Emotional closenessWritten by Lori Hollander | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When “Karen” explains the lack of desire she feels for her husband, she tells a strikingly similar story to those that numerous clients have shared before her. She says she loves her husband very much, but she would not mind if their physical relationship ended. Forever. Then she exclaims, “Isn’t that a terrible thing to say about my own husband? He would be crushed if he heard me say that,” and sadly she looks down at her shoes.
Continuing, she says, “I feel resentful when he expresses physical interest in me. But I go through with it because I fear for our marriage otherwise.” Through heavy tears she looks me in the eye and says pointedly, “Other than this, we have a great relationship. I don’t want to lose him. I can’t. He is everything to me,” she says. “But I can’t keep living this way.”
It seems like one of life’s misfortunes that a couple who truly love and appreciate each other could feel their future is threatened due to serious trouble connecting physically. This issue is far more common than many people think, and there is significant reason for hope.
Why do so many couples just settle for less or, worse, breakup or divorce? Our culture subscribes to the following idea: If you fell in love to begin with, and if you are meant to be, then your intimacy should just work, automatically, for the long haul.
So when intimacy does not work, what does it mean? With respect to our cultural expectations, people are led to assume that something must be wrong with them (“I am a failure as a wife”) or that their relationship is a mismatch (“We are incompatible”). Of course, we would never expect athletes to keep winning or businesses to sustain profits over years without an ongoing commitment of focused energy. So where did we get the idea that the heart of romantic relationship, the emotional and physical intimacy, should simply thrive endlessly all by itself?
Research about sexual desire has consistently focused on an individual rather than a relationship perspective, commonly citing “dysfunction” and “disorder” to explain relationship problems. To top it off, pharma companies advertise pills to fix the problem (implied: within you).
Here is the essence of the mistake: The dysfunction-based model encourages people to focus their attention on “fixing” themselves rather than determining what they each need to do to get in sync with each other.
How? First, we must identify the system error in a couple’s basic interactions that created the very real reasons for the intimacy breakdown in the first place. The work comes in here as we break down old, unhelpful patterns to replace them with new ones that work.
I asked Karen and her husband to follow a series of exercises through a highly structured model. I want to share with you two underpinnings from which those exercises are derived:
1. Create intentional time together that you would look forward to 100 percent for you: focused time sharing feelings, fun going out, and non-sexual physical affection.
2. Avoid any interaction in which you are participating due to guilt, obligation or fear of disappointing the other. Instead, do only what you genuinely enjoy.
That is just a quick snapshot, but I will be happy to share more detail in future articles if there is reader interest.
Karen and her husband did tremendous work, devoting hours each week to their exercises, and, therefore, their relationship. A month later, Karen said she was feeling more comfortable, happier and feeling small rumblings of desire. Her husband said, “What a big difference. Before she used to tolerate me. But now she wants to engage with me actively, and I love that. This process is a softer approach than I had envisioned, and we have more work ahead. But I now feel more intensely connected to her than I have for years.”
Couples like Karen and her husband are among the strongest individuals I know. It takes guts to go to a therapist’s office to discuss intimacy difficulties. Even more, it is an act of love.
Lori Hollander is a dual-certified couples and sex therapist at the Center for Intimacy in Ann Arbor. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Tags: Couples therapy