“If you would have more sex with me, I wouldn’t have to drink so much.” Ah, the twisted phrase uttered out of intoxicated desperation in marital bedrooms around the world. And every one of the millions (maybe billions) of women who have received that accusatory plea have the same two simultaneous thoughts:
How dare he try to put his drinking problem on me. It is my body and my choice, and frankly, sex is the last thing I want with this man who has grown increasingly unattractive to me over the years and decades of his abusive drinking.
Maybe he’s right.
We alcoholics lie and gaslight for two reasons. The first is that alcohol reduces our capacity for considering the feelings of the people around us. We drink ourselves into the mentality and maturity of a two-year-old. We become selfish. If we can think of something to say that will help us get our way, we will say it. We don’t consider long-term ramifications or lingering emotional damage. We go for it to get what we want. The second reason we lie and gaslight is because we are trying to convince ourselves that alcohol is not the problem. If we admit the truth about our drinking, we will have to at least consider sobriety. In active addiction, sobriety is such a horrifying and outlandish thought that even allowing it entry into our minds must be prevented at all costs. So, blaming you for not having enough sex lets the alcohol off the hook.
(The popular misconception about why we alcoholics lie and gaslight is that we are evil people. That one is false. I know a lot of alcoholics, and with very limited exceptions, we are all loving, generous people who either think we are honest, or are actively trying to achieve consistent honesty. We are selfish, and we are masters at compartmentalization. But we aren’t evil.)
So when the spouse of an alcoholic hears, “If you would have more sex with me, I wouldn’t have to drink so much,” there is no truth to that purely self-serving manipulation. But if you’ve heard those words, or some similar variation, just try getting the blame completely out of your mind. The spouses of alcoholics spend a lot of time grasping at anything that could reduce the alcoholic consumption of their partners. Sex is a sacrifice that many will make. And those who won’t often carry the guilt of not doing the thing that might cut down on the drinking. If you are new to this diabolical conundrum – spoiler alert – having more sex won’t reduce the drinking. Alcoholism is a progressive disease, and sex doesn’t slow the progress. That’s just not how it works. Not even when we beg.
You might be thinking, so why the hell is this article titled, “Intimacy is the Solution?” This guy just spent the first six paragraphs explaining that sex won’t solve alcoholism. Is he going to make an argument for the subtle difference between sex and intimacy? Is he going to suggest that if it starts with a backrub and a flickering candle everything will be different, and both of us will enjoy the sloppy, drunken, naked fumbling?
No. That’s not where I’m going.
Because there’s nothing subtle about the difference between sex and intimacy. Suggesting that intimacy is a candle and a backrub is the equivalent of suggesting self-care is a bubble bath. It is a laughable simplification and dismissal of a complex and critical issue. It is so complex that it’s really hard to explain. In fact, this is my first time trying. I haven’t shared these discoveries and stories before because, until recently, I didn’t understand them myself. But now, as alcohol is a disappearing spec in my rearview mirror, and I keep listening and learning and asking questions, the solution is coming into clearer focus. And the solution is intimacy.
Last weekend, I could feel my wife getting defensive. I walked into the kitchen and asked her if she knew why one of my old golf shoes was in the middle of the storage room in our basement. I haven’t played golf in at least six or seven years, and I honestly don’t even know which corner of the clutter the shoes live in. She said she didn’t know anything about it, but then followed me downstairs to further defend herself as I stared at the lonely, misplaced shoe. We have three teenage boys and two curious cats living with us at home. None of those five mammals are known for their skills at cleaning up after themselves, so I was neither surprised nor concerned about the appearance of a discarded relic in the middle of the floor. I was concerned, however, that Sheri came down to defend herself against being accused of moving the shoe. If we were in a good place – if Sheri was not feeling uncomfortable with me – she would have denied culpability with a simple, “no,” and she would have continued doing her thing without a second thought. Something was wrong, and it had nothing to do with the shoe.
When I was a drinker, two things would have happened differently. First, I would not have noticed Sheri’s defensiveness. Defenses were necessarily high around alcoholic Matt, so it would not have raised my antenna. My intoxicated antenna got horrible reception anyway. Second, I would have been mad about the misplaced shoe. Even if I never play golf again for the rest of my life (which seems likely at this point), there would have been hell to pay for moving my worn-out, unfashionable zapato from its final resting place.
Tension. The shoe was moved, and Sheri was defending her innocence.
Next, Sheri mentioned a phone call she had with our daughter about booking her flight home from college at the end of the semester in May. “I’m on it,” I said very dismissively, returning my attention to anything other than the conversation with my wife. I had committed to getting the date of departure straight with our nineteen-year-old, and making the travel arrangements. My dismissiveness was not well received. If we were good – if our relationship was strong at that moment – Sheri might have muttered something under her breath about my lack of interest in her side of the story, and the weekend would have moved forward without disruption. But we weren’t good. And my dismissiveness made it worse. Sheri called me on it.
She was right. I should have taken an interest in the communication she had with our daughter, and the Southwest fight she found for under $100. That was productive and helpful information, and I blew it off. And because the connection between us was weaker than is optimal, my dismissiveness was a thoughtless, painful snub.
These are two really minor issues. A mysteriously moved golf shoe and a disregarded phone conversation are hardly noteworthy. You might be thinking, I’m dealing with debilitating alcoholism and agonizing recovery, and this guy’s telling stories about old shoes and dismissive comments. I’m in the middle of a huge trauma and he’s worried that his bow tie is crooked for the prom picture.
Stay with me, because this is all about pulling a relationship out of alcoholic trauma.
At the end of the weekend, we laid in bed together (no, this is not a plug for makeup sex (which is a terrible idea for a number of reasons, but that’s another topic entirely)). Sheri laid her head on my chest while I wrapped my arms around her and held her close (no, this is not the introduction to a romance novel). We talked about her defensiveness. We talked about my dismissiveness. We took tiny little resentments, and removed them from the spot where they had wedged themselves between us.
That’s what intimacy is. That’s the solution.
Here’s why intimacy and alcohol can’t coexist. Here’s why what we did in bed to end the weekend isn’t just subtly different from sex. Here’s why it’s not candles and backrubs.
If I had been drinking, Sheri would not have been comfortable in my arms. Drinking alcohol builds walls. The walls are there for protection. Without the walls of defensiveness, there is no safety.
If I had been newly sober, I would have been licking my wounds and drowning in shame. I would have been begging for physical contact with Sheri, but not out of mutual respect and understanding. I would have been pleading for physical connection as reassurance that I wasn’t the worst human on earth. There’s no intimacy in pathetic wallowing.
We’ve said it a million times, and our understanding of the power of intimacy just corroborates the evidence: Sobriety fixes nothing, but it is a prerequisite.
Once there’s sobriety, that’s when the work starts. The work has gotten us to the point where Sheri can feel defensive, and I can still be a safe place. That’s a big deal. That gets the train back on the tracks without hours, days or weeks of pain. That’s intimacy.
And it all grows out of a relentless pursuit of communication. Talking and listening (the listening is the important part), a mutual belief that the other person is not evil, vulnerability and a complete lack of manipulation. If I sense my wife’s defensiveness, my reaction is one of curiosity, not anger.
At the heart of it all is a belief that Sheri is my person, and a hope that I am hers. No selfishness. No compartmentalization. No irrationality. Just a prayer that two people working together is better than one.
It isn’t easy. Lighting a candle, warming massage oil or drawing a bubble bath won’t do it. It is hard work and it takes time. Sex is for drunk and horny college kids. Intimacy is graduate-level work. We both have to have the patience and curiosity to work for the bond promised by the romantic idea of marriage.
Intimacy isn’t the prize to be claimed at the end of relationship recovery. Intimacy isn’t the result.
Sobriety is the prerequisite. Intimacy is the solution.
If you’d like to work toward intimacy as a solution in your relationship in recovery from alcoholism, please consider joining us in the Marriagevolution.