The reason I thought Kerry’s questions would provide a good introduction to the subject of misunderstanding was because I thought they were illustrative of how often we make ASSUMPTIONS about our spouses’ feelings, attitudes and erotic realities, assumptions that we then act on as if they have been confirmed.
The most common mistaken assumptions with relevance to our subject have to do with our partners’ conception of the relationship between sex and love. This was how it played out between my husband and me:
When I lost interest in sex very soon after we were married and began to decline intercourse, my husband reacted very badly. He fussed, he huffed, he fumed, he pushed out his lower lip and sulked. I felt that he was over-reacting, and it pissed me off. Since (as I’ve since realized) simmering and mostly subconscious anger was already contributing to my loss of libido (among other things, as I’ll get into later), my further irritation at his inability to be the tiniest bit mature and gracious about not always getting the sex when and how he wanted it only made things worse.
I couldn’t see why it was such a frippin’ Big Deal, why he had to be such a damn Crabass about it. So what if I was tired or not in the mood? Did he have to throw such fits? I thought, “He doesn’t care whether I have any erotic feelings or not. With these punitive histrionics he’s essentially demanding that I just lie down and let him stick it in, my desire be damned.”
And (my train of assumptions went) that meant he didn’t really Love me. His desire for sex was obviously “merely physical.” He just wanted to Use My Body to get off on (or in). Naturally, I didn’t like the idea of being his handy-dandy sexual appliance or nightly sleeping pill, and the anger got worse. I would “give in” some nights just to avoid the drama, while literally gritting my teeth.
Meanwhile HE was terrified that I had stopped loving HIM. Most men assume that any “normal” woman who loves a man will want to have sex with him, and lots of it. In fact, according to one particular form of this idea, any woman who’s really in love will be practicallly insatiable. Given that this was my husband’s fervent belief, when I didn’t want to have sex with him he assumed that I didn’t love him anymore.
He couldn’t understand what had happened. … continued …
We had been having some great sex before we were married, and in fact my free enjoyment of bedtime was one of the things that attracted him to me in the first place, because his first marriage had been something of a sexual wasteland. And now it looked like his second venture into matrimony was going down the tubes the exact same way. What was wrong? Why wasn’t I as sexually playful as I’d been just a few months before? Could I already be having an affa — no, better not think about that!
No wonder he was going crazy.
And the thing was, from his point of view I also refused to explain it to him. Whenever he demanded to know why I didn’t want to have sex the same way and in the same quantity as before we were married, I told him, “I don’t know.” And I DIDN’T. It was a real, complete, deep, dark mystery to me why my sexual gettupandgo got up and went.
There had already been times when we were engaged when I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic (blow jobs in particular had started to seem more painful to my jaws the more they were taken for granted), and as I noted in the beginning I had even warned him that we would probably have to slack off a little on the daily schedule when “real life” got under way. Even then I didn’t understand where my erotic self was going.
The sexual conflict spilled over into other aspects of our life. He got wildly cranky and extremely critical of me on other grounds. He blew up (I’m talking stratospheric here) at what seemed to me to be the smallest frustrations, disappointments or disruptions. The only emotion he seemed capable of freely expressing — and he expressed it very freely — was anger. He acted some days as if I was deliberately making his life miserable, and his apparent hostility and routine over-reactions were making me more and more furious. I thought he was childish, selfish and outrageous, but Nice Girl that I was I kept my mouth shut and tried to be a Good Wife anyway — because I was also feeling guilty and frightened about my inadequate sexual responsiveness. My internalized rage and guilt only made me less and less interested in sex as time went on.
So the cycle escalated and became a vicious downward spiral. I refused sex because he was cranky and irritable, he got more critical and furious because I refused sex. And so on and so forth.
So the moral of today’s story is…
Women don’t realize that a lack of sex reduces a man’s ability to be patient and considerate with a woman.
Men don’t realize that a lack of consideration and patience reduces a woman’s sexual interest in a man.
In other words, to put it very baldly (and speaking generally, of course) sex helps maintain a man’s Love for a woman, and Love helps maintain a woman’s erotic responsiveness to a man.
Some other more common assumptive misunderstandings between couples have to do with what I call “frequency and character” issues. Both husband and wife will make assumptions about how often the other partner “really” wants to have sex and what kind of sex it “has” to be every time.
In time, my husband and I established a kind of truce about sex. Neither of us was particularly happy with our sex life, but he was resigned to not getting as much as he wanted and I was resigned to having sex on occasions when I wasn’t interested. It had already stopped being a major battleground when my libido started to perk up again.
But then, even as my erotic self began to come back to me, I hesitated to let my husband know that I was interested in having sex with him. There was not only the by-now familiar sense that I would somehow be surrendering some kind of Power in the relationship if I began to ask him for something, especially something I hadn’t wanted in the past, but there was also a concern that if we began to have more frequent sex, he would expect it to continue at the same frequency, or that more sex might even — uh oh — accelerate his desires.
So I’d have these internal debates with myself before I approached him sexually. I’d tote up how many times we’d had sex lately and ask myself if he would be satisfied with three times a week, or would getting it that often “hop up” his drive and expectations to the point that he’d want it four times next week and then five times the week after that? How much was going to be “enough” for him? Was there any limit to what he might expect? And wasn’t it even possible that having sex “too often” would make it less powerful or exciting for me, or that I would get bored with it again as it got more routine? And what if my nascent sex drive suddenly disappeared again? If I established a three-times-a-week precedent now, would we start with those frustrated fits and household hurricanes again if I wanted to back off later? I sure as hell didn’t want to risk that.
Notice that I never mentioned any of these concerns or calculations to my husband. I didn’t say a word, I just determined how to “ration” my sexual approaches to avoid the problems I simply assumed were going to arise if I started coming on to him more often.
Another assumptive misunderstanding I’ve heard a lot about is the one in which one member of the couple (or both!) assumes that sex always has to be a certain way or some kind of full production number every time. This is an assumption that is partly informed by comparing one’s own sex life to one portrayed in the culture as “normal” or “right.”
Like “Kerry,” many men these days have absorbed the idea that “giving” orgasms to their wives or “satisfying a woman” is some kind of sexual Holy Grail. Many women, on the other hand, have been told that if they don’t insist on getting an orgasm with every sexual act, they are Bowing To The Patriarchy or otherwise Letting The Side Down. But hey, what exactly is wrong with a woman indulging her husband with an occasional non-orgasmic “quickie”?
One woman told me that she didn’t offer them to her husband (even though there were times she wouldn’t have minded “making him happy by getting it over with fast”) because she assumed he would be too likely decide her orgasm was always optional and he’d be “too tempted to skip it” when she DID want one.
Much the same kind of thinking goes into some women’s reluctance to do “special” things for their husbands or let them use mechanical toys or vibrators. Their assumption is that “he will expect [the special treat] all the time” or “he’ll get lazy about [giving me an orgasm] the old-fashioned way.”
Other common “assumptive misunderstandings” are that one’s partner always prefers sex at a particular time of day, or that he or she will always expect (or NOT want) sex whenever certain things happen or certain conditions are met.
Couples also often assume that negotiating or making any kind of articulated “deal” about their sexual activity (for example, “if we can have sex every Saturday, I won’t bug you during the week”) is somehow an admission of erotic failure and a lack of Love. They assume that the only worthwhile (or moral?) sex is “spontaneous” and mutually enthusiastic. Never mind that an explicit consideration of a partner’s need for touch, relief and reassurance would be an excellent expression of Love in most moral systems, many people think that if they have to work out specific verbal agreements regarding when or where or how, it’s going to be False and Ugly and furthermore, it will probably guarantee they’ll never have spur-of-the-moment sex again.
The common thread in all these problems is that the partners are forming and maintaining assumptions without ever entertaining the possibility, much less ever asking each other whether those assumptions might be incorrect. The best way to avoid misunderstandings of this kind, of course, is to open one’s mouth and SAY, “You may think this is nuts, but I’ve been thinking….”
Embarrassing? Difficult? RISKY? Maybe. But if you never ask, you’ll never know.
(For more on how difficult it can be to talk out loud about our sexual needs and assumptions, see the post Talking About It.)