Welcome to Bathroom Break, Refinery29’s series all about poo and the complicated relationship we have with our bowels. To see the rest of the articles, click here.
"I don't usually poo when my partner's in the flat," says one of my colleagues, thoughtfully. "I usually just wait until he's gone to the shop or something."
"I go to the bathroom when I'm about to have a shower," says another. "While the water's running, of course."
We’re in our weekly R29 editorial meeting, talking about poo (there’s been a lot of this recently). Specifically, we are talking about what we do to hide the fact that we poo from our partners. There is talk of Poo-Pourri, using toilet paper to mask the sound, how to flush a loo that won’t, well, flush (pour a bucket of water down it, you’re welcome). There is little chat about actually talking to your partner about poo.
Where do you and your partner stand on the matter of poo chat? For me, 11 years into a relationship that's included sharing dodgy toilets while travelling, countless bouts of gastroenteritis, one dairy allergy and a London flat the size of a postage stamp, our bowels are as familiar a topic of conversation as what we want for dinner. While we are a few steps away from being in the same room as each other while one of us goes, it’s not a topic we shy away from. But this doesn’t appear to be the case for everyone.
Which is fine, every relationship is different right? There’s no right or wrong way to 'be' together as long as both people are happy and communicate effectively blah blah blah. But then my colleague says something that makes me pause. "I just think it’s important to keep some stuff private, y'know? I think pooing with the door open signals the end of sex in a relationship."
Oh. Was not prepared for that one. Was it possible that by leaving a (metaphorical) door open for poo in my relationship, I had torpedoed my future sex life? Had discussing diarrhoea and constipation over dinner sullied the intrigue and mystery of eroticism? Nah, I reassured myself. Our sex life is fine! "Fine...at the moment," cackled an ominous voice in my head that sounded suspiciously like the ghost of Samantha Jones.
Despite reassurances from my friend who assured me that she and her husband talk about their bowel movements "every day" and have "wonderful sex", I decided to hear from some people who have extensive experience in speaking to couples about what does and does not kill a sex life. And so I reached out to Mig Bennett, a relationship counsellor with over 25 years of experience both in private practice and with Relate, the UK’s largest provider of relationship support.
"I would tend to come down on the side of keeping the 'mystery'," Bennett tells me when I ask if being too open and comfortable with a partner in the bathroom department can affect a couple’s sex life. Although, she says, it does depend on the couple. "I think there are two schools of thought on this, I think some couples might say that they feel much closer if they can do all the bathroom stuff around each other. It might make them feel more 'together'. But on the other hand if you’re someone who says, 'I like my privacy,' there is more opportunity to be erotic because you’ve still got that mystery around you." When people lose their sense of separation, she says, the connection around sex and intimacy can be more difficult to access.
Esther Perel, everyone’s favourite couples therapist and podcaster extraordinaire, agrees with this. In Mating in Captivity, her 2006 book about reconciling the domestic and the erotic in a relationship, she says that while couples should blend the essential parts of their lives, ‘essential’ does not mean ‘all’. "Personal intimacy demarcates a private zone," she writes. "One that requires tolerance and respect. It’s a space – physical, emotional, intellectual – that belongs only to me. Not everything needs to be revealed. Everyone should cultivate a secret garden."
One of the problems in marrying the domestic with the erotic is how many roles we try to make our partner fill in a monogamous relationship. "We have one person who we try to shoehorn everything into," says Bennett, explaining that we expect a partner to comfort us and make us feel secure but also to fuel desire and eroticism. "It’s a lot for one person to be." This issue of playing multiple roles within a relationship is even more pronounced for women, many of whom are probably already filling roles elsewhere, be it at work where they are the boss or with family where they play the peacemaker. Then, in their relationship, they’re trying to be a sexual being, eventually perhaps a mother and (finally!) themselves, in all their menstruating, vulnerable, pooping glory.
Charlotte Simpson, a couples counsellor and psychosexual therapist, encourages her female clients to work on feeling comfortable bringing together all the different parts of themselves into one being, rather than seeing them as separate entities. "I commonly see it where a woman might have had a baby and then she’s not just a partner, or the sexual partner, she’s also a mother and it can be really difficult to integrate those roles." The bodily functions involved can make this especially hard. "Things like pooing, weeing, menstruation, breastfeeding... It can be hard to integrate that with this smelling-of-roses goddess with, like, no digestive system, who never breaks wind but if they do it smells lovely." Pooing especially is an area which has a lot of shame associated with it, she says sympathetically.
How unfair then that the area of ourselves we use to commit these bodily functions for which we feel so much shame is the same area we’re meant to parade to our partner, peacock style, in the name of fuelling desire. "It’s all down there!" says Bennett. "It’s an area that defecates, menstruates, urinates, produces a baby… It’s amazing that we can [find erotic desire as couples] at all when we look at it like that!"
However, Simpson does believe that holding your bodily functions in isn't necessarily the way to go in order to keep the mystique in your relationship. "That sounds like you’re having to keep up a pretence and I think there’s other ways of keeping interest in your relationship." She suggests a 'healthy separateness' where both partners get to hold onto their independence, their autonomy and their differences so they can continue to find things out about each other. Whether poo chat is something that falls into the ‘separate’ or the fused part of the couple's life is entirely dependent on what feels comfortable for them.
For the most part, Bennett agrees. "If you can poo with the door open and also have a good sex life, then that’s fine," she says. "Some sexual relationships blossom on that all-encompassing closeness." But others need something a bit more exciting or different or mysterious to get that erotic charge and that, she says, depends on the individual.
As long as you’re happy with the sex you're having and you don’t feel like you’re living a lie with your bodily functions (having a mutual agreement not to discuss poo is very different from holding it in until your partner nips out, especially in this age of working from home), then you’re fine. But if you would like to change things, it's not beyond the realms of possibility. "A couple can construct how they want a relationship to be," says Bennett. "I call it the 'unspoken contract'; the ‘I will do this and this will be my role and you will do that and this will be our dynamic'." What’s important though is that you’re both on board and honest with the contract's creation — it's about creating something that works for both of you.
So, will I take poo chat off the table? Well, I considered it, but then my partner came home last night and we giggled like children about the fallout he was going to experience after accidentally eating cheese for a solid hour. And in times like this, when everything else is so gloomy, I'm going to take all the joy I can get.
*Names have been changed