Thoughts on Marriage Counseling Today

 

 

Sam, a 66 yearold man came to see me because his marriage of 35 years was ending. There were many reasons that this was happening, as there usually are. As a counselor in private practice for 35 years, I have heard many stories about how people perceive their relationships. I have spent time with couples who seem to argue about everything, couples who never seem to argue, people who treat each other with respect and caring and those who speak with disgust and anger. I have even worked with those who are just in so much pain that they do not understand what is happening, they feel lost and confused and betrayed.

 

Some people just seem to drift apart and lose contact with each other, they find no connectivity and no intimacy and they are bored or lonely or sad or hurt that the person they married is not the person they live with today. Some couples who have been married for many years, find that they stayed together as a family in order to raise families and now that their children are grown, they have no connection with each other, they do not seem to even know each other any more.

 

Sam was hurt and angry, but determined to be respectful and careful about placing blame. He was very concerned about whether or not he was doing the right thing. Was his partner sick and if she was, did he have an obligation to stay with her and support her? What should he tell the world? His children? How could he justify to himself and to others that he was making a decision (rational?) to end this 35 marriage? Indeed, how could he understand it himself? What had brought him to this pass? How could he go about moving forward with his life? At 66 he was almost ready to retire, he had worked for all his life to get to this moment and now he was lost. He did not know what to do, whether or not to retire, whether or not to date, where to live (one thought that he held strongly was a typical one from the AA community, one they call the geographical cure) he thought if he moved to the islands he could start over and not be around all the sources of his pain and anger. It would be easier to begin again the process of dating and meeting someone if no one knew him or his history or his family. At this point, Sam does not think he will move away, he wants to be connected to his children and grandchildren and knows that if he moves to the islands he will not see them often.

 

I want to spend some time examining what I know about Sam and his marriage to try to make sense out of what is happening to him and to his marriage. I know that sex has never been a major part of his relationship. Sam’s perception was that his wife has always seemed to place everything else in her world in front of sex with him. Her commitments, her responsibilities, her children, her church, all these things need to be taken care of before she has time or energy or interest for sex. She has always believed that sex is mostly about having children, not about joy, or intimacy, or sharing. It was more of a responsibility (but pretty far down on the list) that she had among all her responsibilities. She is a very responsible woman. She has a strong character and is admired in the community for her involvement and her visibility.

 

In the last year as he has approached this decision, Sam has been careful to say how much he respects her and thinks well of her, but that he has felt more and more strongly that he cannot live at the bottom of the food chain in this relationship any longer. He needs a friend who will look forward to his coming home at the end of the day, want to be intimate with him, laugh with him, make plans with and for him and stop what they are doing in order to make time for him. He claims that he is ready to do this for her but that she does not really care about that from him, she is already invested in the lives of her children and grandchildren and in activities within her church and community that take her time and energy and satisfy her. Besides, sex has never been high on her list of things she needs and he is just being a typical man.

 

A couple of years ago, before we reached this point, I was talking with them as a couple about their sex life. They were very cautious about discussing it because it was such a loaded topic for them. She did not want to discuss any of it in any detail but was willing to say that it was not particularly important to her. She claimed to like sex and to be willing to have sex sometimes because he wanted it, but she was not obsessed with it or preoccupied with it the way he seemed to be. He wanted to talk about how this had been a difficulty between them for years. The way he framed the message was that she never had time or energy for him and that he wanted to be held and cuddled and kissed at least as much as he wanted sex. It seemed more and more to be what he desired than just sexual contact or release. But she said that she was always tired and that even if she would try to hold him and cuddle with him, sex always became an expectation.

 

I asked them about their level of desire and their mental focus about things sexual. What did they do for stimulation? How did they signal interest and need? Who initiated a request or a sexual behavior, how often? What were their cues for indicating interest in sex? How did they communicate their desires and their responsiveness? What were they aware of feeling (sexually)? After our discussions, which were pretty superficial and formal, I suggested that perhaps there was a libido imbalance that was contributing to their difficulties. I suggested that they see Dr. Maupin and have their blood tests run to measure the amount of testosterone measured. Perhaps this was just a chemical issue that could be simply corrected.

 

Sam was willing to try anything but his wife was not interested. She wanted him to be patient and to accept that as they were getting older maybe sex was coming to an end. She wanted to stay married to him but was OK without sex anymore in their lives. He was not willing to accept this but she said he was getting old and needed to grow up and realize that sex was not just that important anymore in their lives.

 

Sam went to see Dr. Maupin and she determined that he was losing his testosterone and that it was impacting his libido in terms of desire for sex and in some respects in terms of his ability to obtain a satisfactory erection and an orgasm that made him feel good. He was confused about all this because it was difficult to separate these dimensions out from their sexual contact in part because it was so limited and in part because there were other issues causing stress in their relationship. (It is not unusual for couples that are fighting to use sexual contact as a punishment or reward for desired behaviors).

 

At any rate, Dr. Maupin urged Sam to have his testosterone replaced at least to his healthy young normal level to see what those changes would do in terms of his awareness and desire and performance levels. Sam reported over the course of the last six to eight months that he was aware that his physical sense of desire and his erections and abilities to orgasm had improved. He knew this because he had begun to masturbate frequently, something he had not done in years. His wife was no more interested in sex than before (remember she had refused an assessment and had refused to consider this treatment which might have impacted her desire level and her performance ability.)

 

As Sam became more in touch with his sense of sexual desire and his ability to perform sexually he became less satisfied with the answers he was receiving from his wife about sex. He still wanted intimacy and hugging and kissing and was not demanding sexual performance from her. He is a gentle man and a gentleman. He does not want to force her to do anything she does not want to do, but he does not want her to unilaterally determine that his sex life is over. Because Sam is an honorable man and cares about his wife, he resists pressuring her for sexual compliance. He is not interested in having an affair just for sexual release and has turned to other activities to absorb his energy and upon which to focus his attention. He plays a lot of golf, he works very long hours and he drinks more to relax and go to sleep at night.

 

Sam and his wife have separated in order to see if living apart will help them clarify what their issues are and whether or not there are things they are each willing to do to put the relationship back together. Since they are separated, Sam has told his wife he is going to date but that he will not have sex with anyone unless and until he and his wife get a divorce. He wants very much to be an honest and honorable man, but he is concerned that at 66 he will not be marketable as date material. Besides, it has been over 35 years since he has asked someone for a date.

 

Since he has been taking testosterone he has been less willing and able to tolerate a life without sexual contact. He has felt more sexual energy and has felt more actual energy. He dissipates most of that energy by working and playing harder, but he also reports regular masturbation. He does not like this because he is an older married man and thinks that it is a behavior from his teens that he should not have to utilize in order to get relief. Sam is not willing to have sex somewhere else and he is unwilling to force his wife or demand sexual performance from her. But he has decided that if this is truly where she is in her life that he is not willing to stay with her without sex for the remainder of his life.    Some of you may be asking this question: “why would Sam want to restore his sex drive at a time in his life where sexual things seem to be dying out. Would his relationship with his wife not be better if this issue were gone away?” Sam is also asking this question. He likes sex, it is a way he feels good about himself and it is a way he feels good about his partner. His ego is damaged when he senses that he is not an attractive or desirable partner sexually. So much of our sense of identity and success has been perceived as sexual prowess and attractiveness in this culture, that not being sexual is seen as disqualifying one for attractiveness and respect and relationship.

 

I should perhaps say here that Sam and his wife are real people, but I have modified some of their story. They are representative of many stories I have heard over the years. The issue of sex in a relationship is often one of strife and tension. In many relationships sex is a weapon of power. Giving sex or withholding sex makes a clear statement about power within a relationship. Sexual desire and sexual contact can be easily manipulated and can have significant impact on a person’s sense of self -esteem and desirability. Our society is preoccupied with things sexual. There are many messages we receive from marketing and advertising and movies, books, etc., that tell us to measure our worth to others by how attractive we are and how desired we are sexually.

 

Very seldom do we as children growing up receive lessons regarding emotional and physical intimacy as things we should seek and have in committed relationships. As a young boy it is somewhat typical to objectify girls and women as sexual objects. Women are often seen as objects of possession and conquest. How many can you get? How do you do that? Does that make you a better man? Do you have more status if you are perceived as attractive and desirable? Is the woman you are dating or with whom you have partnered attractive to other males, do you receive compliments and status from having her as a possession?

 

Young males are not taught about how to be sexual in terms of intimacy and sharing, in their early years, many men measure their sexual prowess in terms of the number of women they have had sexually and the number of orgasms and the power of their orgasms is the measure of their sexual satisfaction. If they are lucky, as they mature, they learn more about emotional intimacy and relationship for relationship rather than possession or conquest. A mature man will look for and at a woman in terms of mutual complimentary satisfying experiences and companionship. They will see their woman as a partner and a friend rather than as an object to master or mount.

 

Sexual identity and sexual behavior is defined by norms within a culture. These norms do not always allow much flexibility and or experimentation. How does one know what is right? What are acceptable behaviors? What defines an acceptable approach (offer) and response (acceptance)? What, if anything, does sex have to do with relationship? If a couple has an imbalance of sexual desire, how do they navigate that imbalance in a way that enhances the quality and security of their relationship and reaches a zone of sexual satisfaction that works for each partner?

 

In recent years as sexual mores have changed in America we have encountered new terms such as friends with benefits, casual sex, free Fridays or free weekends when you are in a committed relationship. There have always been affairs and multiple partners and betrayals. How can we determine a level of satisfaction sexually that works for us and communicate about that with a partner who does not feel the same way about things sexual? This is a real challenge in relationships where there is an imbalance of desire or interest. What causes this imbalance? Is it a change in the sense of desirability regarding your partner? Does a loss of interest in sexual responsiveness and reciprocity happen because we grow apart? Do our lives separate us out sexually over time? Do we become bored? How do we rejuvenate desire and interest in our partner? How do we learn to signal and request sexual intimacy? Can we demand sexual satisfaction or can we pout and be angry if it does not happen? What will that do to the relationship over time?

 

Dr. Maupin and I are writing a book about men and testosterone. We are writing it for men who are aging (forty or over, and those who love them) and who have begun the natural process of making less testosterone than they made when they were younger. Replacing your testosterone to young healthy levels is about so much more than sex. Testosterone loss is the first stage in the aging cascade. The illnesses and weaknesses of aging seem to begin as we lose testosterone. As we have learned, the replacement of that lost testosterone can protect and insulate us from the damage of these debilitating illnesses and injuries of aging. We want to examine the symptoms and reasons one should ask, “is this about testosterone” or is something else going on. It is a relatively easy question to answer because the answer is so easy to test. Just try to replace your lost testosterone and see if you feel stronger, healthier, and more sexually alive than you did before you replaced your testosterone. Once you have that data, you can also begin to ask what else is going on in my health, my life, and my relationships? Does the loss or restoration of testosterone help me heal from the assault of life and time or are there other complicating factors that need to be considered? We are writing this book to give you some useful information that will help you ask the right questions and seek out the best answers for what is out of balance in your lives.

 

We also measure our sexuality in terms of self -definition. There are taboos regarding sexual expression and sexual identification in our culture that can cause us psychological and social problems.

 

If we are homosexual the messages and rules about sexual behavior have always been mixed messages. There are questions regarding our virility and masculinity, there are questions regarding our ability to marry and have stable relationships, to have and to raise children. Homosexual men as a group have had difficulties establishing lifelong and enduring relationships. In part, this has been because of social taboos and in part because gay sex has been somewhat forbidden and exciting. The norms of what you can do and with whom you can do it have been problematic for many, many, young men who thought they might be gay. Many gay men have lived their lives as “hetero” by getting married and having children and then having casual sex with strange men with whom they are not in a relationship. Those encounters are more about sexual contact and excitement than they are about relationships.

 

Being homosexual in any culture is an added challenge when it comes to finding a supportive, intimate relationship that will last a lifetime. Since most of us are living longer, we are discovering that lifetime commitments are more challenging. Will our society change the way it defines committed relationships? There are proposals to make marriage a renewable time focused contract rather than a lifetime commitment. Our laws about property and inheritance will need revision if we move in this direction.

 

Healing fractured relationships is a real challenge. What I have learned in the past few years is that there is a possibility that these fractures may be as the result of physical changes that are reversible. It is also possible that the issues that end relationships are a matter of communication, honesty and a mutual commitment to making the relationship last. These are all the things that Sam and his wife have been attempting to learn as they make decisions about going forward into the rest of their lives. We can care deeply about each of them. There are no bad guys in this story, there are only people who hurt and cannot find a path forward that does not make it worse.

 

 

 

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