Intimacy, Loneliness and the Internet

Marriage Help

Intimacy, Loneliness and the Internet


Karen J. Gless, Ph.D., MFT, RN

Sadly, it seems that there is an epidemic of loneliness in the U.S. The senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, has written a book, The Vanishing American Adult, that examines, among other things, the ways that the internet leads to loneliness.

The irony of the internet is that as we reach out to more and more people, we get less contact with them. We substitute screentime for actual facetime with others. This can lead to the question,

I’ve been friended by over 500 people. So why don’t I have any real friends?

As human beings we need to spend actual time with others to get our social needs met. And this can lead to real problems for couples. In my marriage counseling practice I am often struck by how many couples report that they feel lonely in their relationship. They long for greater closeness and intimacy.

All the Lonely People

The causes of this loneliness can be complex, as I found with one couple I saw. We can call them Joe and Mary.

They came in to see me after six years of marriage. The tests I gave them for the initial session showed that both were feeling lonely in their marriage. In our first session together I discovered that they had few mutual interests.

For vacations, he liked outdoor camping; she liked hotels. He liked to eat out. She preferred cooking and eating at home. But for meals they often ate snacks or leftover pizza while watching TV or working.

They were both in middle management and often got calls from work to deal with “emergencies.” Most of the time these were issues that could be dealt with the next day, but in today’s hurry up world, they had to be dealt with immediately. Mary worked at home a lot as a cyber commuter and only went into work once a week for meetings.

The rest of the time they were on the net playing games or going to sites, like Facebook, connecting with friends and family. The result was that even though they were often home together, they didn’t actually connect with each other and felt constantly stressed.

Both Joe and Mary in private felt a need to spend more time together and get closer, but it just wasn’t happening. As a result, their Love Bank Account was getting depleted. So their tolerance for each other was getting lower and lower and instead of getting more intimate, they were quarrelling about minor matters and getting more distant from each other.

The Internet and Loneliness

It used to be that people had a wider circle of friends, but the internet has cut us off, more and more, from actual direct contact with others. This can leave a couple just with each other for companionship and socializing. And that can be too much of a burden for a relationship to bear. Partners shouldn’t have to be “everything” to each other. We’re built to have other people in our lives. Still, partners can really be there for each other.

So how can a couple move from distance and loneliness to building intimacy and really connect with each other while reaching out to get a better social life? Well, the first thing is to get closer to each other and do fun things together. There are a few steps to doing this.

Getting to intimacy:

First, create a safe space

Second, do not attack your partner

Third, review when you first got together and remember what drew you together. This has a lot to say about the deep purpose of your relationship.

Fourth, get to know each other better.

In this case I emphasized steps three and four because they weren’t really locked in combat. They just needed to have more positive experiences and get on the same wavelength. Looking back at when the two of you got together can reawaken those initial good feelings.

Back to the Beginning

I wanted them remembering the things that they did and liked to do together when they first began dating. Then I asked them to not work on problems or issues on those dates but to just enjoy themselves in the moment. That helped them build up their Love Bank Account.

When you learn about each other’s past experiences and interests, you create opportunities for intimacy. In the case of Jim and Mary they were surprised to learn that when they were younger, they both enjoyed bicycling. Spontaneously they both started talking about getting back to cycling.

They got bicycles and started to exercise. That led to connecting with a weekend group of enthusiasts who would take bike trips around the back country. It was a laid back group that took it easy and it gave both of them an opportunity for socializing with like-minded folks in the real world.

Mary got close to some of the women in the group and started joining them for coffee once or twice a week. It was a chance for her to get out of the house and talk about something besides work.

One way of looking at intimacy is to think of it as a shared experience. By cycling around and getting a pleasant workout, Jim and Mary were actually being intimate. The physical exercise brought them closer together too.


Once their Love Bank Account was no longer so depleted, I began exploring what kind of deeper intimacy they each found fulfilling. Because they had so few interests in common, I wanted to see if that was a way to create a common area in which to connect. They had never thought of intimacy in that way.

They each needed time to think about that so I had them begin a journal. I knew they were busy. But I also knew journaling would let them go inside themselves and think about things instead of just reacting to each other. Next I had them slowly and carefully share some of their insights and feelings with each other in session where I work to make it a safe place to share their feelings.

Mary started first, saying she felt loved when Joe appreciated her contributions at work and at home as they were doing something together like fixing something or making dinner together. She said that was when she would begin to feel intimate and want more cuddling and affectionate kissing.

Joe smiled when he heard that. He went on to say, “I never really thought of compliments as foreplay, but it makes sense. And the truth is I really do appreciate and admire how good your work is.” After they talked some more I suggested that they set aside at least 15 minutes every day to discuss their work and other things that happened in a supportive way. I also emphasized that it might be a good idea to give each other praise when it was earned.

After a couple more sessions it was clear that they were doing much better and could handle things on their own. They started off emphasizing their differences. Along the way they discovered a lot about intimacy and what they have in common. They also learned the value of having a fuller social life.

Please comment or like this article if you find it helpful. You can also visit my other website SEXTHERAPYDOCTOR

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Finding Intimacy


Karen Gless, Ph.D.

As a therapist, I can see that the nature of a couple’s union has changed over the last 20 years. Fewer couples feel the need to officially marry and women are in a more active and sometimes dominant role as the breadwinner of the family. But what hasn’t changed is the need and desire for an intimate connection. Intimacy is an essential part of making a relationship real and sustaining.

When a man initiates couples therapy in my practice, most of the time it is because he feels they aren’t having sex often enough. Perhaps in part that may be because I offer sex therapy as a specialty. When a woman initiates therapy, it is almost always for emotional or communication issues. I have learned over the years that what intimacy looks like for one person is not necessarily what it means or looks like to their partner.

Reaching out for Closeness

Take Susan and Dan (not their real names). They came in with Dan wanting more sex and Susan having an issue with low desire. In my individual interview with Susan, she admitted that she gets feelings of desire, but not with Dan; although, she never acted out on these thoughts. She felt that he just wanted sex, but was unable to be romantic or really get her feelings when she tried to share them.

She told me about one time when she tried to talk about having her parents over for Thanksgiving and how it caused her a lot of anxiety. She really wanted to talk about how her mother could be so critical and then turn around and say something nice. Or how hard it was to get her father to open up. Naturally Dan took it as a problem that he had to help her solve.

For Susan talking about her family was an opportunity for intimacy, for deep sharing. When Dan took it as a problem, it felt like her feelings were being pushed aside. Neither one of them realized that, when Dan was feeling sexy later that evening, she wasn’t interested because of what happened earlier.

As I learned more about Susan and Dan in following sessions I wasn’t surprised to learn that both had difficult childhoods. Their parents worked a lot and tended to be more punitive than supportive. They each started working at a young age and were successful, but were not given to express their feelings easily.  Now they were at a stage in life and in their relationship where they wanted to have a deeper connection but weren’t fully aware of it.

My job was to get Dan to take it slower with sex and to help Susan understand that she herself was not as ready for deeper emotional intimacy as she thought. I explained to both of them that in intimacy you need to let yourself be vulnerable. As a child they did not feel safe and they still didn’t feel safe being open to each other.

The Safe Zone

In the next session they came back with a special phrase that they were using for whenever one of them wanted to reach out for some intimacy or express a vulnerability. That way Dan could share that he was feeling a bit sexy even though he knew for right now it was not going anywhere. Susan could let down her barriers and cuddle with Dan and appreciate the ways that he has added so much to her life. Over time, Dan learned to really listen to Susan when she talked about her feelings and she felt more desire for sex with him.

I am sure you have noticed that the movies women love are ones where men are able to be verbally and emotionally intimate? Usually at the beginning he is closed off but by the end he is able to open his heart and be open and vulnerable.

Yet in the real world women are often frustrated with their relationship. They feel cheated, saying, “He understood my feelings when we were dating. Why can’t he get them now?”  They want to get back to that special emotional sharing.

During the in-love period of a relationship, men can be more open emotionally because of the intense feelings they are experiencing. But as the feel-good hormones recede, they go back to their usual way of handling things.

Finding Intimacy

Life is very competitive for most men, so they spend a lot of time defending themselves and hiding any weakness. Women regard being able to show their weakness as intimacy. Men don’t see themselves as having weakness, but in having problems that need solving. So in an interesting way, discussing and solving problems is a way for men to be intimate.

You can see a built-in conflict here. A woman feels close and cared for when she can safely be vulnerable. A man feels threatened and at risk when he is vulnerable. If a woman is getting a lot of criticism at the office she may say, “It’s like I’m being attacked on all sides. I feel so helpless.” In the same situation a man might say, “All that criticism is so unfair. How can I get the situation under control?”

It’s the same problem with very different approaches. Just understanding that difference is the first step in reaching across the divide and connecting. There comes a time in a relationship where a man and a woman need to realize that they are both reaching out for closeness, but in different ways.

The Meaning of Intimacy

So what is intimacy to you? Intimacy to Dan meant having intercourse more frequently with his wife. For Susan it meant having Dan hear and understand her feelings. For another couple it could mean having deep philosophical discussions, getting on the same wavelength. For still another couple it could mean watching a sunset together, or having passionate sex.

As a therapist I see all of these as intimacy. But I also believe that as a couple you can go beyond the roles that you play in life and find a way to connect more deeply. This happens when you can see the world through each other’s eyes and walk in each other’s shoes.

It was a special experience watching Dan and Susan start to connect and create a space for both emotional openness and problem solving. When you really, really hear each other, it is so beautiful. I have heard couples say, “I didn’t know you thought or felt that” and in that moment everything changed.


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Princess Diana: The Death of True Love, The Birth of a New Love


Karen Gless, Ph.D.

Now that it is twenty years since the death of Princess Diana, I have been thinking about the meaning of those events. I cried as I watched the funeral. I had a deep inner sense that not only had we lost a valuable and special person, but also that the dream of a fairy tale romance was being laid to rest along with her. Over time I realized that the starry-eyed idea of ‘true love’ was fading away, and that was scary at first?

Diana’s Story

On July 23, 1981, when Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles, the world watched a spectacle that seemed to be a fairy tale come to life. Like the storybook princess, she arrived in an actual glass carriage. She was resplendent in an exquisite wedding dress with an incredibly long train. The Prince had picked a beautiful, somewhat shy, young woman to be his bride and mother to a future king.

From the outside it appeared that the marriage progressed according to the formula. Diana was learning the routines of the royal life and coping with the constant intrusions of the press with charm and grace.  Their marriage seemed frozen in time, a royal relationship secure in traditions, completely disconnected from the concerns of ordinary people.

The birth of her first son, Prince William on June 21, 1982, brought a sense of fulfillment to Diana.  Before she had felt insecure in the royal household.  Now she was mother of the heir to the throne.  Slowly she began to develop a sense of personal strength and independence.

Breaking the Glass Slipper 

But the modern world began to intrude into their seemingly idyllic world. Diana would soon be a perfect example of both the problems and the possibilities women experience today. Women struggle to break through the glass ceiling in the corporate world. Diana had to break the glass slipper syndrome and become more than a storybook princess.

In her biography of the princess, Anne Edwards recounts an incident during a tour of Wales after they were married, when Diana had her first experience meeting the public as a royal.  It was pouring rain, but she went straight to the crowd and took the hand of an elderly man, commenting on how cold his hand was and thanking him for coming to see them. (1) This was very uncharacteristic behavior for the royals and Diana’s direct contact with ordinary people made her extremely popular with the public.

She was developing a sense of herself and finding the courage for independent thought. In her charity work, she supported anti-landmine efforts in 1997 despite the opposition of conservative political elements.  She visited Angola and was filmed holding and hugging children who had lost arms and legs to landmines.  Her efforts had a significant effect on promoting the international anti-landmine treaty.  Throughout her brief career she was the “people’s princess.”

Behind the Scenes

The underlying story was not so beautiful.  For years before he met Diana, Charles had a lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles.  Because Camilla was a married woman, he could never marry her and hope to take the throne someday.  He chose Diana in part because she appeared naive and compliant.  She was also beautiful and had the grace to carry off her public role as a royal.  During their courtship he apparently became genuinely fond of her.

Diana, trying to cope with the situation she found herself in, dedicated herself to more and more charity work, including leprosy and AIDS.  Her human touch made her immensely popular with the photographers, while her contact with AIDS patients irritated the royal house because it was controversial and not seemly for a princess.  But the real problem for the royal family was Diana’s popularity.  She had greatly overshadowed the prince, who was seen as somewhat cold and isolated in contrast to her.

As their relationship deteriorated Charles pursued his scholarly interests and in 1986 he resumed his affair with Camilla.  Eventually Diana took on a lover of her own as well.  Finally the whole mess erupted in the press.  Lurid details of the love lives of both Charles and Diana were published in the press and they separated in 1992.  The royal family rallied around its son and engaged in a campaign to discredit Diana.  In the wild world of the tabloid press, the more the royals attacked her, the more interested and supportive the press became.  Their divorce was finalized on August 28, 1996. 

The Death of the Dream

Her horrifying death on August 31, 1997, in a car with a drunken chauffeur fleeing the paparazzi, was more than the tragic ending to a modern fairytale.  The astonishing depth of sorrow that erupted worldwide indicated that her death had a greater significance than the passing of a popular princess.  In a deeper sense, her death also marked the symbolic end to the dream of true love.

Over 32 million people in the United Kingdom and 2 billion worldwide watched her funeral on television. Both figures are near records for televised events. In contrast, her wedding to Prince Charles was watched by about 750 million worldwide. (2) These numbers tell us how important her marriage was and how deeply her death affected so many on the planet.

How ‘True Love’ Works 

In the true love model, couples in love are destined and expected to “live happily ever after.” When you marry your true love, you are supposed to be perfect for each other. Then you slip into your respective roles, have children and bask in the joys of family life. ‘True love’ doesn’t make room for change or growth. Some hope that a soulmate can give them lasting love, but painful experience shows that soulmates are no more reliable than ‘true loves’.

The problem is that both the true love and the soulmate approaches assume that the two of you are “perfect for each other.” The unfortunate reality is that nobody is perfect. Every relationship will run into conflict and troubles. When change comes in the door, the relationship survives or fails on the ability of the partners to handle it. And there have been some big changes how relationships operate these days.

One change is that women are more independent now and, speaking as a woman, we realize that we need to be able to take care of ourselves in a marriage or committed relationship. .  We are cautious of being “swept off our feet” only to find ourselves in a miserable relationship. We have to be able to survive economically if it fails

Additionally, the economic power balance in marriages and committed relationships is shifting. About 60% of married women work outside the home and, as of 2014, 37% earn more than the husband. (3) The old idea of the man being in charge is quickly fading away. Marriage is now a union of equals and we need a new vision of love to guide us. So what can take the place of hoping that a perfect Prince Charming will show up?

The Growth of Love

When I work with couples, both those who are married or living together and those who are dating, I assume that a relationship is a living, growing thing. And if it isn’t growing, then it is withering away.

This was a large part of the problem with Diana and Charles. She was growing and learning how to shine in the public light. She was discovering that her caring about others could make a positive difference in their lives. Charles appears to have resented her increasing popularity. He saw no reason at all to change. On April 9, 2005, almost eight years after Diana’s death, he married his long-time mistress, Camilla, now The Duchess of Cornwall, who was by that time divorced and free to marry Charles.

For a moment, imagine that Charles had changed and joined his wife on her charitable journeys. They could have shared the adventure of helping others and explored areas of life that were almost completely unknown to him. It’s one thing to know that people are suffering in an intellectual way. It is a completely different experience to meet them where they live and begin to understand what their lives are like.

Likewise Diana could have spent time learning about Charles’ interests, such as public architecture, and spent more time with him and his friends. But the truth is that they were so different in personality and style that it would have been almost impossible for them to find common interests. To her, his friends were stodgy, while she was a bit of a party girl with friends that were much too wild for him.

There are those in Britain who see the royal family as an archaic relic and would like to eliminate the monarchy. The royals can benefit from making better use of the media and becoming more relevant to people’s lives. Diana’s sons appear to have more control over their images and generally work better with the press.

How does your Garden Grow?

I see today’s couples as equal partners in a relationship and that calls for making a lot of adjustments together. Let’s face it. The true love model took hold in the 19th century when there was a shift from arranged marriages to the idea of marrying for love.

Back then the man worked and the woman took care of the home. Now it is much more likely that you are both working. That means you have to bring two lives together and get coordinated.

That’s why one of the major complaints women have about relationships is that the household chores and childcare responsibilities aren’t shared equally. If you both have careers, then you both need to take care of things on the home front and not work one of you to death.

Along with love, you need relationship skills so you can deepen your partnership and overcome the crazy things that life throws at you. It is true that catastrophic problems or conditions such as depression or addiction cannot be handled without professional intervention.  Nevertheless, many couples could have a successful, happy, lasting relationship if they embraced this new paradigm that actually is already upon us. The world has changed and couples have to cope with it.

Relationship Skills

There are some basic skills that couples need to keep their relationship thriving. You need to know how to keep your love light burning. I see too many couples who raised a family and now find themselves living as strangers. They were so busy that they lost touch with each other. One of the first things I have a couple do is spend some special time together and go on a date. If you don’t have a basic, loving connection with each other, then it is difficult to go on.

Surprisingly conflict is one of the ways that a couple grows. If you can have conflict and actually work things through, you become stronger and closer. Successful, loving couples aren’t terrified of conflict. They can stand up for themselves and listen to each other. And that’s a very valuable skill in friendships and at work. Being able to bridge our differences and work together really does make us more powerful.

Embracing the Adventure of Love

Today’s couples are entering a new, uncharted world. We don’t know exactly what men and women are supposed to do. We are creating new patterns of living and growing together. Parents are finding new ways of raising a family. That can be a messy, difficult process. But it is a tremendous adventure and well worth the struggle.

That’s why I say, “Your relationship has to grow.” You can’t just fall into the classic roles of breadwinner and homemaker. You have to be real partners and work things through. In a very real sense the idea of true love died with Diana. That may seem sad, but it leaves you free to embark on the adventure of finding your own way to deeper, lasting love.

Love hearing your comments. Let’s start a conversation.



  1. Edwards, Anne. Ever After: Diana and the Life She Led. 1999: New York, St. Martin’s Press. Pp. 150-151. Other details about Diana’s life are also drawn from this book.
  2. Urry, John. Global complexity. 2003: Wiley-Blackwell. P. 134.
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wives who earn more than their husbands, 1987-2014.


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How to Deal with the Relationship Problem of Desire Differences

Karen Gless, Ph.D.

Do you and your partner have trouble agreeing on how often to have sex? This article will show you how to work out your sexual desire differences and discover sexual enhancement. Couples who come in for sex therapy and counseling often have a difference in their desire for sex. In counseling we call this problem desire discrepancy and it is surprisingly difficult for couples to discuss. One reason for this difficulty is the assumptions people make.

The one who wants more sex may leap to conclusions and say, “You don’t want me” or “You don’t love me.” The one who wants sex less frequently may say, “I hate the constant pressure” or even, “You don’t love me, you just use me for sex.” With statements like these, the discussion can be very painful.

Why the Difference?
Most couples experience some difference in how often each one wants sex. When the difference is large the cause is probably more than the usual variations in feeling that people have and it often sends couples in for counseling and sex therapy for sexual enhancement.

The underlying causes can be relationship problems, different expectations, physical problems and negative sexual experiences. Relationship difficulties such as fears of intimacy or unresolved arguments can lead partners to have different needs for sex. I often see couples for counseling and sex therapy who end up working on the underlying relationship problems.

People have very different expectations and assumptions about what constitutes normal frequency of sex. Sometimes people think they should be having sex more often than they really want to. Couples can get stuck in forcing themselves to have sex for sexual enhancement and working at it instead of enjoying it. The solution is to spend more time listening to each other’s feelings and less in doing what you think you should do.

Your Body and Your Emotions
I often have couples in counseling and sex therapy see a doctor to rule out physical problems such as thyroid disease or hormone imbalances that can lead to low desire. Painful intercourse often leads to a decrease in sex drive. Unfortunately some people find it so embarrassing to talk about sex that they will live with the pain instead of bringing it up and taking care of it. These problems may require medical attention and a sensitive physician can be a big help. In addition physicians often recommend relaxation techniques and ways to enhance a positive feeling and attitude towards sex.

Depression is a common cause of low desire. One symptom of depression is anhedonia which means “lacking interest in pleasure and sex.” In counseling I run into this problem about 20% of the time.

Poor physical condition due to smoking, lack of exercise and a high fat diet can cause a decrease in desire. Chronic disease and pain also can reduce desire for sex. It can also happen that the partner of someone with a disease like cancer may assume that you shouldn’t have sex with someone who is sick. However, this can leave the one who is sick feeling undesirable. Chemotherapy can make you so sick that you don’t want anything to do with sex. But at other times it can be a reaffirmation of life and your loving relationship. A frank and honest discussion can clear the air in a hurry and lead to sexual enhancement.

Past Bad Experiences
Many people have had negative experiences around sex. Sadly this creates negative sexual attitudes and discomfort with sex. Counseling and Sex therapy can help in such cases.

How to Discuss Frequency
So how do you discuss questions like sexual frequency? It should be a time when you are happy and feeling connected.  Also It is useful to bring up the topic at a time when you are not ready to have sex. I use the following quick questionnaire in counseling and sex therapy to get a good idea of each partner’s experience with and desire for sex.

Find a time when you are both comfortable to discuss how you both feel your love life is going for sexual enhancement, especially before a problem develops. Answering the questions at the end of this article and comparing the results can be a good start. As with all good communication avoid labeling, name calling, and especially in this case put judgements of good and bad aside. There is no right or wrong amount of sex to have. It is what works for the two of you as a couple.

Quick Questionnaire

How frequently do you want sex?
How frequently do you think your partner wants sex?
Do you often feel exhausted, sad or irritable?
Is intercourse painful for you or your partner?
Do you hold back from telling your partner how often you want sex?

For further help with getting to know your partner go Here

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The Truth About Women’s Sexual Arousal: Baby, Where’s the Fire

Dr. Karen  Gless, Ph.D.

It’s amazing how many couples have problems with women’s sexual arousal. The man may feel he can’t get his partner turned on or the woman may feel like her libido has rolled over and died. Lack of desire for sex has many causes. But you can’t find out the source of the problem if you can’t admit there is a problem and discuss it with your partner. Unfortunately, because most people are so embarrassed about sex, they can hardly talk about it.

You might get the impression from talk shows and women’s magazines that women are willing to talk about anything and everything about relationships. But when it comes to sex, that isn’t always true, especially where women’s sexual arousal is concerned. Some women think men ought to know how to please a woman and they shouldn’t have to say what they like or dislike.

Listening to One Another

The problem is that people have very different expectations and assumptions about what is right in a relationship. He may have heard that kissing with lots of tongue or playing with her nipples is the sure way to get her turned on. She may be too embarrassed to say she doesn’t like playing tonsil hockey, or that he is being too hard or too gentle with her nipples.

The solution to women’s sexual arousal is spending more time listening to each other’s feelings and less in doing what you think you should do. In dining and in sex, people have different tastes. It helps to talk about things your partner can do that increase your arousal. So how can a couple discuss individual likes or dislikes when it comes to sex without fearing disapproval or ridicule.

How to Talk about Sex

Nearly everyone is sensitive to being criticized, but this is especially true for men around sex and what it takes to produce women’s sexual arousal. Most men are sensitive about being told what to do in sex and, especially, being told what they do that is wrong. Their blood pressure goes up and they act as if they are being scolded.

Research tells us that couples respond better to a partner’s complaints if these complaints are not personal attacks. This is especially true when talking about women’s sexual arousal. Starting with criticism is called a harsh beginning. For example, saying, “When we have sex, you just don’t know what to do. What’s wrong with you?” is a harsh opening. Instead, saying, “I’d like to talk about our sex life. Maybe we could share some of those special things that turn us on. What do you think?” is a soft beginning and has a much better chance of leading to a positive discussion.

Finding the Causes

Once couples start talking about sex with at least a little comfort, they can start to learn what is causing their problems. Low desire has many causes. Depression is a common cause of both relationship problems and low desire. One symptom of depression is anhedonia, which means “lacking interest in pleasure and sex.” Depression seriously prevents women’s sexual arousal.

Painful intercourse and physical problems such as low thyroid or hormone imbalances can lead to low desire. And there is nothing like pain to stop women’s sexual arousal. Diabetes and other diseases can also lead to low desire. Unfortunately some people find it so embarrassing to talk about sex that they will live with the frustration instead of talking with their partner, their doctor or a counselor and getting real help.


Let’s face it, if you don’t have a medical problem, it’s time to pour a glass of wine and have a heart-to-heart talk about your sex life. And don’t talk about what is missing or what he should do. It works better when you and your man talk about what it takes to produce women’s sexual arousal in a kind of a general way–and, of course, you are going to include what it takes to get you aroused. That way, he doesn’t feel like you are criticizing him. And don’t forget, he gets to talk about what turns him on. Who knows, some of his ideas might turn you on too.

Most of the time couples can solve the problem of low desire with a combination of sensitivity, being open to change and having fun talking about what feels good and sexy. When you can’t do it on your own be sure and connect with a therapist who really understands women’s sexual arousal.

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Discover Winning Relationship Skills From Couples Counseling


Karen J. Gless, Ph.D., MFT, RN


My patient Kathy sat on one side of me in tears, crying. On the other side sat her husband, Peter, with their newborn baby and he clearly wasn’t sure what to do. They were both tired and frustrated so they quickly made an appointment when Kathy’s sister recommended they see me for couples counseling.

I immediately suspected postpartum depression which is a serious illness and needs to be dealt with quickly and aggressively. The condition results from a hormonal imbalance that some women experience after giving birth. The symptoms range from mild unhappiness to severe depression.

Besides making a woman miserable, postpartum depression makes it difficult to care for her child and can lead to destructive, even fatal, behavior. It’s nothing to take lightly. But first I had to deal with the situation in front of me. What to say to Peter and Kathy?

I knew she needed individual therapy and most likely medication. But I also knew they needed help as a couple right away because I could see she was really depressed and he was in way over his head and didn’t know how to deal with the situation.

Winning Skills

This is where learning some valuable relationship skills comes in and that is what you get in effective couples counseling. These skills help both members of a couple to win and feel good. As I listened to Kathy and Peter I could hear her hopelessness. I could also see him trying to do the best he could to help.

Kathy said, “This is supposed to be the best time of my life. I should be happy and not dreading to care for my baby.”  Peter responded, “Sweetie, that’s why I told you to go for a walk and get out of the house. I can take of him for a little while.”

It was typical male and female behavior. Kathy was talking about her feelings and Peter was trying to come up with a solution. That only leads to frustration on the part of the woman who doesn’t feel like she is being listened to. At the same time the man feels frustrated because he is doing his best to help and everything he says is brushed aside.

That is when I told Peter that what he said was really nice and affectionate but that before he headed for a solution I would like him to really listen to Kathy. I asked them both to try and stay with the subject they are on, but for Peter to work with Power Listening. Usually it’s called active listening, but I find that the idea of Power Listening works much better with men.

Using Power Listening

Kathy began again, “I feel there is something really wrong with me. I want to be ecstatically happy about being with my baby, but I find myself dreading every second.” Then I told Peter to do a quick summary of what she said and then add how she seems to feel. He said, “So you want to feel happy taking care of our son, but it sounds like you feel scared.”

At that point, Kathy went into tears and began crying. She felt heard and was letting those feelings out.  She said, “Yes, I really am afraid of taking care of him and sometime I am afraid I will hurt him.” It’s not unusual that once a person feels heard that they will let their deeper feelings pour out.

Peter started to go for a solution again but I helped him stop before he did. I said, “Stay with her. Don’t go for solutions or she will close up.”  Peter then said, “I hear you saying that you feel bad and you’re really afraid of hurting our son.” Kathy actually perked up a bit and said, “You’re right. That’s why I know I need help because these feelings are not normal or rational and not what I want at all. They just come up and make me feel terrible about myself. That’s why I’m glad we’re here and that you’re here to help me, too.”

The rest of the couples counseling session went smoothly and toward the end I referred Kathy to a specialist in postpartum depression. She made an appointment later that day. Medication and talk therapy helped her a lot with the result that she soon felt much better and really enjoyed taking care of her son. It also helped a lot that she felt Peter was there for her, too.

Not the Same for Men

When it comes to dealing with a serious problem for men, Power Listening needs to be done a little differently. For example, most people feel violated and helpless if someone breaks into their home and steals everything they can. But for men you don’t want to emphasize those “weaker” emotions. Good couples counseling works with the needs of both partners and respects the differences between men and women.

Men try to work through problems by emphasizing solutions because that’s their go-to approach. When two guys are talking about a problem, the main thing they do is go over possible ways of solving it. So if you’re listening to a man talking about having his computer stolen, you might say, “It makes sense that you feel so angry about that creep stealing your computer. It’s a good thing you have insurance so you can make a claim.”

Anger is a nice strong emotion and the emphasis is on taking action. If you emphasize loss and painful feelings, a man can spiral down into feeling worse. For most men, planning and taking action improve feelings and give a sense of power over the situation.

To be a good Power Listener, be deliberate with your listening. Your goal is to truly hear what your partner is saying. Set aside all other thoughts and behaviors and concentrate on the message. Then you respond in two parts:

  1. You summarize what your partner says to ensure you understand the message.
  2. Then you add an emotion.

Just remember that women are often more concerned about their emotional response and men are looking to take charge of the situation. The main idea is that you want to reflect back in a way that is comfortable for you and your partner.

The Value of Skills

Power Listening is a valuable skill to have in life in general. I think it is sad that skills such as this are only taught to counseling students or college students who take communications courses in their 3rd year of college. It should be required in high school if not earlier.

Skills taught in couples counseling focus on helping couples build mental and emotional resilience. They help couples overcome challenges that can stress or break a relationship. Some other skills are knowing how to make your partner feel loved and how to keep an argument from getting out of hand.

When challenges arise in your relationship that overwhelm your usual way of coping, couples counseling is a healthy choice.  Of course, there are other ways to build skills for your relationship, but sometimes you need a professional to guide you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to get the help you need.

Dr. Karen Gless, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and maintains a private practice office in San Diego, California, USA.  Please leave a comment at the end of this article. You can also contact me by signing up for my free booklet here. I look forward to hearing from you.
Karen Gless, Ph.D.



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Work it Out – with a Lot Less Pain



Karen Gless, Ph.D.

When I first heard about the idea of routine and core issues, it didn’t seem that important. But when I used it in my relationship and in my practice, I got excited. It made tons of sense and it really did help my husband and me cool down potentially heated arguments. Then I found that it worked really well with my patients too.

It all has to do with different kinds of topics that couples argue about. A routine issue has to do with ordinary things that aren’t very important or have to be handled quickly. For example, you have visitors coming in an hour and you need some help straightening up the place. Maybe one of you is really exhausted and asks the other one to put the kids to bed tonight.

Core Issues

A core issue concerns an argument about a strongly held belief or opinion that is hard to change. It’s something where you would say, “It’s obvious. That’s how things should be.” It’s an important part of who you are and how you see the world. Besides religious beliefs, a core issue can be almost anything. One area that can stir up a core conflict is how to discipline the children.

Another area that gets couples into trouble these days is balancing housework and childcare. Now that most married women work, they expect a significant level of help from their husbands. But the husband may have a strongly held belief that it’s wrong for a man to wash dishes and change diapers. It may be old-fashioned, but that doesn’t stop it from being a source of arguments that couples have.

I remember reading a story in a very old magazine in a waiting room about a man whose wife went on a three day trip to visit her parents. They had two sons and he was a biologist. He had the strongly held opinion that men shouldn’t do dishes. But as a biologist he believed that dishes should be washed immediately to prevent the growth of germs and mold.

When his wife got home she discovered his solution to the dilemma. After each meal he cleared the table and put the dishes in their large freezer for her to clean when she got back. I think doing something like that today could get you a guest spot on the Jerry Springer show.

Routine Issues

A routine issue isn’t so important to you or is time limited. Routine issues are the problems that turn up on a regular basis in everyday life. Somehow there was an overdraft on your bank account and four or five checks bounced in a row. That’s upsetting, but it can be fixed and the money situation straightened out. Maybe you don’t eat out for a couple of weeks or you skip this weekend’s trip to cover the losses. It’s a routine issue that can be handled.

Now if one of you is a spendthrift and the other a penny pincher, then the overdraft at the bank is connected to a core issue. And that can lead to some serious arguments.

So what’s the value of knowing the difference between a routine and a core issue? It helps us to see which disagreements could be compromised on (routine issues) and which need to be dealt with by getting to know more about each other’s position and personality (core issues).  You can’t work out a core issue with just one discussion or argument. It takes time and making an effort to understand each other more deeply. I think this is a good example of walking in each other’s shoes.

Start with Routine Issues

Couples often come into see me saying that they just can’t work things out. What’s really happening is that they are trying to deal with core issues as if they were a routine problem. It may take a bit of arguing, but you can work through a schedule conflict. After all it has to be solved quickly because there is a time limit. However, if all your credit cards are maxed out due to overspending, you’re probably dealing with a core issue that can’t be solved with just one discussion. I found that the best place to start is by pulling out a couple of routine issues and dealing with those.

Susan and David (not their real names) came in to see me saying they needed to learn how to communicate. Susan was feeling overwhelmed at work and at home. They had three children and the youngest was about to enter kindergarten. David thought that with all the children being away at school the majority of Susan’s stress would soon be solved. He didn’t realize that Susan had begun to develop overwhelming resentment towards him. Susan feared those feelings because she did not want to lose her marriage, hurt David‘s feelings or put her children through the pain of a divorce.

Susan said in the past she did try to talk to David about their issues, but every time she tried she would feel unheard and then get really upset because their talks never got anywhere. Now David just thinks that she is stressed.

Choose your Issues

I could tell right away that they were mixing up routine and core issues. Susan would say, “I’m worn out. I really need help.” David would answer, “Don’t worry. Donny will be in kindergarten pretty soon and everything’s going to be better.” Then Susan would get angry and say, “Just because he’s in kindergarten doesn’t make everything go away. I still have a job and I’m still doing most of the work around here.”

I explained to them about core and routine issues and they both agreed that these were issues they kept coming back to time and time again and the arguments would escalate. It resulted in both of them just simply shutting down and getting nowhere. David was feeling lonely and unloved while Susan was just irritable all the time.

In session I had Susan and David pick up an issue they wanted to work on. They chose to discuss keeping things picked up around the house. I said, “Okay, this can be a core issue. We need to make it into a routine issue first. Susan, if you need help right away, then ask for it. David, when she asks for help just deal with that issue. Don’t get into how stressed she is or how things are going to change in the future. When you’re dealing with a routine issue, you can work it out.

After you’ve worked through a routine issue, you need to thank and appreciate each other. It isn’t necessarily the ultimate agreement, but it is at least some agreement. It is especially important to stay on topic, finish that topic and not go on to another topic without stopping and thanking each other for getting somewhere.

It may also be wise to just pick up the next topic another time. I find that often couples began to get somewhere with their disagreements and feel good about finally agreeing, only to jump into another subject where they began to fight and lose all the goodwill they had just gained.

Turning down the Heat

Making the argument a routine issue decreases the emotional intensity as well. This is one way to cool things down emotionally while giving you both time to learn more about your partner’s position. It can take hours, months or years to work through some core issues. One of my patients told me “I have come to realize that one of our issues has to do with the difference in our personalities. We are uniquely different in this way and we have learned in this case to honor each other’s uniqueness.” But it took them a long time to get to that point.

Susan and David both agreed that they would talk about keeping things picked up around the house. They would limit the discussion to what they could do differently this next week rather than make it a forever agreement. That way the issue stayed routine and not core.

Susan began by saying, “I get home later than you do because I pick up the children after practice. I’d like you to pick up around the house a little bit so I can begin supper right away once I get home.” He said, “Okay.”

Getting Started

At that point I could tell they were not going to get very far because I knew she felt unheard and he felt confused. I told him it was okay to agree but that it would help if the two of them had a discussion about the possibility and feasibility of actually accomplishing that this next week. Susan started to get upset and said, “See. He’ll say, ‘Okay.’ Then he doesn’t do it.”

I motioned to Susan to chill (she knew I had her back) and I encouraged David to talk about how that might work for him. He explained that he does straighten up the house sometimes, but that it goes unnoticed or it’s not good enough. I reminded them that they were talking about what was possible for this next week and that all of the past would not be solved here. But they could stay focused and develop a working plan for next week.

Susan then admitted that David does pick up some and that she doesn’t always appreciate it. She said, “I guess I just come home so tired from work and dealing with the children that I just want more.” David responded by saying, “Yes, I can see you are exhausted a lot. I want to help but I don’t like being treated like one of the kids.” I said, “Wow! That is a slippery slope. Can you say that differently?” He said, “Susan, I want you to be happy and not so tired. What more would you like me to do this next week and I promise I’ll do my best, especially if you promise to assume I really want to help you and not get so upset.”

That really was a starting point for them and they went on to work out an agreement for taking care of the children and the housework just for the next week. What’s more, they actually stuck to the agreement well enough so that they were in much better shape the next time I saw them. I often find that there are two sides to an argument. It did not surprise me that they were both right in their feelings about how the partner was negatively responding to them.

When we can recognize the difference between core and routine issues we have one more tool that we can use to help us work through our differences. We grow and our relationships grow when we get to know and understand each other more. And differentiating core and routine issues can help get us there.

Learning how to handle routine issues is a good start. But you still need to deal with the big questions. So the next blog is going to be on how to handle core issues. And will continue with Susan and David because they had a couple of really good core issues to handle.

Until then, Lots of love,

Karen Gless, Ph.D.

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The Best Present – on Valentine’s Day

Valentine LoveBy

Karen Gless, Ph.D.


As Valentine day approaches, men especially are troubled by the question, “What shall I get my sweetheart?” I am reminded of an acquaintance of mine who bought his sweetheart an expensive diamond pendant on a beautiful gold chain. He looked forward to how pretty it would look on her neck and how much the diamonds would impress her.

When she opened her present, she did a good imitation of being pleased and excited. But he sensed that she was being polite and really didn’t like her gift. He hadn’t noticed that she wore silver and turquoise almost exclusively. He could have made her much happier at one tenth the price.

When it comes to gifts it really is the thought that counts—the thought that goes into being aware of what your lover really likes and values. Not everyone values the same things or feels loved in the same way. Make the effort to learn what makes your valentine feel loved.

One of my friends told me that she felt loved when her husband came up behind her, held her and kissed the back of her neck—especially while she was doing dishes. And that’s how he gave her a present for Valentine’s day last year. He hugged her from behind, gave her a gentle kiss on the neck and handed her a box wrapped in a dish towel with a beautiful, ornate watch in it that she had been eyeing.

One man I know said. “I just need to hear her say ‘I love you.’” His girlfriend knew that and gave him an MP3 player for his birthday because he likes to exercise and listen to music. There was already a mp3 inside that was a heartfelt recording of her telling him how much she loves him.

It isn’t enough to say “I love you” in good times. The good times are warmed even more when in the rough times your partner experiences your caring. A touch of the hand, a sincere look and saying “I love you” from the heart when you give a gift means much more than any object.

Notice what specifically makes your partner feel loved and do that. A valentine, flowers, chocolate, these are all nice.   You can get those presents, but what else can you do that is really special to make your valentine feel loved?

John knew his wife really wanted a new bedset. He bought the one he knew she wanted, put it in the bedroom all fixed up before she got home, and placed a box of chocolates in the middle of the bed.   She let out a squeal of happiness when she saw what he had given her and it took them a long time to get out of the bedroom—and they didn’t spend all of the time eating chocolates!

Another woman got her boyfriend a really beautiful card. He smiled when he got it, but he went wild when he opened it and season tickets to the home team ball games fell out. If a clean kitchen is important to your lover, then imagine her reaction to coming home on Valentine’s Day to a clean kitchen and beautiful flowers on the counter.

It’s said that the best gifts come from the heart. And when you get inside your lover’s heart and find out what he or she really wants, that’s when the gift is heart-to heart. It’s noticing what is really special to your lover that makes the difference.

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How to Rock your Worlds

Rocken LoveBy

Dr. Karen Gless, Ph.D.

A while ago I received an email that started:

“I have been in my relationship for 20 years. Now that my wife and I are retired I want to solve problems we have been having with our sex life. My wife seldom orgasms and I have been having problems with my erections. I was wondering if you could help us.”

That email led to my having a single session with this elderly, gentle, sweet man. A week later he and his wife called me to say that they had been “rocking” and he chimed in to say “I didn’t need to use Viagra for us to have great sex.” His wife also said she had gotten closer to orgasm than she ever had.

I wanted to write about this particular issue because it came up again in a session with another couple, only they were in their late 20s. After those two session I began to believe that there must be other couples who have this same issue which could have the same solution. And the solution is so simple that I just had to write about it.

It is about a sexual position that I thought more people knew about. Unfortunately, while there is a great deal of information on sex on the net, much of it isn’t really useful. Couples need to know how to enjoy sex together to deepen and strengthen their relationship. They don’t have to have mind-blowing sex every time.

So I am about to give an explanation of why my patient said he and his wife were ‘Rocking’.   But first let me say why I believe that getting your information about sex from porn is a big part of the problem. The fact is that porn has to portray sex visually. It shows the penis going in and out of the vagina so you can see intercourse. But that doesn’t show what the woman is feeling inside. The problem with forceful “in and out” sex shown in porn films, is that, it is no way to please a woman!

Now about that rocking. Freud had it wrong. A clitoral organism is not immature compared to a vaginal orgasm. The clitoris is involved in orgasm even in intercourse. The secret is getting enough stimulation for the clitoris during intercourse. And that’s what the “Rocking” is all about. It is a different version of the missionary position.

In the Rocking position, the man enters the woman in the regular way and then lifts up her legs so his penis stays deep inside her vagina. Then the couple rocks gently to stimulate the clitoris. The man’s penis stays inside the woman, so instead of him going in and out, his pubic bone is more available for the woman to rub against. She then is more active herself. She actively moves her hips to match his. When he goes back she goes forward and when he goes forward she goes back. Instead of the woman being passive the two of them are coordinating their movement and she is pressing against his pelvis.

I talk to women about following their good feelings. Where women usually fail to achieve orgasm is when they are easily distracted, or have negative thoughts about sex or the relationship. For these I recommend my Mp3s “The Pure Pleasure System for Women.”

For both my older and younger couple, using the “Rocking” my patient talked about and just changing from the in and out to the rocking solved their issues. The rocking as my patient called it is really the Coital Alignment Technique or CAT that Edward Eichel discovered and researched. I like my description better than theirs but you can read more about it here.

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In Only One Session

Every couple has their own unique issues when they come into see me. But how couples treat each other is not unique. This is where I can help couples become relationship experts so they can discover how to have a successful, long-lasting, happy relationship.

With one particular couple I was very happy to find out that things began to turn around after just one session. Tom and Lisa came to see me because they were at their wits end. Lisa said, “We really love each other but we can’t continue to live this way.” They both wondered if they should just end things and go their separate ways or try to make their relationship work. Tom felt he could never do anything right. To Lisa it seemed that she couldn’t express herself without upsetting Tom and she feared that she would end up walking on egg shells for the rest of their relationship.

Storm Clouds

Lisa said she would try to talk to Tom and explain herself to him but he would get defensive and take it personally. It seems the topic didn’t matter. It could be something as simple as where to go for dinner together. It didn’t used to be this bad. Lisa remembered how their relationship used to be peaceful and wonderful. It seemed to change after Tom lost his job and was out of work for a while. And now even though he was back at work, things hadn’t gone back to being as good as they were before.

As her story unfolded I learned that Tom suffered from depression so Lisa would get upset but then feel guilty about getting upset and fearing that she would cause him to go into another funk. Fortunately Tom responded well to the antidepressants his psychiatrist prescribed for him so he had been depression free for about a year.

That didn’t change the concern Lisa felt nor eliminate the occasional feelings of low self-esteem Tom experienced. These are problems for couples where psychotherapy excels. I let them know that my office is a safe place for them where they can learn to work together and work things through. Then I share with them an important goal—they need to create that safe place at home as well.

Creating a Safe Place

One way to create a safe place and to decrease the upset they have while arguing is knowing how to take breaks before they hurt each other during a fight. Many couples fear taking breaks before a fight escalates because the topic will just get dropped and it will be worse when they finally get back to it.

The way I teach taking breaks addresses that fear. First, I have them decide on what to say in order to take a break. The one that Tom and Lisa decided on was, “I want to take a break. Can we come back to this in an hour?” Coming back to the subject is really important because just dropping it leads to bigger fights later.

Rules for Taking a Break

Then I gave them the two rules for taking a break. First, don’t keep running the dispute through your mind while you’re taking a break. That means you don’t try to think of the perfect argument to win or the brilliant comeback to what your partner said. You let go of the argument for a while and calm down.

The second rule is also very simple. Say to yourself, “I wonder what will be different next time.” You might have a different way of looking at things when you come back to the topic or your partner might see things differently. One of you might have a new way of solving the problem. There are many possible changes in the way the two of you deal with the topic. And the beauty of it is you don’t even have to try to think of something different. You just put the whole thing on the back burner and wait to see what will happen. Of course, the best ideas often come to us when we’re distracted or doing something else.

Bathing the Dog

When Tom and Lisa came back the next week they reported that they had fewer arguments and their problems were much easier to deal with. In particular, they talked about what happened on Friday night. Tom had promised to take their dog, Winston, to the pet store for a bath because Lisa had an important meeting. Lisa pointed to her black sweater and said, “Winnie was starting to shed like crazy and our friends were coming over the next day.”

When Lisa got home, Tom wasn’t there and Winnie was still dirty. She was fuming by the time he got back. His explanation that the boss had invited the team out for beers wasn’t good enough. Lisa said, “You promised and I was really counting on you.” Tom’s response was, “What was I going to say? ‘I can’t make it because I have to give my dog a bath.’ That would really be insulting. This was an important chance for teambuilding and schmoozing with the boss. I had to be there.”

It wasn’t long before they were very upset with each other and had to take a break. Lisa was the one who said, “We’re getting nowhere. Let’s take a break and get back to this in an hour.” That was fine with Tom.

A New Idea

When they got back together Lisa had realized there really was more to get ready for their friends than she was thinking. She suggested that in the morning she could take Winnie for a bath and Tom could fix the leaky faucet in the kitchen. Tom had been dragging his feet on the project thinking that if it’s not fully broken, don’t fix it. He began by apologizing for not taking Winnie to get groomed and he recognized that it was important to Lisa. Then he agreed to fix the faucet while she got Winnie bathed. And that’s what they did.

Taking a break really did help both of them calm down. An essential part of the process was that both of them took a moment to wonder what would be different when they got back together to discuss the topic some more. When you keep going over and over an argument in your head during the break there isn’t any room for new ideas or new approaches. In fact, when you get back together you may be angrier than when you took a break.

But when you make room for new ways of dealing with things, it opens up the creative part of your mind and that’s what Lisa did. She was able to come up with a deal that worked for both of them. For his part Tom was ready for a different approach and was able to listen to Lisa instead of immediately starting to defend himself some more. It really was a win for both of them. I complemented them on how well they handled taking a break and working through a problem.

Core and Routine Topics

Then I pointed out that there are two basic types of topics that couples fight about. Some topics are routine issues that can come up regularly in a relationship and be worked through with a compromise. Their argument about bathing the dog is a good example of a routine topic.

Then there are core topics that you have to chip away at, sometimes over a long period of time. For instance: fixing up the house in anticipation of company would be a routine topic. You could compromise on that fairly easily. But how neat and clean the house should usually be kept can be a core topic and can lead to blazing arguments if you try to compromise on that rather than chip away at it. But that’s the topic of my next article, “How to Handle Routine and Core Issues.”

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