ask dr-robert

ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

Hey there,

My girlfriend is recovering from an eating disorder, which completely consumed her for 5 long years. She "woke up" about a year ago, well before I met her, and is doing really well in recovery .. seeing a dietician to help her get back a healthy perspective on food, and seeing a therapist to help her with the emotional issues an ED brings with it. She has told me that during her ED, it consumed her so completely, and that as with any addictive behavior, the ED caused an inability in her to really feel anything emotionally .. for others as well for herself. Her therapist is helping her regain the ability to feel, to communicate emotions, to mend the emotional damage caused by her ED. I have to say she is making tremendous progress. Even though I can tell that she has trouble communicating directly to me how much she cares about me, I am observant enough to pick up on how she does communicate her feelings thus far. In fact so much so that I can truly say that I have never loved or been loved with this intensity in my entire life .. and I have been married before.

I am a person of exceptionally high emotional intelligence myself, so I can be with her and be supportive of her without making the ED out to be any bigger deal than it is. We both know that there is more to her than her ED past. She and I connect on a deeper level, I feel. After she met me, she has made huge progress in terms of recovery. Feeling how I truly care for her, she says, has done wonders for her. She tells me that she has never been able to feel like she feels prior to meeting me. Of course I'm flattered, but I am making sure that she understands that I'm not with her because I view myself as her "savior" from the emotional void that used to be her life. I want no such power over her, and have told her so. Likewise, because she has recovered so well, she is able to communicate to me in such a way that I sincerely do believe she is not in love with me because she feels like I have saved her. I am not worried about her true feelings for me, as hard as they are for her to communicate.

What I am concerned about is her relationship to sex .. something I don't believe she has yet covered in therapy. She had her first sexual experience during the vice-like grip of her ED. I know that an ED is similar to any other addiction, in the sense that it can cause you to to develop a warped perspective of reality. When she had sex for the first time, she told me, the guy was being pretty rough .. hard sex, scratching, biting .. and she liked it. Nothing I would consider unusual since pain and pleasure can go very well hand in hand. She has only slept with 4 guys, all while still under the cloud of her ED. It is evident to me from what she has told me, that her prior boyfriends did not really care about her at all as a person.. that it was all about the sex for them. Essentially they used her for sex, they just fucked her hard and that was it for them. She knows this, and has told me so.

What I am concerned about is that she only THINKS she likes it that way because this is all she knows. She is now unable to really enjoy slow sex, gentle sex, gentle touch. She has never been able to orgasm from having slow sex, and now she only orgasms from heavy stimulation of her G-Spot. I am concerned that with so many other distorted perceptions on life and relationships, which she developed during her ED, her perception of sex is no exception since all of it happened during her ED. When we talk about sex, I do understand that she likes it a little rough .. I do too sometimes, but I can personally enjoy all the various facets of sex. However, I get the feeling that she does not have a healthy perspective on sex. I can tell she becomes frustrated when we have sex and she can't orgasm ... when she gets close but can't quite make it over the edge.. as if it is something that HAS to happen quick. As if sex is all about going through the motions and then orgasming .. that there is nothing more to sex than that. That makes me think that she is not truly able to enjoy sex in all its facets .. her prior experiences are so one sided .. rough .. and they happened during a time when she was not truly within her senses, that it feels to me like sex for her is just another thing her recovering mind is trying to control. She is neither dominating nor submissive. It just feels like, to me, that when it comes to her sexual side, she hasn't made any recovery, and still thinks sex is power struggle .. she has told me that when she has rough sex, it makes her feel she's in control .. I assume her logic is that she feels that way because she is the one who is allowing a guy to do what she (falsely, I believe) thinks is his greatest fantasy .. porn movie sex. That she can give him this, she can deny him this. Power. To me that doesn't seem healthy, and I don't want her to feel like sex is something I do to her, or something she does to me. To me sex, in all its facets, is about intimacy. I don't feel she can appreciate that, and I don't think she's aware of it either.

I have talked to her about slowing it down, that I want to teach her about sex, and help her develop a different, gentler, healthy perspective. She says she really wants that .. wants to be able to enjoy it the way others can, the way I can, to be free once and for all from all the distortions caused by her ED. She tells me that sex with me is the best she has ever had, that I'm so responsive to her body that it is a whole new experience for her. And I truly do believe that .. I know I'm an attentive lover. It's like I've opened the door for her to enter into a world of a healthy sex life, without power issues, without control issues .. she just has trouble walking through that door. And so she becomes frustrated because she can feel how much more sex can be .. she just can't physically become more sensitive just like that.

I know that many men would consider me lucky that my girlfriend is into hard and rough sex. I can appreciate that to an extent. Only I find that I can't enjoy it as much, knowing that she doesn't know any better, knowing that sex was something she was being used for. I am most certainly not like those other guys, and she is not the same as she was then. I want us to develop a healthy relationship to sex, together, and I feel she still has a mental block that is in the way .. as if rough sex is enjoyable to her only because her memories of it are linked to her perceived idea of being in control .. In that sense, she is not really enjoying the sex, she is enjoying the comfort of being in control of something that just happens to come with an orgasm .. which I can understand, since an ED is all about feeling in control, in power. I just don't want her sex with me to be associated with the sex she has had before we met. Although physically similar, I want it to be emotionally different .. truly gratifying for her.

My questions are: 1) has her sex life indeed been warped by her abusive boyfriends and the fact that she was clouded by an ED while it happened? 2) What can I do to help her unlearn what she thinks she knows about sex, and teach her how much more enjoyable it can be?

I make it a point to touch her a lot .. gently .. and to tell her to just try to focus on how that feels, to try to let everything else go and not worry about what's next, not worry about sex or orgasms .. to try to let my touch become sexually arousing however long it takes, to just enjoy the feeling of my touch. When she touches me gently, and sees how much it arouses me, she becomes almost jealous and most certainly frustrated that she can't be the same way .. that she can't enjoy something that gentle with the same intensity as me. After meeting me, she knows there's a better way .. she just has trouble finding it. I really don't want any of her negative perceptions from her past to be projected onto me, or our relationship. I want her to be able to let all of that go, and to rediscover herself with me by her side .. free from the past.

I hope you can help shed some light on this for me.



ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

Hello, Rune, and thanks for your letter:

From what you say, it seems as if your girlfriend is making good progress in her recovery from the eating disorder, and I imagine that your gentleness and friendship are important to her at this time.

I will go on to answer your two questions, but there seems to be in your letter an underlying assumption with which I do not agree, and I would like to address that first. You say that ED is "like any other addiction" as if all addictions were somehow the same, but, in my experience, this is not the case. To begin with, addiction to a substance which produces chemical tolerance is not at all the same as addiction to a behavior which one compulsively repeats (masturbation, for example), but which does not produce chemical dependency. Secondly, one person's experience with any particular form of addiction may be very different from another's. For example, one person may fall into anorectic behavior largely as a defense against being approached sexually--the underlying psychic economy being, in this case, the idea that if I have no breasts, no bottom, no one will want to pursue me with the idea of seduction. Another person may have a similar relationship to food, but the underlying psychodynamics could be entirely different--for example, a teenage girl may buy the "thin is beautiful" image which is promulgated so widely in the fashion industry, and simply pursue it to excess, eventually losing any realistic assessment of her own body. As you can see from these two examples, the directions are opposite, the first an attempt to be less attractive, the second an attempt to be more attractive. Yet a third person may use anorexia and/or bulimia as a way of blocking out disturbing feelings, or of self-medicating against depression since the neurotransmitters released as a result of starvation may produce antidepressive side effects. And these are just a few possibilities.

To put this another way, please do not be too sure that you understand anything about your girlfriend's behavior. In my view, you would do better to admit ignorance, and simply approach your girlfriend as you would any other human being--as a mystery, that is.

Now, to your questions:

1) has her sex life indeed been warped by her abusive boyfriends and the fact that she was clouded by an ED while it happened?

In the first place, judging from your account, her previous boyfriends were not what I would call "abusive." They "fucked her hard," as you put it, and she enjoyed it. That does not sound like abuse to me, unless you are using the word "abuse" to mean any kind of sex except that based on deep love and commitment, which, to me, would expand the definition of abuse beyond any useful range. In the second place, everyone's sex life is "warped" in one way or another. Our sexuality is warped by absurd religious perspectives, by the use of sex to sell political ideas and commercial merchandise, by the foolish standards of so-called "beauty" which are enforced by cultural hierarchies, by the identification of penis size with "manhood," and of breast size with "femininity," etc. ad nauseum. I would say that the "warping" happened for your girlfriend long before she met any of the "abusive" boyfriends, and may very well play a part, perhaps a large part, in the etiology (development) of her eating disorder. In other words, you may have the cart before the horse here. For example, if I had a patient who had manifested self-starvation (I am assuming that this was the ED of your girlfriend), I would not be at all surprised that she also liked rough sex. Starving oneself seems pretty rough to me! Once again, the message here is for you please to be careful not to assume that you understand more than you really do.

2) What can I do to help her unlearn what she thinks she knows about sex, and teach her how much more enjoyable it can be?

From what you have written, you seem to be doing pretty well. Kindness, along with non-judgmental openness to another's experience is, by my lights, the best approach to helping anyone with anything. But I wonder if you are a bit too focused on helping, and not enough on just being. If your girlfriend enjoys rough sex, and has enjoyable orgasms as part of it, why try to wean her off it? Is it really so important to focus on what makes her come? Might it not be better to give her whatever she desires in bed, and make the relationship tender and sweet? With that approach, which simply recognizes that sex is sex and ought not to be measured or judged, you might find happiness together, and perhaps the sexual tenderness you desire would develop on it's own. To me, that would be the path of a really good lover (but that's just my opinion, and you may disagree).

Be well.

Thanks to your support, "ask dr-robert" has become the world's number one ask the psychologist site.

Pass it on:

Tell a friend about this page!
Their Name:
Their Email:
Your Name:
Your Email:
(all infomation remains private)

Or, if you find the site worth sharing, link to from your webpage, newsgroup, discussion forum, or blog.

return to ask dr-robert archives

This page last modified: February 28, 2006

copyright robert saltzman 2004 all rights reserved