Wednesday, February 2, 2011

When Sex Is Not the Answer

I'm as pro-sex as they come. I'd rather sing its praises than be the guy talking it down.

However, there's a painful, out-of-whack theme I see in the lives of men I have the privilege of chatting with for several hours a day.

Partly it's a guy thing. Even those of us who have never been addicted can get pretty needy when it comes to sex. Rather than face our everyday hurts and heartaches, we want sex to be the ultimate nightcap that just soothes them all away.

When our advances aren't accepted, no wonder our emotional world crumbles. We're not just missing the warmth of skin-to-skin contact, the pleasures of intimate engagement, and the ecstasy of sexual release. As much as we may miss those, that's not the real kicker. After all, we can have that all again sometime soon. (As wonderful as Disneyland is, we don't mourn that we can't go there everyday.)

The real bite is this: when we don't get sex, we are at risk of being left in emotional limbo--purgatory even. We have to face our demons without a narcotic.

We may go to all ends to try to avoid facing what we feel inside when we want sex and can't have it. We may pressure our partner. Women love feeling wanted and needed, but nothing turns her off sexually like suspecting that she's not much more to him than a live human masturbation aid.

Women who keep succumbing to the pressure to have sex typically become emotionally disengaged--not only during sex but from their husbands in a general way.

On the other hand, she might become less willing to have sex. Then he feels an even greater hunger and applies more pressure. Which in turn makes her even less interested. Actually, she's not just uninterested, she's actively avoidant. This is a cycle we can get stuck in, an amusement park ride that's easy to get on and hard to get off. 

Some men then look outside the relationship for gratification, which is like planting dynamite on the merry-go-round to get it to stop.

Fortunately, there's a healthier way out of this struggle.

Look at it as an opportunity. When we're not able to have sex, we get to face some of our demons.

I suggested this a couple of weeks ago to Jonathan, who was so sexually frustrated that he was considering chemical castration as a solution. He laughed when I talked about this "opportunity" to become more enlightened and thus freer from his impulses.

His usual approach was to keep turning to her, pleading that she read another blog on the benefits of sex, emailing her a link to an online Christian program that discourages abstinence, offering to give her a massage that he would try to turn into an opportunity to make love.

His homework from me was to go sixty days without sex.

He admitted to me this morning that he left that last session angry. He felt like his wife, who was there to hear the assignment, would take it as a justification of her position. He feared that if he took the pressure off her that they may never have sex again. "She has everything she wants. I take care of her financial needs and our kids all still live in the area." He didn't have any confidence that she would actually choose sexual closeness with him, if given complete and utter freedom to choose for herself.

How sad for Jonathan! He deserves more love and affection than that! But I don't think he had any confidence that my approach would help him get it.

I had a more confidence in her. Not because I know her very well yet, but because I've seen many women like her before. It's amazing how their sexuality can awaken once it's no longer being smothered by his.

I encouraged Jonathan to talk to Michelle about how he felt emotionally when he wanted sex but knew he wasn't going to get it (which would be every time over the next couple of months if he followed my suggestion).

"However, before you can talk with her about all the emotions that come up for you then... you have to become more aware of all the emotions that come up for you then." To do so, I encouraged him to:

  • Stay with the emotions that come in the wake of realizing you're not going to be sexual.
  • Pay attention to the physical pain. Where is it? Exactly what does it feel like?
  • Keep breathing. Nice and full. Slow and easy.
  • Accept that you feel this way.
  • Let yourself feel this way.
  • Give yourself permission to feel this way.
  • Remind yourself that no one died from not having sex. (Not that a coroner has confirmed, at least.)
  • Notice where you feel the emotional discomfort in your body.
  • Stay with that.
  • Keep breathing.
  • Let your mind float back in time. Keep attending to the feeling in your body but let your mind drift from the current situation and back over time. Maybe even way back. What memories come to mind? When else have you felt these feelings in your body? 
Often, the memories that come up have nothing to do with sex. Homesickness during my first summer camp. The day I discovered dad's model train table gone from the basement and realized that it meant my parents were getting divorced. Feeling rejected by the group of kids in my neighborhood because they thought I had a funny name and skin color.

Take those feelings to your wife. You know what you'll get? Her heart will go out to you. She'll want to hear more. She'll stay with you through the thick of it.

Jonathan didn't make any intriguing discoveries by trying this out. But something else happened when he followed my directions to not pressure his wife for sex. (Actually he did "invite her once in a very easy-going way," but then she just reminded him about the assignment.) Even though Michelle had to remind him that once, guess what happened? I haven't spoken to her yet about it, but perhaps because of the easing of external pressure, she had the opportunity to listen to her inner desires. Guess what they told her. After a week and a half, they prompted her to initiate lovemaking. For the first time in a long time!

Amazing things can happen when sex is a choice, and you feel free to have it--or not--rather than feeling like it's the intravenous line through which your partner is receiving their emotional life support.

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