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But I Can’t Say THAT

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– Originally published on WebOfCare.com

Sexual communication? It’s easy, when our message is “Oh, Sweetheart, that was just the BEST!”. It becomes more thorny when we need to express disappointment, anger, or disinterest; and it seems futile when our partner can no longer even comprehend the discussion, as can be the case with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and brain injury. Perhaps all of us wish we could speak easily about sex and intimacy, though few of us escape the pleasure-phobic societal taboos and innuendos that teach us we must not talk about sex. And when we throw into the mix our misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about romance and marriage, it is no wonder we hesitate to blunder forward in an area in which we are uninformed and in which our partner’s response is unpredictable and important.

Romance and new love are fertile ground for verbal exchanges about lovemaking, but it doesn’t take long for the honeymoon stage to spend itself. (The word ‘honeymoon’ refers to the concept of the time from one full moon to the next–only twenty-eight days!). Thereafter, it is as important to learn to speak about our most vulnerable and intimate wishes as it is to discuss healthy styles of co-habitation, decision-making, and conflict resolution. But most of us soon establish unspoken sexual codes, and verbal communication steadily wanes.

The danger is that silence guarantees constancy or deterioration of a situation. When we want change, we must stop being silent. We have a much better chance of getting what we want if we ask for it. One of the myths we learn about love and romance is that “If you really loved me, you’d know what I want.” Deciphered, this means we expect our partners to read our minds. Not only is this impossible, but it sets us up for disappointment when our lovers (predictably) fail the test, proving to us that we are unloved. Then, unsure of our status, we feel vulnerable and powerless, further silencing us. Such an ugly cycle, and an unnecessary one!

At this point we are influenced not only by the belief in mind-reading, but are broadsided by yet another myth, that any suggestion involving our mate’s sexual performance will be unbearably painful and scar the relationship. This is another manifestation of our culture’s ‘silence about sex’ credo, firmly ingrained in our social code. Typical of myths, it just is not true. In fact, most of us hunger for a little direction, a small suggestion, that informs us how better to please our sexual partner. Since we are given little or no information about sexual relationships as we grow up, and since we are expected to be proficient lovers upon marriage, we are left in a Catch-22: just how is this transformation to happen? We do a lot of groping, and assuming, and hoping, and sometimes we read each other well enough, and reveal enough of ourselves, that we can and do build solid, loving sexual relationships. Most of us are not that lucky. And all of us could improve what we have if we can learn to speak honestly and open heartedly about what we really like (and really don’t like) about sex.

How do we learn to be fluent in the language of sexuality?

We begin with an examination of our personal beliefs and attitudes about our bodies and about sex. For instance, who is responsible for our bodies? Who is responsible for our body’s pleasure? If we give ourselves away to another person, we lose the privilege and right to govern our own experiences. It is when we take full responsibility and control of ourselves that we can assess clearly what we need and want.

Regarding sexuality specifically, what kinds of sexual activities do we want? How often do we want to be sexual? How important, or insignificant, is sexuality to us? What compromises and accommodations are we willing to make to keep sex central in our lives? How do we differentiate sex from lust/ love/care/duty? When is sex personal and when is it a marital issue?

When we have these pieces figured out, we can attend to our needs and desires. Now comes the task of determining exactly what we would ask for if we could write our own script, if we could eloquently ask for things to be precisely as we wished and our mate’s response would be “Oh, Darling, I’m so glad you asked; I’ve been hoping for the same changes!” If there were no reason for fear and many for daring, what, exactly, would we ask for? The little things offer a good beginning. There are some relatively safe situations where we can practice our communication skills. Asking to bathe together, or suggesting a massage, or gesturing with a ‘come hither’ look and a smile, are easy places to start. We can begin the flow of language ourselves, telling our mates that we appreciate them sexually and listing the things they do to please us. We can touch more, mentioning how marvelous skin feels touching skin. We can learn this unfamiliar language as we would acquire any other, with patience, and courage, and practice.

So far, so good. But what do we do when we’re well beyond stifled communication? What if we no longer desire our mate, or they us? What if illness or injury makes sexual expression impossible? What if verbal negotiation is impossible?

We begin by acknowledging and embracing our grief for a situation that may well be beyond our control and which is unjust and unfair. We enter loving relationships full of promise and the expectation that we will have happy lives together. When those dreams are dashed, for whatever reasons, we are filled with sorrow, rage, and resentment. Dreams die hard, and it hurts very much to lose them. When illness or injury takes away the lover with whom we once shared those dreams, we lack a dividing line between the marriage that was before and the relationship henceforth. Sometimes things appear pretty much the same as before, even though they feel completely different, and we invariably feel guilty that we don’t feel gracious at all about the changes. Because routine settles us into recognizable lives, we try to ignore our sense of betrayal and rage, and get on with necessary tasks. Family and friends, as helpless as we, feel incompetent (often rightly so) to help. When sex is one of the casualties of a medical crisis, we become mute once again, struck dumb with helplessness and blind to workable options.

It is at this frightening juncture that we are most affected by our abundance (or lack) of preparation regarding the inevitable changes in our sexual relationships. The silence which marks our childhood and early adulthood often invades our marriages, too. Many couples have never had conversations about topics as vital as childbearing philosophies, disparate desire levels, beliefs about sexual exclusivity, and sexual fantasies and fears.

These silences cripple us when we are dealt a bad hand and must make unilateral decisions that involve both people. Often ignorance, fear, and isolation conspire to freeze us into inaction that can last indefinitely, leaving us a life devoid of fulfillment and scarred with resentment and suffering. There are three simple and vital questions to any decision that clarify our goals and options. These questions are:

1) What do I want?
2) How much does it cost?
3) How much am I willing to pay?

When our emotional dust settles and we get clear about our personal expectations, it is time to compile a list of options and determine the costs and rewards of each. This is a difficult process, complicated by the personal and culturally loaded nature of sexual issues, and by our heartfelt desire to do no harm to our loved ones, to impact them as little as possible. Struggling with these issues may bring us to realize a need for a more distant perspective to help us analyze our choices, and sexual or marital therapy may be appropriate at this time. It is vitally important that we choose a qualified (look for certification by the American Board of Sexologists and/or affiliation with AASECT or SSSS), sex-positive therapist. Well-intentioned but unqualified counsellors who labor under their own unexamined sexual beliefs can misinform and limit rather than expand the options in such complex situations.

We may also find that our best solutions are ones that we would normally find unacceptable. Extraordinary circumstances sometimes require extraordinary measures, and needing to make dispassionate choices about
our sexuality certainly qualifies. Judith Light and Jay Thomas star in a daring movie entitled “A Husband, A Wife, and A Lover,” in which Ms. Light plays a woman who (conveniently) has just left her husband when she is notified that he has had a physically compromising stroke from which he will not recover. She dutifully returns to care for him, and shortly meets a man who becomes her supportive friend and eventually her lover. Together, they care for her husband throughout his illness and eventual death, the three of them redesigning their definitions of fidelity to accommodate the reality of their lives. This is a tender yet controversial movie, and even though the often negative responses of their family and friends are downplayed, it illustrates the creativity of those determined to maintain happiness to design affirmative solutions.

A Husband, A Wife, and A Lover illustrates but one solution to the problem of what to do when a sexual relationship with our partner is no longer possible or fulfilling. Some are able to redirect their sexual energy, and experience little loss. Others rely on masturbation and fantasy to fill their sexual needs. Still others frequent prostitutes, offering experienced, made-to-order sex devoid of emotional involvement. Others enjoy short-lived, serial affairs, providing the thrill of novelty and the safety of short duration. Some invest in an open, committed relationship with a person fully aware of our commitments and obligations at home. There is not one right answer to this question, and the appropriate decision must be made personally, following fearless and heartfelt analysis of our situation and consideration of the broadest possible choice of options.

We must each decide what is best for us and those we love and care for. We may well have to stretch to learn how to think ‘outside the box’. We may risk censure and rejection from those who oppose our choices. We may not be able to make everything work perfectly for everyone. We may have to learn to rely on logic as much as faith. We may have to question our commitments, our beliefs and value structures, and our loyalties. We may have to keep private parts of our lives that we would rather share, a frequent cost of sexual iconoclasm.

The test is this: if, after weighing our options honestly and making a decision, we feel that we have made the fairest choice possible, for all concerned, then we have done all we can do. If we aim to act with integrity, we will hit the correct target.

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