Friday, November 17, 2006

What Do You Think You're Worth?

Something is changing in the way that I view the sexual relationship with my wife.

In closing an October 30 post to this blog, I talked about the possibility that normal marital sadism (NMS) might underlie my wife's lack of sexual desire. The term was coined by Dr. David Schnarch to describe when one expresses hatred of a loved one through tortuous behavior while denying the existence of the hatred. We are all guilty of it to a certain degree.

In the book Passionate Marriage, Schnarch provides some stories to illustrate how the behavior can be passed from one generation to another. A parent tortures a child in a certain way, and that torture becomes part of the child's erotic map later in adulthood. The adult child then tortures his or her own spouse in the bedroom.

The phrase that keeps coming up in his discussions of NMS is wanting to be wanted but not wanting to want. Why the imbalance? If I read his writing correctly, it originates in the hurt that comes from having played the role of masochist. Sadistic treatment is a form of rejection. If you're getting treated badly, you get the feeling that your partner may not want you.

Later in life, the masochist may assume the role of sadist as a form of protected healing. He or she gets the desire that was lacking earlier in life, the catharsis for past abuse. Wanting implies some form of dependency upon the desired. Refusing to reciprocate, i.e. not wanting to want, helps the masochist turned sadist avoid vulnerability.

In looking back over the course of our relationship, I can see this dynamic at work, even up to our most recent sexual encounter almost a week ago. Intercourse is emotionally disengaged because she tries to tune me out. On many occasions, she has resisted foreplay. When she is receptive to foreplay, it is geared toward her. If I express a desire to be pleasured, she avoids by saying that she's falling out of the mood. Sometimes she will promise sex at a future time, only to somehow forget about it later or find an excuse to back out on her commitment.

As I mentioned in that earlier post, this is not something I can confront her directly. When I have tried to confront her in the past, she has used the tactics that some of the sadists used in Schnarch's book. They put the blame on the other spouse, saying that a bunch of other things need to be addressed before they can be sexual, or they break down in tears, inducing guilt in the other spouse for having been so mean. Schnarch says that this won't ever work because a mobilized high desire partner decreases the low desire partner's desire to change.

The change has to begin from within. In his own sessions, Schnarch often helps the high desire partner self-confront with the following question:
Why are you willing and eager to have sex with someone who doesn't want to have sex with you?
In the book No More Mr. Nice Guy, Dr. Robert Glover confronts the reader with a similar question:
Why are you settling for bad sex?
I have meditated on that question a lot the past couple of weeks, and it is clear to me now why this question is so important. It comes down to poor differentiation.

Sex plays a powerful role in deriving my sense of self worth. My adolescence and early adulthood was a large series of rejections by the opposite sex. By the time I reached graduate school age, I was so desperate for female validation that I called phone sex services. It gave me a short-lived form of validation without the fear of rejection.

I took my wife's rejections personally, thinking it was a reflection of my lack of attractiveness, or perhaps my inability to arouse her. After all, she was the only one who had chosen to be sexual with me. If I didn't do it for her, then certainly I must be unworthy.

Like Peter in Chapter 11 of Passionate Marriage, I was faced with a two choice dilemma. Stay in a nonsexual marriage or lose the marriage. I am running up against two patterns: a childhood fear of abandonment and an early adulthood fear of inadequacy.

Also like Peter, my dilemma comes down to the big question: "What do you think you're worth?" The emphasis on "you" is mine, and it contains the kernel of my developmental task. For too long, my fears have driven me to surrender my self appraisal over to others, many of whom probably didn't want that power anyway. I need to self soothe and reclaim that power.

For too long, I have sat there like a dog, waiting for a sexual scrap to fall from the table. I can count on one hand the number of times I have turned down sex from my wife. Accepting what little she offers, mostly mercy fucks, only reinforced the notion that I had no respect for myself.

On Monday morning this week, sensing that I was unhappy because she had not followed through on a promise to have sex on Sunday night, my wife asked me what was bothering me. I took a deep breath, gathered my thoughts, and said this to her in a slow, non-accusatory voice:
When I ask you to pleasure me and then you say you are falling out of the mood, I feel as if you want me to want you, but you do not want to want me in return.
She tried to turn the tables on me both with shame and guilt.

First she asked me whether I had masturbated in the middle of the night. I admitted that I did because I woke up aroused. I also knew that she would be a grouch if I woke her up. I was unshaken by this.

So she then started to get weepy, saying that I sounded as if the sex we had Saturday night didn't mean anything at all. She said that she doesn't know why, but she gets uncomfortable when it comes to touching me sexually. Later on, as I reflected on this, it didn't seem credible because when she wanted to shift the focus back on herself, her voice expressed boredom, not anxiety.

I then told her this in the same measured tone:
This is my problem, not yours. I need to ask myself why I want so badly to have sex with someone who does not want to have sex with me. I will not pressure you to have sex that you do not want to have.
Ever since then, I have felt my burden lighten some. The dilemma remains, but I feel that I am developing the courage to hold onto myself. She is free to make her choice. I will no longer operate from the standpoint that our wedding vows bind us to some sort of sexual obligation. If she doesn't want to have sex with me, so be it. If I truly still want to have sex, then I may have to face the possibility that this marriage is nearing its end.

Schnarch says that crucibles are interlocking. When one spouse goes out of the comfort cycle into the growth cycle, the other must also, or terminate the relationship. He also notes in Chapter 13:
Poorly differentiated couples seem to need to play "chicken" with each other, where the possibility of divorce is high. In fact, testing the waters of divorce seems to bring them to their senses -- if the don't become totally reptilian and bolt from the marriage.
It may seem like a high stakes gamble, but sometimes you have to lay it all on the line to push forward growth.
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