What Is Not Spoken: As a couples’ therapist I am accustomed to learning from my patients that they have not experienced sexual intimacy for months or years leading up to their visits with me. Numbers of years. What is equally significant is the common admission that paralleling the absence of physical contact has been the absence of conversation or problem solving efforts along the same timeline. Attempts to discuss sexual matters often are derailed because “there was never a good time” or blaming battles ensued before a true exchange could occur, or “I didn’t want her/him to feel bad.”
The Nemesis of Good Coupling, Avoidance: The nemesis of good coupling, avoidance, tends to be the preferred defense in dealing with sexual intimacy issues, either by one or both parties in The Coupledom. It is hard to have a conversation of any kind if only one person is talking. Yet the problems of sexual intimacy, though sometimes complex, can also be very simple, treatable, and eliminated by conversation and education. What tends to be complicated is the sorting through and overcoming of the emotional byproduct of years of distancing and avoidant behaviors, years without the intimacy of honest communication, perhaps most damaging of all.
Solutions, Not Shame or Blame: Jane Brody, The Personal Health Columnist for the New York Times, published an informative article entitled Persistence is Key To Treating Vaginal Pain. Ms. Brody offers her readers a pragmatic and concise guide to an important element in sexual compatibility for couples that often is unspoken, vaginal pain. Avoiding conversations about this difficulty surely leads to a pile up of misunderstandings over the years. Not only menopausal women but women of all ages can experience vaginal pain and discomfort from intercourse, the causes of which are succinctly outlined by Ms. Brody. Unfortunately many of these women, young, middle-aged or older, may fear that their pain or discomfort represents a sexual defect, when actually there is always a reason for pain – and accompanying solutions to “fix it.” Their partners, hurt by the apparent lack of pleasurable response in their wives or lovers, may have tried to counteract a feeling of inadequacy in themselves, and hurt from perceived rejection, by placing blame on their lovers, suggesting that they are “cold, uptight, frigid or sexless.” Ouch!
The Male Energizer Bunny: Similarly men, who are expected to be the Energizer Bunny of sexual batteries, always ready, never sated, can experience sexual difficulties at any age, also stemming from varied causes. Sometimes their line of defense against embarrassment and shame can be a preemptive strike, that is, rejecting their partners for not being sexy enough to arouse desire. Some may pressure their wives or lovers to wear “hot” lingerie or get breast enhancement surgery, when the true cause of the unsatisfying sexual intimacy might rest with their own performance anxiety due to a physical and treatable condition. Whether it is premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction, lessened libido, lowered testosterone or masturbation dependent orgasm, the penis is just not up to the culturally expected conventional standards of always on and ever powerful. Ouch again.
Never Defective, Just Human: But this is never about “defectiveness.” This is about discussing a problem and finding a solution. There are useful articles such as WebMD’s Men’s Health on the Internet that are designed to inform, not scare or insult. And while the man is preoccupied by the worry that he is sub par, the woman is convinced that she is no longer desirable to him. To reduce her vulnerability to this perceived rejection and humiliation, she may shut off her desire for him so that both parties wind up lying side by side in bed each night, frozen by fear, iced over by shame. “He doesn’t want me. Well I don’t need him either.” Either partner may eventually fall prey to the come hither of someone outside The Coupledom who “does desire me.” Oops and Ouch! Now we have a far more challenging problem to solve than sexually imperfect performances.
Same-Sex Coupledoms: There is nothing uniquely heterosexual about sexual intimacy challenges. Whether you are engaging in same-sex relationships or heterosexual relationships, the rules are the same: open acknowledgement between the partners that something just doesn’t seem right and a search for information and solutions.
Shame Stalls Solutions and Avoidance Creates Alienation: It is just that simple. Courage, at the heart of real intimacy, requires that we tell ourselves the truth and then share that truth with our partners. And if your fear is that your partner will use that acknowledgement to “blame or shame” you, then this is another challenge to face straight on. “Why are you blaming me or shaming me for something that I cannot as yet control and am willing to work on fixing? It took enough courage to own this problem. Don’t shame me for it. Help me with it. It is for both of us, after all.”
Sexual Knowledge Is Surely Sexual Power: Keeping sexual matters closeted empowers shame and weakens the core of the self by feeding it negative falsehoods. Once the door is opened and the “secret” shared, then your partner has a chance to show that they can be caring and perhaps even part of the solution. Seek out an expert to guide both of you toward that solution. This is the twenty-first century, and though we may pride ourselves as a culture on our sexual openness, a good part of that so-called openness is a glamorized version of intimacy. Real intimacy is founded on a shared honesty, not the individual perfection of a performance. Leave that requirement to the Olympics.
For more on this subject, please also read my post, Sex In The Coupledom: A Powerful Absence.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., 2012