Turn on the TV, and you’ll see plenty of commercials promising chocolates, flowers and jewelry are the key to romance this Valentine’s Day. And while there’s nothing wrong with a little sugar for your sugar, the best way to say “I love you,” according to Lee Kinsey (’15 Ph.D.), a Dallas-based relationship counselor and sex therapist, involves a far more complex transaction: the act of communicating with and listening to your partner, and understanding the feelings and needs they are expressing.
“A lot of people groan when they hear that — ‘You need to communicate’ sounds so cliché,” laughs Kinsey. “But your partner needs to understand you, and you need to feel understood. Sit down and look at each other, and talk about your feelings in general: not just in this moment, but where are you in life, what are your hopes and dreams? What do you want? What do you crave? That sense of understanding can help develop a really powerful intimacy.”
Kinsey, who also specializes in therapy for LGBTQ+ individuals and couples, recently opened his own practice, Lee Kinsey Counseling. There, he counsels couples from all backgrounds and experiences.
“A lot of the time, I’m the last-ditch effort before people divorce,” Kinsey says. “I love that I’m now taking this deep dive into private practice, which empowers me to spend a whole lot of time with the people I’m counseling.”
Here, Kinsey talks about his role as a relationship counselor and gives advice on how to ensure your relationship is a healthy, satisfying one year round.
What made you interested in specializing in relationship counseling?
People who do this kind of work are often trying to figure out how to heal ourselves, which then allows us to figure out how to help others. I grew up in a very conservative, Christian religion — my father is a pastor — and I also grew up with a stark awareness that I am gay. The struggle that presented to me was very real and very difficult, so there was a lot of wounding around sexuality and what healthy sexuality looks like. As I tried to give clients a healthier sense of who they are as sexual people — to help them figure out what eroticism and love and sex look like and to develop a spiritual understanding of what life is — I also was on that quest for myself.
What do you find are some of the main reasons couples struggle to keep romance alive?
The whole idea that there is a struggle to keep romance alive is a misunderstanding of the way our relationships work. The natural progression of a relationship means that you’re going to run into some obstacles where other priorities are going to take over. So often now, people are working 60-hour weeks, taking care of their kids, buying houses and cars — we have all this pressure in our lives. And that does not create room for intimacy or sex. You have to order your lives correctly to manifest love with each other. Love and sex is not something that happens to you, it’s something you create and work for. The hardest part for people is creating the right frame of mind. If you’re anxious, upset or stressed, you won’t be fully present to see and hear your partner.
How can you get into the right frame of mind?
The first step is always to relax. People tell me all these things they do to relax that aren’t really about relaxation. Watching TV or even exercising aren’t relaxation techniques: You’re engaging in an activity that makes you less present. Take 30 minutes to just sit and breathe, to get everything out of your head. Let go of the worries of life. Oftentimes, you need your partner to help with that. That can involve sensory relaxation techniques like massages, where you help each other sink into the moment. It’s about experimentation — find what works for you and take that first step.
What are some of the main things you find people want or need from their partners to feel appreciated and loved?
They need to be seen, heard and understood. If there’s a whole lot of miscommunication, you’ll see the impact and effects. When it comes time to relax and be close together, you have to do some communicating about how you feel and what’s really going on inside.
What are small things people can do throughout the year to show their love?
The best gifts are about understanding what the person truly wants — at the end of the day, we don’t want material things. We want to feel things. If someone is struggling to feel safe, secure or relaxed, one of the best gifts is to help them feel safe, secure, relaxed. Maybe that means a massage, scratching their back or taking them by the hand and communicating how much you love them. Create an experience with your partner. If you know this person has always wanted go on a particular trip or to a specific concert because it has some greater meaning to them, those are the better types of gifts. It means, “My partner understands me so intimately, they know this is something that really means something to me.”
It’s also important to give the gift of eroticism, and there are basic ways that people can immediately improve their sex lives. Take a deep breath and understand that good sex is about being able to produce a sense of “I desire you,” and you can do this very easily. Get towels, massage oils, breath strips, candles — create a context for those relaxation experiences.
For those who are single, are there red flags they should look for that might signal the relationship won’t be a good one?
Emotional dysregulation is something that looks very different depending on the individual you’re with. But you should be looking for things like: Does this person have a sense of what they’re feeling and can they communicate it enough to be able to regulate that feeling? Emotional dysregulation can look lots of different ways — it could be somebody who’s very selfish and petulant, for instance, or somebody who’s very narcissistic and self-absorbed. It’s these kinds of things where No. 1, they don’t know what they’re feeling, and they’re just kind of acting out of their feelings, or No. 2, they do know what they’re feeling but they feel it’s too overwhelming to actually deal with or to communicate. And that’s somebody who needs to do some individual work, who needs to go to therapy or needs some time to mature so they can figure out some of these more personal problems.
Look for someone who is emotionally aware and emotionally mature enough to be able to say, “Hey, I’ve got this going on and I need your help with it, and here’s how you can help me.” That’s the basis of a good relationship in general, but especially a romantic one.