Suzanne Iasenza: Rewriting Relationship Narratives [The Knowledge Project Ep. #75]

Sex therapist Dr. Suzanne Iasenza explains how our personal narratives determine how we grow as a couple, how we communicate, even how we make love.

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Today on The Knowledge Project, I welcome Suzanne Iasenza, couples sex therapist and faculty member at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City.

Suzanne frequently writes and lectures on topics like human sexuality, emerging sex therapy practices for individuals and couples, sexual orientation and gender identity. What really drew me to Suzanne was her work on personal narratives within the context of a relationship. How the stories we tell about ourselves affect nearly every aspect of our closest relationships, both in healthy nurturing ways that strengthen our bonds, and in damaging ways that threaten them.

In this discussion, Suzanne shares a number of things we can do to evaluate the impact our stories have on our relationships and if necessary, how to rewrite them. We talk about the different models of healthy sexuality, the counter-intuitive role of desire and arousal in connecting with your partner, and the one skill that will make you a better lover, a better “fighter,” and lead to more happiness and fulfillment in your relationship.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

Very early on, no matter what the presenting problem is, I’ll usually want them to each tell me their definition of whatever that presenting problem is and start to normalize and even encourage that there could be two different perspectives on it. So that people can begin to learn to say what their truth is. Even if you’re afraid it’s bad news for your partner, let’s create the safety here to get it out. Because whatever you’re not saying is probably creating why you’re in my office in the first place.

You think you’re in bed alone with your partner, you’re not. You’re in bed with your trauma history or attachment history, their trauma history, their attachment history, your mother and father, or whatever the parental couple was, their relationship and what you internalized about it, how they treated you, all your sibling relationships are in there. All the intergenerational transmission of trauma. There’s the intersectionality kinds of wounds, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity. There are so many things, narratives, in bed with you unconsciously so that you don’t know who you are projecting onto a partner at any given moment.

There’s rupture and repair in almost any authentic relationship. Like it’s really important to develop your tolerance for disappointment, both to be disappointed by your partner and to disappoint your partner.

A lot of people can’t listen very well, in general. But in couples, when a partner is starting to say things that trigger us, some people have to have the retort ready. Even if they don’t interrupt, some people just interrupt and shut up the partner or talk over them or start yelling or fighting, but let’s say they don’t do that. In their minds, they could already be developing the retort. They’re not even listening to what the partner said in the first place.

Falling in love is not the end of the story, it’s the beginning of the story. It’s the beginning of a process, it’s not the end. And too many people I think will walk down the aisle, or are moving in together, whatever commitment means to them and they think, oh, I did it now. Now I have my partner for life. Phew, that one’s done. Check it off the list.

So many people have such a hard time allowing disappointment to be part of a really healthy, authentic relationship. So when I talk about authenticity, I say, “If you’re really authentic, you’re going to hurt each other.” Not even intentionally but unintentionally. Even if it’s because of your own wounds or your own unconscious conflicts you haven’t dealt with.

The relationship is another child. You don’t have one child, you have two. You have your child named Mary and then you have a marital relationship to still nurture. And people don’t get that a relationship has to be nurtured. You have to water it like a plant. It isn’t just to be taken for granted.

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