Betty, a designer in a high-powered advertising firm, and Donald, a college professor bucking for tenure, had been married for 15 years. They spent the first 10 minutes in my office invoking the standard litany of our times as an explanation for their lousy sex life. They were both just too busy.
"Betty gets home from work so late that we barely see each other anymore, let alone have sex," said Donald resentfully. "We're collaborators in child-raising and mortgage paying, but we're hardly lovers anymore. I've taken over a lot of the household chores, but she often doesn't get home until 9 p.m. and most nights, she says she's just 'too tired' for sex."
Betty sighed in exasperation. "Sometimes I think Donald wants me to leap from the front door to the bedroom and take care of him," she said. "But I'm being swallowed up by a sea of obligations my boss, the kids, the house, the dog, Donald. Everybody wants a big chunk of me. Right now, I feel there's nothing left of me for me, let alone for him. He just doesn't get it that I need more time for myself before I'm interested in sex."
Betty looked hard at Donald, then at me. "The fact of the matter is, he doesn't even know how to kiss me!" she said grimly.
Over the years, I've worked with many couples who complain bitterly that the other kisses or touches, fondles, caresses, strokes the "wrong" way. I used to take these complaints at face value, trying to help the couple solve their problems through various forms of marital bargaining, teach them the finer points of sexual technique, and send them home with detailed prescriptions until I realized that their sexual dissatisfactions did not stem from ignorance, ineptitude or a "failure to communicate." On the contrary, "communicating" is exactly what Donald and Betty were already doing very well, only neither much liked the "message" the other was sending.
Donald and Betty perfectly illustrated the almost universal, but widely unrecognized, reality that sex does not merely constitute a "part" of a relationship, but literally and metaphorically embodies the depth and quality of the couple's entire emotional connection. We think of foreplay as a way couples establish connection, but more often it's a means of establishing connection.
Clearly, foreplay for this couple was not simply a mechanical technique for arousal, amenable to the engineering, skill-building approach still dictated by popular sex manuals. Nor were they likely to improve sex just by being more "open" with each other, or "asking for what they wanted"---another popular remedy in self-help guides and among marital therapists. Instead of trying to spackle over these normal and typical "dysfunctional" sexual patterns with a heavy coat of how-to lessons, I have learned that it makes much more sense to help the couple analyze their behavior, to look for the meaning of what they were already doing before they focused on changing the mechanics.
Like most of us, neither Betty nor Donald was very mature when they married; neither had really learned the grownup ability to soothe their own emotional anxieties or find their own internal equilibrium during the inevitable conflicts and contretemps of marriage. And, like most couples after a few years of marriage, they made up for their own insecurities by demanding that the other provide constant, unconditional acceptance, empathy, reciprocity and validation to help them each sustain a desired self-image.
In order to help them each find a self and each other, I had to redirect their gaze away from their obsession with mutually disappointing sexual behavior, and encourage them to "follow the connection"---rediscover or establish some vital physical and emotional link as a first building block to greater intimacy. To consciously "follow the connection," however, requires the full presence and consent of both partners, each purposely slowing down and giving full attention to the other, feeling and experiencing the other's reality. For example, I suggested that Betty and Donald, who couldn't come up with even one way in which they made some sort of vital contact, might simply caress each other's hands and faces while attending to what they were doing and feeling.
Later that night, they had the best sex they had experienced in a very long time.
The Sexual Crucible Approach encourages people to make use of the opportunity offered by marriage to become more married and better married, by becoming more grown-up and better at staking out their own selfhood. But the lessons learned by Betty and Donald, or any couple, extend far beyond sex. The same emotional development that makes for more mature and passionate sexuality also helps couples negotiate the other potential shoals of marriage money issues, childrearing questions, and career decisions.
There is no way this process can be foreshortened into a technical quick-fix, no matter how infatuated our culture is with speed, efficiency and cost containment. Marriage is a magnificent system, not only for humanizing us, maturing us and teaching us how to love, but also perhaps for bringing us closer to what is divine in our natures.This blog is excerpted from “Passionate Marriage.” Read the full article here. >>Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!