A Different Kind of Resolution

By Carlyle Jansen

New Year’s resolutions have a tendency to be things we feel we “should” do but often don’t commit to for long enough to stick. So every year we embark on the ritual of pledging to do or abstain from an activity we think will be good for us but on some level don’t really enjoy or want to do: exercise, eating better, quitting smoking or other bad habits. For a change, this year could be one where we instead commit to finding and saying yes to things that we do want to do.

Finding our “yes” and navigating our boundaries is one specialty of Karen B. K. Chan, a sex educator and emotional literacy teacher. I spoke to Karen for some insights into patterns where many of us get stuck in relationships and for suggestions on getting ourselves unstuck and liberated into choosing what we want for the coming year.  

Unproductive Patterns: Many of us succumb to the obligation to “give-in” to our partner’s requests for sex or other activities; we feel guilty for being honest about our likes and dislikes, and prioritize pleasing, so others will like us or not be (even more) disappointed with us. Or we hold back from sharing how we feel rejected by our partner declining our sexual advances for fear of how we will be perceived. Karen notices that these patterns keep us divorced from our feelings and desires by shutting them down as not really acceptable ways to feel and think. We often feel guilty for simply feeling the way we do, as though we fall short of what we aspire to be as good human beings or good partners. As a result of constantly answering to expectations both real and imagined, when given the opportunity to voice what we want, many of us are left speechless. We have no idea. It has just not been a priority to consider what we do want. We have so habitually done what we think we are supposed to want, what we think our partner wants, or just anything so that we have some kind of connection where we feel desired, that we are disconnected from our inner desires. 

Shifting the Experience: Karen has a toolbox of ideas for getting ourselves unstuck and choosing a “yes” that gets us excited rather than feeling badly about saying no, or reluctantly or resentfully saying yes.

Get into your body and feel: Think about what it is that you want to feel in a peak sexual experience. Sometimes thinking about “what you want to do” can feel like another chore or pressure. Notice instead what you want to feel: Be it cozy and snuggly; comfortable and connected; excited and a little nervous; worshipped or seduced; free or trapped. Sharing what you want to feel with your partner can sometimes open a new door to figuring out what you actually want to do.

Reframe: Reflect on the best times you have enjoyed with this or another partner to build a sense of your own sexual being – the ways you are (instead of aren’t), the ways you arouse (instead of how you fail to). Name specific turn-ons in detail in order to build a more complete idea of your own self. Share the turn-ons with your partner – but not all of them. Keep some mystery and excitement to yourself. Get away from the framework of “how do we get you to say yes”. Get to know how “there is a lot about me that is sexual”.

Accept the things that are hard to bear: It can be painful to watch our partner feeling disappointed or rejected, but it is important to simply name it and feel empathy without guilt. Only then can we truly move forward together.

Practice setting boundaries: Start with smaller and easier boundaries in a variety of aspects of life so that you get to practice and accept the results that are more bite-sized. Emulate great boundary role models in your life, in the media and in films/TV. Learn from their successes and scripts and develop your own personal style.

Distance yourself: Imagine you were counselling someone with your exact same dilemma and what you would advise the other person. Usually we are much more empathetic and firm in our advice for others than for ourselves.

Being Honest Without Feeling Mean: While consent is discussed much more than ever before, somehow we still stumble on the particulars of what we want, especially in committed relationships. Because we fear that stating a boundary will feel mean-spirited, we are more likely to endure (and often resent) rather than speaking our desires. A fear of hurting our partner and feeling responsible for their reactions holds us back in expressing our truth.

Of course we always need to be sensitive and kind as well as true to ourselves. Karen’s suggestion is to be emotionally or observationally honest. Instead of focusing on the performance or an evaluation of an activity’s merit (e.g., “you were good”), notice and speak your truth about your feelings, or how something impacts you emotionally (e.g., “I felt giddy”). The Non-Violent Communication movement has lists of feelings and needs that help better articulate what you might feel at any given time.

So rather than saying that the sex wasn’t great, figure out how you feel. Perhaps you feel envious that others seem to orgasm so easily, or discouraged that you don’t feel the libido that you used to feel. Then you might receive some affirmation – that it’s ok to change, that others struggle too, that the pressure to have sex is mutual. When you own your feelings, accept them as they are and share them from a place of honest vulnerability; there is room for a partner to feel empathy, discussion and understanding that can deepen intimacy. From that more connected place, you don’t have to carry the load all by yourself, and you can find more “yes”es in your repertoire. Perhaps this will be a year of saying yes and sharing those desires with a partner.

Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her,  a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto.  If you have questions or comments, email  carlyle@goodforher.com or visit goodforher.com