A “common sense” theory of emotion views emotional reactions in interpersonal situations as a physiological reaction “caused” by something another person did.  This idea is captured in a statement such as “You made me so angry when you stood me up!”  Further, such emotional experiences are described as “normal”.   In other words, someone stands me up that “causes” me to be angry (hurt, anxious, pissed, annoyed, irritated, etc. etc.), which is a “normal” reaction to being stood up.  What follows is usually some reactive action (yelling, not speaking to the person, retaliating in some way) that is justified by the “normal” reaction of being angry at being stood up.  Implicit in this “common sense” theory of emotion is a very widely held view that emotions are distinct states with corresponding distinct brain states, e.g. there is a set of “anger neurons that are trigged when your co-worker does something that annoys you.

There is a growing body of research carried out by Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northwestern University that offer us a new way to look at emotions.   According to this new approach, emotions, even the basic ones like fear, anger, sadness, happiness and disgust, are not distinct entities inside us.  Overall, Feldman Barrett’s research found that no brain region is dedicated to any single emotion.  Furthermore, every supposed emotional brain region is also activated during non-emotional thoughts and perceptions.

This research challenges the view that we can easily and neatly distinguish between emotion and thought and the idea that our emotions are “things” in our brain.  Feldman Barrett challenges the idea that there are unique biological “fingerprints” of each psychologically identifiable emotion that can be identified from your facial muscle movements, your body changes, and your brain’s electrical signals.ID-100122588

Emotions like “anger”, “happiness”, and “fear” refer to diverse biological states that vary depending upon the context or situation in which they occur.   For Feldman Barrett, “When you’re angry with your co-worker, sometimes your heart rate will increase, other times it will decrease and still other times it will stay the same.  You might scowl or you might smile as you plot your revenge.  You might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm.”

Given this approach, how do we understand our emotional reactions?  How can we understand what context means when it comes to understanding and managing our emotions?  How do we assess the context in which our emotions occur so that we can better understand and manage them?  There are two ways to think about context: (1) the current situation we are in, and (2) our own history, the historical context.

Your emotional reactions need to be understood in terms of your own unique history.  Generally speaking, the way we react emotionally and understand our emotions evolve in the context of our relationships with our early caregivers and how they respond to us.  Every child needs every-day sustaining help, needs comfort and reassurance, and the experience of cognitive mastery.

Early fear and anxiety are related to the growing awareness that we have little control over whether and how others provide the things we need to survive and flourish.  Anger likely develops because others will not or do not respond well to our need for help, love and reassurance, and mastery of our world.  Anger at the unwillingness or inability of our caregivers to provide for us also challenges the child’s sense of omnipotence, i.e. the fundamental wish or belief that he/she is entitled to have all its wants fulfilled on demand.  Of course, all emotions begin in very rudimentary, ill-defined form and become more refined over time with maturation and the changing nature of these caretaking relationships and our relationships with others.

ID-100290105The best way to understand your emotions-in-context such as anger, fear, and the catch-all hurt is to is to know that you are reacting personally to the interpersonal situation.  Taking something personally means that your own personal history is being played out in the current interpersonal situation.  It means that whatever is going on in the current situation, it is being experienced in terms of your own long history of others going all the way to childhood.  Thinking of emotions (particularly anger, fear, and hurt) as emotions-in-context tells us to be cautious about how are interpreting the current situation.  The current situation is not the same as past situations but it can feel the same.

Taking something personally happens when you portray what the other person is doing only in terms of how you experience it.  How you experience someone else’s actions, while important to you, is not the only way to describe other’s actions. 

Some examples:

  • “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”
  • “I can’t believe you are ignoring me like that.”
  • “My opinion doesn’t count; You treat me like a second-class citizen in this relationship.”
  • “You spend so much money on things that are not important; you’re so selfish.
  • “You always want to have sex.…you’re a sex addict.”

In each of these statements, the items in bold are you portraying or characterizing another person’s action.  This is your experience of the situation, taken without talking to the other person about how he/she sees the situation.  Others rarely, if ever, experience their own actions in the same way that you are characterize it.  That sense of “unfairness” in the example above is your personal experience of the situation.  The feeling of being “ignored”, etc. is significant for you on a personal level.

Let’s use “feeling ignored” as an example of how we can be affected by earlier childhood experience.  To understand the experience of “being ignored” we have to think about a child’s experience of not being paid attention to in a way he wants, which is a description of what is happening to the child.

Let’s imagine a child in the following situation with his dad:  One Sunday his dad is enjoying reading the newspaper, preoccupied with what he wants to do.  His son approaches and interrupts him asking him to play a game with him; he wants some attention from his dad who is usually very attentive.  The dad is doing something he really enjoys and responds to the boy with a sharp tone, “Can’t you see I’m busy? Don’t bother me.”   This is not abuse, it’s an adult being interested in something he wants to do and failing to appreciate how his child experiences his words and deeds.

Children cannot be objective about themselves to know that they are okay even if they are in trouble or don’t get what they need or want.  They cannot evaluate how they are doing in the world separately from how they think others see them, particularly their parents.  This inability to think objectively about oneself is a characteristic of the nature of childhood cognition.

The boy in the example experiences his father’s lack of acknowledgement of his wish as if father is saying something is wrong with him.   It is as if the child said to himself, “If there weren’t something wrong with me or what I want, it would have been attended to.”  The child is thinking personally; it must be about him as a person.   Of course, father, like lots of parents, forgot how children think and therefore, failed to realize how his child is experiencing the interaction with him (father).  Over time with repeated experiences like this the child can develop a generalized experience of “not being good enough”, not being worthy.

By the way, responding appropriately to children does not mean either immediate or even delayed gratification of their requests.  It does mean openly acknowledging the want and that it is important.  This acknowledgement of the child’s wants supports his own feeling of being valued and important, i.e. being “enough” as a human being. To not be attended to, to not have what you want acknowledged, is to be “ignored” and it is personal to a child!

These kinds of incidences happen to children all the time.  Over time, as children we experience anxiety, fear, anger in such events and our mind and body prepare us to protect ourselves from the threat of what we experience as something wanting in ourselves; it is as if some “fatal flaw” has been exposed to others such that they will reject, humiliate, avoid, criticize, ridicule, and/or harm us.  Over time we conjure up defenses against such flaws and our body prepares us for “fight or flight”.

Over time you will develop a ‘quick response system’ that will include making a quick ‘interpretation’ of the situation that will be based more on your own history than on the current situation.  That is, you will ‘characterize’ the other person’s action in terms of what it means to you personally.

In the example, “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”, you are characterizing the others behavior as “unfair”.  This is your experience of the situation, taken without talking to your co-worker about how he/she sees the situation.  As noted, others rarely experience their own actions in the same way that you characterize it.  That sense of “unfairness” in the example above is your personal experience of the situation; it is not an objective assessment of the situation.  It is up to you to examine what about ‘fairness/unfairness’ is significant for you on a personal level.

Now that you get it, i.e. “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.” indicates your personal experience of a situation, what is the alternative?

Given that you recognize your personal take on the situation, and have given yourself time to reflect, you are in a position to assess the way in with the situation is problematic for you.  In the situation presented, you may see that your co-worker is not doing all the work assigned to him/her, is not completing work assigned, is doing other than assigned work.  The problem is that this affects the work other others, including you, in the office.  All of these assessments are descriptions of what may be occurring that are creating a problem for you at the work situation.  All of these descriptions pose ways to address the work problem.  Such descriptions of problems open that way for negotiation.  It may not always work out; negotiation may not be possible because the other person reacts, does not want to negotiate work tasks, or is not accessible.  You may have to go some other route, e.g. speak to a manager, go to human resources, decide to move on etc.

Here are the takeaways from this post:

  • Emotions are not “things” in your brain; there is no such thing as “anger neurons”
  • What you feel depends on your own history with others and the current situation
  • Recognize your personal take on the situation
  • Learn to describe not characterize
  • Once you can describe the situation, you can define the problem
  • Make your best effort to discuss the problem


Barrett, L. F.  “What Emotions Are (And Aren’t)”.   New York Times, Sunday, January 17, 2016.

Barrett, L.  (2006). Are Emotions Natural Kinds? Perspectives in Psychological Science.  Vol.1(1) 28-58

Barrett, L.  (2006). Solving the Emotion Paradox: Categorization and the Experience of Emotion.  Personality and Social Psychology Review.  Vol 10 (1) 20-46.

Nussbaum, Martha (2003). Upheavals of Thought.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



DISAGREEMENT IS NOT CONFLICTLots of people use the words disagreement and conflict interchangeably.  To do this ignores very important differences between these two types of interactions between people.

When you disagree with someone, it is about something.  It’s about who is going to do what task at work; it’s about where to get the car serviced; it’s about how to discipline a child; it’s about which movie to see this evening.  Disagreements are about content, the what in your interaction with another person. ID-10088140

The defining element of a disagreement is that you are talking to each other.  Because you are talking to each other, you can negotiate a resolution of the disagreement.  You can compromise, one of you can make an accommodation to the other, or you can agree to disagree.  And, most importantly, after the disagreement, you are both still talking to each other.

That is not usually the case when there is a conflict between you and another person.  When you are in conflict with someone, the assumptions you are making about each other are hidden and the feelings are strong.  In a conflict, you are not talking, you are yelling, avoiding, or talking over each other.  In a conflict:

  • Issues will not be resolved
  • Misunderstandings are not resolved
  • No benefits accrue to the relationship through negotiation of issues

While disagreements are resolved through negotiation, conflict is managed through self-reflection and personal accountability.


The first clue is how you are feeling.  Too often, when you feel angry, for instance, you are set to “blame” the other person, e.g. “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”   That is, something you have done has caused me to feel angry at you; and it’s normal for me to feel angry at you.   This scenario of thinking others “cause” us to be angry (hurt, fearful, pissed, anxious, etc.) and describing this as normal is really the basis for having a conflict.  It is more accurate to describe an angry (hurt, fearful, pissed, anxious) reaction as ‘automatic’ rather than ‘normal’.  Calling such emotional reactions ‘normal’ is typically used to justify acting out that emotion rather than reflecting on the situation.ID-10067169 (1)

If you act when you are feeling angry, hurt, fearful, pissed toward someone, you are setting up the situation to have a conflict.  Usually what happens is, you react (act badly) by yelling, shutting down, etc., which increases the likelihood the other person will feel angry, hurt, fearful, etc. and react in turn.   Now you two have a conflict.  Whatever the issue (not doing an assigned task, e.g.), the conflict is now about how you both are feeling toward each other and the negative assumptions you are making about each other.  The issue now is that he is a shirker and she is off on one of her emotional binges. This is now a conflict about who is right, who has injured the other, who is the worse employee.  It is not a disagreement about work loads.

The method to resolve conflict is for each person to be self-reflective and personally accountable for his/her part in the breakdown of the interaction.


Enhance your emotional intelligence

Certain emotions such as anger and fear along with the catchall emotion of hurt, tell you that you are reacting personally to the interpersonal situation.  Such emotions are associated with the release of the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CHR) along with other hormones and neurotransmitters including epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine, all of which ready you for a fight or flight response.  Daniel Goleman who developed the idea of emotional intelligence, views such emotions as a quick response system that pushes you to react to a person or situation without appropriate reflection on what is going on interpersonally.  If you act on these emotions, you will not behave well.

Recognize your personal take on the situation

Your ‘quick response system’ will also make a quick ‘interpretation’ of the situation that will be based more on your own history than on the current situation.  That is, you will ‘characterize’ the other person’s action in terms of what it means to you personally.

In the example, “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.”, you are characterizing the others behavior as “unfair”.  This is your experience of the situation, taken without talking to your co-worker about how he/she sees the situation.  Others rarely, if ever, experience their own actions in the same way that you characterize it.  That sense of “unfairness” in the example above is your personal experience of the situation.  And, you should examine what about ‘fairness/unfairness’ is significant for you on a personal level.  One way to be self-reflective about how things feel personal to you is The Downward Arrow Technique (If You Lose Your Pen, You will Die).  A good quick use of this technique is at (http://jayspence.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-downward-arrow-technique-if-you.html), try it.

Learn to describe not characterize

Now that you get it…i.e., “I am angry because you are not doing your fair share of the work.” indicates your personal experience of a situation, what is the alternative?  Given that you recognize your personal take on the situation, and have given yourself time to reflect, you are in a position to assess the way in with the situation is problematic for you.  Once you identify the problem, you can describe it to the other person leading the way to a negotiation of a possible disagreement.

In the situation presented, you may see that your co-worker is not doing all the work assigned to him/her, is not completing work assigned, is doing other than assigned work.  The problem is that this affects the work of others, including you, in the office.  All of these assessments are descriptions of what may be occurring that are creating a problem for you at the work situation.  All of these descriptions pose ways to address the work problem.  Such descriptions of problems open that way for negotiation.

It may not always work out; negotiation may not be possible because the other person reacts or does not want to negotiate work tasks.  You may have to go some other route, e.g. speak to a manager, go to human resources, etc.  However, you have acted well, congratulations!


The same principles of disagreement and conflict apply to intimate relationships, even more so because you want this relationship to continue.  Take a look at this post Conflict in Marriage for how these ideas apply to your marriage.


It really takes a lot of effort to be emotionally intelligent and to recognize your own personal take on situations.  The more you can do this, the better interpersonal relationships you can have.  Even if others do not always respond well to your efforts, you know you have done well.  And, perhaps most importantly, it stops the development of a conflict between you and the other person.



“He has imposed on me, but he has not injured me.”  This is a great line in the Jane Austen book, Emma. This is what Emma says to Mr. Knightly explaining how she reacted to finding out that Mr. Churchill had been secretly engaged for almost a year while supposedly pursuing her romantically.  Mr. Churchill had pretended to admire and flirt with Emma in order to disguise his clandestine relationship with Jane Fairfax.  I have often used this line to help me explain to clients how to manage their reactions to others who do not behave well in order to behave well.

Characterizing another person’s behavior as an “injury” to which we are justifiably angry, hurt, or fearful, gives us permission to act badly in return.  Feeling ‘injured’ in such situations harkens back to a younger age when any small imposition or slight is experienced as an injury to our self because of our cognitive and emotional limitations as children.  As children we are take everything personally because we lack adult perspective-taking.ID-100345480

When adults do wrong by us (e.g. not being attentive, not showing gratitude, breaking promises, keep us waiting, being unkind to us) remember they are imposing on us not injuring us.  If we act out our experience of being injured, 100% of the time we will act badly in return.  A thoughtful judgement about how to respond toward others needs to be based on the recognition that others can impose on us without injuring us.

How do you respond to other people when they have ‘imposed’ on you?  I’ll take a simple example of planning lunch with a friend who has kept me waiting for about 20 minutes.   My first reaction, which is automatic (rather than ‘normal’) is to feel ‘insulted’ (i.e. ‘injured’) by that person’s ‘rudeness’.

My first task is to ‘soothe’ the anger so I can remember the difference between being ‘imposed’ on and being ‘injured’.  Once I do that, I can begin to address the issue of being kept waiting more time than I am willing to spend.  Here is my strategy for dealing with the friend.

  1. I leave the restaurant, going on with my day. I say or text something like, “I missed having lunch with you today since you were unable to make it at the time we arranged.
  2. I then say that being late (not making it on time) did not “work for me”. For example, I might say, “I was not willing to wait for you as I had other plans.  I had a pretty tight schedule today.”
  3. I then say, “I would love to reschedule when it works for both of us.”

The general principles I used in the above example are:

  • I state the person’s action (not my characterization of the action as ‘rudeness’). This means I describe what the person has done that did not work for me.  I am a stickler for addressing other’s actions that are not okay with me as actions that “don’t work for me”.  I love the phrase “it doesn’t work for me” as a powerful statement of my position without putting anyone down.
  • I do not characterize their action (e.g. “You are being rude to me by being late.”). I describe the action, being late or unable to be on time.  It takes a lot of willingness and practice to describe rather than characterize or label another person’s actions.  I guarantee you that most people do not accept/agree with our characterization of their actions.  At the same time, they cannot really dispute a description of their action.
  • I do not make any assumptions about the intent of the action toward me.

Even though you have made a herculean effort to treat the other person well, he/she may react as if you had accused them of some ‘injury’ to you and react in a defensive (self-protective) manner.  Do not lose your cool.  Do not undo your good work at managing your own reaction.  Just repeat what you have already said, emphasizing that it just didn’t work for you to wait, not that he/she was behaving badly.

All of this depends on your willingness to forego feeling ‘injured’.

The same principles work in intimate relationships.  Husbands and wives ‘impose’ on us all the time (they are late, they don’t attend to us in the way we want, the keep us waiting, they speak harshly to us, etc. etc.).  The difference occurs when a particular kind of ‘imposition’ is repeated.  When this occurs, you still use the above principles in the immediate situation.  However, at some other time you identify the repeated ‘imposition’ as a problem to be addressed, i.e. to be discussed and negotiated between the two of you.


Stress is mindlessStress is one of the “buzzwords” of modern life.  In my clinical work with clients, I found that they regularly described themselves as being “stressed” in all different kinds of situations.  I came to believe it to be a buzzword that limits our ability to understand the life predicaments people experience.  As one author notes, it is “a scapegoat explanation” that glosses over a clear view of a situation and muddies one’s reaction to that situation.  There are three serious pragmatic problems with the idea of “stress” as we commonly use it:

  • It confounds (mixes up, fails to distinguish) the nature of the difficult situation we are in with our personal, idiosyncratic emotional reaction to the situation
  • We tend to avoid addressing our own personal reaction by focusing on the “stressful situation”
  • Once we label a situation as “stressful”, we fail to further specify what about the situation is problematic for us

There are a hundred of sites you can find (e.g. Stress Management- Helpguide.org, Top 10 Stress Management Techniques-Santa Clara University, Five Tips to Help Manage Stress-American Psychological Association) to manage your stress, none of which addresses or challenges the way the concept of stress is used.ID-100249204

You can take a look at The Stress Myth by Serge Doublet, Ph.D., reviewed by the International Epidemiological Association, for a book that is one of the few serious attempts to unpack the concept of stress, which is used so mindlessly in a wide range of disciplines.

The concept of ‘stress’ is used in lay and scientific accounts to describe a whole host of reactions to a whole host of events.  Stress is typically described simultaneously in three different ways: (1) a type of stimulus, (2) a ‘non-specific’ physiological response, or (3) a combination of the two.  These three different definitions result in a circular definition: stress is something which produces a stress response; the stress response is what is produced by a ‘stressor’.


Dr. Doublet challenges the notion that stress is a non-specific physiological response to any kind of ‘stressor’, noting there is little evidence for such a non-specific physiological response.  In other words, different kinds of difficult situations produce different kinds of affective or emotional responses.

In addition, while ‘stress’ is clearly an abstract concept, people (lay and scientific) who want to use it regard it as something concrete in life, i.e. ‘stress’ is a thing.

My approach to helping people who identify their experience as “stressful” is be more specific in addressing difficult or problematic situations people face.  Here are the steps I suggest people take in such situations:

  1. Concretely describe the specifics of the situation (e.g. my husband seems more engaged with the children than he is with me; my wife spends more time than I would like her to on-line doing work activity when we are at home in the evening; my boss will not ok telecommuting at work, which means I have to commute over an hour each way to work; my apartment neighbor persists in playing his music loud enough for me to hear it)
  2. Identify your personal “interpretation” of the situation (e.g. my husband “ignores” me; my wife doesn’t “respect” me enough; my boss is being a ”s_ _ _t”; my neighbor is being really “selfish” )
  3. Identify what feeling or emotion goes along with your interpretation of the situation (I get hurt and anxious about our relationship when he doesn’t pay attention to me; I get very angry when she is on-line when I am with her; I am so “pissed” (a euphemism for being angry) at his inconsiderateness; I am so angry I could choke him)

Reacting personally (Step 2 and 3) in problematic situations is quite automatic1.   So you have to make a decision about if and how you want to manage situations before you get into them.  In other words, you have to give up the buzzword of stress as a way to think about these kinds of situations.  And you have to be willing to be self-reflective about your reactions.  Here are some examples of “stressful situations” with how they may be interpreted with the associated emotions followed by a possible description of the event.

Stress Table

You might look back on a recent day to find a few such “stressful situations”, sorting out your interpretation along with the associated emotional reaction.  You might also think about what you did in these situations.  When we act out our interpretations of events (which always has some negative emotion attached), we will always act badly (e.g. criticize, yell, withdraw) and never really address the situation.  When you act out of your reaction, you are trying to manage that reaction not address the issue.

Once you have identified a couple of situations, try to recast your personal reaction into an actual description of the situation.  Then you can brainstorm solutions, including consulting with others about what to do.  Sometimes you will find that once you stop interpreting the situation and describe it,  there is less of a problem to be solved.

1I purposely use the idea of reacting automatically rather than characterizing such reactions as normal.  When you say something is normal, you really don’t have to examine it nor correct it.


Doublet, PhD, Serge.  (2000). The Stress Myth.  MO: Science & Humanities Press

Barrett, Lisa F.  What Emotions Are (And Aren’t).  NYT, Sunday Review, 7/31/2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/opinion/sunday/what-emotions-are-and-arent.html?_r=0)

Charlton, Bruce G. (1992).  Stress.  Journal of Medical Ethics, (18), 156-159. (http://jme.bmj.com/content/18/3/156.full.pdf)




“Gonzo” Porn

You have to be brain dead to not know that the Internet is full of pornography, which is viewed predominantly by men.  Two tendencies of modern pornography are its greater reach via the Internet and its more explicit depictions.  This more explicit presentation of sex demonstrates the growing split between “erotic” and “gonzo” porn.

Conventional “erotic” porn mirrors Hollywood’s storytelling style, with clear plotlines with both characters and sex serving a “romantic” end, however, typically with a conventional a male focus (http://web.alternet.org/sex-amp-relationships/gonzo-porn).  “Gonzo” porn has pushed the traditional boundaries of pornography to new extremes.  “Gonzo” porn depicts sexual performances in which a male actor violates, appearing to harm, the female performer during sex acts that no actual woman would want to engage in.  “Gonzo” porn has no pretensions about plot and characters, sex acts are roughly enacted with more than one man involved and more explicitly degrading language (women are called sluts, whores, cunts, nasty bitches, etc.)    It has been suggested that a plausible reason for the popularity of this type of porn is women will not engage in such acts unless forced

Pornography and Your Relationship

Couples therapists hear women’s concern about their husband’s use of porn while husbands say it’s normal and that every guy does it.  Recent research is beginning to discover that the effect of watching pornography is more significant the people may think.

Here are some recent findings from a 2010 Scientific American review of relevant research (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sex-in-bits-and-bytes/)

  • An online study of more than 9,000 people, most of them men who were married or in a committed relationship, who used the Internet for sexual purposes reported the following results:
    • Slightly fewer than half used porn an hour or less a week
    • Forty-five percent reported engaging in online sexual activity between one and 10 hours a week
    • Eight percent used the Internet for such purposes for 11 or more hours weeklyID-10035090
    • A small but distinctive 0.5 percent reported more than 70 hours a week.
  • Even relatively light use may have a negative effect on one’s partner or spouse.
  • Frequent porn use and enthusiasm for porn was related to male dissatisfaction with a partner’s sexual performance and appearance, and doubts about the value of marriage.
  • 42% of women in one study said that their partner’s porn consumption made them feel insecure, 39 percent that the partner’s porn use had a negative effect on their relationship, and 32 percent that it adversely affected their lovemaking.

A recent (2014) study at the University of Tennessee conducted by Dawn M. Szymanski and Destin N. Stewart-Richardson (http://men.sagepub.com/content/22/1/64.full.pdf+html) found that pornography viewing was positively associated with lower relationship quality and decreased sexual satisfaction.

A Florida State University study (2012) (http://www.fincham.info/papers/2012-porn.pdf)  found that consumption of pornography  was related to lower commitment to one’s partner,  higher levels of flirting with a woman not their partner, and that, related to the lower levels of commitment, pornography was positively related to infidelity.

What Men Say About the Effect of Porn on Them

Men are reporting delayed ejaculation, a waning desire for their partners, having to play porno scenes in one’s mind in order to orgasm, faking orgasm, “sexual attention deficit disorder” from the habit of jumping quickly form porn clip to porn clip, getting home early from work to masturbate to porn, thinking one’s wife doesn’t measure up to the porn stars (they are younger, hotter, and wilder in the sack).  These comment are from “He’s Just Not that Into Anyone” published in the New York Magazine by Davy Rothbart.

Pornography and Morality

Is Pornography Adultery?

Ross Douthat is a conservative op-ed writer for the New York Times, published an article in 2008 in the Atlantic, “Is Pornography Adultery? (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/10/is-pornography-adultery/306989/).  His argument is that in the hard-core pornography in which two sexual acts are involved–the on-camera copulation, and the masturbation it enables, are interdependent (neither would happen with the other)–is “real” sex by definition.  His point is that this gets awfully close to moving from “fantasy” sexual activity to “real” sexual activity.  That’s getting close to what are adulterous actions.

Douthat, therefore, challenges the point of view that looking at pornography is a “perfectly normal” activity, that all men do it, and that women should stop whining and live with (in part because it is a low –risk alternative to “real” prostitution and “real” affairs).

What About the Women in These Films

Robert Jensen, a professor of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin is worried about the physical and emotional well-being of the women who perform the brutal sex acts depicted in “gonzo” porn.  He rejects the old shibboleths “to each his own” and “as long as they are consenting adults”.  To the contrary, Jensen wants us to extend the empathy we fell in sexual assault and domestic violence to the women in pornography and prostitution.  We have a moral responsibility to the woman who finds herself making a living by being filmed in “gonzo” porn films.

Secrecy not Privacy

Do not confuse having a right to privacy in marriage with keeping secrets.  Privacy has to do with keeping things to yourself that do not cause concern, harm, and injury to your wife.   Secrecy is keeping things, your engagement with pornography, from your spouse.  When you keep things secret, you deny your wife the information she needs to manage her own life successfully.

To Wives

Here are a few excuses that you do not have to accept as justification for accepting something that is unacceptable to you, namely your husband’s involvement with pornography:

  • It’s “normal”; that every guy does it
  • Can’t you see I need it (usually referring to some specific act likely picked up from watching porn)
  • I’ll never cheat as long as I have porn
  • It’s private

In Sum

Researchers have just begun to explore the possible downsides for intimate relationships of Internet pornography.  There is reason to be very cautious about the potential negative effects of watching (and masturbating to) pornography, particularly “gonzo” pornography on your marriage.

porno #1    porno #2  porno #3



The standard view of male and female desire, currently promoted by evolutionary psychologists, is that men are libidinous and promiscuous animals who are hard-wired for sex (a reproductive strategy designed to spread their genes as far as possible) and women as hard-wired for intimacy and babies, wanting to enforce marriage (monogamy) on men. Thank goodness there are a growing number of female scientists, a “gathering critical mass”, who are venturing into the field of female sexuality, a historically male-dominated field.

Daniel Bergner’s What Do women Want?” Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, reviews much of the recent scientific research, conducted primarily by women scientists, designed to challenge  traditional notions of female sexuality.   None of these scientists are claiming that women’s sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm are exactly like men’s.  Instead they are arguing that women have a stronger sex drive than commonly thought.  These researchers are challenging several long-held stereotypes of female sexuality:

  • That their sex drive is lower than men’s
  • That they’re aroused by love, not sex
  • That they’re not naturally sex agents but responders
  • That women are not as interested in new and different partners as men (both men and women struggle with being interested in sex in long-term marriage)
  • That women are not visual creatures (i.e. they don’t get aroused by visual images) when it comes to sex

One group of researchers at the University of Michigan lead by Terri Conley1 reviewed various theoretical and empirical approaches to gender differences in sexuality in order to shed light on the very prevalent misconceptions noted above.  Here are a selected few of their findings:ID-10043638

  • Do women desire and actually have fewer sexual partners than men? Bottom Line: No. When women thought that their true sexual history could be revealed by a polygraph (nonfunctional for purposes of the research), differences in reported sexual partners disappeared.
  • Do women orgasm less frequently than men? Bottom Line: Yes, but. The orgasm gap (men experience more orgasms than women) diminishes greatly when sex occurs in committed relationships; and it may disappear entirely when committed partners “are more generous in providing noncoital sexual attention (‘foreplay’)”.
  • Do men like casual sex more than do women? Bottom Line: Yes, but. A greater willingness to engage in casual sex is one of the largest documented sexuality gender differences.  Such previously documented discrepancies evaporate when female subjects considered sexual offers from very attractive or famous individuals.  Women were also equally as likely as men to accept offers of casual sex from close friends whom they perceived to have high sexual capabilities (would provide them with “a positive sexual experience”).  Conley concludes from her findings that the only consistently significant predictor that women, and men, will accept a proposal of casual sex is the perception that the one who is making the proposal is sexually capable (i.e., would be “good in bed”).  She also found indirect evidence in her work that women are less interested in casual sex because they perceive greater risk than men do in this kind of sexual encounter.

Considering the research they reviewed and their own research, Conley et.al. suggest that  gender differences in sexual behavior, which are the bread and butter of evolutionary psychologists, rather than being biologically rooted in our evolutionary past,  are rooted in much more mundane causes:

  • Stigma against women for expressing sexual desires
  • Women’s socialization to attend to other’s needs rather than their own
  • A double standard that dictates different sets of appropriate sexual behaviors for men and women

The Conley et.al. article is a well-presented, easy-to-read research report.  Bergner’s book covers some very interesting research.  In addition, he has a number of anecdotal stories from individuals, often pretty provocative.  He, like Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity have interesting discussions about dominance and submission in sexual activities.

ID-100246202One reviewer noted that Bergner’s book is a testament to the very existence and celebration of lust in women.  Bergner does acknowledges that people may marry not because it is the best possible arrangement for vibrant sex.  But it is the best way to have emotional stability and long-term companionship, which appear to be something both human males and females want.

Elaine Blair (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/books/review/what-do-women-want-by-daniel-bergner.html?_r=0) who reviewed the Bergner book, asks why is female lust getting such a big dose of scientific legitimacy at this time.  Is it because of women’s and men’s evolving social roles, because of women’s increasing economic and political power, feminism?  Many of the scientists are women which in itself is a novel situation.  As Blair notes, and I agree, the old story of the libidinous male and sexually indifferent female doesn’t make sense anymore. Don’t you, the reader, buy that old shibboleth either.  Claim your own sexual desire and fulfillment!

1Conley, Terri , Amy C. Moors, Jes L Matsick, Ali Ziegler, and Brandon A. Valentine.  (2011). “Women, Men and the Bedroom: Methodological and Conceptual Insights That Narrow, Reframe, and Eliminate Gender Differences in Sexuality.Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5) 296-300.  (http://www.newsucanuse.org/wp-content/bedroom.pdf)

2Conley conducted several projects challenging a very famous paper published by Clark and Hatfield in the Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, “Gender Differences in Receptivity of Sexual Offers.”  The purpose of this 1989 study was to provide support for what is called the Sexual Strategies Theory, a mainstay of evolutionary psychology, that men would be more responsive to an offer of casual sex than would women.  Conley embarked upon a project of four studies designed to determine under what conditions women are willing to agree to a casual sexual encounter.  Her research has been widely covered in the media.  One good review of the work can be found in the blog Yes Means YES!.


ID-100157089What is and has been a most perplexing question about marriage that concerns millennials is how to reconcile sexuality with domesticity.  Ester Perel, a couple’s therapist in private practice, writes eloquently and in depth about maintaining a vibrant sexual relationship in long-term marriage in her book, “Mating in Captivity” (love the title).   Take a look at her 2013 TED talk, “Secret to Desire in a Long Term Relationship”.

One of the first thing she says in her book is that focusing on frequency and quantity of sex misses the point on the story of dwindling sexual desire and interest in modern-day marriages. Perel’s thesis is that a committed marriage is about the psychological feeling of safety and security we get from being together.  We foster this togetherness by creating rituals, habits, and pet names (for example), all of which bring the reassurance that we are loved and valued.

At the same time we want adventure and excitement in our lives which is a testament to our autonomy and independence.  It is the seeking of adventure and excitement that is expressed through our erotic experience, which is characteristic of romance.  We want the riskiness of sexual adventure and excitement while also wanting the safety and security inherent in a long-term commitment.

I like to show the tension that exists in us between the risk of eroticism and safety of commitment graphically.COMMITMENT AND SEXUAL EXCITEMENT

The graphic demonstrates the idea of the simultaneously desire for closeness and connection and the desire for risk of adventure.  What the graphic shows is that if either you or your spouse is drawn too much to the safety and security of closeness, the willingness to take risks with each other will be compromised, showing up as being less interested in the erotic. At the same, if either spouse is overly concerned and interested in the erotic, the closeness of commitment is frightening because of the fear that the familiarity of closeness will lead to boredom in the bedroom.

While sexuality thrives on excitement and risk, commitment thrives on comfort and stability.  As Parel says, the need for the adventure and excitement is hard to generate with the person you look to for comfort and stability.

Parel talks extensively about the pitfalls in marriage that will have a negative effect on maintaining an erotic sexual relationship in long-term, committed marriages.  Such pitfalls, which affect our ability to maintain our simultaneous interest in commitment and erotic excitement include:

  • Gender stereotypes of men and women in which women are cast as longing for love, essentially faithful, and domestically inclined and men are cast as biologically non-monogamous and fearful of intimacy
  • The residuals of our Puritan heritage, which is deeply suspicious of pleasure and moralizes about anything that strays from heterosexual, monogamous, marital, and reproductive sexuality. While today there is a blatant marketing of sexual images that seem so anti-Puritan, the central idea that sex is dirty still thrives in us.
  • A major thesis for Parel (and many others she cites) is that our difficulties in creating a wonderful sexual relationship that thrives in long-standing marriage is often grounded in our own personal issues or insecurities. Since both people have such insecurities, a negative dynamic between spouses will play out in the couples’ sexual relationships.

Perel’s book is worth taking a look at because she takes an in depth, psychological approach to understanding the how and why a rich, vibrant sexual relationship is at risk in a long-term commitment like marriage.  She presents a number of stories about couples with whom she has worked, eloquently explaining the societal and personal issues that prevent them from having the sexual relationship they want.  You can click on the thumbnails below to get a sample of the stories about couples with whom she has worked.  ID-100157105

Another good read is “How to Think More About Sex” by Allain de Botton.   This is a very readable book in which de Botton argues (like Parel) that 21c sex is a balancing act between love and desire and adventure and commitment.   de Botton is a Swiss philosopher, who founded The School of Life in London, England.  This is a ground-breaking enterprise that aims to make academic learning applicable to real life.  You can sign up for The School of Life Newsletter at (https://us-mg4.mail.yahoo.com/neo/launch?.rand=7r6p0cn3qhr29).


deBotton, Alain. (2012).  How to Think More About Sex.  New York: Picador.

Perel, Esther (2007) Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.  New York: Harper.

Dominus, Susan.  “The Sexual Healter”. New York Times. Jan.25, 2014 (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/26/fashion/Sex-Esther-Perel-Couples-Therapy.html?_r=0)

Sex in Marriage 1 Sex in Marriage 2 Sex in Marriage 3



As someone invested in gender equality and how this plays out in marriage, I was dismayed by a New York Times Magazine article entitled “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?”.   An excerpt from the abstract of the American Sociological Review (2013) on which the article is based follows:

Although research and theory support the expectation that egalitarian marriages are higher quality, other  studies underscore the ongoing importance of traditional gender behavior and gender display in marriage……this study investigates the links between men’s participation in core (traditionally female) and non-core (traditionally male) household tasks and sexual frequency.  Results show that both husbands and wives in couples with more traditional housework arrangements report higher sexual frequency, suggesting the importance of gender display1………for sex between heterosexual partners.

The authors note that they did not study either sexual satisfaction or marital satisfaction in this research. Thus, these findings do not mean following traditional gender roles in managing household tasks is associated with more satisfying sex or more fulfilled marriages.

An important limitation to this study is that they used data collected from 1992 to 1994 with the average age of the males being 46 while the average age of females was 44.  This is a significant flaw in trying to apply this research to young people today, i.e. millennials, who are less committed to such traditional sexual scripts (e.g. a woman finds a man fixing the car sexy but not a man doing dishes).

Reading further, the researchers do not suggest that couples should reject egalitarianism in marriage.  Instead, they suggest that increased egalitarianism in one area of marriage (household tasks) must be paired with comparable shifts away from traditional gender behaviors, attitudes and scripts in other areas of areas.  For example, if increasing husband’s participation in core housework increases their stress levels making them less likely to initiate sex, then supporting women’s view that it is legitimate for them to initiate sex could have an impact on the frequency of sexual relation.ID-100157089

In sum the study may not be showing that egalitarianism in household labor is incompatible with sexual activity itself, but rather that egalitarianism is incompatible with traditional sexual scripts.

Nowhere do scientific findings get more mangled by the popular media than when they’re about differences between men and women.

The next several posts on this blog will talk about sex in marriage taking off from a  list of myths about sex and relationships summarized from the findings of a 2011 book, “Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying” by Mark Regnerus (Department of Sociology, University of Texas) and Jeremy Uecker (Department of Sociology, Baylor University).


Here is a list of the upcoming posts:

TIDBITS ABOUT SEX IN MARRIAGE #2: About Sex in Marriage.   This post will talk about myths about the sexual double standard between men and women; about establishing your own decisions about sex rather than following sexual scripts; and how to maintain satisfying sex in long-term marriages.

TIDBITS ABOUT SEX IN MARRIAGE #3: “I’ll Have What She is Having.” This post will talk about myths about women’s sexuality, i.e. that women are naturally less libidinous than men, “hard-wired” to want babies and emotional connection, but not necessarily sex itself.

TIDBITS ABOUT SEX IN MARRIAGE #4: Pornography and Sex in Marriage. This post will challenge the myth that porn won’t affect your relationship and some idea about a new kind of porn.

TIDBITS ABOUT SEX IN MARRIAGE #5: More on A Millennial Marriage.   This post will discuss additional myths about millennial ideas of marriage such as marriage can always wait, moving in together is a step toward marriage, and there is no hope for long-term marriage.

1Gender display refers to husbands and wives adhering to and demonstrating traditionally defined norms, e.g. women do the dishes and men cut the grass.


Gottlieb, Lori.  (Feb. 6, 2014) “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex? “ (http://nyti.ms/1kdOzQR)

Libby Anne (January 31, 2013) “More chores for Men=Less Sex?”(http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2013/01/more-chores-for-men-less-sex.html)

Smith, Jesse.  (June 16, 2015) “10 Sexual Myths Millennials Need to Know About.” (http://thoughtcatalog.com/jesse-smith/2015/06/10-sexual-myths-millennials-need-to-know-about/)




Being in conflict is not the same thing as having differences or disagreements.  Disagreements and differences happen all the time.    Couples can disagree when they want to go to the movies.  They can differ over how to discipline their children.  They can differ on when to have sexual relations.  They can disagree on where to get the car serviced.

Conflict is another matter.  Conflict occurs because of the way in which (how) you go about achieving what you want (e.g. seeing a movie, disciplining children, having sex, career choices).  The content is the what of the interaction between the two of you.   How you go about getting what you want in marriage is called process.   People often refer to process as communication but communication is an overused, imprecise term. The graphic CONTENT AND PROCESS IN MARITAL INTERACTION shows the difference between Content and Process.CONTENT AND PROCESS

The process that occurs between you and your spouse will be affected significantly by your own personal insecurities. We all suffer with feelings of insecurities of various kinds. Feeling insecure is not a sign of some psychological malady or impairment; it is a consequence of the cognitive and emotional limitations of childhood.

These insecurities show up in marriage as defensiveness (I prefer “self-protective strategies”) and overreactions to each other (“taking things personally”) instead of responding to each other. Taking something personally happens when you portray your spouse’s action only in terms of how you experience it.  How you experience your spouse’s actions, while important to you, is not the only way to describe his/her actions.  Accusing  your partner of “ignoring” you  when he/she is inattentive in a given situation is an example of characterizing an action rather than describing it.

The graphic ANATOMY OF A CONFLICT demonstrates a conflict between Jesse and Sarah over how she spent money on a new couch for their apartment.  In this situation, Sarah spent more than she and Jesse had agreed upon.  When she told Jesse about this, he immediately got angry at her, seeing her as acting “irresponsibly”.  He then verbally criticized her, calling her “irresponsible”, likely raising his voice at her.  Jesse may very well “make a case” about Sarah’s “irresponsibility” by highlighting past times she spent over budget, probably on minor things.

ANATOMY OF A CONFLICTSarah, in turn, thinks Jesse’s characterization of her as irresponsible is not justified, feels hurt and angry.  In her mind, she characterizes him as “insensitive” and “domineering”.  She is unwilling to “defend” herself because she does not believe her actions warrant this kind of reaction.  She makes no attempt to explain why she spent more than they had agreed upon.

Jesse and Sarah are now having a conflict, which goes unresolvedThey went their separate ways for the remainder of the day.  Later that evening, Jesse, feeling less angry, approaches Sarah amorously.  She still feels hurt and misunderstood and is not feeling responsive to him.  She still sees him as unkind and unfair.

Jesse’s reaction to Sarah spending more for the couch than they had agreed to is “taking it personally” because:

  • He characterized her action (she is “irresponsible”) rather than describing it (she spent more than agreed to)
  • He did not ask for an explanation for spending more than they had budgeted for the couch
  • His anger is “justified” because she is “irresponsible” not because of what she actually did (what she did is a problem to Jesse)
  • When you characterize someone’s action, you are going after him/her personally, not addressing what they did
  • When you react (because you take something personally) you increase the likelihood that your spouse will react too (as Sarah did in this case, characterizing Jesse’s action as “insensitive”, “domineering”)

Here is how this conflict could have been just a disagreement (even a big disagreement).

  • Jesse is aware that his initial reaction of being angry at Sarah is a personal reaction and he needs to step back for a moment to reflect
  • Once he is feeling less angry, he affirms that he is concerned that Sarah has spent over what they budgeted, he sees this as a problem (rather than a character trait of “irresponsibility”)
  • He asks what her thinking was in spending more than they had agreed upon on the couch (It turns out the couch was an expensive couch that was significantly reduced in price)
  • He talked with Sarah about his concern about spending over their agreed upon budget without “cross checking” (not asking permission) with him
  • Sarah made the case for the couch, letting him know that she had planned to use her discretionary money to pay partly for the extra cost of the couch and was willing to return it if needed
  • From this discussion they both agreed to keep the couch and set a limit on what they could each spend over budget in a given situation without talking to the other
  • Thus, they were able to reach a win-win solution to their disagreement over Sarah spending over budget on a new couch for their apartment

Conflict is not resolved through negotiation because when you are in conflict with each other, you are not capable of being collaborative, a prerequisite to negotiating.  You can only characterize and accuse.  If you don’t stop and reflect, you will end up arguing about the content which is impossible to address when either or both of you are reacting to each other.

To be self-reflective means being willing and able to take a hard look at your own personal motives when you interact with your partner, i.e. when you are “taking things personally“.  You can learn to be more aware of your own part in and more accountable for what goes on in your intimate day-to-day interactions.   As you become more aware of you “personal take” in an interaction, you can learn to manage it more effectively.


Simultanous Perspective in MarriageYou bring to your marital relationship the things you want or prefer to happen that allow you to flourish in life.  Much of marital advice, in contrast, is based on a view that we bring our needs to our relationship. This idea is captured very well in this quote.

Your have a right to ask for the things you need in a relationship.  In fact you have a responsibility to yourself and your partner to be clear about your needs (emphasis added). (www.theartofmanliness.com)

One of the most common ideas about how intimate relationships should work is that partners fulfill each other’s “needs”.  The idea of “needs-that-must-be-fulfilled” promotes a self-centered approach to relationships.  This view, widely accepted in our current culture, is an expression of the more general idea that we are all motivated primarily (or only) by self-interest.

A better way to begin a relationship is to know that you and your spouse are capable of being concerned about one another.   The schematic at the top left of the post represents the way in which you can be interested in yourself and your spouse simultaneously in marriage.

This schematic demonstrates the idea that you can each simultaneously see yourself as an individual with individual wants and desires and see your spouse as having individual wants and desires.  If either person sees him/herself only (primarily) as an individual (self-centered), the marital interaction will be distorted.  At the same, if either spouse is only (primarily) concerned and interested in the other (dependency), the marital interaction will be distorted.

Maintaining this simultaneous perspective in your marriage is basic to being willing and able to negotiate with each other the things that are important to both of you in order to flourish in life.  The schematic below on the right depicts the process of negotiation of individual wants and desires from the perspective of you both.SCHEMATIC NEGOTIATING COLLAB

  • Negotiating in marriage is first and foremost based on the ability to be interested in your spouse’s wants and desires in the same way that you are interested in your own desires.
  • Each of you describes your wants and desires and can provide a reason for why you prefer this or that (i.e. explore and understand the why’s of each other’s preferences)
  • Neither of you wants the other to do something that is too unattractive or violates some strongly held principle
  • Try out different ideas that reflect both your preferences so you can find a win-win solution
  • Or, if you choose one partner’s preference over the other’s, it is because you have decided it together thereby enhancing the relationship even if one partner does not get what he/she wants.
  • See how Jesse and Sara negotiated where she was to park the car

The ability to negotiate collaboratively in this manner assumes the following:

  • You have the capacity (including the courage) to identify and describe what you want
  • You can self-reflectively understand and describe the reasons and motives for you wants and preferences
  • You have the capacity to be empathic, i.e. you can understand that you spouse has wants and desires in the same way that you do
  • You can understand and value your spouse’s wants, even if they are different from your own

To have a want or preference is an expression of oneself, an expression of what you believe is important to living well.  As an expression of self, your wants and preferences must be acknowledge as standing on their own.  At the same time, they are not demands that must be catered to (they are not “needs”).  Wants and preferences are no more than an expression of self but they are no less than the expression of self.