For much of the first ten years of my marriage, I was a sexual gatekeeper, insisting on the right set of conditions before things could proceed. For much of the next ten years, I was more a sexual refuser than a sexual gatekeeper. Communication was a big part of what triggered my transition from gatekeeper-who-somewhat-enjoyed-sex to refuser-who-barely-granted-sexual-access-at-all. It’s important to learn how to speak with love and kindness–and it is also important to learn to listen and to hear.
All too often, when I would try to talk with my husband about my needs or about any of the myriad of thoughts/feelings bumping around in my head, he would feel like I was attacking him. So he would get defensive and then I would get upset, neither one of us understanding the other’s point of view because we were so caught up in processing our own emotional experiences.
The problems started to escalate after we made a move from another state for his career. This is a typical conversation. (Thoughts are in parentheses.)
Me: I’m having a rough day today.
Him: (Here we go again.)
Me: I’m still struggling with my new job. I miss my old friends.
Him: What am I supposed to do about it?
Me: I didn’t ask you to do anything. I just need to talk about it because I’m so sad.
Him: I come up with solutions. If you’re going to complain about something, I’m going to come up with a solution.
Me: Okay, so what should I do? (I wasn’t complaining. I was sharing my feelings because I have no friends yet and he’s the only adult I can talk to. Why can’t he just listen to me and hold me and let me feel sad?)
Him: Stop talking about it. (Man, every time she complains about moving I feel guilty because I dragged us here. I can’t change anything. I feel so helpless. I can’t stand feeling helpless. It makes me feel like less of a man that I made a decision that made my wife unhappy.)
Short time later…
Him: If you want, you can have your way with me. (I feel bad that she was so upset with our conversation. I need to feel close to her, and sex is the only way I know that happens. I really need to feel like I’m a good husband and a good man. Plus, I’m horny.)
Me: Seriously? Why would you want to have sex with your complaining wife? (A few minutes ago, “my way” of connecting was being held and being able to rely on my only friend to support me. But no, he insists on having sex. How can he expect me to have sex when I feel so emotionally distant from him? I needed his help in pulling myself together, and he let me down.)
Him: (Why does she always let me down?)
Me: (If he’d come over and just held me and let me feel how I was feeling, I would’ve felt closer to him and we would’ve had sex. But I’m still sad, and now I’m annoyed, too. Why won’t he just leave me alone?)
After a while, we’d completely lost the ability to hear each other because we couldn’t get outside the protective walls we’d built to protect ourselves from being hurt by the one who was supposed to love us most.
We are still working hard to learn how to communicate with each other. A couple weeks ago, we were sniping at each other about something, and we both sort of figured out that we needed to step back and find out what was going on with the other one. All this work I’d been doing that I thought was just about sex had somehow become about so much more. We had learned to interrupt the cycle of assumption. Three years ago, a little sniping would have turned into a huge argument that created tension in the family for days. This time, the entire thing lasted maybe half an hour.
I’ve often thought how helpful thought bubbles would be in real life. It’s far too easy to project what we think the other one is thinking or feeling, and we react to an assumption that may be completely unfounded; it spirals out from there.