Can a couples’ emotional and attachment cycles influence each other? How does secure attachment allow for “the best sex”? How did the pandemic influence relationships?
In this podcast episode, Joe Sanok speaks about secure attachment styles and sex therapy with Dr. Laurie Watson.
- Secure attachment allows for the best sex
- Attachment cycles
- How the pandemic has influenced relationships
Secure attachment allows for the best sex
The secure attachment style is not about smothering your partner or feeling joined at the hip. Secure attachment means to allow – and encourage – your partner to be their individual selves.
But, when we are securely attached to our partner, there’s so much breathing room, there’s so much allowance for the otherness of our partner which becomes very exciting. (Dr. Laurie Watson)
When you see your partner in their own space, in flow, and working on their own hobbies, job, or activities, that can be very intriguing and exciting for someone, which boosts arousal and appreciation.
It’s within secure attachment that vulnerability keeps sex hot. It’s when we reveal the erotic mind that our sex stays alive and on fire, and I don’t think that’s as possible in relationships that are new and random … in terms of enduring desire, that comes with security. (Dr. Laurie Watson)
In almost all relationships, to varying degrees, there is a pursuer and a withdrawer. The pursuer wants to be with their partner often and desires a strong connection which can, ironically, push the withdrawer away.
In turn, this makes the pursuer more frantic and needy, which makes the withdrawer back up and shut down. This emotional attachment cycle dovetails into the sexual attraction and attachment cycle.
[Withdrawers] try to control for the “temperature” and the intensity of the sexual experience. Mostly, because ironically, they feel [the sex] so much more intensely, so they’re not trying to control their partner, they’re trying to control the experience for themselves to modify it in a way that they can tolerate it. (Dr. Laurie Watson)
Some highly sensitive people have more sensitive bodies, and therefore orgasms can be a mind-blowing experience, and so relationally they feel exquisitely vulnerable to be naked and intimate with their partners.
The emotional and attachment cycles feed off and influence each other in various ways.
How the pandemic has influenced relationships
1 – The pandemic has changed the dating field: many people before the pandemic dated for fun and closeness.
However, after the pandemic, research has shown that most people are now dating for connection and intimacy.
Because I think all of us realized that this isolation was so toxic. To be alone, to not have a partner, to not be touched … the idea is that we are not invulnerable, we know this with the pandemic, and so partnership has become very important. (Dr. Laurie Watson)
2 – Forced togetherness: many relationships ended over the pandemic because the cracks in the relationship could not be avoided.
If a couple was struggling with issues and they did not have the tools to repair and resolve their negative cycles, then splitting up became the solution.
3 – An increase in masturbation and sex toys: people have become more self-sufficient since realizing that there may be times when they could be without.
Books mentioned in this episode:
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- Listen to her podcast and read her blog.
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Meet Joe Sanok
Joe Sanok helps counselors to create thriving practices that are the envy of other counselors. He has helped counselors to grow their businesses by 50-500% and is proud of all the private practice owners that are growing their income, influence, and impact on the world. Click here to explore consulting with Joe.
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[JOE SANOK] This is the Practice of the Practice podcast with Joe Sanok, session number 702.
I’m Joe Sanok, your host and welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast. I’m so excited you’re here. We cover so many things that have to do with private practice, that is the business and the background and how you get the logistics going. We’re going to cover a lot of that today. As well, we’re going to dive into some clinical things. So I’m really, really excited to have Dr. Laurie Watson with me today. Dr. Laurie is a sex therapist, group practice owner that specializes in couples and sex therapy, and also has the FOREPLAY RADIO podcast. So really excited to dive in today with you, Laurie. Welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast.
[DR. LAURIE WATSON] Thank you for having me. This is exciting. I listen to your podcast too.
[JOE] Aw, thank you so much. I appreciate that.
[DR. LAURIE] Yes, I’ve been listening for years, so very excited to be here.
[JOE] Well, I would love to dive in and start with just your private practice journey. When did you know you wanted to start a private practice? How’d you plan it? I know you’ve had a group practice for quite a long time. Would love just to hear kind of some of that building and growing phase, and then we’ll dive into your specialty a little bit more.
[DR. LAURIE] Okay, great. So in about 2000, I was specializing in sex therapy in Raleigh, North Carolina and started to get a flood of referrals. So I thought maybe if I hire somebody else to take some of this extra, it would be great. I did that about 2001 and kind of never stopped adding people.
[JOE] How many clinicians do you have at this point?
[DR. LAURIE] I think we have 16.
[JOE] Wow, wow. To go from a solo practice and adding people, what were some of the phases in starting and growing a group practice? I imagine there was different iterations. What were solos phases you went through?
[DR. LAURIE] So in the beginning it was just a little bit of extra. For many years I had just one or two people with me, not really even thinking of it as a huge growth and development project for me. In about 2012, one of the things I did is I wrote a book on sex therapy and that book, I was on Katie Couric nationally, and then I was, but really the big thing that helped my practice was I was in the local paper and on Valentine’s day, which is appropriate for sex therapy and that just made my practice explode. So suddenly I had kind of more referrals than I knew what to do with, and I thought, okay, I really need to organize and focus on my local endeavors. That’s what I did. So I started hiring from that point forward.
[JOE] Isn’t it amazing how sometimes you think, oh, if I’m on the Today Show or talking with Katie Couric, that it’s going to, like, that’s going to be the thing, but really it’s local people knowing about you more times than not that just say, oh yes, you should go work with Laurie.
[DR. LAURIE] That was so true. Really, I mean, I was so excited about it and it was a fabulous opportunity, but it was really the local stuff that did it for me in terms of my practice.
[JOE] I think I remember with my practice I did a monthly article for the newspaper on just really simple things like three ways to help your kids prep for school the next day, or five ways to be a consistent parent. The amount of grandmas that would cut it out and give it to like their kids and they’d come up to me and say, “Every time you write, I cut out that article and give it to my son or my daughter.” I mean, it was just this very organic marketing.
[DR. LAURIE] Exactly. I think the article actually led to local radio gigs. Being a sex therapist, a lot of people, that’s such a fun spot to have, just call ins or fun topics. So a couple radio shows both in Raleigh and Greensboro grabbed me and I started doing that on a regular basis and that added to the practice as well and kind of spread my name. The other thing I did was when I started my group practice, I cold-called every single gynecologist in the county.
[JOE] Oh wow.
[DR. LAURIE] I basically, I made the lunch and Joe, I homemade the lunch and it cost me a dollar 14 per person at the lunch down to the plastic fork. I did this on a shoestring. These are people who didn’t want to do therapy. They had all kinds of problems with their patients having sex problems and that was the last thing they wanted to do. So that was kind of my initial marketing foray. Then eventually with the radio, it kind of, it all started to congeal. I was asked to speak at local universities, at Duke and UNC Chapel Hill, their medical departments. I am the only hour on sex therapy that the gynecologist received at UNC Chapel Hill the only hour. You would think in their specialty they would get lots and lots of teaching on sexuality, but they don’t. So kind of all of this started to dovetail into itself, the radio, the book, the newspaper, the medical community, and that started to really establish my reputation.
[JOE] I mean, I think a lot of practitioners when they start to take off, get really overwhelmed with what’s going on in regards to the logistics in their business, and they keep wearing multiple hats and doing all the, they’re working in the business and on the business. What did you do to free up time and space and creative energy as these opened up? Because you probably couldn’t maintain a 35 person a week clinical practice if you’re doing all these other things and you’re really the brand for your business. How did you make that switch to start seeing fewer people? Or how did you think through how to put that creative energy into things beyond just what was happening one on one in sessions?
[DR. LAURIE] I think it was the first step. I was still answering the phones probably six or seven years, eight years in. I would run in between clients and write down on a scrap of paper the next message. Then I would bring all these scraps of paper home and try to answer the phones in the evenings. I was also raising three children at the time as well. Finally, I just said I’ve got to hire somebody to answer the phones. That was the first major step that started to free up my time. When I realized all the money that had walked out the door, because I had missed these phone calls, I was like, oh my gosh, this was the smartest thing and so-cost effective because her salary was paid for many, many times over in short order. My own hassle factor went way down because I knew people were getting the phone call back and I knew that we were increasing and growing so much faster.
[JOE] It’s amazing how, when you have those extra people, that it just helps you kind of grow and scale differently. I’m interested in, you having been in the field of sex therapy for so long, what are things that you’re seeing in couples and relationships and sexuality? How has that changed over the last say 20 years of clinical practice? What are you noticing now? What are you thinking through? What should people have on the radar, both as clinicians, but also as people that, I mean, we all have, or seek some sort of loving relationships in our lives? How do you frame that over the last say, 20 years and where are we at right now in the world of sex therapy?
[DR. LAURIE] Okay, well, this is my sweet spot and I’m so glad you asked. I’m an attachment theorist. So I work from attachment theory and it really talks about that people who are more deeply connected have the most sex and the best sex. And there’s another kind of paradox out there and that’s the intimacy desire, paradox. Do people who get too close, does that kill desire? There’s really good attachment research that shows that it is actually secure attachment that allows for the best sex. I think all of us think of maybe secure attachment as this cuddly close smothering kind of attachment, but really when we are securely attached to our partner, there’s so much breathing room. There’s so much allowance for the otherness of our partner, which becomes very exciting.
When we see our partner, particularly, maybe in their own space in flow doing their own thing, it can be very exciting. I think that it’s within secure attachment, that really it’s vulnerability that keeps sex hot. So it’s when we reveal the erotic mind that our sex stays alive and on fire. I don’t think that is possible in relationships that are new and random. I mean, not to say that new and random. Relationships can’t be very sexually hot, but in terms of enduring desire, that comes with security. So I think about the sexual attachment cycle, we know that in the emotional attachment cycle, there’s a pursuer and a withdrawal, often one person chases the other one, wants more, needs more connection, time together talking. Ironically, that seems to make the other person pull back and withdraw and feel suffocated and smothered, which kind of makes the other pursuing partner feel frantic.
They get larger, they get more critical. I need you more. You’re never there, which makes the withdrawing partner back up and shut down and say no matter what I do for you, it’s not enough anyway. Well, this emotional attachment cycle dovetails into the sexual attachment cycle. There’s often one person who is more pursuing sexually and the other who is more withdrawing sexually. I would say the one thing I would like to get across is people who are sexual withdrawals often like sex. Their partner doesn’t believe that, but I hear it over and over again, but they try to control for the temperature and the intensity of the sexual experience, mostly because ironically, they feel it so much more intensely. So they are not trying to control their partner. They’re trying to control the experience for themselves to modify it in a way that they can tolerate it.
Sometimes their bodies are really, really sensitive and so orgasm is just this mind blowing experience. Sometimes relationally, they feel so exquisitely vulnerable to be naked, to show their orgasm to their partner. That’s why they kind of clamp down a little bit. So with therapists, my goal right now in my career is to teach therapists how to deal with the sexual attachment cycle and how to manage the emotional attachment cycle and how these two feed off each other and how they need each other.
[JOE] So when you’re looking at building that secure attachment, what are things that partners can do if they feel like they both are saying, we want to attach more, we want to connect more. We want to use the research and science to have a deeper level of intimacy? What are things that you’re finding work?
[DR. LAURIE] That’s a great question. So I think the first thing that works is to learn how to be vulnerable, how to speak from our deepest needs, which is so tough for us as therapists and us as people, just being able to tolerate in our clients this sense of deep, deep need. I mean, it can kind of trigger us. It’s like, oh, do I really want to stay there with clients for very long? Or do I want to move them quickly to some other area of their relationship? We need to stay in the need. That may look like, when this happens, when we’re not as sexual as frequently as I need it to be I start to tell myself you don’t find me desirable and I really, really need your reassurance.
[DR. LAURIE] This is what it looks like for me. My need is I need you to tell me when you think I’m attractive and I need your touch. Touch to me, regulates my body. It regulates my soul. So if we can hug more, touch, more even lay naked in bed together, this helps me. So I want people to learn to speak from that vulnerability, to talk about the pain that they feel when there’s disconnect, but to talk about it from a from an eye position, from a self position versus a “you don’t touch me anymore,” which is a you position or the view of other. I want them to speak from the self. Then below that pain of disconnection, what do they particularly need that will get them reconnected?
[JOE] You know a lot of friends that I know are going through divorces and the pandemic definitely seems to have magnified some things that were already there. What have you noticed as a result of the pandemic and people being in lockdown together, or having all sorts of things happen and extra stress and worry? What did that do to relationships, to sex, to connection, to attachment, to all of that?
[DR. LAURIE] Well, I certainly think that it has changed the dating field. I think that there was research done that said 40% of females were dating basically on a casual basis pre-pandemic just to have fun, to check out somebody and after the pandemic, 80% of them were dating to find a partner. Because I think all of us realized that this isolation was so toxic to be alone, to not have a partner, to not be touched. I mean, people stopped having sex out of huge amounts of fear of contagion, let alone just even meeting for coffee or for drinks. So I think the idea is that we are not in vulnerable. We know this with the pandemic. So partnership has become very important, but like you said, people who were stuck together who were partnered, the cracks in their relationship became more and more apparent. There was no escape. If they didn’t have the tools to resolve their negative cycles emotionally and sexually, then of course they’re starting to think about splitting up.
[JOE] Yes. Long term, when you think about kind of post pandemic and different generations thinking differently about sex and intimacy, what do you see as being things that maybe may never change and things that definitely have been disrupted and have shifted?
[DR. LAURIE] That’s a good question. Certainly there has been an increase in masturbation with the pandemic, an increase in sales for sex toys. People have become more self-sufficient realizing I need to have an option here. So that’s one small little change that I’ve seen in the sex field. I think that, gosh, in terms of generations, help me with that question a little bit more of what —
[JOE] I guess I’m just thinking if you see clients that are of different age demographics, are different generations, especially ones that are coming in now, like I hear things that I don’t know if it’s even based on research that because of say being raised with the internet, people getting married now may have different expectations in regards to what their sex life may look like. They may have different expectations on monogamy or things like that compared to previous generations. I’m wondering, if you’re seeing those kind of dynamics generationally, or maybe it’s not even generationally, maybe it’s just people are realizing from the pandemic that in all of life, things that we assumed were stable and fine and unmovable maybe have some different movement to it than we had anticipated. I’m just wondering if there’s anything that you’re noticing in regards to either between generations or even just how people maybe are thinking differently now.
[DR. LAURIE] So in terms of the internet, I actually married before the internet was in existence, so I’m that old, we didn’t have internet porn and things like that when we got married. I think that internet porn, online dating, things like that have really changed the way people connect. I think that one of the things about pornography is obviously the availability of variety, just the being able to view so many different naked people and people having sex. I guess what I worry about Joe is that for people who are more avoid attached they can satisfy their sex drive. They’re not necessarily having low sex drive, they’re having low drive toward another person. So their attachment style is more avoidance. So they manage their sexual needs mechanically with online relationships, without really having to risk the vulnerability of, and rigor of emotional connection.
I think that that’s problematic for them because while it gets them relief and it gets them maybe joy and pleasure, even it doesn’t necessarily get them to a secure place where all of their relational needs are met. Certainly we know the landscape is changing in terms of monogamy and consensual non-monogamy, and that’s brand new on the, on the field really. I mean, certainly people have been practicing it for ages, but there’s a new media push about that. As an alternative, is this something that the younger generation is trying more, I think that they are and they’re experimenting with it more. I probably think that in terms of, I can understand at certain stages of life that there’s capacity for more love and more sex, but I think at other stages of life, particularly when people are raising children, it does not lend the stability of the family because if you are taking your child to your lovers and you’re leaving them there in the morning, so that you can go meet another lover in the noontime and they’re away from their primary parent. I mean, we know as therapists that the introduction of parenting figures who are not blood does put children at risk for abuse, for sexual abuse, emotional abuse, all kinds of things. So I think that in terms of consensual non-monogamy. I’m not a judge. People need to make the decisions they need to make, but I do think in terms of stability in the family, that’s going to be problematic. I think that’s kind of more of a new media push.
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[JOE SANOK] Now I’d love to shift gears because a person can be an expert clinically and be working on that and then have a whole career where you just have a group practice and you choose to have a group practice, you do some local speaking but at some point you decide to launch a podcast and go beyond just, not just the local practice, but you went beyond it. How did you make that decision? Why did you decide to start a podcast? How’s that going? Would love to hear about how you went from having your group practice to then having a much more national presence now.
[DR. LAURIE] Thank you. The podcast is FOREPLAY Radio and we are usually number five to number seven under sexuality on iTunes. We have over 7 million downloads, so we’re doing pretty well. I actually was offered a gig on one of the radio shows like come and do a little spot before the UNC Chapel Hill games and the basketball and football games. They had this little weird spot and so we recorded some things and they said we can do any, you can do anything you want. They knew I was a sex therapist. I’d been on their radio shows. Well, they listened to a few of the first shows and they said, oh no, absolutely not. It was just way too sexual. I think I said the word clitoris maybe three times or something and they said, no, we’re not going to allow this.
So I was really disappointed and I said, oh the heck with it, I’m just going to do a podcast because I knew that the information I was giving, every time I lectured people just thought it was rocket science. It’s like, I’m thinking this is just run of the mill good sex education. People didn’t seem to have heard it. So I thought, well, I’ll just put it out there. I’ll try it. We opened Valentine’s day, I don’t know, six, seven years ago now and it just kind of exploded. So I’ve had three co-hosts. I’m now with George Fowler, who’s an emotionally focused therapy, supervisor and trainer and he’s just absolutely fabulous. I mean, he’s so smart and together. I think we have a really good rapport and we talk about everything.
We have talked through kind of the emotional and sexual cycles. We talk explicitly about how to solve sexual problems. We’ve talked about even language for how to describe orgasm. I mean, just everything and many, many therapists follow us because it’s a tutelage in sex therapy. How do you get comfortable talking about sex? Why is it so important? We know that the sexual attachment cycle, if it’s not strong, people are tempted by others. They think they question the love of, and for their partner and they basically, the partnership will erode. So we know how deeply important it is. That’s what we’re trying to facilitate, is helping both lay people and therapists talk more comfortably about sex.
[JOE] I love it. I was raised by a sex educator. My mom was a nurse practitioner in the schools, so in first grade when I asked where babies came from, I got the full tutorial. She was ready. She’s like, “Oh, I’ve been waiting for this moment.” So when they started just talking about flowers and birds, I was like, I know where this is going. But it took from second grade till fifth grade of me not revealing to the other kids in school what I knew. So no, it’s funny the amount of times that my brother would, I remember he asked what a condom was and we got the full tutorial. So in my family, it was always proper terminology. Usually, my dad who was raised Catholic saying Mary Ellen, not at the dinner table.
[DR. LAURIE] That’s a great story. My own children, like on career day they would say whose parent will come and talk about their career. My children would always raise their hands, “My mom will.”. They will ask, “What does your mom do?” “She’s a sex therapist.” The teachers always wanted us to come and talk.
[JOE] Oh, I’m sure. I have no doubt. Well, Laurie, the last question that I always ask people is if every private practitioner in the world were listening right now, what would you want them to know?
[DR. LAURIE] Well, I want you to know that private practice and moving into group practice, it’s a build. You don’t have to do it all at once, but you kind of have to follow your heart and your passion. Then one thing after another, it’s kind of layers in terms of building a reputation and putting systems in place. As I know you know Joe, and now we have area leaders and we have all kinds of staff and all kinds of things that allow me to do more of what I’m good at, which is research and writing and teaching and podcasting and clinical supervision and things that really help, I think, solidify the sex therapy field but also generate an income so that I’m able to do that.
[JOE] Ah, so awesome. Well, if people want to connect with you, if they want to listen to your podcast, where’s the best place for us to send them?
[DR. LAURIE] Well, we are everywhere where podcasts are heard. So FOREPLAY Radio, that would be the number one place I would love for them to meet me. Certainly, if you just Google Laurie Watson sex therapist, you can find me everywhere or my websiteawakeningscenter.org. If they want to come work for me, if you’re interested in doing sex therapy, please get a hold of me. That would be great.
[JOE] Oh, so awesome. Well, thank you so much for being on the Practice of the Practice podcast.
[DR. LAURIE] Thank you for having me. I love what you’re doing too, and I love that you were the son of a sex therapist. Awesome.
[JOE] Sex educator, but yes, nurse practitioner. School psychologist, my dad was a school psychologist, so mix them together and yes, there you go. So thanks so much for being on the show today.
[DR. LAURIE] Thank you.
[JOE] So go take some action. What are you going to do to take action, to be able to go do big things? Is your next step just hiring a couple people like Laurie did and to grow a group practice and to automate time and money outside of yourself? Is it going to be reaching out locally, calling a bunch of doctors or folks that are connected to your specialty? Maybe it’s starting a podcast. Laurie got rejected by a radio station and said, forget this, I’m going to do it myself. Thinking outside of the box, pushing yourself to try new things so that you can impact more people, grow multiple streams of income. It’s just so fun to do these things.
If you ever want support, you can always reach out to us over at Practice of the Practice in the bottom. You’ll see a “Chat With Us.” Jessica, my director of details is there all week long, just answering questions, pointing you in the right direction. If you want consulting or masterminds, we have all sorts of things to support you there as well.
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Thank you so much for letting me into your ears and into your brain. Have an amazing day. I’ll talk to you soon.
Special thanks to the band Silence is Sexy for that intro music. This podcast is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is given with the understanding that neither the host, the producers, the publishers or guests are rendering legal, accounting, clinical, or other professional information. If you want a professional, you should find one.