must follow, and therefore, make their own sexual pleasure less important. It's bad for heterosexual men because it creates a pressure to perform so well that your partner orgasms multiple times - as if your partner's pleasure was your responsibility.

Instead, let's get rid of language that ties orgasm to acheivement of any kind. Ironically, I've found that when couples can care more about the experience and less about the outcome, they have more orgasms anyway.

Dr. Mathis Kennington, LMFT-S


How to Listen Better.

Why is it so hard to listen sometimes?

Has your partner ever looked at you and said, "All I want you to do is listen!" Did it seem to you like you were listening just fine, but they still weren't buying that you got it? We tend to think that listening should be a simple task, but it's undoubtedly the most common mistake that distressed couples make when communicating.

Listening is actually quite a complex thing we're asking our brains to do at any point, much less when we're in distress. Did you know, for example, that when your spouse asks you to listen to them, that you're actually multitasking? Even when you're not doing that thing we all do - listen to react instead of listening to understand - you still have to manage whatever emotion you're feeling while you attend to what your partner is saying.

In other words, if you feel emotionally triggered by what your partner is saying, it's very easy to slip out of the task of listening and into the task of reacting to your current emotional state: anger, jealousy, hurt or frustration.

It's easy to feel emotions like this when our partners tell us something we don't want to hear. When couples therapy works well, it helps couples manage whatever is going on inside them while they listen to their partners. If, for example, your partner has something difficult to tell you, like something they don't like about you or something they don't like about what you're doing, it's hard to remain attentive to them.

Instead, we want to fight back.

We want to defend ourselves. We want to listen to the flaws in their logic so we can pick it apart. And we do this feeling totally justified because what our partners say to us hurts.

But listening to your partner while they have something difficult to say, something that emotionally triggers you, is what listening is all about. It's real human interaction. Hard work. If it were easy, it'd be called Snapchat.

So I created this guide to help you understand what's actually happening when you're trying to listen to your partner, why it's difficult and what to do about it. Instead of beating yourself up when you don't hit the mark (or your partner for that matter), discover how to learn from the areas where you fall short and grow from there.

Listening is hard work. We don't give the difficulty of it enough respect. Click on the image above to download a free PDF that you can keep for yourself to remind you how to overcome common listening challenges.

Dr. Mathis Kennington


How to Let Go When You Don't Want To.

Image by Josh James on  Flickr

Image by Josh James on Flickr

Heartbreak sucks.

In my most challenging moments of losing something or someone I care about, I've felt torn between the knowledge that I must let go and my total unwillingness to actually do it, even though holding on costs me great pain. If you're reading this post, maybe you're in a hell you couldn't have prepared for. So let me begin by putting a spin on something all your friends have told you - something that you know is true but don't want to hear.

You're not GOING to get through it. You're GETTING through it.

This pain you feel, this aching, soul-deep brokenness that is your daily existence is the price of losing what you've given, and there's no avoiding it. You may wonder how you'll survive it. You may think that another moment in heartache so deep you feel it in your body is permanent, but it isn't. At least not in the way it is now, defining every breath you take.

It'll be with you for a time. How long? Who knows. That depends, at least in part, on what you do moving forward. We make choices that prolong our pain or that bring meaning to it, and eventually, gentle it. But no matter what, this is the price of getting through.

Depending on whom you're letting go of, you may never feel completely free, but you will practice letting go for the rest of your life, and there's even freedom in this. The letting go will get a little easier each day. So buckle in and prepare for a lot of deep breathing and a few tough nights. I wish there was a fast track, but I've yet to find one.

I don't want to let go.

I know what that feels like. I know that despite the crushing pain, you may not want to let go because the pain is attachment. At least there's still something there connecting you to her. Or him to you.

So if you're not quite there yet, think of these steps as self care. Don't try to push yourself into letting go of more than you can right now. It's a slow process. You'll be ready when you're ready. It's a practice. A little each day.

One of the things that helped me and has helped my clients is to think of letting go as becomign more of yourself. Start by gently easing into becoming your own person again with these steps.

1. Let go of reaching out.

I know, I know. Easier said than done. But hear me out. When I'm helping clients let go of a relationship that's ended, I encourage them let go of little pieces of contact at a time. First it starts with an agreement to no longer call. It takes some time to feel comfortable with that. Next, we move toward letting go of texting. After that, it's social media.

The digital landscape has changed the way we break up. It's much harder to do it now because you can see your former partner, all their new friends or adventures, and feel like shit in the process. Regardless, you can't stop yourself from looking. Like a train crash where you're on the tracks.

So let go of a little at a time. Start with direct contact, then move into phone conversations, text, and then social media as you feel stronger and stronger. Don't expect to do it all at once. And be careful about your inner caretaker. A lot of "reaching out" behaviors are just disguises and excuses to make contact with your former partner. One of the hardest thing about letting go is that sometimes you have to let go of friendship too, to preserve your own well-being and sanity.

2. Let go of the fear that it didn't mean anything.

If you've ever been worried that by not reaching out to your former partner, they'd think you don't care for them anymore, remind yourself that a lack of contact with that person does not mean they mean less to you. It also doesn't mean that it wasn't real. It was real.

It's just that it was also temporary.

Relationships end for many reasons. Sometimes they end when you don't want them to. Sometimes it's you doing the ending. And then sometimes it seems the world conspires against you and won't let you have the person you want despite that you share mutual affection and love.

Any one of these endings deserves to be as meaningful as possible. Remind yourself of what your former partner means to you. I know this seems counter-intuitive, to be thinking well of your former partner when you're in misery, but you're going to think of them regardless. Doing so positively promotes letting go by allowing you to be gracious and meaningful in pain.

3. Let go and get out(side).

Oh, no worries. Just the one thing you don't want to do. Don't want to go out to your old haunts. See your mutual friends. See all the happy couples who apparently didn't exist just a little while ago, but are everywhere now.

But you need to do it, regardless.

Find good friends who can stomach you being miserable for a while and still love you. Be in public with people you trust who will hold you, make you laugh, get angry with you or cry with you. Few of us can handle heartache on our own. We need others.

You'll feel like that little egg from the Zoloft commercial, but remember, this is you getting through it.

4. Let go of the old. Create something new.

One of the best ways you can let go is by creating some new energy in your life. One of the things about being in an intimate relationship is that you share most areas of your life with this person. They become entangled in all your rituals.

They know all the things.

So regardless of whether you feel angry or just sad about them, you need to create something new in your life that's only yours. New health habits. New hobbies. New rituals. New experiences.

The purpose of newness in your life is to differentiate yourself. You're creating something novel, which makes you feel discoverable again. After a hard ending, it feels like everything you have belongs to your former partner. It's not true. But it feels that way. So it can be useful to jar yourself out of that belief by doing something brand new for yourself.

5. Letting go is a practice.

There are some people in our lives who will be with us forever. Others are more easily let go, but sometimes, we encounter a person we'll carry around with us for the rest of our lives, like a song we'll never forget. And with time, there's something beautiful about that. There's space to appreciate the laughs you shared and the future you dreamed of.

But it takes work to get there. It's a practice. It's not an endpoint. And that's the secret. No one lets go.

We're always letting go.

So be gentle with yourself if it doesn't go as quickly as you think it should. You'll get better, stronger, more resilient. Return your heart to the present moment when it drifts too far for your own comfort. Remember where you are and with whom. Shed your tears and keep breathing. Keep moving.

You're getting through it.


Dr. Mathis Kennington


How To Stop An Argument that's Going Nowhere.


Almost every couples therapist will tell you that at some point, escalated conflict is pointless.

There's nothing useful that comes from screaming at each other while forgetting what you were fighting about to begin with. We all know this. You don't need specialized training to understand that conflict can get out of control. All you need is a few years of a marriage to tell you that. Despite that knowledge, it's still harder than it should be to push the eject button on conflict before it gets nasty.

There's a good reason for this.

We all tend to work one way or another. Either we're wired to shut down or escalate when conflict gets rough. Some of us could argue forever. Some of us, though, have a very low tolerance for conflict.

You've heard of the phrase "conflict-avoidant," I'm sure. But did you know that "conflict-avoidant" has an evil twin brother named "conflict-dominant"? We don't talk too much about this twin, but he's important. Usually, these two come in pairs in distressed relationships. I don't know why, but most of the time, a conflict-dominant person will find a conflict-avoidant one. This pairing actually works quite well most of the time. The two usually hold each other accountable for getting through difficult conversations, but not at the risk of good communication.

When couple conflict goes too far.

But when things aren't working, a conflict-dominant person always feels like her partner is abandoning her. And a conflict-avoidant person will feel like his partner can't let anything go and will fight at any cost.

The reality is that this is just two different ways of managing conflict that works together to create a destructive cycle. The more a conflict-dominant person pushes, the more the avoidant partner will shut down. The more that person shuts down, the more the dominant partner pursues because she's more scared that he'll bail on her or that he won't ever be willing to have the conversation.

So this graphic is intended to help both of these people get what they need. On the one hand, a conflict avoidant person needs space when she gets overwhelmed. She just does. There's no changing this. It's her chemistry. However, how she asks for space is what makes the difference. Because when an avoidant person exits an argument roughly, the dominant partner will always interpret this behavior as a lack of caring and interest.

Despite that avoidant partners are usually just trying to manage feeling overwhelmed and anxious, it looks a lot like abandonment to those of us who don't understand why you won't just talk.

I'm not shouting!

Avoidant partners have to do most of the work in the beginning, and this is only because dominant partners usually don't need to stop an argument. But you could make a case that dominant partners have the hardest job, because they just have to live with the fact that avoidant partners get to set their own boundaries.

So avoidant partners start by telling their partners that they need to stop because they're overwhelmed. It's important that avoidant partners do not try and blame the dominant partner, saying this like, "You're out of control." It's also important that avoidant partners don't try to take authority on the couple's process. Don't say things like, "We need to stop because this is going nowhere." Instead, own whatever feeling you're experiencing. If you need help, you're probably feeling overwhelmed. Speak only for yourself. Other strategies will only provoke defensiveness.

Next, the avoidant partner needs to give some kind of an affirmation. Something like, "I care about this issue," or whatever language seems right. This is important because you're reassuring your dominant partner that you're not bailing. You care. You're just overwhelmed and need to stop. Give a reasonable amount of time that you'll come back to pick up the discussion - or ask to sleep on it.

You taking the initiative to bring up the issue before your partner does is crucial. It's what relaxes them and makes it more likely that they'll create a safe environment for you.

Dominant partners, this is where your work begins. You have to let your avoidant partner go. She needs space, and you need to give it. One of the worst things you can do is pursue a partner who has reached her emotional/psychological limit. It feels like torture for them to continue. So let her go and give her an opportunity to come back.

She may surprise you.

I print this out for my clients and keep them at my office. I ask my clients to post them on their refrigerator. Or on their nightstand. I ask them to practice whenever they're not in conflict. It may seem ridiculous, but sleeping alone is worse.


Dr. Mathis Kennington


The Secret to Keeping Desire Alive.

Image by Seattle Parks on  Flickr

Image by Seattle Parks on Flickr

Do you remember what it was like to be a kid when playgrounds were still a thing?

Before iPhones and tablets? Remember the simple exhilaration of the monkey bars on your friend's neighborhood playground that you only played on every once in a while? Or better yet, the feeling of seeing a huge slide you'd never ridden?

As children, we relished in these moments of discovery. We didn't censor our excitement or enthusiasm. We felt the drive to explore, to bathe in the excitement of what was new and unknown.

As adults, we haven't lost this interest. It's just, perhaps more...subdued. We don't get excited as much at the simple things in life for fear of social judgment or maybe because we've been through some shit in our lives that has suffocated our enthusiasm.

The one exception is sex.

Sexual desire is the adult's playground.

It's the one place where we still want to enthusiastically explore and be explored. We want to visit unknown places and have unfamiliar experiences. We want to experience ourselves in different ways, to know that we are still a novel experience.

Sexual desire is life energy. It's one of the only naturally occurring human emotions that works to reaffirm the feeling of being alive.

So maybe this is why it sucks so much when it starts to drift away. We will do almost anything to keep it alive. We'll watch adult erotica. We'll pray. We'll go to therapy or talk to our barbers. Anything to come up with solutions to the slow death of a life without desire.

What causes sexual desire?

I remember a number of years ago I was watching Oprah interview Toby Macguire for a film in which he had to lose a bunch of weight. At the time, Oprah was running a special about weight loss and her recent health goals. She asked Toby how he lost the weight for the film and he slyly told her he had discovered the secret of weight loss. Oprah, in her perfect timing and anticipation, looked through Toby with eagerness to learn both for herself and her viewers what this secret was. After a brief pause, Toby exclaimed, "diet and exercise," and the audience let out a predictable groan.

I don't know why I remember this conversation, but I think it has something to do with how critical I am of what seem to me to be snake oil marketing strategies to sell weight loss that all come down to the same thing: we need to move our bodies more and eat only what the earth produces in moderation.

Sexual desire works this way too. Desire is the result of an emotional response to erotic cues. And erotic cues are about as plentiful as the cells that make up the human brain. Eroticism is sexual energy, and it's also sexual meaning making.

What one person finds erotic, another person finds disgusting. And each person's interest is uniquely hers or his, deserving of respect and curiosity. For this reason, the answer to the question, "What causes sexual desire?" is kind of like Toby Macguire's answer to Oprah's question of "what's the secret to losing weight?"

It's unbelievably complex and also the simplest thing.

Sexual desire is caused by a non-judgmental acceptance of erotic interest. It's the motivation to be sexual with one's own self or with others. It's the creative longing that occurs when a person feels turned on by sounds, images, sensations, touches, kisses, breaths, movements or feelings. In the sex therapy field, we've moved away from focusing on sexual function - like arousal (the body's physical response to desire) to focusing on desire itself.

We've done this because we know that desire is the engine of sexual function. 

For so long, we've thought that if a man has a problem with an erection or a woman has a problem with lubrication or orgasm, then this must be the result of a psychological or physical dysfunction. But we know through research and sex therapy that this isn't always the case. In fact, most sex therapy problems are related to desire, not function.

Researchers have different things to say about where desire comes from. Relationship experts like Sue Johnson and John Gottman say that desire is the result of a securely attached relationship where intimacy flourishes. Sexual health experts like Esther Perel say that desire and intimacy are different. Perel actually argues that desire and intimacy can sometimes work against each other. Skeptical about this?

Have you ever shared a bathroom with a lover?

True intimacy is cleaning up after each other and holding each other's heads over the toilets because no one else will. Because of this, intimacy and desire sometimes compete.

Remember that feeling of exploring an unknown playground? It was exciting partly because it was new. Something different. And this is at the heart of Perel's argument. Desire is sustained not by what we know, but by what we don't know. So because of this, she asks the fundamental question at the heart of long-term committed relationships:

How do we desire what we already have?

If you've ever felt your sexual desire for your partner start to fade, you may have asked yourself this question.

Conventional thinking says that the answer is to draw closer. And sometimes that's true. Some people can't turn themselves on until they feel close to their partner. This is a healthy part of being in a committed relationship, but that's not how everyone works. For some people, too much closeness can kill desire. In these cases, desire has to be rekindled by individuality, by otherness.

Remember when your partner was like that unexplored playground? Remember the first time you saw her lead the company-wide meeting and were so impressed by her command of her colleagues? Remember how much you wanted to be able to work a room like she did?

Now, perhaps, you've spent so many years with her you've forgotten just how different she is. Just how other. You've focused so closely on all her faults that you know them just as well as your own neighborhood playground. You've forgotten to explore the hidden areas of her that ring of novelty and excitement.

She's still that woman who can impress you. She's still that person who can captivate a room full of ambitious suits and can inspire creativity and growth.

This is the secret to keeping desire alive.

We don't get bored with our partners. We get bored with ourselves. When we fail to see our partners as people who are capable of constant growth and change, it's probably because we're relying on them too much to create a sense of novelty for us.

When we were kids, we didn't stop playing on the playground because it bored us. We just found new ways to play. We had to. It wasn't the playground that changed; it was us. We imagined ourselves as something different when we slid down the same slide. We put on a capes and costumes and flew across the same bridge that was there before and would remain there, but it was different this time, because we were different.

That's how we sustain desire. Not by accusing our partners of not caring or demanding that they change.

We sustain desire by committing to our own constant growth. I know it's not that simple for everyone, but it's a good starting point for most. Fading desire is usually not only caused by what we think. Sometimes we have our own role to play in why our partners seem unresponsive, cold or boring.

Sexual desire starts with you. Your own self-confidence. Your own interests. In some ways, sexual desire is at its peak when you invite your partner into the world that you've created for yourself and watch their awe. Then you realize the most powerful thing:

You were the playground all along.

Dr. Mathis Kennington


Why She Feels Unloved.

Image by Willian Soares on  Flickr

Image by Willian Soares on Flickr

As a couples counselor, I've heard a lot of reasons why relationships slowly come apart.

One of the most common problems I see is when a female partner starts to feel unloved. Across all kinds of relationships: gay, straight or queer, women seem to be stuck with doing the majority of the emotional labor when it comes to keeping intimacy strong. Heterosexual men tend to be caught off guard when they hear their partners talk about feeling unloved. Women's feeling of being unloved and neglected doesn't always resonate with their male partners, who may not place as much value on feeling loved as they might on stability, sex or achievement.

Men tend to neglect emotional work out of ignorance because that's how we're raised. We're taught to feel valued by our success, not necessarily our family lives. So it's a struggle for us to put work away and be present in our relationships. 

So this blog is for anyone who may be scratching their heads trying to figure out what the hell they're doing wrong when their wives or partners tell them (possibly for the millionth time) that they're feeling unloved.

Keep in mind that I'm speaking in stereotypes right now. I don't usually like to do that, but in this case, it's a common theme. There are plenty of relationships where this concern isn't gendered at all - meaning both women and men alike can be attuned to feeling unloved. So really, if you find this useful, then forge ahead.

1. You're treating your relationship like a ledger.

If you've ever told your partner that you can't know how to please her unless she tells you what she wants, you may be in danger of treating your relationship like a ledger. This happens when we get so caught up in trying to do "enough" to keep ourselves out of the red that we forget that love is not measured by checks and balances.

While it's true that she needs to be clear about what she wants, she doesn't want to be in a relationship where she has to educate you on how to love her.

If you feel confused about how to make her happy, I'll give you a hint that may sound strange.

Stop thinking about what makes her happy.

Let's do a little thought exercise. Think about the earliest parts of your relationship. Do you remember the things you did, without any input from her, that brought her the most joy? If you're musically inclined - did you write her a song? If you're the techie/analytical type, did you create an exhaustive excel file of all the reasons you loved her ranked in order of their significance? Did you buy her gifts just because?

All of these actions have something in common: they happened because it brought you pleasure to do them. They came from you, not from what you thought she wanted. If you're strategic about trying to show love, your partner will always know you're TRYING. If, however, you think about what brings you the most pleasure when you show love, you'll most often hit the mark. If you miss, you'll miss on the side of "it's the thought that counts" and you'll adapt for the future.

The secret is that loving well comes from a deep knowledge of yourself, not your partner.

Do you love to cook? Cook her a meal. Make it elaborate. Put your heart into it. Even if it sucks, she's going to get the picture. Do you love to read, hike, talk politics or go to live music events? Start a lover's book club that's meant only for you two. Find three hiking trails and let her choose - touch her while you walk. Go listen to the live music she likes. Love her from the passionate place within you - stop trying to predict what she wants.

2. You're working too much.

I have my own business. I know what it's like to carry my professional world around with me everywhere I go. Funny though, that doesn't seem to work the other way around. I'm pretty good at not letting home distract me while I'm at work.

Why doesn't it work both ways?

One of the things men have been taught to believe is that our sole value comes from what we produce, conquer, achieve or build. And all of these verbs apply exclusively to our professional lives. We sometimes struggle to feel the same kind of reward that we experience when we achieve something at work.

Don't change this by punishing yourself every time you take a phone call or by fighting about how much time you need to spend working at home. That won't work. The answer is not to devalue work, but to recognize the value in your home life.

Try something.

Plan something amazing and totally unexpected for you and your partner. Make sure it's out of character for you. If you're an introvert and she's an extrovert, plan something social. Plan something you know you'll both enjoy and instead of focusing on her, focus on how you feel. Focus on the joy it brings you to know you made her happy. Focus on how it feels to let work go for a while. You'll feel anxious. Your thoughts will want to pull you back. That's okay. Don't judge; just be mindful. Then, in few days, tell your partner about what you were feeling and have a conversation about what it's like to intentionally put work away.

She'll feel valued because you're sharing. You'll feel productive because you're starting to work through a challenge that you've probably known about for a while.

3. You're not speaking/acting/feeling from the heart.

Oh, get over it. I know you want practical advice that makes rational sense, but sometimes it's a healthy exercise to reflect on something that may sound cheesy or pejorative. If there's one thing I've learned as a couples therapist, it's that I can deal with almost any clinical issue except unwillingness.

I can't teach or coach people to care more. If you're struggling to try and care more - if the only reason you're going to a counselor is because she's dragged you there or if the only reason you're reading this is because she surprised you with it in your inbox, then you might be in a place where you're not really being honest about how you feel.

If you're in that place, there's a good chance that you're working against the very thing you want. We all need to be heard, even if what we have to say could be hurtful.

Usually, when we feel pestered by our partners, they have the perception we're not listening. And I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, but they're usually right. Apathy - the emotion of not caring - is not a passive state. Despite what you may think, it's not her fault you don't give a shit.

Apathy exists to protect us from feeling like a failure.

I learned this by working with teenage boys in a juvenile detention facility. It was easier for them not to care than it was to try and risk failure or embarrassment. If you try to show love and you're still met with ridicule or criticism, then that's not on you. That's on her. But don't use that as an excuse to stop trying. You're only going to make things worse. Go to therapy. Write love notes. Try differently. Talk to her about feeling powerless at a time when you aren't fighting.

Change things up, but don't stop caring; because that's the beginning of the end.

If she's told you that she's not happy or that she feels like you don't love her, try not to respond defensively. Chances are she feels that way for good reason. In our culture, we tend to devalue and diminish women's experiences as being too emotional or not rational enough.

Don't do that.

That's just sexism masquerading as frustration. Trust her emotional intellect. Maybe you'll learn something about yourself that'll surprise you.


Dr. Mathis Kennington


How Depression Impacts Marriage.

Image by Thomas Leth-Olsen on  Flickr

Image by Thomas Leth-Olsen on Flickr

Has depression impacted your marriage?

Then maybe you know what it's like to look over at a spouse you don't recognize anymore. Or perhaps you're the spouse who feels unrecognizable.

In his memoir, The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon writes that depression can be just as difficult on spouses of depressed partners as it is on depressed partners themselves. Spouses have to learn to cope with this stranger called depression who has stolen the life from their beloved who, during the excitement of courtship, expressed so much vitality.

This creates confusion for spouses who don't know what to do with this suffering person they love. There's already incredible strain on all intimate partners to communicate effectively.

So When you add in depression, things get even more challenging, especially because one of the worst symptoms of depression is a lack of motivation to explain or fix anything.

If a partner in a committed relationship is having her or his first depressive episode, this can be especially challenging because they don't know what the hell they're going through. They could feel their drive and ambition wither away for the first time with no explanation.

What does depression look like in a marriage?

Although we commonly associate depression with sadness, some depressed people feel little sadness, but an intense apathy and an even greater frustration about that apathy. They lose friends because their friends don't know what to do.

noonday demon

Depressed persons can lose jobs, social relationships, board positions, fellowships and their places in life's rhythms - all for immediately inexpiable reasons that turn out to be depression.

Spouses who watch this unfold may wonder why their partner is beginning to push away all the meaningful relationships in their life. Spouses may begin to interpret this as a kind of "F**k it I don't care," attitude, when it's exactly the opposite.

Depressed people push their relationships away because they care so much.

They begin to see themselves as a burden and don't want to burden others. But they also don't know what to do. Instead, they simply feel conflicted - and pushing others away is a solution to the problem of being a burden.

Then, as if depression didn't claim enough, it slithers it's way into the depressed person's final refuge: their marriage. At some point, not knowing what's happening to them, it turns out that both a depressed partner and her spouse must cope with depression. Depressed spouses are like travelers on a new road called depression their partners are sometimes their only companions.

This new travel companionship is unspeakably difficult for both spouses because a depressed traveler has no idea what to ask for - and even the most supportive companion has no idea what to do.

Powerlessness and depression go to war.

I know this seems like a bleak picture: two spouses locked together by this shared experience of mental illness and uncertainty, trying to figure out what to do. The hardest part can be the hope. Depression is relentless in the sense that it provides brief glimmers of life when the symptoms fade a little. Spouses begin to think that they're getting their best friend back, and just when things start to settle, the depression comes back and steals joy away again.

So what should you do if you or your spouse experiences depression?

First, get educated.

There's no single greater tool. Resources like NAMI Connection Groups provide an amazing way to connect with other people who've been through the same thing. They'll also connect you to educational resources that can help you understand what depression is and how it could impact you or your loved one.

Second, do yourselves a favor and invest in some counseling.

Call someone you trust. If you're not sure, ask a friend. If you're not quite ready to talk to friends about how you feel, then websites like Psychology Today or referral sources like your doctor can help. A good therapist can work with you to structure your lives around this new normal, refer you to nurse practitioners or psychiatrists who can provide medical intervention if necessary, and support you as you try to establish new communication patterns.

Finally, practice self-compassion.

I know this sounds like fluff, but there's another problem we haven't talked about yet that both depressed partners and their spouses encounter. When we come into contact with depression - we start asking ourselves why we can't just snap out of it already. We tel ourselves we should be over it or that we should be able to help more.

But these are nasty judgments and symptoms of self-ridicule and shame. It's almost as bad as the depression itself because it keeps us trapped in a pattern of experiencing something we can't control (depression) and then judging ourselves for it (shame). It's hard to just stop a thought pattern like self-judgment. We need a new practice to replace it. Self-compassion is one way to start.

Regardless of where you're at in your journey with depression, whether you are the traveler or the companion, reach out. Find help. You don't have to travel alone.


Dr. Mathis Kennington


Why Couples Therapy Doesn't Work.

Image by Nasrul Ekram on  Flickr .

Image by Nasrul Ekram on Flickr.

Have you been to couples therapy before?

Did it completely suck? Or are you one of the lucky ones who walked away from the experience thinking it was positive, but also not totally sure why? There's usually a good reason for this, and after having worked with couples for nearly a decade, I think I've figured out why so many couples don't benefit from counseling like they hope.

When you go to the doctor, you go because you feel bad. And most of us hope to walk away from the office with a plan for what we need to do or maybe even an antibiotic or some medicine to help us go about our day. The point of going to the doctor is to get better so we can get on with our lives.

Medicine is transportable. You go to the office, get the diagnosis, take the prescription and leave. If only problems in intimate relationships were so easy. Wouldn't it be nice if you could stroll into my office with a sick relationship, spend a few hours more in the waiting room than you thought and leave with some medicine after just a 30 minute conversation?

This is why counseling doesn't work for a lot of people:

Couples therapy isn't transportable.

You can't take it home. My colleagues have spent years working on how to make the experience of couples therapy effective, but we haven't spent nearly that amount of time working on how to take couples therapy home.

The closest we've come to creating an experience for couples to sustain them when they leave is something we call..."homework."

If that's not the shittiest name for a transportable couples therapy intervention, then I don't know what is. Think back to the last time you did homework. Did you leave class thinking, "Oh, thank God! Homework! Now the learning can really begin!"


No one likes homework. So why would you enjoy it at one of the most stressful points in your life? Some people enjoy couples therapy. I enjoy working with those folks. It's like the walking portion of a marathon (Yes, that's a thing. Don't argue.). It's refreshing. But the bread and butter of my work is with folks who have about as much interest in couples therapy as they do in homework. But, despite their interest, they still need the process to be effective.

Couples therapy has a long legacy of falling flat. Just look at the way we're portrayed in the media. Stuck up, boring, pretentious know-it-alls with half-hearted and useless insights. I discovered this early on in my career when I made the mistake of thinking that if I did everything right in therapy, change would follow. But what makes my work different from a physician's work is that I'm not dealing exclusively with biological systems that can be tested with foreign substances like antibiotics.

In my room, I create change with clients through the complex systems of language and experience. But I'm not interested in what creates change. Lots of things create change. I realized this when traditional methods failed me, and I started to experiment. I was surprised by the things that actually created change:

Things like being a real person with my clients. Or metaphors. Or humor. Or challenging my clients' most sacred ideas about each other. Being willing to take risks with my clients - risks I know they both need me to take and might hate me for. But it's the job.

But, like I said, I'm not ultimately concerned with what creates change. I'm concerned with what sustains it. And that's not about what happens in my office. That's about what happens at home.

Sustained change is the only thing that makes couples counseling transportable.

Marriages don't change because people are educated. Our brains don't work that way. Education is one tool for change, but not everything. And traditional couples therapy is mostly education. 

But your partner didn't sit you down across the years and give you a prepared lecture about why she or he is mad at you. You got here because you had experiences you didn't want. So now, we have to have corrective experiences. And when therapy doesn't work, it's not because the tools aren't effective or - god forbid - you didn't get good homework. It's because you're not having the experiences you need in therapy to sustain the change that you want when you leave.

Ideally, my office is a change laboratory.

We experiment together. But we have to experiment in ways that are different than how you experiment at home. This is why it's likely that at least one of the partners in a relationship I work with will be really mad at me at some point. Changing a relationship in distress is like trying to turn an oil tanker with a paddle boat. The amount of cognitive effort couples (or throuples or poly folks) have to make in order to change distress is like running an ultra-marathon. It's hard work.

So why would you want to work your ass off in therapy and then leave only to be given more "homework"?

I don't do homework. I do experiences. Sometimes I ask you to take those experiences home. But they're always optional, never required to produce change and they always teach something - even when couples choose not to complete them. That's a learning experience as well.

Couples therapy has not been historically effective because, in my field, we're measuring the wrong outcomes. We're measuring what happens in the office as opposed to what happens outside it. What happens in the change laboratory is only important to the extent that it directly relates to some positive change that happens for you at home.

So in my office, I'm a bit of a mad scientist. I have to be. I'm limited by time and space. I wish I was a therapist in the future, after we've created teleportation. So I could just show up at clients' house in the middle of the clusterf**k. That would probably expedite the process much more quickly - if I could see clients in their natural environment. But, unfortunately, I live in a time when we still burn fossil fuels and live behind gated communities.

So no teleportation therapy.

Until then, I'll keep experimenting. If you've been to couples therapy before, and it didn't work, you're in good company. I can't promise that working with me will feel good or even completely safe, but I can promise you won't be the same when you leave.

Dr. Mathis Kennington, LMFT


How to be in Love at 90.

A bowl of sliced strawberries taught me everything I needed to know about love.

Last week, I published a post about what to do when you fall out of desire with your partner. It's a complex, yet common challenge in modern love. But recently, my grandparents - who have a way of weaving through life's most valuable lessons with an effortless grace - educated me once again on the art of staying in love, and since one of my best traits is that I can't keep my mouth shut, you get to hear about it.

I pick up hobbies. Too many at once. My latest hobby is fermentation. So I've been making my own beer, my own bread and I've got my eye on cheese. I'm pretty sure my interest in hobbies I don't need comes from my grandmother's lust for life. She's always involved in something, even at the age of 87. I've never known her not to have her eyes, her hands and her passions deep into something meaningful.

Every day, for example, Grandma wakes up, wrestles my grandfather from a jealous sleep and drives both of them to their local gym where they defy their own age with a vengeful fervor. When they return, she waddles outside to her flourishing garden, and gently mumbles to the herbs and tomatoes that grow each day with her encouragement, the secret ingredient of their abundance.

Next, she makes her way to a giant chicken coop monstrosity she had built in their backyard. It houses far fewer chickens than it could, giving them the impression that the world is much larger than it actually is. She steps into the chicken monstrosity and ticks each of them off with her fingers, one at a time, name by name. She checks their feeders, freshens their water, replaces their heads of lettuce, buys them new toys, feeds them the first-fruits of the garden that should be reserved for human mouths and shares their company for a time before she returns at sunset to tuck them in.

But last week, when I called to check in, I was surprised to hear my grandmother's predictably steady voice cracked with grief as she explained how a group of crafty raccoons Oceans Elevened their way into the chicken mansion and left only one of my grandmother's feathered children.

It was heartbreaking.

Whenever I call her, I expect to hear her vibrant and optimistic voice that serves as a grounding touchstone in my life. So her vulnerable voice caught me off guard. When she told me, through tears, what had happened, it was the first time in my life I felt murderous toward a group of raccoons.

I spent a few moments listening to my Grandma, feeling powerless to do anything and hating myself for it when, suddenly, an abrupt giggle broke through my grandmother's tears as she described watching my grandfather, who has a very hard time getting around, cut a bowl of strawberries into little slivers and gently pierce each wedge with a single toothpick before placing it in front of her.

Because what else can you do?

The chickens were gone. Those of us who become attached to animals know what it's like to lose them. It's heartbreaking. Like losing a member of your own family. And although the grief softens more quickly, it's sharp and deep for a time. And I caught my grandmother right at the start of it. So there was literally no way for me to help her.

But she didn't need my help, because fortunately, my grandfather has mastered her heart after more than 60 years of loving her.

I use that language not to reflect possession. No one possesses Betty Vance. I describe it that way to reflect how each of our hearts is like a story. Every story is unique, but they also follow a steady rhythm. If you read a story long enough, you get a good idea for how a story's characters will react to an event. In this case, though I know my grandmother better than most, I'm not my grandfather.

My powerlessness in that moment reflected that I didn't have a clue what to do. I wanted to murder the raccoons. I wanted to turn back the clock. I wanted to reach through the phone and somehow make the pain go away. But my grandfather knows better. He knows that his wife doesn't want this grief to go away because it reflects the depth of her love for life and it's creatures. She's also too independent to have someone solve her problems for her, so I'm pretty sure the only thing that could have reached her was to see this man offer a bowl of berries to dance across her tastebuds and remind her that life is still sweet.

Simple gestures are sometimes the only thing that can cut through the blanket of life's unexpected pains. And my grandfather was not intimidated by the futility of making the problem go away. Instead of trying to change her circumstances, he relied on his steady love for her to step in and introduce pleasure into the pain.

And this is the secret of loving someone forever.

If you want to feel passion. If you want to feel alive. If you want a vibrant with a person or persons, then master their heart by doing two things:

1. Pay Attention

Listen to how your partner describes needing help when they're in pain. Our first tendency is to fix the cause of pain, but most of the time, that's impossible. When we can't solve the problem, we either reach for solutions that don't make sense - like rushing too quickly to replace the chickens my grandmother lost. That wouldn't have worked.

Our second tendency could be to take a nastier approach to deal with our own powerlessness by trying to convince our partners that what's causing them pain is not actually a problem. Can you imagine what would have happened if my grandfather tried to tell Grandma that she shouldn't be so hurt over animals?

Loving someone across a lifetime, and being loved by them, depends how much well we listen to what they need rather than trying to hack a problem that has no immediate solution.

2. Take Initiative

Don't wait to take action to be there for your partner in moments of distress. Even if you don't know what to do, or your partner doesn't know what she or he needs, don't make the mistake of waiting to take action because you have no answer to the problem. Take a risk. It may be that you fail. It may be that thing you do wasn't what your partner wanted or needed.

Maybe my grandmother didn't want strawberries that day. That's possible.

But I can almost guarantee you that more mistakes are made in love when a partner takes no action because she or he doesn't know what to do. In moments of distress, inaction communicates apathy - whether you feel apathetic or whether you don't. Take a risk, and when you notice your partner in pain. Reach out somehow. Even asking how you can help when you don't know communicates love. And if she or he doesn't know what they need, then just respond by telling her that you're just going to sit with her, and be.

This kind of love is persistent. And the more adept we become at soothing each other when life threatens to crumble around us, the small and sweet pleasures of love cut through our grief like a bowl of bright red strawberries, cultivating passion for a moment.

And moment by moment, you pass through the years together, in love.

Dr. Mathis Kennington


When You're No Longer Attracted to Your Partner.

Image by Cathy Labudak on  Flickr

Image by Cathy Labudak on Flickr

If I could do away with any relationship myth, it would be that good relationships are those in which partners always feel "in love," with each other. Octavio Paz, a philosopher and writer who has written extensively about love and romance, argues that eroticism - which is the cornerstone of desire - and love - which is the cornerstone of intimacy - creates the double flame of life.

Relationship expert Esther Perel expands on this idea by suggesting that sometimes, love and desire work against each other. The familiarity we need to create a family requires love, which sometimes acts like a wet blanket to desire.

When this happens, it can feel like we're falling out of love with our partners, when what's actually happening is that we're falling out of desire.

Most of the time, when we lose attraction to our partners, it's not because we're no longer in love with them, it's because we no longer desire them. This is both normal and also could be a sign of distress that needs to be dealt with.

Here's how you know.

Are you under a lot of life stress? Are you having a baby? Do you have toddlers? Are there crises in your family that require you and your partner(s) to spend a lot of time together solving problems like business colleagues or roommates?

All of these situations can create a stressful environment that requires a LOT of love and intimacy so that the problems can be dealt with. But the cost of that closeness and familiarity is predictability. We lose novelty and distance, the fuel for desire's flame.

We're not taught from a young age to expect desire to normally diminish over time with a partner. So we're certainly not ready for this to happen when stress increases. Usually, we expect the opposite. We expect that when stress increases, our partners will know exactly what we need, even if we don't expect it. That's rarely the case.

When our expectations for caretaking aren't met, we feel hurt and resentful. This is the point at which our desire starts to diminish. But here's the thing. It's normal. It's normal for desire to come and go. For the feeling of being "in love" to come and go. It's a problem, but it's the kind of problem you want. We have these emotions because they're like data that helps us ask the questions we need to ask. Questions like:

Why do we feel distant from each other?

What should we do about it?

How can I help you feel closer to me?

The problem we don't want is when we just keep our feelings to ourselves, plug our heads in the sand like an ostrich and just forge ahead. It's these ineffective solutions that lead people in my office five years later considering separation or divorce.

So what should you do when you're aware that you no longer feel attracted to your partner? First, do a personal inventory. Consider what's going on in your life that's preventing you from experiencing desire. Are you overwhelmed at work? Have you created enough space in your life for levity, play, adventure and risk? Are you stuck in a routine with no flexibility for change because you don't believe your partner can change?

Second, consider how you feel about yourself. One of the best kept secrets about attraction is that very often when we don't feel attracted to our partners, it's because we're remembering how we felt about ourselves when we knew our partners were attracted to us. For example, in the beginning of every relationship, people tend to report that their confidence and feelings of sexiness are at their highest. Do you feel attractive? Do you feel vital? Do you feel confident?

If not, is it possible that your lost feelings of attraction are really because you don't feel attracted to yourself?

Once you've done a thorough personal inventory, it's time to start talking to your partner. Many people are afraid to disclose that they no longer feel in love with their partner because of the value our society places on this phrase. The moment we hear our partners say they no longer feel in love with us, it triggers a deep anxiety response that can push us into anxious pursuits that can become suffocating and overwhelming.

Finally, what is the state of your relationship? Are you fighting a lot? Do you ever fight? We tend to assume that a lack of conflict means a relationship is in a good place, but that's not necessarily true. A lack of conflict can be the result of boredom and fusion. On the other hand, too much conflict can be chaotic. Conflict is nothing more than a symptom. It's not the heart of the problem. But even symptoms can get out of controll

Falling out of love - or really, falling out of desire - is common. It's not unusual. It happens to most of us. The issue is, what do we do about it when it happens? Couple and sex therapy can be a good option, but only about half of all distressed couples seek help. And many of those distressed couples who don't seek help get better on their own.

If you're not in love with your partner, don't panic. Instead, consider what's going on within you that is preventing you from feeling desire. If you feel desire for other people, don't be threatened by that. You're attracted to other people and not your partner precisely because those people aren't your partner. You don't have history with them. Those other people are novelties. You've never shared a bathroom with them. It's okay.

Turn inward toward yourself for discovery and then turn outward toward your partner for change. If your partner resists the conversation or refuses to participate with you in a conversation to help you get better, then consider couples therapy or some other medium to create change.

Just don't wait.


Dr. Mathis Kennington


The Love Language(s) You Didn't Know About.

Image by Rui Ornelas on  Flickr .

Image by Rui Ornelas on Flickr.

My wife and I occupy different spaces in our marriage. I tend to be a little spacey, a little head-in-the-clouds-y, while my wife tends to have her feet planted firmly on the ground. Restless thoughts keep me up at night while she wraps the blankets tightly around her because she likes the feeling of warmth and safety while she sleeps. This has...occasionally...been a challenge for us both. Her mind's desire for security is deeply challenged by my tendency to do very stupid things.

Our minds operate at their best in two different ways.

My mind needs a world without boundaries, disordered and filled with risk. Her mind thrives in an ordered world, where safety and consistency abound. This is a generalization, of course. She surprises me sometimes - like the time she hitchhiked to the women's march with a group of girlfriends because the buses were taking too long. And I'll surprise her (although far less frequently) with my attention to detail and consistency. 

This tension between safety and risk has created moments where each of us felt that the other was either suffocating or abandoning us. It is one of most common and normal challenges that intimate partners face. 

We tend to find the things that complement us in our other(s). Her focused and attentive mind is deeply soothing to my chaotic and, at times, frenzied one. My jump-first-get-a-cast-later attitude keeps her world bright and lively.


But it turns out that when these strengths aren't balanced, they can render any attempt to show love a disaster. No amount of time spent or gifts given can soothe a worried mind or calm a restless spirit. But these moments when I have failed to see what motivated her to take a risk with me taught me something vital.

My wife's craving for security is not a liability, but a love language.

In Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages, he challenges partners to think through ways that are not natural to them in order to reach their intimate others. While Chapman's book can be a little reductive (There's only five love languages?!), it's a useful exercise to get out of your own head and see what your partner needs.

My wife's need for security - which often shows up as she grills me on the details of my plan - is not an attempt to control or even influence my ideas, but rather, to feel secure in my risk-taking.

 She wants to join me, not restrict me. It's a big difference. 

It turns out that my willingness to invest in her safety and security was the love language I never knew existed. 

I was working with a couple that was negotiating a difference like this. Tom wanted to move into the city while Stefan wanted to stay put in his comfortable suburban neighborhood.

Stefan's logic was rock solid. They're house was earning a lot of value. They couldn't carry two notes, so they'd have to sell the house and lose that investment to move to the city. Still, the argument didn't sway Tom. They ran around in circles for a year in this argument before I saw them.

It almost brought them to the end of a 20-year relationship. 

Stefan couldn't understand why Tom cared so much about moving when they had everything they could possibly want.

So he was surprised to learn that it was precisely because they had everything they needed that made Tom feel so stuck. He had a hard time explaining it, but in one desperate moment, Tom shared that living in a suburban neighborhood for the rest of his life felt like he was slowly dying. 

He needed access to a dream. Something more.

I'll fast forward through the details - except to say that it was only when Stefan began to understand - when he decided to suspend his fear-driven agenda - that Tom needed opportunities to grow, to move, to stretch and to risk in order to feel alive. While Stefan was comfortable in his contentment, Tom felt restless, frantic and even depressed without the ability to wander. 

The couple ended up staying in their home, but only after hours of conversation and Stefan's commitment to Tom's adventurous spirit. They started to travel more, spend more time away from home - a few more weekends in the city without a schedule.

This satisfied Tom's desire to feel alive in his own way without sacrificing the secure foundation Stefan needed. 

This struggle could have devolved into a never-ending habit of the couple missing each other's core needs. In order to take a risk with Tom, Stefan needed to feel secure that Tom was going to invest in his need for stability.

Stefan didn't want to reject Tom's dream, but his brain would not allow him to entertain the idea without feeling like he had a plan he needed to feel secure enough to dream.

Tom needed to feel confident that Stefan would be willing to dream with him. They moved from saying things like this:

You'll always be the same. You never want to go anywhere or do anything. 

To this:

I get it. You need me to build confidence with you. You need to hear me think this through so you can feel safe enough to dream with me.

Like Stefan, my wife's willingness to take deep breaths when she hears about my latest idea, or entertains my latest request and just hear me out is her willingness to engage my love language: risk

Risk and safety are the two love languages we never knew existed.

They're not actually two love languages, but one. They work together. Because all of us need security in order to take risks and feel alive, and as John A. Shedd puts it best, "A ship in harbor is safe, but that's not what ships are built for."

If you find yourselves having this argument again and again, try to make a conversational shift. Take a moment and have a few deep breaths. Suspend your agenda in the conversation. Don't be an engineer - trying to hack your partner's logic so she/he no longer says things that upset you. Don't be a lawyer, litigating your case or defending yourself against accusations. 

Instead, be a journalist, whose only agenda is to get the story.

Ask open-ended non-judgmental questions. Stuff like:

What's that like for you?

What about this makes you feel so alive?

What would make you feel safe as we have this conversation? 

Just because you occupy different spaces in your relationship, doesn't mean you can't share those spaces together.

Dr. Mathis Kennington


Honk! if You Love Sexual Health.

The other day I was driving down Manchaca heading downtown and on the east side of the street was a group of people holding signs - which my trained mind immediately registered as protesters. My partisan mind immediately read the signs to determine whether these people were friend or foe. 

That's when one of the brightly colored signs caught my eye. Sprawled across neon paper were big bold words, "Honk! if You Love Hugs!"

Wasn't expecting that. In fact, all these protesters signs had positive messages that had no political affiliation. There was one person wearing a pro-Trump shirt and another person wearing a Bernie Sanders shirt. Bold. 

The experience made me think how easily we put people into monolithic baskets and start searching for what side we're on. It's no different when it comes to mental health issues.

If the public knew how their therapists fought on message boards and at conferences, we'd all probably be out of a job. 

There's a big debate right now in the field about the nature of sexual health problems. Can sex be addictive? or not? I'm not getting into that discussion here. But this is why I love the work of Doug Braun-Harvey and Michael Vigorito. They've presented an open access resource that doesn't rely on certification (The fast track to making money in this business), but is instead, intended to be an integration model that helps therapists incorporate important sexual health principles into the work they're already doing.

These two powerhouses of sexual health have recently published their book on how to treat consensual sexual problems that feel out of control. So this would be things like pornography and other sexual behaviors people are either uncomfortable with or feel like they can't get control of. 

The thing I love about this work is that it doesn't rely on pathologizing (making something bad or sick) in order to provide the treatment. We're not going to tell you that the specific behavior is a problem. Instead, we're going to work toward aligning your behavior with your ethics and some previously established principles of sexual health. Principles like consent. Honesty. Pleasure. 

In just a few weeks, Dr. Braun-Harvey will present his work on treating out of control sexual behavior. That presentation will be hosted by the Southwest Sexual Health Alliance, a first-of-its-kind sexual health resource in the Austin community. If you're a clinician, student or sexual health nerd, you don't want to miss this presentation. 

I hope to see you all there! 

Dr. Mathis Kennington


How to Be Your Own Advocate

If you've ever wondered what makes a therapist/psychologist/counselor/social worker (hereafter just, therapist) different from your hair stylist, then this is a good post for you to read. I'm going to pull the curtain back on what actually sets these people apart in our society as the gatekeepers of problem solving. 

Keep in mind that this list is supposed to be an ideal one. Hence, if it goes the way it's supposed to, then this list is what you SHOULD find in your clinician. 

1. They are evidence-based problem solvers. 

You can get problems solved anywhere. Go talk to your girlfriends or listen to your buddies rant over a football game. Meditate. Pray. 

All potential options. Usually though, someone seeks me out when they feel they've exhausted all the options. What makes a therapist different is that she or he has been trained in problem solving methods that have been demonstrated to be scientifically effective. 

We're not just throwing random thoughts out there. We have a method to the madness. Or at least, we should. 

2. They are excellent relationship builders.

Of all the things that make therapy work, relationship building is the most important. That, and what you, the client, bring to the table work together to produce the change you're looking for. Plenty of therapists will use different evidence-based approaches to help you solve problems. 

But none of those are effective if your relationship with your therapist is poor. 

3. They are aware of their own judgments and values. 

This is probably the more important of the three, and coincidentally, it's the one I want to spend some time on today. All of these are important. We could spend time talking about how you could spot a therapist using evidence-based treatment, but this last one has me steaming right now and I think you should know why. 

At least once or twice a week in my office, I hear someone tell me that they've finally got their spouse figured out because of something they read on....

Fill in the blank. 

Huffington Post. Elephant Journal. The New York Times. The comics section of the daily newspaper. 

The most recent article I discovered tried to convince it's readers that the reason people have affairs was because of this nefarious little personality trait called "machiavellianism." Machiavellianism is a pop-psychology nonsense word that has absolutely zero meaning and value in clinical language. 

You won't find it in the DSM-V (The bible of mental health). You won't find it in almost any credible manual that instructs clinicians how to help people recovering from infidelity. 

And that's because it's not a useful term to describe this problem. But the article is written in such a way that makes you think it's a perfectly legitimate explanation for why people have affairs. 

It's not. 

I'm not going to get too far into the details, but suffice it to say that the author cites a journal article from a journal that doesn't do clinical research, that doesn't have a strong peer review process and that was relying on data nearly half a century old. 

The point is this. 

When you're out there looking for answers to your questions, which we all do in the age of Google, you're going to be tempted to believe the advice of experts whose writing suits the suspicions you already have. 

Be careful. 

I expect that part of the problem with the author of the infidelity post I listed above was that she wasn't as aware of her own unconscious judgments as she should be. She used value-driven critical language to describe people's motives. She relied on poorly executed research to explain her theory. 

You'll find a lot of this swimming around the internet. Therapists aren't immune from value judgments. Despite what your shrink may tell you, she or he is not objective. There's no such thing. We shouldn't strive for it either. It's bad therapy. 

Rather, we're trained to be aware of our judgments and decide intelligently whether we should act on them, or reveal them to our clients. 

You, however, have a responsibility as well. You're responsibility is to be an empowered client. Don't fall prey to intelligent sounding words just because they link to a study. Go to the study. Research the journal. Examine the author's claims. If you're not familiar with research, just ask someone who is to help you understand. 

You are always your most powerful resource. Just because a therapist says something or writes something, doesn't make it right. You have the power to determine that truth for yourself.

Dr. Mathis Kennington


Why Men Shut Down.

Image by Rolf Enger on  Flickr

Image by Rolf Enger on Flickr

Warning: some adult language follows.

First, you need to know that this is not exclusively a man problem. Your gender probably doesn't predict that you'll be more or less likely to shut down during conflict or intimacy. There's probably research on this, but I'm too lazy to find it this morning. 

In my experience, men tend to do this more often, but it's because we're raised that way rather than born that way.

I'm writing about men in this post because I want to talk about some specific reasons men tend to disengage from intimate conflict. When men shut down, stonewall or walk away - to their partners it feels like abandonment, a lack of caring or apathy. 

But for the most part, nothing could be farther from the truth. 

By the end of this post, I hope to convince you that the reason men are first to shut down is precisely because they care. I know it seems backwards, but hang in there with me. 

First, there's something you should know about how society impacts male psychology. Middle class white men are told from their first breath that they can conquer the world. Messages about our potential vary across ethnicities. African American men, for example, are prepared by their mothers, grandmothers, fathers, uncles and aunts for hostility in the world. And for good reason.

Nonetheless, all men receive the message that they can and should possess the world. 

We internalize subtle messages across the course of lives that we must be successful, strong and impenetrable. We are stoic, powerful, sexual and emotionless. More than anything, we are competent. 

We have the solutions. We have the answers. Or at least, we better. If we don't, it's a big problem for us. Author Brene Brown tells a story about what motivated her to study how men experience shame: 

I did not interview men for the first four years of my study. It wasn’t until a man looked at me after a book signing, and said, ‘I love what you say about shame, I’m curious why you didn’t mention men.’ And I said, ‘I don’t study men.’ And he said, ‘That’s convenient.’
I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because you say to reach out, tell our story, be vulnerable. But you see those books you just signed for my wife and my three daughters?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘They’d rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me it’s from the guys and the coaches and the dads. Because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else.’
— Brene Brown

Our entire lives, we're told to be hard. We're told to sit on our white horses. We're told that to be a man means that we must be unaffected by the world. This, unfortunately, not only has a terrible impact on our emotional development, but on the emotional well-being of our future partners. 

We aren't taught - as many women are - how to be competent in intimate relationships. Boys don't cry, after all. We don't know that empathy is a solution to many problems. We only know that we must win to survive.

We live by the three "F's": fight, fuck or fail. 

Forgive my crude language, but it's the only way I know how to get the point across. 


We solve problems through violence or aggression. Always have. Why do you think UFC is so popular? It's an exercise in male competence and ego. 

For most of us, the modern day battlefield takes place in corporate America. Thank God women entered the public workforce because men have been forced to increase emotional intelligence rather than solve every problem like Don Draper. 


Our value comes from sex (as much of it as we can). If we're not having sex, we're not men. Sometimes our libido drops because we're afraid we won't be able to have sex how we want, so we shut down. And for the most part, male sexuality has been maligned and cast aside as a perversion. 

Since we're not well equipped to talk about our feelings, we have no idea what do about this. Most of us struggle to ask (rather than demand) for the kind of sex we want - or we hear our partners' requests for a different kind of sex as a judgment on our performance. 

Which brings me to the third "F".


If we're not fighting or fucking successfully, we're failing. And when we fail, we try harder to fight (we get aggressive) or we try to soothe ourselves through sex.

When those don't work, we are at serious risk of an identity crisis. 

At some point, we become adults when these strange creatures called our lovers enter our lives.  The demands for closeness, intimacy and connection are difficult. We are mystified and perplexed by the new "F" that we're suddenly expected to know how to deal with.


No. No, no, no. Feel = weak.

Feel is just another word for fail.

We've never been taught how to deal with this "F." We've always channeled our emotion through sex, ambition or action. So when, as adults, our partners demand that we know how to feel, we resort to what we always do when we don't know what to do.

We fail. 

And to you, this will look like abandonment.

Because the generations before us haven't equipped us to be empathetic. When you're telling us something that bothers you about us and we disagree, we don't know how to listen to you and validate your emotion. We simply try to solve the problem and if that doesn't work adequately, then we get defensive. Angry. Careless. Maybe even abusive. 

That's on us. Not you. Aggression is not excused by incompetence.

We go through this cycle until it spins out of control. We tell ourselves that nothing will work and we might as well give up. We give up because the last thing we want to do is expose our incompetence.

We don't want to make things worse. 

Unfortunately, to our emotionally competent partners this looks a hell of a lot like we'd just rather not bother. But be careful not to confuse a lack of competence with a lack of desire.

I know when he turns around and walks away or throws up his hands and tells you "this conversation is over," it looks very much like he doesn't care. 

But what's actually going on is a complex conflict common in male psychology. We're so scared of failing you that we can no longer face the fear of enduring the conversation, so we end it instead. And if it's been going on long enough, we find ways to end it before it begins.

Powerlessness masquerades as apathy.

I was talking with my colleague Simon this morning about a conversation we both have frequently with couples. 

I told a story about a couple I worked with a few years back. She came to realize in a powerfully emotional moment that her husband's shutting down behavior was intricately tied to her own critical accusations. When she discovered what was going on, she asked him if he felt powerless - genuinely curious.

Struck by the power of his wife's sudden empathy, he began to weep. 

Not used to this, she was scared out of her mind. She didn't know what to do with his sudden vulnerability.

Being from New Zealand, Simon is a bit of a cheeky fellow. He smiled knowingly and said, "Uh oh. Looks like he fell off his horse." 

Women and men alike expect men to know how to deal with everything. So when we don't, it takes everyone by surprise. When we fall off our white horses, the world around us either leaves us there to be trampled or tries to get us back up on the horse. They ask us to be vulnerable, but when we are, we're punished for it.

We need help.  

Sometimes, that can be achieved with a little reading, open communication or through resources like TED videos or corporate trainings on communication.

Sometimes, it can only be addressed through therapy or life changing experiences like the birth of a child.

Whatever the solution, it matters that our partners understand what's going on with us. We may not even know how to describe it until someone points it out to us...gently. 

I've worked with many men who are uniquely emotionally and relationally competent. So this blog won't fit everyone. But unfortunately, these men are generally the exception rather than the rule. which is a cultural problem, not an individual one. 

Be careful with the men in your life. They are more delicate than they appear.

Dr. Mathis Kennington, LMFT