Sex and Attachment Interview Series with Jamie Brazell: Part 1

Hello!

I am back to weekly blogging (yes!), and I have been waiting on pins and needles to share this interview series with you!

I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to talk with Jamie Brazell, M. Ed., LMFT, CST in this first interview about Sex & Attachment. During this first piece, we are talking about the work Jamie does, the different variables that can impact intimacy, and the importance of flexibility in relationships. You can learn more about Jamie and her work by checking out her website and connecting with her on social media. Jamie is a wealth of information and we are so lucky to be able to explore these important topics with her.

I want to give you a heads up--this blog is longer than normal because I didn't want to cut out anything important or relevant. Feel free to pause and come back to it when you are able, or read it in pieces.

Next week, we will be diving in to the anxious-avoidant pattern as it shows up in sexual relationships, which is sure to be a juicy topic!

Will you let me know what you think of this first interview? You can email me at hello@heirloomcounseling.com or use the contact page and tell me everything. I can't wait to hear your thoughts!

Thank you for being here! I'm so happy to be back with you again!

Love,

Elizabeth
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Elizabeth: I’m curious if you wouldn’t mind just sharing some about your experience, about what you do, and the people you work with.
Jamie: I love getting that question, and I have to be really mindful to not spend too much time because I could go on and on! I work with individuals and I work with couples and I also work with people in poly or open relationships. Sex therapy is this very large umbrella and is a never-ending learning process. I’m one of only two AASECT-certified sex therapists in town and that can feel daunting at times! Under the large umbrella of sex therapy you have a number of topics: desire discrepancies, sex and shame, LGBT folks and topics that require a high level of cultural competency to do them well. There is also sex and disabilities, sex and cancer, sex and sexuality. With my work, I started off working in rape crisis and domestic violence. Part of the reason I felt it was so important to work with trauma survivors, especially around sensitive issues like unwanted sexual experiences, is because I realized not everyone is cut out for this work. I would talk about what I did and people would ask me, “how do you do that? I can’t believe you do that.” And I feel like because I can, I should. It’s important.
E: Yes. Because you’re equipped to do it.
J: It felt right. I have a Masters in Human Sexuality and I was able to broaden my interest and I love working with LGBT folks among other people. Another thing I have become really passionate about is my work with clients who have pelvic pain that interferes with sex and general comfort. I love connecting those clients with the proper medical providers. Unfortunately, those providers are few and far between. I have had many clients who have told me they have been to two, three, four providers who’ve told them “everything looks normal, so it’s all in your head.” And gynecologists often don’t have any human sexuality training unless they seek it out. It’s very medical and focused on pathology.
E: Oh my goodness. Which is so incredibly invalidating and dismissive of a person’s experience.
J: And that can deeply impact a relationship.
E: And I imagine that you work with folks who have experienced birth trauma or have postpartum challenges too. Sex and sexuality change in a relationship throughout time. I think that’s one of the things that feels really important for me to share for the people who are reading is that sex and sexuality are not stagnant. The sex you are having in your relationship after you have been together for a while is not going to be how it was when you first got together. It’s going to continuously change over time. I believe that simple fact gives us the opportunity to continue to make changes when things don’t feel good or satisfying or connected for us. It’s always evolving, and as scary as that can feel, it’s also really positive.
J: The thing is that when those changes happen, people go into this place where they believe “this is it.” So much of what I do in my sessions is educational because we have horrible sex education in this country. I do a lot to normalize that. When our sexual connection changes down the line in our relationship, it tends to be a total shock and people might think “now our sex life is completely over” and that’s the belief folks are often walking in to my office with. I’m so glad you brought up birth trauma because I have personally had that experience and I have done a lot of work around that myself. It can really impact a couple’s sex life.
E: I think it’s interesting that as we are having this conversation, we are both using gender-neutral language and I am curious about your take on that in terms of the work that you do. I know you know how important it is to me, so I’m curious about how you roll that into your practice and how it fits in with your values in your work.
J: It’s important for everyone to feel seen and for people who are outside of the gender binary, it can be so affirming to have even one person in your life that day who is affirming and using the kind of language that is intentional and as inclusive as possible. It’s not possible to always include every single person, but I value striving for that. And I don’t always get it right, but when I get it wrong, I want to be accountable. You can do that without overdoing it. If you call someone by the wrong pronoun and they correct you, please remember that it takes a lot of courage for that person to make a correction. So you correct yourself and move on. You don’t want anyone to have to take care of you because you made a mistake. Also, don’t forget that there are lots of different kinds of relationships, including same-gender relationships.
E: I love that. Yes. We should never make assumptions about a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or who they are in a relationship with. I see that happening a lot in the world. We are always perceiving sexuality and gender. When we use gender-neutral language we are recognizing the fact that there are so many possibilities and the reality is not always what it looks like to you from your personal perception.
J: And giving people the opportunity to self-identify is so important. Asking questions like “how do you view your sexuality? How do you view your gender?” Leaving those questions open-ended is important.
E: Absolutely! So let’s talk about attachment. I work with lots of couples and individuals who are really digging in to their early life experiences and are making connections between their early experiences and how they show up in their adult relationships. You know that’s life changing work! I see lots of people recognizing that there are challenges happening in their sex life related to these topics, too. I want to know how you see sex and attachment intersecting. Where do you see those things coming together in your work and in relationships?
J: I think that because sex is an extremely sensitive subject, and super vulnerable and personal, you can have a person who is otherwise very secure in their attachment style experiencing more insecurity or insecure patterns because they are stressed about sex. Someone who can show up really well in their relationship in all other ways, have great communication about every other topic, and have security all around, encounters the topic or act of intimacy and because it’s so sensitive, can be the area that is causing stress and can cause them to move into an insecure attachment style. We move to an insecure place when we experience stress or reach our threshold when it comes to vulnerability.
E: I totally agree. We often fall into old relationship patterns or ways of showing up/not showing up when we are stressed. Sex tends to be so sensitive—why do you think it’s stressful? What do you think is happening in the world that sex has become a stressful topic or brings up the stress that creates a fallback to our old patterns?
J: I could get on a soapbox about our sex education in our country. Our culture in America was set up by Puritans and is based on genocide, so there are some obvious issues. There is a therapist and author named Terry Real and I went to one of his workshops years ago because I knew he collaborated with Esther Perel (a couples therapist). He said “I believe that as a society we greatly value patriarchal values and systems, so anything that is deemed “the feminine” is idealized in theory but devalued in reality.” So as a result, you have poor communication within family systems, especially when it comes to things that are deeply emotional or vulnerable. So poor sex education combined with the fact that many families don’t talk about sex at all—it’s just ignored—you have this contradiction in our culture because you have images and media portraying “sexy bodies” and generally over-sexualizing everyone. But women are devalued. Peggy Orenstein talks about how women receive mixed messages. “On the one hand, I see sexualized images so am I supposed to be sexy? But it’s not good to be prude. I don’t know where to be in that. I don’t know how to do it right.”
E: And there’s that binary again. It’s such a trap. It ends up being this formula. The way that I see it, it’s all of these things combined that creates so much stress about sexual experiences. And when we talk about attachment and relationships, we are all coming in to partnerships with varying degrees of this kind of stress.
J: Yes. You don’t see these kinds of struggles in the same way in other cultures that handle sex education differently. For example, Scandinavian cultures where they are very sex-positive and they teach children from a younger age about more than the practical basics—that sex is something to find pleasure in. They have lower teen pregnancy rates and people delay their first sexual experiences because it’s not taboo. They are taught that sex is connected with something that is emotional, not just physical. We don’t do that here in America. That doesn’t mean people can’t have sexual experiences that are just for fun, because they totally can. But most of the time there is some kind of relational aspect, however people want to define it. Dan Savage talks a lot about that. I have a lot of mixed feelings about him, but one of the things I love about him is that he is capable of re-evaluating his stuff and going back and making changes which I think is cool. He is quick to remind people that a f*ck buddy is still a relationship! Friends with benefits is still friends.
E: Yes! And this is straight-up opinion but to me, even one night stands are still some kind of relationship. I mean, you have to be in some kind of emotional or social relationship where you ended up being intimate with a person. It requires some kind of connection. There is always relating. When we have these dialogues, I think it’s important to remember we are talking about attachment and sex. They are always intersecting in some capacity.
J: Exactly.
E: One of the things I think about when it comes to sex and attachment is flexibility. We know flexibility is one of the main components of secure attachment—that we can be flexible, that we can re-evaluate, that we can come back to something that we believed in strongly and say, “oh, I can change my mind about this.” As far as attachment goes, when that flexibility is present, it’s much more likely that partners are going to experience fulfilling sex and intimacy. If we can receive feedback, like “I don’t really like that” or “that doesn’t feel good to me” and be able to say “okay, tell me what does. Let’s have a conversation about this. Is this okay for you?” with genuine respect, we are building trust, connection, and safety. This means we can receive feedback and have that be okay—that it doesn’t mean something about us as a person or trip up any deep insecurities. Or if it does, we can explore that together because it’s safe to do so. The goal is that we are so connected with each other that our partner’s needs and our needs are primary and the way of getting there isn’t rigid. There is flexibility there that is rooted in security.
J: Yes, that makes so much sense. And the possibility of someone being able to say “this isn’t working for me”—that just hit me in a tender spot because so often people have to be courageous to say that. There can be so much fear around hurting the other person’s ego or perhaps the person had an experience where they did speak up and they were shut down by a partner because there was an ego wound there, because there was rigidity instead of flexibility. Teaching people what that flexibility looks like is so important.
E: It really is. And learning how to practice that flexibility together in a way that feels out of your comfort zone but not totally terrifying--that's where I think we can make real progress.

p.s. It's here! The Healing Anxious Attachment Online Course! This course is for anyone interested in feeling healthier in relationships. You don't have to be in a relationship currently to benefit from the material. You can learn more and get started here.  

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Why You Shouldn't Avoid Avoidants (this is a bit controversial)