What looks like the end can be the beginning
PART ONE: Rediscovering Sexual Compatibility
Sometimes when following the steps of Intelligent Lust, a couple discovers they are not sexually compatible. The differences in their true desires are far too wide to bridge. Even so, having a deeper understanding of the relationship may enable the couple to come to terms with their discovery because a special connection based on intimacy, respect, and generosity has been forged through engaging in a process of self-examination.
In these cases, after a period of acknowledging and accepting the truth, partners will realize that choices can be made and perhaps even new roads opened to fulfillment. Some couples agree to continue the relationship without sex because they feel other areas of compatibility matter more. Other couples make an attempt to consciously address their partner’s sexual needs and actually find joy in the act of giving. Some take an unconventional approach and consider open relationships, three-ways, or partner swapping, all of which have the potential to strengthen the partnership. A few choose to end the relationship, knowing the decision was made for the right reasons.
Three couples I worked with in therapy came to different resolutions to the challenges sex presented to their relationships. In the next few columns you can read their case stories.
Perhaps, Hank and Marion are the luckiest of these couples. What they presented as “sexual incompatibility,” instead turned out to be a misunderstanding of their individual sexualities and each other’s. Our sessions were the first time they ever talked about sex together. Like many couples, they mistakenly assumed that sex should occur naturally without having to give much thought to it.
Hank and Marion
Hank took Marion to a spa for a weekend of renewal which included healthy food, massage and meditation. They had decided to take a break from their demanding lives as lawyers and parents. Hank also had another agenda – to raise the issue of their troubled sex lives. They had been married eight years and for the last three had been sexually intimate less than a dozen times. Over the years, they increasingly focused their energy toward building their careers and family, often leaving them too exhausted to even think about sex. Although they had never discussed it they seemed to agree sex simply wasn’t a priority.
But Hank was more frustrated than he let on to Marion. In fact, when he first came to see me, he was close to having an affair. He had been flirting with a colleague for more than six months and had just recently stopped short of spending the night with her.
“I love my wife,” he told me. “But, frankly, sex with my Marion sucks. I just don’t think we’re sexually compatible any more.”
“What does Marion say about it?” I asked.
“She doesn’t say much. She makes excuses like, ‘I’m tired’ or ‘the kids are still awake.’” He lowered his voice. “I don’t want to give up having sex until our kids are grown up.”
“What’s it like when you do have sex?” I asked.
“She doesn’t seem interested. It feels like she just wants to get it over with.”
“What about before you had children?”
“We had a lot of sex when we first got together, but it went stale after a couple of years. I think the problem was there before the kids, but we were both pretty focused on our careers so it was easy to let sex drift out of our lives. Neither of us complained.”
“Then why should it matter now?” I asked curiously.
“I gained a lot of weight during the marriage. About a year ago, I started going to the gym. I got in very good shape. Women started to notice me again and I started feeling sexual.”
“Have you tried to reintroduce sex into your relationship with Marion?”
“Yep, but it hasn’t gone anywhere. She rejects me and I don’t want to push her into doing something she doesn’t want.”
“Have you talked about your frustration?”
“No, I don’t know how. Talking about sex just isn’t part of our vocabulary.”
I wondered how much of the problem could be attributed to this lack of communication. I suggested that Hank invite Marion to therapy so I could help guide a conversation. A few weeks later he scheduled an appointment.
“What did Hank tell you about coming here?” I asked during the first few minutes our initial session together.
“He told me he wants us to work on our sexual relationship. He didn’t say much else.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“I think he’s right.”
“How do you imagine doing that?”
“We’ll just set aside time after the kids are asleep and get it done.”
“I’m a morning person,” Hank said with a half-smile.
Marion mimicked his smile. “I’m not and I’m not getting up any earlier to have sex.”
“You never want to have sex,” Hank responded.
We sat silently for a moment, then I spoke up. “Imagine for a moment, you weren’t so tired and distracted, that you could give your sexual relationship some attention. Would there be a problem with sex then?”
“Tell him what you told me over the weekend,” Hank said shyly.
Marion sat silently resisting the answer.
“She told me I was too aggressive. That I only thought of myself, about what I wanted…”
“I said you weren’t a particularly sensitive lover,” clarifying what she meant.
“What’s your reaction to that?” I asked Hank.
“I was surprised. I thought I was taking care of her.”
“On your terms as always,” Marion said raising her voice.
I asked her to explain. “It’s the same as with everything else in our lives. It has to be on his terms. How, when, what we do. It’s all his way. It’s no different with sex.”
“Honestly, I never thought that’s what you wanted.”
“Come on Hank, how could you not know what I want?”
“We never talked about it. I just assumed…”
“I wonder,” I said to Marion, “What would be your terms regarding sex?”
“I’m glad someone asked. That’s never happened before.”
Hank looked embarrassed.
“I just assumed she wanted me to be in charge. We’re both strong willed, but in the bedroom I just figured, I’m the guy, I’ll take over.”
“What century are you living in?” Marion quipped.
“Ok. ok. I get it. I just didn’t know that’s what you wanted.”
I returned to my original question of Marion. “How do you want sex to happen?”
“I don’t really know. I’ve never had the chance to think about it. He’s always pushing himself on me.” She thought for a minute, then looked at me directly and said, “I’m not sure where this is going. Therapy is his idea.”
I shook my head in agreement. “Do you have another way?”
“No,” She answered, hopelessness in her voice. For the first time I could see the hurt child.
“Let’s give this a try then,” I said.
I carefully explained the first step of Intelligent Lust and sent them home with the task that each independently think about their fantasies and what their true sexual desires might be.
When they returned a week later, Marion said that she had difficulty staying focused on the assignment since she could barely get any private time. Again, she seemed angry.
“When you did have time to think about it, what came into your mind?” I asked gently.
“I don’t know that I want to share it with you, or Hank for that matter?”
“How are we going to get anywhere if you don’t participate?” Hank insisted.
“Listen,” she said. “Going to therapy is your idea. Everything is on your terms.” Her guard was back up.
Hank looked at me helplessly.
“Is there a way we can continue to talk that would make you feel more comfortable?” I asked respectfully giving her control of the conversation.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just don’t get the premise of this. I really don’t want to talk about my fantasies. The point is that Hank is controlling and I want him to stop.”
“And if he stops?” I asked.
“I already have,” Hank said jumping in. “I heard what you said last week. And I got it. I really paid attention to how I am with you. I think you’re right.” He paused. “Now it’s up to you. Tell me what to do”
“Ugh. Another demand,” she said, then paused long enough to rethink her approach.
“Ok. My fantasy is not that complicated. I want to be made love to – not overwhelmed, not controlled, soft, tender, sweet love-making.”
Hank looked surprised. He reached over to touch her arm, but she gently pushed his hand away.
“I honestly thought you liked me acting aggressive.”
“There’s a difference between being strong and acting aggressive and selfish, especially in bed. You asked me my fantasy and that’s what it is.”
“I’m relieved,” Hank finally said. “I’d love to relax with you. It’s just not what I thought you needed. You can be so tough. I wouldn’t mind some tenderness myself. I only want to take care of you, Marion.” He paused. “When I did this week’s homework – don’t laugh – my fantasy was that I was your superhero, your shinning knight.”
By the end of that session, the hostility between them had palpably changed. For homework, I asked them to think about childhood experiences in which they had similar feelings to what they were experiencing in the marriage. I wanted them to understand the deeper connection between their fantasies and what they may have eroticized earlier in their lives. I asked Marion, to think about those times during her childhood when she felt vulnerable and tender.
Marion laughed. “I always needed to protect myself,” she said.
I asked what she meant.
“I grew up in a really aggressive household. Lots of fighting. I think my parents hated each other. I was always on the defensive.”
The next week, the atmosphere between them was decidedly warmer. Marion said the homework prompted memories of teenage day dreams in which various strangers rescued her from the difficulties at home. When I asked if she might have eroticized her feelings of vulnerability, she recalled, “My fantasies have always been filled with romantic tenderness. I never told Hank. Sex was just suppose to happen. After a while Hank got more aggressive and my guard went up. Then, I stopped thinking about sex altogether.”
Hank, on the other hand, had grown up with two “kind, but ineffectual parents. Never the type to complain.” They raised four children on a very tight budget rarely earning enough to get by. A devoted son, Hank remembers making a vow as a teenager to find a way to make his parents’ lives easier – to eventually rescue them from their economic hardships. “I became a lawyer mostly for them. I knew I’d make great money and be able to save them.” It was no surprise when he told us that as a child he was preoccupied with “superheroes.” As he put the pieces of the sexual puzzle together, he recognized that during his teens, he had unconsciously eroticized the identity of the superhero to counteract his feelings of helplessness. His deepest desires, he now understood, was to rescue someone.
Over the next few sessions, Hank began to understand that Marion wanted to be that person and Marion began to accept that Hank could be if she let her guard down. They began to play with their fantasies in the bedroom planning different rescue scenarios with increasing satisfaction.
In our last sessions both were more lighthearted.
“I always knew we were meant for each other,” Hank said, “but it wasn’t until we really talked that I knew we had the wrong approach. We weren’t our true selves. It killed sex.” He laughed. “Now, I’m putting on my tights and cape.”
First published on PsychologyToday.com on October 20, 2011.