In the eight years Tom Murray, Ph.D., has managed his sex therapy practice in Greensboro, North Carolina, he's noticed patterns among patients, particularly those with overcontrolled personality types. To address this trend, he began learning how to incorporate an emerging therapy into his practice: radically open dialectical behavior therapy (RO DBT). It focuses on treating issues related to people who are overcontrolled and behavior that is characterized by perfectionism, rigidity and self-criticism.
A few years ago, when working with a couple, it dawned on Murray he could predict the quality of their sex life by asking one single question: "Are you a 'be careful' parent or are you a 'have fun' parent?"
The couple said they default to "be careful" when their kids want to take risks. Murray, who considers himself overcontrolled, began to ask the same question of other clients and, sure enough, couples with sexual problems often turned out as "be careful" parents.
This was the inspiration for his new book, "Making Nice With Naughty: An Intimacy Guide for the Rule-Following, Organized, Perfectionist, Practical and Color-Within-the-Line Types," the first popular press book to apply RO DBT to sex and sexuality.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you mean by 'making nice with naughty'?
Murray: From early on, kids are told, "Don't be naughty." For example, "Santa Claus is watching you," "Stay in line" and "Color within the lines." They may have often grown up in homes where order and compliance were paramount, and so making nice with naughty is essentially developing a different relationship with the concept of naughtiness.
These people were conditioned to believe naughtiness was somehow a negative reflection of themselves. Rather, naughtiness is another way of being playful.
Within the bedroom, people often feel like they have to be perfect. I talk about sexual perfectionism in the book, and that pursuit of perfectionism restrains their ability to have fun in the bedroom. Making nice with naughty is this idea of, "I have to make nice with this concept that was told to me was a terrible thing, when in fact, it's a doorway into an exciting, fulfilling and meaningful sex life."
What are some examples in which being overcontrolled can pose problems in the bedroom?
The most pervasive example would be sexual perfectionism. Sexual perfectionism comes in four flavors: "I must be sexually perfect," "My partner must be sexually perfect," "I think my partner thinks I must be sexually perfect" and "Society expects me to be sexually perfect."
If you believe you have to have an erection every time you want to have sex, then you can imagine what happens the one time you don't get an erection. You might get filled with anxiety, start feeling embarrassed, maybe even ashamed, and now you're even triggered to wonder what your partner is thinking about you because you didn't get an erection.
And then the moment passes, perhaps you stopped pursuing intimacy with your partner and maybe days go by. Now you're starting to be anxious that the next time you have sex, you're not going to get an erection. This idea of sexual perfectionism, where you have these rules around what sex has to be, creates pressure and demands that sex be a performance. When something is a performance, there's a possibility of failure. And, certainly, this spikes anxiety and interferes with people's sexuality.
I see this often with women, for example, when they say, "If my partner doesn't get an erection, that's a message of my worth." Or "If my partner doesn't have an orgasm, that's a measure of my worth. My partner should have an orgasm every time we have sex." If I think my partner thinks I have to be sexually perfect, I might have a lot of anxiety about my physical appearance, and that interferes with my sexual readiness.
[Being] overcontrolled can show up generally in the interpersonal domain. Overcontrolled people tend to be much more moralistic. They tend to have a higher degree of moral superiority in the sense that they have a strong belief about how the world should be, must be or has to be. And so when you feel maybe your partner has violated those rules, then you might be critical toward them. That creates interpersonal tension because they're not living up to what you believe is the expectation.
The stereotypical example is going behind your partner to rearrange the dishwasher because they didn't do it right. If you're on the receiving end of that, you can imagine what that's communicating to your partner. So often what happens in my session is one or both partners will say, "I feel like I can't do anything right. They're never satisfied. I'm never enough." You can imagine then how that will impact people's sexual desire for one another.
In the chapter 'Making Friends With Anxiety,' you write that you can 'shift from expending your energy in treating anxiety as an enemy to gathering strength from it by embracing it as a friend.' Why is anxiety so helpful?
Since the 1950s, we've medicalized and monetized distress. Anxiety is a form of distress. We've made people believe, as a part of this mental health system, that anxiety has no relevance and that it's bad to experience it. And if you do experience it, you should do whatever it takes to get rid of it. Of course, if that's the message, then now you set up a market for treatment via psychotherapy, medication, lifestyle and experiences, such as yoga and exercise, all of these kinds of things that go into a system that has medicalized and monetized distress.
At the same time, anxiety has been with us since the dawn of time, and it's only in the space of discomfort that evolution ever occurs. [Because] overcontrolled people have been told anxiety is terrible and that safety and security are the definitions of successful living, whenever an overcontrolled person gets into a situation where they are anxious, they tend to retreat from it. Consequently, they become a prisoner to said anxiety. In other words, it becomes the anxiety that makes their decisions for them, rather than their values.
By making friends with anxiety, it's a way of reminding yourself that when you're anxious, there is something new about you there to learn. There's an opportunity to lean into the anxiety so you can learn something new about yourself. A parallel is that we go to the gym specifically to make ourselves uncomfortable; that if we were completely comfortable all the time, we would make no gains in the gym. And so when I feel anxious about something and I'm overcontrolled, I've now trained myself to ask myself, "Can I experience more anxiety than I'm experiencing now and still survive?" so that I can make steps toward what's important to me.
If I retreat out of anxiety, then, by definition, I'm not pursuing those things that are important to me. Anxiety can be an indicator that something is important to you, that you care.