The Complexity of Sexuality
How can sexuality create challenges in a marriage? Let me count the ways! Virtually every couple I treat discusses at least some aspect of their sexual relationship. Often, the room becomes extraordinarily quiet; gazes are averted except for information-seeking glances. Even though sexual concerns may be a central issue for some couples, discussion of these issues often may be delayed until a threshold of safety has been met. Almost always, shame is present. Always, pain is present. A mentor of mine once noted that as broken, fallible beings, all of us feel wounded, inadequate, defensive, and needy surrounding this aspect of our personhoods.
Many of the painful sexual issues that couples bring to my office include (but are not limited to: 1) affairs, 2) pornography, 3) the place of masturbation in the relationship, 4) feeling withheld from, 5) feeling used or demanded of, 6) lack of sexual desire, 7) feeling ashamed about one’s body, 8) sexual difficulties including erectile dysfunction, lack of orgasm, or physical pain, 9) the impact of medication(s) and/or physical conditions on sexual function, 10) a history of sexual abuse or rape, 11) adventurousness versus safety, 12) feeling shamed over desires and preferences, 13) changes in desire and functioning related to aging, 14) confusion surrounding what men or women want or how men and women “are” or are “supposed to be,” and 15) confusion surrounding sexual identity.
Perhaps as you read through the list above, you found that one or more of these challenges represents your very private pain. Please know that you are not alone! Often, when I meet with spiritually devout couples, their shame and confusion are indescribable. Rarely, do they hear messages in their places of worship that come close to the galaxy of questions they have. They are simply told: Wait to have sex until you marry; have sex with your spouse; do not have sex with anyone other than your spouse. Period. End of story. Many of these men and women are hungry to live their lives in ways that please God. I wonder if we might be able to think through some of these painful and complex concerns in a more generous and compassionate manner.
Issues of History
When two people become a couple, one undisputed reality is that neither partner can change anything at all about the other’s sexual history. If one (or both) partners have been coerced or even seduced sexually, likely some fear, anger, and shame will be present either in the foreground or background of his or her mind: “I will never be taken advantage of again!” They may prefer to have sex completely on their terms, often to the consternation of their partner. This may not be the only reaction, however. Many may find that some aspect of this original or early sexual awakening continues to be highly erotic. When this is the case, shame —mingled with a sense of helplessness — exists surrounding what “turns me on.” It is as if the dye has been cast: “I did not choose to be sexually awakened this way, but since I was, I cannot deny its power over my longings.”
If one has had extensive sexual experience prior to this relationship, it may evoke jealousy, inadequacy, or a sense of competition in the other partner, especially if he or she is less experienced. “How can you NOT be thinking about others you have slept with when we are making love? How can you NOT compare me with them?!” Fears become accusations, accusations produce hurt, defensiveness, and, ultimately, distancing. How do partners talk about such personal issues without shaming or being shamed? Is it even possible?
Issues of Desire
It seems almost normative to me at times that many couples find, at least for a season, that their desires are out of sync with each other: whether the desire surrounds frequency or particular types of play or adventurousness. Our culture seems to standardize the insatiable male and the reluctant female (although this is far from reality!). Marriage gurus give men such pearls of wisdom as, “Sex begins in the kitchen,” suggesting that the way to elevate the sexual desire in the woman in their lives is to be more involved in the practical goings-on of home life. A friend of mine emailed me pictures of a man doing dishes, a man vacuuming the floor, and a man cooking dinner. The caption read, “Female Porn.” Certainly, sexual intimacy is but one form of closeness in a relationship, and when other types of closeness are enhanced, like emotional connectedness, thoughtful acts, or shared tasks, an environment for sexual closeness may, in fact, be created. But not necessarily. I have worked with couples where all the accompanying ways of being close are present, and both acknowledge it, but still, the desire for frequency, play, or adventure continue to be mismatched. What then?
Is there a way for couples to discuss honestly their various differences in desire without somehow pathologizing their partner as either oversexed, perverted, sex-addicted, or corrupted by porn on the one hand, or frigid, icy, always preoccupied with the kids (or work), and unloving on the other hand. Partners who long for more are shamed for their wants and wishes, and feel denied and withheld from. They feel rejected, unwanted, unloved, unlonged for. Partners who long for less (or different) are shamed for withholding and keeping nourishment from the other. They feel demanded of, cornered, extracted from. Often, they feel as if they need to “service” the other to keep peace in the home, much as they would “service” a crying baby or a frightened toddler. In these cases, they may come to think of their partner as “another child” to be taken care of.
Issues of Exclusivity
In light of the likelihood for hurt, shame, and misunderstanding, is it any wonder that partners occasionally seek salve for their wounded souls from another source? For some, it is a friendship in which intimate details are discussed. This is commonly referred to as an emotional affair, that is, they have created a meaningful bond with another, but have not engaged in sexual activity. Others find one or more partners with whom to engage sexually. These days, it is not difficult for most people to find a willing other, especially as Facebook and other social media present us with so many options, so many “friends.” Still others find clubs and sex professionals to help gratify their sexual longings. And what about pornography (which is ubiquitous)? And as long as we are considering exclusivity, what about the solo act of masturbation (though many would argue that thoughts and images in one’s head makes this act not so “solo”)?
Often, for obvious reasons, the partner finding emotional and sexual release away from his or her partner will keep this type of activity private. He or she knows that the other would likely be displeased to discover this extra-curricular activity. But what about the list above, of ways people seek out other sources of fulfillment when they feel something is missing in their primary relationship? (And, by the way, affairs do not always have to mean that one partner is withholding from the other, causing them to stray; often intrapersonal dynamics are largely responsible for this type of behavior.) Can a relationship ever heal from such betrayal? Can a relationship ever be open enough for honest communication and negotiation to stave off such wanderings? And what about this “solo” action? How can a couple talk about this in such a way that neither feels hurt? Is it “wrong” or “sinful”?
Issues of Inevitability
Sexual difficulties are typically divided into four categories: sexual desire disorders, sexual arousal disorders, orgasm disorders, and sexual pain disorders. Some people find that they have struggled in one or more areas throughout their lives; others find that everything worked well once upon a time, but not so much as time has gone by. As most people over 40 realize, aging changes the sexual experience for both partners. Frequently, we find that medications for high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety, for example, impair sexual functioning. In fact, one of the chief reasons many people discontinue use of their antidepressants is because they become overwhelmingly frustrated with the sexual side effects: “What good is it not to be depressed if I can’t enjoy sex? That’s just one more thing to be depressed about!” Other drugs, such as nicotine, alcohol, stimulants, narcotics, and even antihistamines, can also interfere with sexual activity. Health issues, including back injuries, an enlarged prostate, nerve damage, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, endocrine disorders, and hormonal deficiencies may also complicate sexual performance.
We also find that as we age, our bodies require more time to refresh, and that what exhausts us now never seemed to be a problem in our 20s. C’est la vie! How can we address our sexuality in light of such loss? How can we accept the new reality as normative and not feel ashamed? And, by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, our bodies look a little different than they did a decade or two ago. This reality in itself can be especially wounding for so many people, many of whom turn to surgery to tighten and lift what gravity has loosened and dropped.
One of the most significant questions to ask here is, can we find a way to be loving and present with our partner and ourselves as we face such realities? Can we be patient as we discover the causes and solutions for impaired functioning? Can we discover new ways of expressing our sexual encounter that take into account these factors? For the moment, I would like for us simply to consider these four sets of issues: our histories, our desire, our exclusivity, and the inevitabilities. How have each impacted you and your partner? Do you find that you flee to safer topics and avoid these very personal ones? Is there possibly a way to find healing where you never thought it was possible before?
Authenticity with Empathy
If you feel as if a great gulf exists between you and your partner over your sexual longings, what can you do? How do you come to a place where both of you feel respected, heard, and engaged around this issue? Allow me to suggest a few approaches that will require both of you to stretch both within yourselves and toward each other.
Many clinicians experience authenticity with empathy as, almost by definition, standing in opposition to one another. After all, authenticity’s emphasis is upon one being oneself, as much as possible, without camouflage, without unhealthy accommodation to another. Being authentic requires no more hiding, pulling punches, or saying, “It’s ok,” when it is not. It demands honesty — especially with one’s self — about longings (including fantasies), likes and dislikes, feelings, opinions, thoughts, and convictions. It requires bringing all of one’s self into the relationship. It requires dropping the metaphoric fig leaf that conceals one’s essence. It demands risk and courage to discover and be one’s true self.
On the other hand, empathy insists upon knowing and feeling one’s spouse, recognizing his or her longings or wishes and that these states of being come from some place within that person we love. This “being with” in such an intimate fashion requires a fierce commitment to love, to understand, to validate, to stand in the other’s shoes, to wear the other’s soul. One of my favorite Star Trek (the original series) episodes is entitled, “The Empath.” The premise is that a solar system is about to be destroyed and only one planet can be saved. One of these planets was of empaths, beings who could truly and deeply feel the dimensions of another’s pain and suffering. One of those individuals was chosen for a test: to see how truly selfless this people could be. Of course, the officers of The Enterprise were chosen to be tortured, to evaluate the Empath’s willingness to extend herself and care for the battered men. It was her empathy that healed; but it came at a price to her own self. Empathy is never easy, never cheap. It always costs. It demands the setting aside of oneself, temporarily, for another.
How can authenticity and empathy coexist? Is it like matter and anti-matter (another Star Trek metaphor) that will completely nullify each other? I believe that not only can they coexist, but in great relationships, they thrive. Often, it is done by taking turns: I will set aside my concerns for a season so that I can be fully present to hear, to bear, to embrace what is you, to understand why that is so meaningful to you, to accept, to embrace. But I do this confident that my turn will come, that you will likewise want to know and hear and bear with, understand, accept, and embrace me. Indeed, this is perhaps, an essential dimension of intimacy!
Take for example a couple in which one partner enjoys and even requires frequent sex in order to feel loved, while the other has had a history of sexual abuse and is ambivalent about sex, feeling loved when not pressured to have sex. It seems, on its face, a recipe for unhappiness. But it does not have to be. It is possible for this couple to hold what is true about themselves and the other in such a way that both waiting for and engaging in sex can be profound expressions of love for the other.
In 1989, Stephen Covey published The 7 Habits of Effective People. One of these habits explicates the process of negotiation. Quite simply, he advocates, “Win/Win or No Deal.” This formula, in fact, is intended to safeguard the dignity of all involved in the negotiation process. It represents an ethic of mutual understanding and, in fact, is built on the foundation (in my opinion) of both sides holding fast both to authenticity and empathy in order to forge something new, workable, enlivened. The practice of negotiation is at its best when, at the end, both sides achieve a win/win solution.
In win/lose scenarios, bitterness can set in for the one who lost while guilt may plague the winner. In lose/lose scenarios, hope evaporates and gives way to resentment, fighting, withdrawal. A true win/win result requires each person to give as much as possible to the other: It demands generosity and courage, a stretching out of one’s comfort. It also benefits from imagination: Could it be different for me? Does it always have to be the way it has been for me? Do I hold to my position because it is familiar or it has been my armor designed to protect me: Do I really need to cling so tightly to this anymore?
Please do not misunderstand: This is difficult work. It may be important, but jettisoning a familiar old “friend” is not that easy, particularly when that friend has been your way of protecting yourself across the years. You have likely faced something like this when you have moved from one home to another. The process of packing up your belongings brings with it such questions as, “Do we really need this where we are going?” Can you surrender a prized couch or sentimental memento? If not, where could it possibly fit in your new home? Sometimes moving forward requires leaving behind that which is no longer helpful.
We humans are always surrendering something of value, usually involuntarily. Sometimes the loss is unmistakable and dreadful: deaths, divorces, moves, to name just a few. But some losses are less tangible. When it comes to our sexuality, we might find that we must mourn both that which is evident and that which may feel less definable.
Grieving Sexual Trauma
Overt losses may include sexual trauma and loss or impairment of function. I cannot overstate the pervasive and devastating impact of childhood sexual abuse and rape. The effects of such violations may leave one uncertain of her/his true value in relationships and may distort one’s sense of personal boundaries: When may I say “No” to another without risking personal harm or abandonment? In other words, one’s free choice regarding sexual activity has been preempted by such violation. That means that I may see that behaving sexually is the only way that I believe I have worth or value to another: This is how I know to behave so another will not abandon me, so that I will please another and thereby hold onto the relationship or receive what I may need in return. Or, it means that I must avoid sexuality either at all costs or as much as possible or only on my terms, when I feel I am in control. In this situation, the very idea of intimacy is contaminated by danger, so I either avoid the tiger or learn to tame the beast. Some survivors of sexual coercion find a way of utilizing both of the above strategies: becoming seductive and sexual during the early stages of a relationship and then avoiding sexual activity as much as possible as the relationship continues. In such a situation, partners of such wounded lovers understandably feel as if the relationship has been a bait-and-switch operation and, as such, feel betrayed and withheld from.
If you see yourself represented in any of the above descriptions, there is hope and freedom available. It does require personal acknowledgment of what has happened to you and an understanding of how you then learned to protect yourself. And then, it requires grieving: over the life you could have had if not for the abuse, over the choices you made which you thought at the time were “free” decisions, over the impact all of this has had on those in your life. I do recommend that you find someone skilled and knowledgeable regarding trauma with whom to work in order to maximize your opportunities for a new tomorrow.
Grieving Loss of Function
Another overt loss that impacts sexuality is loss of function. Often this is a matter of age or illness. Regardless, if you once were able to engage freely in sexual activity but now find it much more challenging, this constitutes a loss of freedom. Men who find they must use erectile dysfunction medications to enjoy intercourse find the entire process often humiliating: discussing it with a physician, picking it up from the pharmacy (aware that those filling it have an idea of its purpose when they hand it to you), to dealing with insurance companies which may only choose to grant but a few pills per month, effectively limiting how often you may want to be intimate. It is easy to see how some men simply give up on sex in order to avoid such embarrassment. Likewise, women have battles of their own: with desire, pain, seeing themselves as still desirable, or physical ailments that override such considerations as sexual pleasure. For many men and women, sex at 25 was wonderful and effortless, but at 55, it requires planning, investment, and work. This loss of spontaneity and ease of function often stunts sexual intimacy. But there is hope: hope that comes through squarely facing this loss and grieving it.
Perhaps we grieve not only the evident sexual trauma(s) we may have experienced, or loss of function we may be facing, but silently, unknowingly, we may mourn also less discrete though still important losses of freedom, spontaneity, adventure, and options surrounding our sexual experience. That said, many people feel quite vulnerable, some even inadequate, as if something were missing for them, regarding their sexuality. So, tread lightly here with yourself and your spouse. Something as powerful as the ecstasy promised by and experienced in sexual intimacy, also has the potential for undoing one’s very soul.
The Goal of Grieving
The end of grieving, however, is not more grieving, but acceptance and the ability to move forward. Perhaps you and your spouse each need to grieve something regarding your sexuality: what you had, but lost; what you had, but was taken. But we must acknowledge a reality before we may grieve it. And we may need assistance to work through the grief; We need not remain forever stuck in the mire of this loss. The objective of grieving is not endless sadness, but rather the birthing of a new tomorrow. The Psalmist writes, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). And for Christians, death begets resurrection. The goal of grieving is to move toward the joy, the resurrection, the new dream.
Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster.