These days in therapy, I’m working on why I can’t have sex with my husband. That’s not really the right way to express it though. The truth is, I can have sex with my husband. I can go through the physical motions and probably experience an orgasm and the physical release and pleasure that provides. But to do that, I need to disappear, emotionally, so that it’s not me making love to my husband but some other self occupying my body.
I did that for a long time, and it just doesn’t feel right anymore. So in therapy I’ve set myself a goal of having emotionally-present sex, and it’s surprisingly frightening. I find I can hardly even talk about it.
E and I started out by articulating the reasons I chose this goal: because I love my husband, because it is a safe relationship, because I want to know what the intimacy of emotionally-present sex is like. Okay, I could live without it. But why not try to offer myself something potentially rich and rewarding? Why not offer that to a man I love and deeply appreciate?
“So have you ever been emotionally present for sex with your husband?” E asked me.
I hesitated over that for a long time. I know things haven’t always been the same, over the years we’ve been together. So I’m not entirely sure. But no, I don’t think I have been, at least not in the way I’d like to be.
“Have you ever been present for sex at all?” she then asked.
Hm. Have I? I try to think back to the first time I fell in love, with my boyfriend in college. I remember feeling dizzy with the intensity of it. Yes, I think I was present. I remember looking in his eyes and being deeply moved. It’s a funny memory, sort of sweet and sort of uncomfortable. But it tells me that at least at some point in my life, I didn’t have to run away from what my body was doing. I’ve built up more defenses in the meantime, but maybe I can recapture that connection between body, mind and spirit.
So the past couple of weeks in therapy, E and I have spent a substantial amount of time on my communication about sex with my husband.
Can I tell my husband what I want sexually, what I like or want or fantasize about? No, absolutely not. In fact, he’s often commented on this, with (gentle) frustration, “You never tell me what you like! That makes it hard for me; I want to know how to please you.”
“I like all of it,” I’ll say–or I won’t say anything. I know it isn’t a helpful response. And I judge myself for this reticence: why am I so silly? I’m not a prude. I don’t think it’s bad or wrong to do things. But when I try to talk about sex, I feel a giant invisible wall drops down between me and my husband, or between me and E, for that matter, and I cannot find words to get over or around it.
E notices it, too. “You are so much quieter than usual,” she observes.
“I can’t, I can’t talk about it,” I say, paying fierce attention to the mandala I am coloring. (Yes, we are still coloring mandalas in therapy.)
What E and I decide is that I will start by talking with my husband about how hard it is to talk about sex, a sort of meta-conversation. I will tell him that I’d like thing to be different between us. We already have kindness and affection, but I’d like to have intimacy, physical and emotional, but it’s hard for me to figure out how to allow that.
The best time to talk to him about what’s going on for me in therapy is usually the evening after a therapy session, when I feel bolstered by the conversation with E, the reminders of why this is worthwhile and how suggestions for how I might start the conversation. So I go home that evening (last Wednesday, or eight days ago) and open up this conversation with him. He listens, and he’s warm and encouraging in response.
“Great, I would like that, too,” he says. “So what is it you want to tell me?
“Nothing right now,” I tell him, and I think he is a little disappointed.
So on Friday we are in the basement, curled up on the couch watching The Walking Dead on Netflix. He stops at the end of an episode, and I think maybe he wants us to make popcorn or something. But no, he wants to talk.
“You have done this a couple of times,” he tells me, “and I don’t know why. You say you want us to talk about something, and then you go quiet and don’t say anything. I think we should take the opportunity to talk. I want you to talk to me.”
Oh shit, I think. Can’t we just go back to to watching people smashing in zombie heads?
“I know you want me to just play the next episode so we can zone out,” he says, reading my mind, “And I like sitting here relaxing with you, too. I do. I like all kinds of different things in our relationship. But you said you wanted to talk, so I want to make space for you to talk. I think maybe we should talk every day, just a bit every day, so we keep up the momentum.”
Ugh. Just my luck he would get overly enthusiastic about this. But even as I am making resistant faces, I also recognize that he has heard me and is trying to make space for the conversation that I did say, after all, that I wanted.
“The thing is,” I say, “I want to build that greater intimacy with you. You are so important to me. But it’s incredibly hard. As soon as I try, I run into so much shame. It’s like shame is all over the place, and I spend a lot of time hiding in my cave. I crawl out a bit, tell you that I want us to have more sex and more intimacy, and then I am shocked at all the shame swarming me like a hive of angry bees, stinging me, so I just want to crawl back in my cave again where it’s safe and dark, and there are no bees.”
He tries a bit more to get me to tell him “what it is I want to tell him.” I try to communicate that there’s not some specific thing I have been holding in that I’m dying to tell him. It’s just that I am working in therapy to be able to have vulnerable conversations and open communication about sex with him.
He says he has tried not to pressure me at all about sex. He knows that with my depression and being in therapy processing sexual violations in my past, that it hasn’t felt right for me. “I want it to be something we both want,” he tells me, not for the first time. “I love you with or without sex. But I also see that you both want it and find it hard, so if it helps for me to bring it up, I’ll bring it up.”
He goes on, with no prompting, to tell me about a sexual fantasy of his. I notice, as I listen, that 1) I feel no judgment of him for having this fantasy and 2) I still don’t feel like talking about it or doing it.
Still, because I remember that my longer term goal is greater intimacy, I tell him a little, just a little, not much of anything. Probably nothing he didn’t already know just from my physical reactions in the past. It’s something, at least, and it lets us go back to the next episode of zombie guts.
A couple of days later (thank god it’s not every day like he first suggested), he brings it up again, and even though I plead to remain in my cave, he asks me to come out for just a little bit, and so I do. We talk just a little, and then let it lie again.
And the next evening, he comes home from work and tells me, “I have been thinking about you all day.”
“Really?” I say, surprised. “Why is that?”
“Because I can see how hard it is for you to have these conversations. And yet, you are having them anyway. And that tells me how important our relationship is to you, which I find so amazing and touching. It just makes me love you even more.”
There’s probably nothing he could have said that would encourage me more to keep stumbling out of my cave, despite the bees, into the blinding sunshine.