Monday, July 09, 2007

My Statement of Critical Mass

Here is the text of my remarks for today's joint counseling session...

Relationships thrive on healthy giving and taking. Over the course of a marriage, a couple will encounter areas of disagreement. It is an inevitable result of our uniqueness as individuals.

When it comes to thoughts and feelings, it is possible to agree to disagree respectfully. When it comes to shared behaviors, it's hard to have it both ways. Some therapists refer to really difficult disagreements as two choice dilemmas.

The use of the word two emphasizes that the choices are mutually exclusive. The word dilemma calls attention to the difficulty in making a choice. Usually each alternative entails some form of anxiety.

Conventional marital therapy attempts to shy away from two choice dilemmas because they can give rise to intense disputes. However, the cost of dodging them can weigh heavily on a relationship. Within the confines of marriage, spouses will frequently do things to torture each other while feigning ignorance.

The therapy I have undergone for the past eight months takes a different viewpoint. Two choice dilemmas can actually be used to help the partners become more mature. Facing anxiety, rather than avoiding it, forces one to self confront and identify what's truly non-negotiable. Greater authenticity entails risk, because it can destroy just as well as it can renew a relationship, but it becomes tolerable when one realizes that preserving a relationship at the expense of personal integrity is corrosive to both parties.

I have been working my way through two of these two choice dilemmas. The first dilemma could be stated as:

  1. Remain married to someone whom I believe is minimally sexual or just doesn't desire me.

  2. Seek a divorce and start out all over again financially.

The second dilemma is:

  1. Continue to seek employment locally, in a comparatively weak software development job market, possibly endangering my professional career.

  2. Relocate to someplace both unfamiliar and more expensive, where there is a more lively job market and better career opportunities.

A little over a month ago, my wife linked these two dilemmas by saying that neither she nor the girls would relocate with me if I were to take the second choice of my second dilemma. In other words, choice two of the second probably would force me to take choice two of the first as well.

The primary reason she gave for not wanting me to take choice two of dilemma two is that she did not want to give up her circle of friends, from whom she derives much emotional support. During our conversation on June 30, I noted that her apparent willingness to place more faith in her friends than in me suggested that she didn't have much confidence in the strength of the marriage itself.

The natural response for most of us is to avoid making a choice. We trick ourselves into believing that the absence of an anxiety free choice is really no choice at all. We might defer the choice, with the hope that a better choice will emerge with time. Because the alternatives have an impact on the spouse, we sometimes resort to tactics that try to make our partner give up a choice altogether.

This can bring out an unpleasant side of ourselves. the part that resorts to covert actions to inflict discomfort or pain upon the other. We're all guilty of it. It can surface in many forms:

  • procrastination or forgetfulness

  • manipulation of the partner's reflected sense of self (“If you were good enough, I would do...”)

  • sexual withholding in frequency and involvement (mercy sex)

Sometimes we justify this behavior in our mind by saying, “It's happening to me, too.”

At the end of our second joint counseling session, I set out four conditions that I needed from her to continue working on this marriage. Two of them addressed the two choice dilemmas that she faced in conjunction with mine.

  • Start working seriously to address her issues with touch and sexual desire.

  • Start putting our marriage ahead of friendss. I viewed her refusal to relocate as an indication that she values her friendships over her marriage to me, my career, and our financial security.

The other two:

  • Stop blaming my unhappiness on depression and telling me that I need medication.

  • Stop using guilt and intrusive tactics to induce shame over my sexual behavior.

Addressed ways that I believed my wife tried to keep me from making a self-validating choice in dilemma one. They were her forms of inflicting pain on me.

One of the things that keeps me stuck in ambivalence is the question of whether my wife is serious about addressing her lack of sexual desire. She claims that she is.

My past experiences make me feel as if she would just rather me be a nonsexual being. The recently renewed emphasis on past compulsive sexual behavior and the intrusive monitoring of my habits reinforce this.

I have asked her which she would prefer:

  1. An increase her enjoyment and desire for sex.

  2. A reduction in my sexual desire so it's no longer an issue.

She has answered by saying she wants the first choice, adding that she wishes there was a pill that she could take to make her want sex more. No such miracle remedy exists. Even erectile dysfunction drugs can't do this in men. They only help with the physical aspects. Desire is something deeply ingrained in the mind. Her gynecologist suggested drinking a glass of wine before hand, but that really isn't a solution. It's just a way of temporarily anesthetizing the anxiety.

As time has passed I have come to the conclusion that while my wife's words say “Yes, I am serious about this.” Her actions suggest that she is not.

  • Last summer, when I said that I wanted her to seek out therapy, she did so only begrudgingly. She went to a few sessions, said that she wasn't getting much out of them, and then quietly stopped going. She resumed going at the suggestion of my therapist after we had a fight about me declining mercy sex.

  • Last fall, she started reading Michelle Weiner-Davis' book The Sex Starved Marriage, saying that it seemed like it was easier to read than most self-help books. She eventually stopped reading the book, leaving it marked a few pages shy of the section where it talks about ways to improve things. She was willing to concede a problem, but not really motivated to explore solutions.

  • Last winter, I offered to share with her some things I had been reading that I found useful in my own therapy work. I thought it might help her understand some of the changes in viewpoint that I was experiencing. She never read the material. Within the past couple months, when I tried talking about some of the material, she said that she wanted to throw away the book because I was treating it like some sort of Bible.

  • In our discussions of joint counseling, she hasn't been very toward with her own thoughts. I feel as if the only way to get her to make disclosures is to ask her questions, and I don't like that because that makes me feel as if I am interrogating her.

The conclusion I draw from these actions is that she is willing to do token gestures to buy time, but she promptly stops doing them when the anxiety level goes down.

During a discussion this weekend, (my wife) told me that (wife's therapist) had suggested that we abstain from sex for now. I'm not exactly sure of the motivation behind this, but if this is for an indefinite timeframe, I don't think that it will accomplish what (wife's therapist) thinks it will. Putting sex on ice removes (my wife)'s two choice dilemma from the situation, and she has no motivation to address her anxieties.

(My wife) also said that (wife's therapist) wondered if my use of phone sex and porn may have warped my expectations. I believe that several years of therapy and 12-step group work actually went to the other extreme, because I started looking at all my sexual thoughts and behaviors through a lens of suspicion. Indeed, Carnes' writings encourage the recovering addict to assume a guilty-until-proven-innocent posture.

If the consumption of media can warp expectations, then it might be worth taking a look at more recent and sustained behaviors my wife has engaged in.

  • She spends several hours a day each day watching television programs that feature women with unrealistically thin bodies and sexually charged themes. This includes soap operas and reality shows. Indeed, her daily consumption of this content far exceeds whatever behaviors I might have engaged in over a decade ago.

  • She associates with a circle of friends who openly express contempt toward their husband's sexual desires. They also ridicule their husbands reactions to sexual rejection, even in the presence of the husbands themselves.

If I had to guess, (wife's therapist)'s therapy sessions with (my wife) don't ever touch on things like this because they are too focused on (my wife) as a victim. True self confrontation looks at both sides of the sadomasochistic coin, acknowledging that we are perpetrators of hurtful behaviors to ourselves as well as others.

I also think it is unfair to characterize my expectations as unrealistic. I have been very patient through all of this. I believe that most men, given my circumstances, would have either walked out by now or dodged the dilemma through self destructive behavior.

To put it bluntly, unless there has been some severe degradation in physical health or personal hygiene, it isn't too much of a stretch to think that a woman would be comfortable with touching her husband's penis after 11 years of marriage. Moreover, it's not too unreasonable to expect a woman to be willing to learn how to pleasure her husband, especially if he has been eager to do the same for several years.

Returning to the question of whether (my wife) is serious about this. I want to believe that she is, but my experiences in both the past and present make me believe otherwise. If I give my wife the benefit of the doubt in this situation, I believe that I am lying to myself and sacrificing my integrity.

(my wife)'s sexuality is hers. I won't use our wedding vows as some moral bludgeon that force her do something that compromises her own integrity. I would have liked her to be more up front with me, even if it exposed her to the vulnerability that I might not want to stay in the marriage. Tolerance of that kind of critical vulnerability is what makes real intimacy possible. Instead, she has taken on a defensive and reactive posture.

In closing, I would like to make the following disclosures.

  • I'm at point where tactics and posturing won't work anymore.

  • I realize that I am mortal, and that life is too short to be stuck in a state of indecision. That just prolongs misery.

  • Sometimes you don't get the luxury of complete information to make a critical decision. You have to take a leap of faith and trust yourself.

  • Despite my flaws, I believe that I am a lovable person. I am patient, hard working, caring, and thoughtful, and obedient. I am a good father.

  • I don't deserve to be in a relationship where affection is withheld for an ever changing set of disqualifying circumstances.

  • I am not the same person who entered into this relationship 15 years ago. Back then, I was someone who desperately wanted to belong to someone. As we know from my history with phone sex, I was willing to deceive to hold onto that relationship. I was willing to cave in, too, even if it led to resentment. I have grown since then.

  • I would rather be alone than be in a relationship where I violate my integrity.

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