Ari Tuckman on Fidelity, Sex and Digital Toys – Smart Sex, Smart Love with Dr. Joe Kort

This week’s guest on Smart Sex, Smart Love, is psychologist and Certified Sex Therapist, Ari Tuckman. Ari and Joe delve deeper into what monogamy means for couples when it comes to sex and digital toys, and exactly what the notion of a ‘fidelity agreement’ means. Why should couples have conversations about what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in their relationship? How do fidelity needs evolve over time? And, how tight do fidelity agreements need to be for partners to feel secure? Ari also shares his knowledge of how couples can effectively tech up their sex life with digital sex toys, and how toys like the Fleshlight can cause controversy as well as pleasure. How do these digital sex toys impact relationships? Ari and Joe have all the sex tech cyber erotic answers you’ve been dying to download!

Joe:                                        Welcome to Smart Sex, Smart Love. Today we’re going to be talking to a therapist Ari Tuckman on fidelity, sex and digital toys. Ari Tuckman PsyD, CST, is a psychologist and Certified Sex Therapist in private practice in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Ari also is an expert speaker on digital sex toys and fidelity agreements. He works with adults who have ADHD and it led to an interest in how ADHD impacts relationships, including a couple’s sex life, which then led to post graduate sex therapy training. He’s given more than 350 presentations across America and in nine countries. His fourth book and latest book is ADHD After Dark: Better Sex Life, Better Relationship. That will be out this August 2019. Welcome Ari.

Ari Tuckman:                      Thanks for having me. It’s always fun to hang out with Joe.

Joe:                                        Very fun to hang out with you too. Thanks for agreeing to do this. So I thought we could start if you don’t mind with … So much of your work is about ADHD, which I want the listeners to understand as well. But how did you then move to doing work with the digital sex toys and fidelity agreements?

Ari Tuckman:                      Sure. So yeah, I’ve been doing work with ADHD primarily adults of ADHD, and I’ve done a lot of writing and speaking on that for 20 years now. What has been happening over the last five or ten years for me was getting more and more interested in not only how does ADHD and the clients I work with all day, how does it affect their daily productivity, whether that’s students at school or adults at work, but also how it affects their relationships and the dynamics that develop when one partner in a couple has ADHD and then probably one partner doesn’t.

Since, obviously, a lot of our happiness in life, a lot of our meaning, a lot of our purpose has to do with our relationships with others, primarily our romantic partner but also friends and co-workers and colleagues and neighbors, this social aspect … this relationship aspect just became more and more interesting to me. I’d always been kind of interested in sex therapy, but I never really found my angle in so to speak. Then this became my angle. That this is important and those of us who work with ADHD are not really diving into it. It’s almost like there were two worlds. There’s the world of ADHD and then there’s the world of couples therapy and then sex therapy and I wanted to bring them together. That’s what I did in this new book that’s coming out.

Joe:                                        I think it’s so timely because so many of my couples that come to my office fight over this kind of thing. It’s problematic and have conflict over it. It challenges fidelity agreements. So that’s my first question to you is, could you explain to the audience what is fidelity in a committed relationship?

Ari Tuckman:                      Sure. So fidelity basically means do we do what is expected of us? Do we follow the ground rules so to speak in the relationship? Now sometimes the term monogamy agreement is used. On the one hand that’s a fine term, but I prefer the term fidelity agreement. The reason is that, first of all, not everybody is monogamous. So even if you have some crazy open poly relationship with 57 partners and whatever, there are still expectations of fidelity, meaning some things are allowed and other things are not or at least we need to talk about them before they perhaps are going to happen.

But there’s also another piece, which is I think that fidelity agreements are not just about sex, and they’re not just about romantic feelings. They’re also about other expectations that we have for our partner. So for example, the biggest obvious example is spending money. If I’m going to go to the convenience store and buy a cup of coffee for $1.79, do I need to text my wife first and ask her? I mean probably not. But what if I want to go buy a car? Do I have to let her know, hey, honey, by the way I’m buying a car? Probably. But where in between a $1.79 and $40,000 … where is the line in between there? Certainly, I’ve seen these arguments in my office of, “What do you mean? I thought that was okay to spend that.” And their partner’s saying, “What the hell’s wrong with you? That was definitely not okay to spend that.” I’m sure you’ve seen it. I’m sure all of our listeners have experienced it firsthand in their relationships and/or as a treatment provider they’ve seen other people go through it.

So I think that fidelity agreements are just the totality of that. What are the ground rules of the relationship? What are our expectations? What’s okay? What’s not okay?

Joe:                                        I love what you’re saying, and I do see that in my office. I always say even when couples tell me that they’re monogamous … because I’ll ask, “Are you monogamous? Are you open? Polyamorous?” If they tell me they’re monogamous, I always ask, “Have you negotiated your monogamy?” They look at me like I have two heads, right?

Ari Tuckman:                      Right.

Joe:                                        I say, “Can you use digital toys? Can you flirt on Facebook? Can you send dick pics? Can you flirt with somebody in Romania?” Then there’s a discrepancy, right? Because they haven’t had what I would ask you next is a tight fidelity agreement. How would you describe a tight fidelity agreement?

Ari Tuckman:                      Right. So first of all, I think the fact that you ask the follow-up questions, those are the million dollar questions because this is where couples get into trouble. They either just assume, so yeah, we’re not fucking anybody else, right? They just assume that or maybe they have that as a conversation. Now that we’re exclusive, we’re no longer having sex with other people. But monogamy or fidelity has a million shades of gray. So what about … I don’t know, can you message exes on Facebook? Is that okay? I mean you’re not having sex with them. So clearly that should be okay, right? Except, of course, there are definitely people for whom that’s not okay. What about looking at porn? I mean that’s not cheating because you’re not actually having sex with any of these people, except then there are people for whom that is cheating.

So this is where to me I think it gets really, really interesting of why do people define some things on this side of the line but other things on that side of the line. Of course, when you got two people or more, they don’t always set the line in the same place. How do they negotiate that out and have they actually discussed it? Usually the answer is probably not. Not until a computer is left open and a chat on Facebook gets revealed. Now all of a sudden, we need to have a conversation about it. Or browser history gets seen or some other incidental discovery happens and usually bad timing and, now all of a sudden, there’s a lot of hurt feelings, and it’s not a hypothetical, “Honey, how do you feel about this?” It’s an actual. Then you get all the feelings of betrayal and of hiding. The other person feels like you’re freaking out about nothing. This isn’t a problem or you never told me that wasn’t okay. That can certainly spawn a lot of couple’s strife and drama.

Joe:                                        Totally. What it really is about is implicit contract rather than explicit contract, right?

Ari Tuckman:                      Right. Exactly. That’s exactly what it’s about.

Joe:                                        I always quote … Marty Klein has a great line. Sex therapist Marty Klein says, “Couples often fight over contracts that they’ve never made.” I love that line. Right? It’s true. I’ve done it myself.

Ari Tuckman:                      [crosstalk 00:07:58] awesome line.

Joe:                                        I know.

Ari Tuckman:                      Marty Klein is awesome. He’s a man of many great lines but that is a great line.

Joe:                                        I know. I use it all the time. I think about how many fights I’ve had with my own husband where I’m like … We’re fighting over something and he didn’t agree to it, but he did in my head. Right? So it matters.

Ari Tuckman:                      Right. But it’s also this thing of you didn’t tell me I couldn’t, therefore, I’m going to round that up to I could.

Joe:                                        Yes. Right. And that causes even more conflict because then people think, “Well, you should have just known. How could you not think like me?” Then there’s no differentiation going on between the couple.

Ari Tuckman:                      Right. [crosstalk 00:08:32]-

Joe:                                        Right. When I say differentiation, it really just means that we think differently. One isn’t bad and one isn’t wrong just because of that.

Ari Tuckman:                      Right. Right. So the fact that you like rocky road ice cream and I think it’s disgusting, let’s say, doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person. And it doesn’t mean that rocky road is better than my favorite flavor, whatever that might be. So yeah, it’s that ability to tolerate differences between us and yet still be close. I love the fact that you’ve brought up differentiation because I feel like that is what it’s all about. That’s where this all goes to ultimately is that it’s that ability to be honest with ourself about what our interests in the case of sexuality, turn-ons are, and to be able to feel okay about them.

It’s the ability to be honest then with our partner about this is who I am and to tolerate them possibly wigging out, not reacting well, being judgemental, being shaming, not loving it, but being able to tolerate it without behaving badly back and the ability to be able to tolerate whatever crazy shit they have going on, whatever weird interests they have that don’t make any sense to us. So it’s the ability to be honest with ourselves, with each other and negotiate out what is and isn’t okay. I mean the fact that you’re interested in something doesn’t mean that you go out and do it. But it means that you have a conversation. As much as couples crash on the rocks of lack of differentiation when … The stereotypical example is I can’t believe you look at porn. That means you don’t love me or that means you’re a deviant or that means I’m not good enough in bed or whatever and all of that stuff that gets wrapped in.

Instead, hopefully, they come out the other side of this having had some … finally had those better conversations, really nailed some of this stuff down, finally being able to really be honest with themselves and each other and get to a better place, regardless of what they actually do. I don’t actually care what they do in terms of is this okay or is that okay. I don’t care what they decide on. I just want it to be a thing that they can both feel okay about and that they can both actually sustain.

Joe:                                        I love that. It’s about both being okay and both being able to sustain. Differentiation, we’re throwing this word around. It’s just basically I’m different, you’re different, and my story and my narrative doesn’t have to trump your story or your narrative and make you wrong or erase you and … or flatten me, that both … It’s almost like an agreement to disagree and how do we negotiate that, right?

Ari Tuckman:                      Yeah. And that that’s okay.

Joe:                                        Definitely.

Ari Tuckman:                      When it’s non-loaded topics like favorite ice cream, people can have that. Like, “Uh, rocky road. There’s stuff in there? It’s chew … Look that’s terrible. Why would you like …” Right? And probably nobody’s going to get offensive about ice cream preferences and nobody’s going to get offended about it. So that’s an easy one. But it’s when sexuality comes in, it feels so much more a central part of who we are. So if you get judgy about what I’m into, it is going to be a lot harder for me to not take that personally and then either not retreat or go on the offense or just lie to you. Oh nevermind, I’m not actually into that.

Joe:                                        So how do you help-

Ari Tuckman:                      And then to …

Joe:                                        Yeah. Go ahead.

Ari Tuckman:                      Well and then there’s just this hole exists in the relationship. I think that’s often where the passion drains out is that I can’t be honest with you, you can’t be honest with me and then what we have is that safe, frankly eventually mediocre, not so inspiring sex or whatever because there isn’t … Passion requires honesty and disclosure I think. So that is the reward for doing the hard work of differentiation.

Joe:                                        I agree. How do you, yourself, work with couples to differentiate in your office? Because fidelity agreements are so subjective like you said. What I think might be okay I’ll round up to being okay and you might round down, not okay. How do you help them?

Ari Tuckman:                      So I think that it’s important to get beyond the content of the moment. So whatever it is that … whatever action or desired action we’re discussing. You get more into what it means. Why do you feel like this isn’t okay? Why is it threatening to you? What does it mean? What are the implications? What are the potential fear and consequences of acting on this thing? Then for the other partner, what would it mean to have to give this up for it, maybe for a time, maybe forever? Or how do you reassure your partner that the things they’re worried about aren’t actually accurate or that isn’t what’s going to happen? Maybe it involves being more connected, more present, more supportive, whatever, in other ways that have nothing to do with this thing that we’re talking about.

I’ll just invent an example. If the woman feels bad about her husband looking at porn, but he says that he’ll be more present. He’ll be nicer. He’ll be more engaged at home with the family, whatever, and the woman feels more connected in the relationship, she may be able to be okay and then say, “You know what? I totally don’t get that porn stuff. It seems ridiculous or disgusting to me. But I don’t care, whatever. Knock yourself out. I just don’t want to see it.”

Joe:                                        Yes.

Ari Tuckman:                      Maybe that’s where it goes to. If they can get to a point of addressing whatever it is that’s being provoked by it.

Joe:                                        So let’s talk about your newest work, which I would love being in your audience and hearing your presentation on sex toys. They’re here. They’re already seriously advanced way more than I thought they were myself after hearing your talk and telling us about it, allowing couples to romp with each other anywhere in the world. So can you talk about what are some of the high tech sex toys and how do you … do tech … sex tech toys, I can’t even say it, improve the sex life or interfere?

Ari Tuckman:                      Right. So that’s exactly right. They can both improve and interfere like anything. So I can use my phone to call my wife when I’m away and we can connect on it or I can sit there and scroll through emails while we’re sitting next to each other. So it’s connecting us but also disconnecting us depending on how we use it. So the new sex tech … I mean, first of all, between when we record this and 20 minutes later if someone were to listen to it, it’s possible that something new has come out. So this is a field that’s evolving quickly. But basically when most people think of sex toys what they think about is your standard vibrators or Fleshlights or other sort of things like that. So it’s a device that you use in person on yourself or a partner. There’s still lots of that kind of stuff and it’s just getting better and better. Thank god. The-

Joe:                                        Wait, do you mind? Before you go on, can you define Fleshlight? Because some people don’t know what that is.

Ari Tuckman:                      Okay. So a Fleshlight or other kind of male masturbators. It’s basically a device, a tube of some sort, that you put on your penis and either you provide the motion with your hand or it maybe has some vibration or stroking pattern that it does. So it’s basically the male equivalent of a vibrator or something that goes inside a woman’s vagina. So we have all sorts of these sex toys. But the new advances are … I’m not going to cover every possibility but things like … There’s a lot of vibrators nowadays that come with an app that you can use of your phone that controls the vibration pattern. Some of it is you would just use it in person but instead of having to fiddle with those tiny little buttons on it, you can do it on your phone. It gives you more control, more precision, more variety etc., etc. And that alone I think is kind of cool.

But also what you can do is, because these are internet enabled, you can actually, on your phone, control your partner’s vibrator or somebody’s vibrator from a thousand miles away. As long as you’re connected to the internet and they’re connected to the internet, you can change what’s happening with that sex toy. So you can basically give your partner an orgasm or give again somebody an orgasm from a thousand miles away.

Joe:                                        So you’re saying that I should have hooked us up before this podcast so that you and I could be doing that and no one would know.

Ari Tuckman:                      Right. A clear lack of planning. But that’s the thing. This is totally something we could do. These are not million dollar toys. These are like, I don’t know, $150 bucks. So they’re well within the budgets of many, many people. On the one hand, if I were to go away … go out of town for a conference and my wife and I were to use this, that’s a cool thing that we could do this and we’d feel more connected while one of us is away. But of course, at the same time, I could so this with someone who is not my wife. There are webcammers who this is what they do and you from a million miles away pay them and control their sex toy.

Joe:                                        So that-

Ari Tuckman:                      And …

Joe:                                        Yep.

Ari Tuckman:                      So this could be a one on one like I schedule an appointment, so to speak, with someone and then we have a good time together or it could be this is a thing where there’s a hundred people watching, but I get to be the one to control it. So this is definitely … I mean it’s not in-person. I’m not actually using my hand on the vibrator on this person. So it’s not that. But at the same time, it’s not flipping through Playboy magazine either. It’s not even watching porn online. It’s something else. And-

Joe:                                        So does this-

Ari Tuckman:                      Also, is this cheating? Well, it depends. If you define physical presence, then the answer’s no. That’s not cheating. You should be able to do that. On the other hand, it is definitely … You are not an uninvolved observer. This is not downloading a video that was recorded six months ago. Right? So where is it? So the options that technology is offering us are going to force us to define our fidelity agreements in a much more fine grained kind of a way.

Joe:                                        Yeah. I have a client, right now, who was doing that and his wife found out. Now for her, it’s as if he had sex with every one of those women that were on cam. That’s one obvious issue between couples. What other issues do you see these sex toys presenting in your office?

Ari Tuckman:                      I mean I think that that’s the main one is that it becomes this thing where the two people in the couple or whatever, don’t have the same definition of what is and isn’t okay. Sometimes it’s an innocent mistake of, “Oh, wait, I didn’t realize you were going to …” And sometimes it’s like a dumb innocent. Like, “Yeah, you know what? Bullshit. You fricking knew. You absolutely knew. You didn’t ask.” You never did in front of your partner, so clearly you had an idea that they may not be okay with this. So but there’s also the issue that there are some people who will choose this over dealing with the complexity in their actual sex life and relationship.

Joe:                                        Good. Yes.

Ari Tuckman:                      So if they have turn-ons they don’t feel comfortable sharing with their partner, or if they’re not getting along, or their sex life has fallen off the rails, it is definitely easier to go take care of things on your own or with somebody else than it is to deal with stuff with your partner. So it can become that path of least resistance. Now, I’m not going to go this sort of crazy panic like, “Oh my god. This will destroy every marriage in the world and nobody will ever have sex with their partner again. Blah, blah, blah.” I’m not going to go that way. I know you’re not a proponent of sex addiction as a thing. I’m not a proponent of sex addiction as a thing. So I don’t think that we all need to wet ourselves in a panic over this. But at the same time, it just becomes an even more interesting and even more compelling and even more realistic alternative to having sex with your partner. There are some who will use it as a path of least resistance. So there’s that issue there as well.

Joe:                                        I had a client once, a male client, who was jealous of his wife using her vibrator. So he would say to her literally, “My dick is available to you 24/7.” He said, “I could have food poisoning coming out of my mouth and my ass and I … still my dick is available to you 24/7.” This was before cell phones where he could take pictures. He actually measured how far away the dildo was in the morning to see if she would use it and came home and said, “Your dildo was six inches from the wall facing north. Tonight, it’s 10 inches and it’s facing south.” He was so upset. So I always like to tell that story because this isn’t just about women getting upset with the men using these things. It’s men getting upset with women as well, isn’t it? It’s both genders.

Ari Tuckman:                      Absolutely. I mean it definitely is. I mean there’s such a variety of sex toys out there for women, more so than for men, that it absolutely … It is not just one gender. But also it’s not just men who are looking at porn. There are increasing numbers of women looking at porn. I think that it’s not helpful to do this just along gender lines. So this couple that you just talked about I think it’s an incredibly interesting, fertile area then. So what was it about this guy that he felt threatened and inadequate in comparison? That’s one question. What was the quality of their sex life? Was she initiating sex with him or not? What were the performance concerns, etc., etc? So there’s all this other stuff that gets wrapped into it. I think that if we, as therapists or as society or whatever, just limit our focus to … are these sex toys or whatever, is this good or bad, it misses all the important nuances.

Joe:                                        Yes.

Ari Tuckman:                      It misses that bigger picture of everything else that filters into it.

Joe:                                        Yeah. The last thing I wanted to say about that couple is … and to anybody who’s in therapy or attending therapist is listening, if you make it about the vibrator or you make it about the sex toy, you’ve lost the couple. It’s really what you just said, Ari. It’s how the couple reacts to the sex toy and the digital sex products. Before we come to an end, I want to before we wrap up, do you want to mention anything about how people can contact you and when your book is coming out, that kind of thing?

Ari Tuckman:                      Sure. So actually I have two websites. One is more for my private practice, which is Tuckmanpsych.com. So that’s psych as in psychology. Then adultADHDbook.com is the site that I have related to my books on ADHD as well as my new book that’s coming out. That’s probably actually going to be out by the time this airs. It’s called ADHD After Dark: Better Sex Life, Better Relationship. That looks at how ADHD impacts a couple’s sex life, how it impacts the relationship, the dynamics that develop between them and basically how to make a better sex life and relationship overall to minimize the impact that ADHD is having.

Obviously, it addresses a lot of the stuff that any couple would be dealing with but then also specifically focuses in on this ADHD piece. I think it’s important because ADHD in adults generally is a bit underrepresented. There’s a lot of adults with ADHD undiagnosed. But I think especially those who are seeking individual therapy, those who are seeking couples therapy, ADHD is very much over represented. So I’m a big proponent of getting ADHD in adults up on people’s radar screens as a thing to consider because if you don’t know it’s there, you can’t do anything about it.

Joe:                                        I love it. I’m going to definitely have you back and we’re going to do a whole episode on that too because that’s important. Thank you so much for coming on my show and being one of my guests.

Ari Tuckman:                      My pleasure. As I said, it’s always fun to hang out with you.

Joe:                                        Same here. See you next time.