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Our first Christmas, my husband and I made love on his mother’s upstairs bathroom floor while everyone waited lunch for us downstairs. If they heard us, they didn’t let on.
I didn’t know any better then—not about the appropriateness of having sex on bathroom floors or keeping people waiting but about the inappropriateness of unbridled lust in the Watson family home. By our second Christmas, this California girl had figured out what was and wasn’t acceptable in my husband’s New England family. Sex on tile was out. The jingle on my Santa underwear was definitely too loud for those silent nights.
Exuberance had been a long ago casualty in his family of origin. Bubbly, joyful at having sisters, enthusiastic about the loveliness of the east coast, seeking to “really know” my mother-in-law, I was soundly rejected. Unbeknownst to me, I broke all the rules.
By accident, I conjured the ghost of his parents’ failed marriage in many conversations trying to figure out this strange country that was my dear husband’s homeland. If they found me brash, I found them inscrutable. Just discovering family systems theory in my schoolwork—how we rather compulsively repeat the patterns of our families—I wanted to be free of our divorced families’ history. I thought if I could understand them I would have some power and choice over what we created in our new love nest—I was right and wrong. Right in that we could control what we understood; wrong in how easy it would be to understand ourselves.
I did plenty of my own fair share of alienating. Without the tact or self-editing that came later in my life, I asked bald questions in a family that didn’t talk openly about much. I wanted to know if sex had helped, hurt, or existed. I asked if sex had been used as a weapon. My poor sister-in-law heard that one while coming into the kitchen, quietly turned heel and walked out. (My advice to newlyweds—keep your mouth shut for 10 years—just smile and nod.)
Bearing obvious fruit of our sexual relationship, we skipped out on the third Christmas not wanting to travel while pregnant. Christmas 4 though, and out to show off baby, I was tired of the repression of our physical love that accompanied our holidays.
For so many of us, home is often the hardest place to stay in our adult self. We tease or are teased about childhood sensitivities. We experience sibblng rivalry with people we might actually like if they hadn’t been our brothers or sisters. We know exactly what our parents’ sighs mean. Maybe mom comments on our weight and we feel ugly and unacceptable. Maybe dad comments on our successful old boyfriend and our spouse looks ugly and unacceptable. For all the romanticism of holiday music, being home for Christmas can be rough. Then, as if by some great silencing mechanism, we stand mute about issues that are painful and dysfunctional.
Our adult sexual self—alive and well in our real life—is repressed by remembered injunctions against masturbation. fights over teenaged sexual trysts and learned lessons, conscious or unconscious about affection and chemistry. We can feel as awkward as a thirteen year old with our spouse while sleeping in rooms that hold childhood memorabilia. Our parents’ expression or imagined expression of sexual love serves as a guidepost in the family residence. If they touch easily perhaps we don’t struggle as much to snuggle with our spouse. But if there is staunchness or iciness between them, our own warm love feels out of place.
Similarly when our parents visit our homes for the holidays, sex can fade from sight. We don’t want them to hear. Is the vibrator too loud? Dad’s a light sleeper and heaven help us if he thinks his little girl is not pure as the driven snow (those grandchildren arrived by magic). We see mom as the crone now – asexual. Her menopause long passed, frightens us as we approach our own and wonder if we can still be desirable. Some of this is in our own heads. We haven’t grown enough to imagine our parents as sexual creatures. We don’t think old people have sex. Perhaps our parents’ bedroom was not dull as we can stand to think about. Parents’ sexuality threatens the egocentricity and dependency of the child – we want to believe their love for us is their dominant drama. As children we repress the knowledge that they are actually central to each other. My own children can stick out their tongues and say blehk! though their college friends can laugh about my blog.
There aren’t four easy steps to recovering desire while in the presence of our parents. It requires maturity, acceptance and change. Strengths not easy to come by.
Acknowledging the difficulties of staying in the adult sexual self may help our spouse from taking it personally. Twisted into regressive roles in the family home, we need the eyes of our spouse to lovingly mirror what they know of our growth and adult self. We should recognize with appreciation and sympathy that their vacation time didn’t exactly manifest as downtime or sex time.
Sometimes the in-law spouse can offer keen observations about our own family because they are not blinded by familiarity to our craziness. Stay non-defensive. Their recommendations to confront or to laugh it off may initially feel like they don’t understand us or our family at all. But their alien-ness to how our family of origin traditionally interacts can be a gift if we let it.
I’ve recommended getting away from the house itself with a planned errand with your spouse. Since connection often thins, an afternoon jaunt to Starbucks where you sit and debrief the family dynamics with your partner can save a visit. With all the hustle and bustle of the holiday, much less the family sex-killing dynamics, volunteer to walk the family dog. Or run to the grocery store so that you have a few minutes together alone every day. If your siblings are allies, ask them how they handle it. Perhaps if you have the means, ask grandma to babysit, rent a hotel room in town and spend the evening reconnecting at dinner, making love and then returning with no one the wiser. Make it your Christmas gift to each other. Consider it a booster shot for the adult sexual self. Obviously, the eventual goal is to synthesize the adult sexual self into the daughter/son-sibling (and eventually, the parent) self.