“We can.” That’s the response I received for years when I asked my wife, Sheri, if she wanted to have sex. As an active alcoholic, that consent was good enough for me. I didn’t know it, but I was looking to sex for the same dopamine hit I got from alcohol. A reluctant, “We can,” was enough.
When the question is, “Do you want to…?” and the response is, “We can,” that’s never really enough.
I’m not just talking about the psychological damage her consent did to Sheri. “We can,” really messed me up in profound and lasting ways.
I recognize how hard it is to have sympathy for an alcoholic who used his wife’s body like another drug. I’m not looking for your sympathy. I just want people to understand. Addiction is complex, and it is still largely misunderstood leading to devastating consequences. Addiction has long tentacles reaching into all aspects of our lives. Alcoholism isn’t just a drinking problem. It is an intimacy crusher, too.
Consent and enthusiasm are two very different things. My wife’s consent came from five distinct, unenthusiastic places.
She was, well, as I said, my wife. Everyone knows that wives have sex with husbands. In fact, when we were teens, the adults in our lives tried naively to convince us that sex was to be reserved for husbands and wives. Neither of us entered marriage as virgins, so the notion of waiting for our wedding night was wasted breath, but the concepts of loyalty and faithfulness were well understood by both of us. Faithfulness didn’t just mean not having sex outside the marriage, it also implied giving it up for her husband. Which she did – like it or not.
Sheri really did enjoy having sex with me at the beginning. I was young, relatively inexperienced and perpetually horny, so her enjoyment came more from intimate emotional connection than from my physical expertise. We had sex frequently in our early relationship, and it felt good to both of us, in dramatically different ways. We set a precedent for performance that we carried decades into our alcoholic marriage.
As my disease worsened, my pain became more evident to Sheri. The depression and anxiety from which I suffered grew increasingly hard to hide. It took everything I could muster to wear a fake smile in public, and remain upright and functioning for the benefit of the outside world, but Sheri got the truth. By that point in my alcoholism, our intimate connection had been long since destroyed for Sheri. She loathed me and cringed when I touched her. But she continued to consent to singularly beneficial sex because she knew it brought me temporary relief from my demons.
We were broken. I was broken by alcohol, and Sheri was broken by my relentless commitment to the toxic liquid that was trying to destroy us both. We would argue viciously – my irrational, alcohol-fueled accusatory ramblings wearing Sheri down until she questioned her own sanity. Confused, sleep deprived and emotionally battered, we engaged in what is commonly refered to as, “makeup sex.” For me, it was just another desperate attempt at relief. Characters did it in the movies and on TV to patch up disagreements, so I had pop culture on my side. For Sheri, it never made even the slightest sliver of sense. Having sex with the person she had been battling for hours was a baffling concept. But it had a name – “makeup sex” – so she added this confusion to her ever-growing pile of insecurities, and she took off her clothes.
Consent was easier. To keep me quiet, and to prevent me from waking our children, she said, “We can.” To avoid being admonished for being a terrible wife, Sheri said, “We can.” To duck the blame for how much I drank, she reluctantly agreed, “We can.” Because survival seemed more important than connection, because she was tired and I was relentless, because it might bring to an end yet another traumatic alcoholic episode, Sheri muttered, “We can.”
I never raped my wife. Not even close. In many emotional ways, what I did was much worse for both of us.
I got mine, right? I asked, and I got consent. How could I possibly claim that my sexual relationship with my wife did any damage to me? Also, what a despicable prick who should be castrated with a rusty knife, am I right (that’s what I’m thinking as I edit, so I assume that’s what you’re thinking, too)?
I’m not asking for your sympathy. I am interested in your understanding because I know I am not alone. I’m not alone in my tactics, I’m not alone in my pain, and I’m not alone in my decades-long belief that consent was what I needed.
Alcohol’s most lethal weapon is its stealthy patience. The disease progresses slowly, and so does the impact it has on everyone it touches – drinkers and loved ones alike. My wife used to love having sex with me. She used to pull me close and hold me tight. Her eagerness for my touch didn’t turn off like a light switch. It dimmed slowly over time. Like inverse lines on the graph of our years together, the more I drank, the less connected Sheri felt to me.
There was more to the destruction of our intimate relationship than alcohol and time. There was ignorance, too. An ignorance that I believe is nearly universal with humans of my gender. We think a slap on the ass as we walk through the kitchen is romantic and playful. We think a back rub should always lead to sex. We mistakenly think intimacy starts in the bedroom, and not with the way we listen attentively hours, days or weeks before. Our societal lack of understanding of gender differences, and now our cultural reluctance to discuss said differences for fear of being labeled a sexist or canceled by internet trolls and self-proclaimed social justice vigilantes, leaves us ignorant.
So even when I got sober, and I genuinely wanted to make things better, I lacked the tools and knowledge to do anything but make things worse.
Worse for Sheri. But also, worse for me.
You see, I need the same emotional connection Sheri needs. As much as she needs to trust me, I need to be trusted. I tried to fill the emptiness inside me with consensual sex. It just made the hole deeper. It just made me feel worse.
I am a selfish creature. I felt bad because even when I felt confident that my wife loved me, I knew she didn’t like me. I knew she didn’t trust me, and I knew she didn’t want me to touch her. I felt bad about her pain, but mostly, I felt gutted by the rejection.
The rejection that’s inherent in consent. “Do you want to have sex?” “We can.”
Did the rejection that’s inherent in consent cause me to drink more? Did the rejection that’s inherent in consent accelerate my decline into alcoholism? You bet it did. Until I read a recent article published in The Atlantic by one of my favorite authors, Sarah Hepola, I didn’t have the balls to say that for fear they would be removed with a rusty knife by the internet trolls and vigilantes.
There is an unmistakable, yet unspeakable, yin and yang in an alcoholic relationship. The alcohol made my wife not like me, and my wife’s dislike made me drink more. For me, alcoholism was more of a result than it was the root cause of the problems in our marriage. But none of the dysfunction would have had a chance to thrive without the booze. Alcoholism gets a pass, but alcohol doesn’t. It’s hard to get lung cancer without smoking. It’s hard to earn a type two diabetes diagnosis without sugar and processed carbs. And it’s hard to become an alcoholic if we don’t drink alcohol.
But this isn’t about blame. It’s about understanding. Hard earned understanding. Understanding that took years of sobriety for me. Understanding that intimacy is more emotional than physical. And an understanding that the emotional connection is just as important to me as it is to Sheri.
Sex wasn’t what I needed. It never was. When I was hurting in active addiction, and when I was healing in early sobriety, sex only made matters worse. What I needed, and what I continue to need, is for Sheri to need me. I need her to need my touch. That doesn’t come from sobriety, but it is impossible without it.
Sheri’s yearning for my touch came easily before I had hurt her. Now, after years of alcoholism and recovery work, restoring her interest in physical connection is a formidable challenge. Regaining trust is infinitely harder than earning it in the first place. Make no mistake about it – it would be far easier for both of us to start over with different partners than to repair what my alcoholism destroyed.
But easy holds no allure for us. We’ve been through too much to give up now. Even when she didn’t like me, and I behaved as though I didn’t much like her, we always still had love.
And now we have the understanding that consent isn’t enough for either of us. Eagerness is far more important than willingness. That’s the goal – enthusiasm. If she doesn’t want it, neither do I, because getting what I want hurts far worse than waiting until we want it together.
If you want to share our understanding, please consider joining the Marriagevolution – our group for couples working to recover their relationships from alcoholism. Click the button below for more information or to enroll.