Complete Wellness

A Place for Healing MindBodySpirit

 

Staying Married
And Grown up Sex

Aura was elderly when I met her. She had been widowed years before. After a lovely visit to manage her medical concerns, she grabbed my arm gently as she was leaving. “Do you love your husband?” she asked. “If you love him, touch him. Every time he walks by, touch him on the arm. Kiss him every time you leave or come home.”

It seems like, in the human experience, there are limits to the intensity of emotion, both of joy and of sadness. I hope that on your wedding day you were scoring 10 out of 10 on the happiness scale. You often hear the phrase that marriage takes work, but I like to think of it more as requiring attention along the way, but it can and should be a ton of fun.

But here we are today. The most important part of staying married is wanting to stay married. If you’re already checked out, really do not want to be married to your current spouse, then you needn’t read further. Are you good for each other? Is each of you a better person because of the other? If you’re not sure, have moments of wishing you weren’t married but other moments of contentment, then read on.

I’ve got to mention that I used to be shocked to know that there are couples who have separated and then gotten back together again. It is possible to take some time apart and realize that reconciliation is an option. Sometimes separation allows one to realize that he or she can live without the other, that the kids are better in two non-stressful homes than one really tense house. Patience. Tolerance. Quiet reflection. Sometimes time apart gives a perspective allowing us to see or remember the value of the relationship we are considering.

If you are already emotionally done, ready to move on, I hope you have kept your spouse up to date on your emotional progress as you have arrived at that conclusion. I have had too many people come in to discuss the difficulty of leaving home, when their partner had no idea there was a grave problem. That is just not fair.

If you are not happy in your marriage, take responsibility for your part and talk to your spouse. (See “Integrity and Conflict) Think about it. People spend years in therapy to understand themselves. How do we expect to understand someone else? Less should we expect to understand that third party; the relationship itself. The relationship is made up of those parts of each of us that we put into the mix.

Each of us contains the capacity to manifest every human behavior. Each one of us can be caring, cruel, sarcastic, and empathetic. We choose which parts we show and which we put in our part of any relationship. We usually get into a pretty steady pattern in our relationships. We get used to behaving a certain way with certain people, but those patterns can be changed.

You can change what you put in if you want to. Your partner can change if he or she wants to, but if you don’t share your feelings, how on earth are they supposed to know how you feel? Communicate honestly. Communicate thoughtfully and calmly.

Please read the “Conflict and Integrity” part. It’s so important in this facet of your life. And therapy can help, for one or both of you, together or separately. Stay grounded. Stay honest. And don’t forget about common sense. A good therapist should give you homework. He or she should be teaching you new ways to receive and/or respond to situations. If your therapist is telling you things that just don’t make sense or work for you, you may need to find a different therapist.

You may not feel totally infatuated with your spouse right now. The concept that people are going to spend years together and change in the same direction really is kind of unrealistic. But just because you don’t feel the same way now that you did at the beginning, doesn’t mean you didn’t then. It was real.

Love is irrational and illogical, and it is primal. It can make us crazy and inspired. Try to remember the feeling you had on your wedding day. It really was real.

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that feeling. My suggestion: stealth intimacy. These are little, nonsexual zings that remind both of you of the depth of your relationship with a touch of fun. Say you’re on your way out to run errands and your significant other is sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper or making a shopping list. Just walk behind and give a little peck on the back of the neck, behind the ear and just keep walking. If you’re on your way to work and your spouse is brushing his or her teeth or washing dishes, give a little pat on the bum. And just keep walking. Nobody else can do that but you. It’s not sexual, but it is intimate. It feels good and it’s fun.

These strafing runs of tenderness are purposefully meant to be not foreplay. They are not a promise (or threat) of sex. Mostly they are light-hearted attempts at bringing back that feeling. At first, the recipient of this attention will primarily be confused. “What was that for?” “Oh, nothing.”

If your partner responds frankly negatively to your touch, that may be a sign of a deeper problem and the idea of therapy becomes more important. But you won’t know till you try. You may need to start smaller. When making a point in conversation, put your hand on your partners arm for half a sentence, and take it off. While pointing something out while driving, touch his or her thigh briefly…briefly. Just a hint of a reminder. Subtle

It is a fairly common phenomenon that marriage partners are not on par with their sexual desires. One will be much more desirous than the other. That gets to be a problem. It can be a varying situation or it can be a pretty stable pattern.

Men and women, they say, and you know, see sex very differently. One comedian phrased it like this; Women have sex when they are in love, men have sex to fall in love. To men, often, if you won’t have sex with them, they feel you don’t love them.

The more common scenario is the husband wanting sex more than the wife. Women have a lot going on. If there are small children, she has people physically on her, demanding physical attention all the time. Sometimes that makes it really difficult when her husband is also asking for physical attention. There are two ways to look at it. Your children will only be small for a short time and you owe them all the attention they need. (See “Kids) Conversely, your children will grow up and leave you in 18 or so years and you really should take care of the relationship you hope to be left with when the kids are gone.

So, if your man wants you sexually, try to think of it as a compliment. Just think how bad it would feel if he didn’t want you. Think about paying attention to your marriage for the long run. Remember that your having sex with him may be a really important way to say that you love him. So if it really means that much to him and it is not physically painful, try it.

To be most crass, it can be treated like other chores around the house you may not love to do, but have to be done to make your home work. You may enjoy it more than you anticipate; and he will totally and deeply appreciate the gesture. This is not pity or sexual slavery. It is a consensual manifestation of the commitment you made to your marriage.

Couples are all different in what will work; spontaneous, planned “date night”, morning, night, home, hotel. You have to pay attention and figure it out together. One of my favorite prescriptions for couples is to exercise together. Somehow, getting your heart pumping and breathing hard with your significant other is a cool way to touch that physical connection and maybe resuscitate it a little. Herbs, supplements, acupuncture and energy work can all help. Try them all and see what works for you.

If the wife wants sex more than the husband, it’s a whole different set of issues. Understand that libido or sex drive is an entirely different thing from sexual function. A man may very much want to have sex, but cannot get an adequate erection to achieve vaginal penetration. That is what Cialis, Viagra and Levitra are for. All they do is create a shift in blood flow to allow for an erection. A guy that has no desire for sex may or may not be able to have an erection.

Don’t get me wrong. A guy that doesn’t desire sex won’t be able to perform sexually in that scenario, but may have normal nighttime or morning erections. Those medications will not help sex drive at all. But sometimes these issues are all tied up in one another. A man who can’t reliably have an erection may not want to have sex because he is afraid of being embarrassed or frustrated. It’s worth having a discussion with your doctor of you’re not quite sure which is the chicken and which is the egg.

If you don’t want to have sex with your wife, but you love her madly, please tell her so. You are going to have to praise her, reassure her and practically continuously stroke her. Listen, if you can’t have an erection, you’ve still got a ton of ways to be physically affectionate. Get at it. Be creative. I’m not talking all kinky and scary, just using your mouth and hands and any other part that works for the two of you.

If a part of the problem is the erection thing, go see a doctor and see if you can get a pill, a pump, an injection or even a penile implant surgery. If you have just lost desire for any sex, you should still see your doctor and make sure you don’t have a medical issue like low thyroid or testosterone level.

All of this is not to suggest that sex, in itself, is sufficient to sustaining your marriage. It is an important part, but not with regards to specifics of your sex life, just that you are both OK with how things are, whatever that is. And you don’t need to answer the questions that might come up in conversation regarding sexual practices. You can answer with “We are happy.” “None of your business.” Or the Dear Abby answer, “Why on earth would you want to know that?”

Statistically speaking, people who cheat have no difference in their married sex life than people who don’t cheat. Meaning, not having sex at home does not push people to cheat, nor does having a healthy sex life at home protect you from a cheating spouse. Infidelity has more to do with the individual than the marriage.

Actually, there are many who feel that monogamy is not “natural”. It certainly isn’t seen commonly in the animal kingdom. But it is our social ideal and it is usually part of the expectation in marriage.

There’s a joke that outlines the three phases of marriage as; The first phase, called the kitchen phase, when the newlyweds will make love anywhere they run into each other, even the kitchen. The second phase, called the bedroom phase, when the couple only have sex in bed. And the third phase, called the hallway phase, in which, when the couple run into each other in the hallway, they say, “Screw you.” “Yeah, screw you too.”

We are, in fact, often kinder to strangers than we are to the people closest to us. This must be changed. If you are short and snippy, it usually doesn’t feel good, so pay attention to how you are feeling. And then take responsibility for your part. Try to think of what the Huxtables would do. (You remember, from The Cosby Show.) Be light. You make have to fake calm. Try to behave in ways that you will feel good about later. If your partner doesn’t recognize that he or she is being mean, gently…ever so gently point it out. You might say “Ooooo, hey. That hurt.” Or “What did you mean to say? Or the old Ann Landers stand by “What did you say?” By making them repeat it, sometimes they actually hear it.

Marriage is healthy for men. Married men live longer. (Women live longer who have pets.) So men, you have a real interest in making it work. Pay attention. Ask. Listen. Be nice. Say “please” and “thank you”…a lot. Say “I love you” all the time. Have fun…Have fun together!

Please see “Defending the Caveman”. It is a hilarious one-man show explaining the differences in the way men and women think and interact. There is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Just really, really different. It is so great to be able to recognize these differences with a funny memory of this wonderful show. I went to see it with some friends one March. The next day I got a phone call from one of them who said that she and her husband set to doing their taxes. She was doing the female “gatherer” thing; seeing the big picture, considering options and coming to a task from multiple angles. And he was doing the male “hunter” thing; focused, linear, goal-oriented. They would have been at each other’s throats had they not been laughing so hard at how predictably they were behaving.

The trick here is to recognize the value in the other skill set, optimize by coordinating, not demeaning the other for “doing it all wrong.” There are things that are best accomplished by each manner of working. Neither is the only way. They are not better or worse, but they sure are different.

Ann Landers (or her sister, Dear Abby) put forward an important thinking point. “Would I be better off without him/her?” If your discontent runs deep, try this one on and see how it feels. Answer that question for yourself throughout the day. Please keep in mind that no one knows what you are thinking unless you tell them. You may be seething mad and feel like steam is coming out of your ears and you are about to pass out from rage, but if you don’t open your mouth, your partner can justifiably say that he or she had no idea.

Important: I strongly discourage having a discussion when you are enraged. Get control of yourself. Here’s where the faking being calm comes in. Let your partner know that you are seriously unhappy. If you can talk about it then; fine, but you may have to wait until you can be rational and communicate clearly.

No one can argue with how you feel. If something bothers or offends you, it just does. You do not need to justify your emotions. You may need to seriously break it down for yourself to figure out why some things get to you. Therapy can help there. No one can tell you that you do or do not feel. Perception is reality. You can change how you perceive things. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, ”No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” You can say “I feel…” and speak your indisputable truth. You can’t say “You make me feel…” without abdicating your responsibility.

Divorce is fairly commonplace in our society. People seem less willing to put up with a distasteful or unpleasant situation. It is certainly not my intention here to convince or dissuade anyone in any particular direction about divorce. What you might find interesting is that there are two peaks in married life in which divorce occurs. We could guess that there is a peak in the first years. That phrase, the seven year itch, didn’t come from nothing. The surprise is the second peak in the thirty-something years of marrieage range.

People who have been married thirty-plus years have been through some stuff. Probably career stuff, house, kids, relatives, etc. You’d think they have figured out how to be a team. But then come two really big confounding game changers; menopause and retirement.

Menopause is no joke. (Another whole chapter, in fact.) Women change in so many profound ways with the waning of reproductive hormones. So the classic lack of menstrual periods and hot flashes and sleep issues aside, there are other things that impact relationships greatly. It totally makes sense that when you stop being able to carry a child, that the primal drive to have sex will be affected. Why would your body have an urge to do something that would be fruitless? Sex in a marriage is so much more than baby-making, and depending on the physical and emotional health of the partners, many couples go on to have very active sex lives well past any risk of pregnancy. In fact, some couples sex lives improve when that fear is gone and they can enjoy sex without concern of pregnancy.

Another attitudinal shift that occurs is less explicable. Women in their fifties, when the children are grown and gone (God willing) are no longer spending their days responding to the needs of others. They stop putting everybody else in front of them on the “to do” list. Sometimes it means a new unwillingness to cook for others, do laundry for others, etc. It can be quite disruptive if not handles respectfully. How this is going to work is entirely dependent upon the individuals in the relationship. Often it’s no big deal; there’s less to do when it’s just the two of you anyway. But it is worth discussing with mutual respect, some humor and some out of the box thinking.

The physical changes in post-menopausal women sometimes make sex difficult or painful. So not a turn-on. It can be dealt with if you want to. Some couples, however just settle into a new level of physical intimacy and are quite content without vaginal intercourse. As long as both of you are on the same page, and are being honest and caring, it’s all good.

Retirement can upset the apple cart a bit as well. You two have spent years with a certain routine, and now it’s gone. The joke is that now women have half the money and twice the husband. It is not an uncommon phenomenon for a spouse who has spent almost no time managing the household to now come in to offer his or her expertise and (hovering) suggestions on how things could be done better/cheaper/faster. It is very frustrating, even insulting to the person who has been managing just fine all these years without help. (Often without thanks either.)

Try to keep in mind that the new home-body has lost his or her routine too. Our culture tends to define us by what we do, and when we retire it can be like becoming a nobody, like losing ones identity. It is a very difficult transition for everybody. It is really smart to anticipate and have a plan.

One couple I see was looking forward to his retirement; he with great anticipation and she with great trepidation. His job has required that he be out of the house all week. She managed the home, had raised the children, etc with this arrangement in place. She had a rich social life and filled her days for all these years. He worked hard in a demanding and respected position. When he was home on weekends, he had a few little hobbies, but mostly just rested.

Fortunately, she had the foresight to make an appointment with a marriage counselor six months before his retirement. They went in with their respective expectations and concerns. With the therapist, they set up a schedule of trial runs, experiments in the home. They went back three months later to discuss the outcomes of his grocery shopping, for example, and the joint menu planning and expectations regarding travel to grandchildren etc. They revised and refined the plans. They made rules for behavior and communication. And followed up upon his actual retirement and then three months later. It was brilliant!

I now absolutely recommend this anticipatory approach to retirement to all couples. It is such a dramatic and abrupt change in lifestyle that it deserves that level of attention.

Humans are herd animals. It is in our nature to socialize. And not just with your spouse. Try to get out and have some fun, as a couple and individually. If you are jealous, that is an indication of a lack of trust. You may need to look into that. If your partner is jealous, please try to respect it within reason, but it is definitely worth talking about.

This is another area where the difference between men and women is flagrant. A guy will see nothing wrong with talking to another woman as long as he is not having sex with her. (That same guy might not want any man talking to his woman. Different story. That’s usually because he “knows” that all men want is sex and that’s why that guy is talking to her.) A woman might see it completely differently and actually feel that if her man is spending time with another woman, especially if he is confiding in her, that that is cheating. Women see the emotional as part of intimacy. Most men make the distinction between them almost completely.

If jealously and/or cheating has been an issue in your marriage, please seek professional help. Not your mother, sister, BFF or hairdresser. Not the guys at the coffee shop, work, bar or the barber. Professional help. If your partner won’t go (“There is no problem.”), you go. Always remember to use common sense. Listen to your gut. Follow your heart. Monogamy may not be natural, as I said before, but it is our social norm and the expectation in marriage. You can do whatever you want. Ignore it. Get over it. Leave and never look back. Or anything in between. Whatever you do, behave in a way that makes you feel good about yourself.

You can work on your marriage from your end. If your spouse wants to work on it too, great. Pay attention. Touch. Remember. Have fun. It’s really important.

 

 

 

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