There’s nothing more important to a successful marriage than intimacy.
There are things that are equally important, like trust (which is the cornerstone of intimacy) and loyalty and cohesive parenting and mutual protection, but there is nothing more important, if a long-term romantic relationship is to thrive, than intimacy.
These aren’t the ramblings of a horny teenager. I’m not just talking about sex. I’m talking about the emotional connection that takes place at the intersection of vulnerability and sexual contact. It is important. In fact, nothing is more important. And if we are going to solve the catastrophic intimacy problems that are enmeshed in alcoholic relationships, we’d better stop moving intimacy to the back burner and downplaying it as hopeless, and thus, unimportant.
Marriages can survive without intimacy. They can limp along, year after year, in underachieving disappointment building resentment and making us feel unworthy of blissful love. We can stay together for the sake of the kids, or because the mortgage is in both of our names, but what kind of existence is that?
We only get one shot at the human experience. I’ve messed up huge chunks of mine to be sure. But there is no way I’m going to let the mistakes of my past keep me locked into accepting a subpar present and future. And relegating intimacy to the category of unsolvable problems not worth the effort is simply not an option for me. Are you with me?
So, where do we start? The first thing we’ve got to do is stop treating intimacy as an unnecessary luxury only available to those in perfect little Hallmark marriages. Intimacy is messy and hard, but it is available to anyone who is willing to work for it.
The second thing we have to do to restore intimacy in a marriage in alcoholism recovery is to talk about it.
It takes a lot of courage to talk about alcoholism, for the drinker and for the spouse. Often, admitting the truth and asking for help only comes as a last resort when failure is inevitable. But, for those of us who have crossed that threshold, over time, talking about addiction and recovery becomes both cathartic and shame eliminating. It feels good to be honest and vulnerable.
But our vulnerability has natural human limits. And the bedroom door is definitely one such limit.
One of my favorite comedians, Sebastian Maniscalco, talks about etiquette when taking a tour of a friend’s new house. You don’t go into the master bedroom, he explains, even if invited by the homeowner. You barely peak in, kind of averting your eyes to the ceiling as you walk briskly past the doorway. There is more to the explanation that turns it into a funny joke, but you get the message. What happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom, and even once we get comfortable talking about our compulsive drinking and the associated aftermath, we are programmed to avert our eyes to the pain and shame of the destruction of intimacy.
I will avert my eyes no longer! Actually, I’ve been talking and writing about intimacy sporadically for quite a while now, so there’s some misplaced dramatic enthusiasm in that declaration. But I’ve read, I’ve listened, I’ve experienced – I’ve learned more. So I’m ready to go deeper into the dark and taboo places (and no laughing because I said, “go deeper,” in a conversation about sex and intimacy).
When it comes to intimacy and alcoholism, there is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” component.
I have often talked about how my active alcoholism made me unattractive to my wife, as though one day she wanted to touch me, and then suddenly, she was repulsed by me. But of course, that’s not how it worked. There was quite a bit of yin and yang to the slow progression of my disease, and the subsequent reaction of my wife.
When we were in our 20s, and we had the freedom available to a young couple who had not yet started having kids, we went out most weekend nights. And going out always included alcohol. We often came home late, drunk, hungry and horny. With all the class and panache you might expect of a twenty-something drunk guy, I sucked down a burrito as big as my head, then started groping all over my wife. But she wanted something more. She wanted tenderness and gentleness, so sloppy, handsy, aggressive, selfish sex was not exactly a turn on.
As time passed, and this pattern continued, my wife became gradually less interested in sex. Can you blame her? In retrospect, I certainly can’t. I surely would not have wanted me slobbering all over me. It certainly would not have made me feel special or loved or attractive or safe and protected. It would have made me feel like a prostitute wanted for only one thing.
Which explains why my wife often told me I made her feel like a prostitute wanted for only one thing.
I was gross. Point made. But here’s where it gets complicated. My wife began to increasingly display her displeasure with being touched by me. She continued to muscle through our frequent sexual encounters, but with each passing day, week, month and year, she grew less and less attracted to me. And her feelings grew increasingly obvious as she reacted to my touch. Rejection grew increasingly frequent. It might not have been out and out rejection…as in…no sex for Matt, but she could not hide her repulsion for me.
The less loved I felt, the more I sought confirmation that I was, in fact, loved by my wife. As she stoically performed her marital duty (I know that phrase pisses off a lot of people, but that’s the reality of how it felt at the time) with all the loving connection of a department-store mannequin, I felt rejected even as we were still sexually active.
It is possible for rejection to be inherent even in consent.
And rejection is demoralizing. It is ego-shattering. I don’t expect a lot of sympathy for me, the selfish drunk slob. Your empathy is not my point. The point is this:
Sobriety is not the opposite of addiction. Self-esteem is the opposite of addiction. And bad sex with my wife crushed my self-esteem. So what does a drinker do when his self-esteem takes a blow? He drinks, of course. He drinks often, and he drinks in increasing volume.
So we pushed forward with my drinking fueling my wife’s disinterest, while my wife’s disinterest fueled my drinking. It reminds me of my relationship with my own anxiety and depression. As my mental health failed, I increasingly self-medicated with alcohol to sooth my depression and nerves. What I didn’t understand was that the more I drank, the more my depression and anxiety got worse. The cycle was a self-fulfilling prophecy of my alcoholic demise.
The depression and anxiety grew more and more acutely urgent. I had to deal with them, and solve the problem, because not getting out of bed after the weekend until Wednesday was not an option. The problem demanded attention, and I grew rapidly to understand the connection between my drinking and my deteriorating mental health.
Intimacy is more stealthy. We had a chronic problem fueled by alcohol on our hands. The damage alcohol did to our intimate relationship was revealed slowly over years and decades. That’s why diagnosing it was such a diabolical challenge. Sure, it is easy to understand that wife doesn’t want to be touched by drunk and sloppy husband, but the evolving relationship between selfish sex, the subtle rejection of joyless consent, eroding self-esteem, and an increased dosage of over-the-liquor-store-counter medicine leading to more selfish sex…that’s a complexity that took years of sobriety to understand.
It is not as simple as wife is repulsed by gross husband. Wife used to be attracted to the same dude. It took years for the complex relationship to fully destroy the intimate connection.
I want to be really clear about one thing: I do not blame my wife for my alcoholism. I blame a society that treats alcohol as the answer to all the questions, and I blame a culture in which you have to be living in the gutter before acknowledging that alcohol is not working for you. But unequivocally, my alcoholism is not my wife’s fault. If she didn’t want to be intimate with me, there was a problem. A problem, that I now understand, deserved serious time and attention. And trying to drink the problem away was no solution. It never, ever is. The sooner we learn that as a society, the sooner we can roll up our collective sleeves and get to work on the issues we are trying to numb away.
When my wife wanted me to get sober, no matter what she said or did, she couldn’t make me stop drinking. Likewise, nothing she said or did forced me over the invisible line that separates consistent drinking and addiction. It simply was not her fault.
I am five years sober. It has been almost exactly five years, in fact, since I stopped drinking for good. That is five years of trying to figure things out, and slowly getting better as individuals and as a couple. We share here what we are learning about the discovery of recovery, including what we’ve shared here about the destruction of intimacy. On that topic, there is one more thing.
I need intimacy.
I don’t need consistent, loveless sex. I had that, and it hurt so much that I had to drink to make the pain go away. I need to be wanted and needed. I need to be trusted and to feel my wife drop her guard and be vulnerable. I need the emotional connection even more than the physical one. Sobriety has some funny side effects. One of them is an awareness of my own emotions, and an interest in the emotions of the person I love the most.
Sex is unfulfilling, but intimacy makes me feel like I am not alone. It gives me the confidence and connection that builds the self-esteem I need to solidify my sobriety. A lack of intimacy is one the underlying causes of my alcoholism, so it should be no surprise that a return to intimacy completes my recovery.
As long as we treat intimacy as a hopelessly lost accessory that would be nice, but is not needed, for a successful marriage, we are doomed to suffer from dysfunctional relationships. But. But. If we give intimacy the attention and respect it deserves, it can be restored.
To clear the carnage that has piled up at the intersection of vulnerability and physical contact takes a lot of time, and it requires a rebuilding of trust. Sobriety fixes nothing, but it is a prerequisite. So let’s get sober and get to work. Don’t settle for whatever is going on in your bedroom. Don’t remain unsatisfied with loveless sex. Don’t ignore the intimate connection we all deserve.
If you are ready to join us on the path to sobriety and all that lies beyond, please consider joining our SHOUT Sobriety program for high-functioning alcoholics.