Maybe monogamy is dead. Given our society’s current divorce rate; the odds are against us. But what if you want it all and decide to gamble your heart and body in one place? What if you want to have sex worth having and to stay faithful? Granted, it’s a tough road, but the rewards of marital eroticism are passion, orgasms, and excitement with someone who is familiar, safe, and loving.
In the bloom of youth, the idea of ever-changing partners is exciting. But my aunt Elverna told me 20 years after her mate, my uncle Don, had passed that she missed him more than when he first died. She said, “You know, I’d like to have someone around to talk to about my aches and pains, someone who knew me when I was young, sound in body and vibrant, someone who I have a longer history with than my kids.” I rather want same ideal—a person to hold me, comfort me, tend to me and make love to me when I am past my prime. I want someone who looks past the crone into the eyes of the maiden. Monogamy means someone who knows all the exquisite secrets of my body after years of practice and loves me in spite of myself.
How do we get there? We have to commit to risk both relationally and sexually so that our monogamy is not monotony. We have to dare things that feel uncomfortable.
Relationally, all partners wind up somewhere opposite on the teeter-totter dynamic of closeness and distance, usually in precarious balance. The more I chase, the farther away you seem to be. I tell you what’s wrong (with you!) and you clam up. Or you are so neurotic with all your needs, I escape you just to preserve my sanity. Partners often maintain a set distance between them that feels unhappy to both.
The pursuing partner feels deprived of enough affection, sex, closeness, intimacy, and/or fill-in-the-blank, in the marriage And he or she keeps nagging for those things. In Aesop’s Fable of the Contest between the Wind and the Sun, two natural forces compete to see who can make a traveling man take off his coat. When I’m the wind and complain about how you don’t open up, the tighter you draw your wrap (and feelings) around yourself.
The distancing partner feels overwhelmed and discouraged, and often says, “Nothing I do makes you happy.” To cope with disappointment, they stop trying and back up emotionally. Taking their coat off feels far too naked, and after a few blasts from the North Wind, they decide that their partner doesn’t deserve their inner confidences and isn’t safe.
Crazily, both sides of the continuum contribute to the dynamics that feel painful. Our mind blames our partner for the problems, but really the issues stay in place as much as by what we do (or don’t do) as by what they have done (or left undone). The trick is to figure out our part and become the sun so that our partner willingly steps toward us. Or to take off our coats and show our belly side instead of frustrating our partners with our withdrawal.
Like a friend of mine who wanted his wife to be looser and sexier in bed. One night she was a little tipsy, and the next morning he told her she was silly and he didn’t like her giggling in bed. Pursuers may complain that their partner doesn’t share feelings, but then they crumble when such feelings include fears, anger and insecurities. MaryEllen desperately wanted her husband to share his inner world but found him unmanly when he talked about how insecure and competitive he felt about a colleague at work. Nathan wanted his wife to be less angry so he could feel close to her but, ironically, wouldn’t make love to her.
Sometimes sex is congruent with our native position on the closeness continuum. For example, perhaps, I like lots of reassurance. Often, if I am a pursuer, then I usually want sex—a lot. Making love is my sweet spot of security. But I am probably married to a distancer of equal proportions who is often tired or having headaches.
Sexual distancers, however, often find affection to be superfluous. Connection through talking or touching might feel like wasting time better spent in productive endeavors. Distancers mute desire. Sexual theorist and developer of the innovative Crucible Therapy, David Scharch, PhD, describes in his book Passionate Marriage the distancer side of the continuum. “Not wanting to want is an attempt to protect against the pain of wanting, longing, caring and depending—and not getting… If I don’t care, I can’t be disappointed.”
Sometimes the sexual arena flip-flops and things don’t seem to make as much sense on the surface-like Nathan, a pursuer might say, “I want you to be close to me but I don’t ever want sex.” Or a distancer may feel—I am bored by you except when it’s time for bed. But our continuum positions, even if they change places over sex, are always a question of maintaining balance between our needs for autonomy and for connection.
The risk of sunshine means we might have to let go of having things exactly the way we want them. We might need to be more independent in getting things done by hiring a handyman or helper rather than being continually disappointed that our partner doesn’t “see” all that needs to get done. Perhaps our partner is not comfortable debriefing his day, but after a randy romp, will lie in bed and tell stories of his childhood. Maybe we can receive their quiet suggestion to spend Valentine’s Day with us as a step in our direction rather than complain that they didn’t volunteer to arrange babysitting or get reservations. We must believe tentative moves toward connection are an evolving trend from our partner and hold onto our criticism and our wish for progress to happen perfectly and immediately. We can balance our anxiety about not having enough by spreading out our needs over several close friends and creative endeavors. Basically, we take the pressure off our partners.
While pursuers feel they must hold back wild horses in order to change their relationship, distancers might need a firecracker to get off their duff and move toward their spouse. Frequently, their terror is such that they feel they’re moving toward a ferocious barking dog. But dogs bark for two reasons—meanness and hunger. If the distancer has starved or neglected the dog, the only way to stop the barking is to feed it. Distancers must courageously believe their partner barks from hunger and not from a desire to destroy them. They must recognize that their pattern of backing off, holing up, or disinterest actually precipitates their partner’s pattern of anxious approach marked by criticism, frustration and nagging. Distancers must risk caring about their spouse and showing it.
Sex is a convenient battleground to fight out this conflict especially if we’ve committed to monogamy. Convenient, and might I add a frequently blood-drenched field. There is no truer strike to the heart of marital love than to turn away from sexual reassurance. A sexless marriage is an oxymoron.