Intimacy Series: Another Mother or a Lover?

Attraction or Contempt?

One of the worst days of our marriage, for both Sheri and me, was July 14, 2021. Since we are a couple who experienced my active alcoholism for 25 years, you might be surprised to learn I was four-and-a-half years sober on that traumatic day. Even without alcohol, Sheri and I make occasional trips back into the pit of hell with emotional relationship relapses.


Relationship relapses often spin out of control as both partners revert to deflection, manipulation, overreaction and self-protection – all skills learned during active addiction. But before we pull out the old tools of dysfunction, there has to be a spark. An impetus. A new or refreshed wound around which the spiraling decline can revolve.


On July 14, 2021, I was hurt because Sheri no longer found me attractive.


Because I don’t have a filter, and Sheri has learned to acquiesce for the greater good, we recorded a podcast episode about it: “Ep99 – Seven Fourteen Twenty-One: Relapse.” It is hard for me to listen to now, not because reliving past trauma retraumatizes me, but because of how naive I was about attraction. I am embarrassed.


What traits and attributes do people find attractive in a potential partner? The endless list certainly includes a pleasing physical appearance, intelligence, a good sense of humor, and kindness. The list changes as we mature, and as our life experiences shape our expectations for companionship. What we want and need in a partner grows and develops.


I still find my wife to be completely beautiful from the hair on her head to the tips of her toes. I could get crass about my favorite physical attributes, but I don’t think it will advance my message, nor will it be well received. Sheri knows my favorites of her parts, and I’m confident she wouldn’t appreciate me sharing with you.


It doesn’t surprise me that I still find her physically attractive. What does surprise me is that the thing that first drew me to her when we met in college now takes a back seat to a handful of more important attributes. Certainly Sheri’s dependability tops that list. There are areas of our intertwined life where I know there is a zero percent chance of Sheri ever, ever letting me down. Anything related to nurturing our kids or cats falls into that category, but there are lots of other areas where I know she is unwaveringly on it as well.


And her laugh when she is totally relaxed brings me joy like nothing else ever. She squints her eyes to make room to widen her grin. For a long time – decades really – I didn’t see that laugh. That laugh is only revealed around people she trusts when she is feeling comfortable in vulnerability. She gave me her trust when we started dating. My addiction made her regret that decision. Now the laugh is back – not always, but often enough. That squinty-eyed laugh is the greatest demonstration of trust that I know, and I find it wildly attractive.


Since the beginning of our relationship, Sheri has been attracted to my sense of humor and my intelligence. That is a really hard sentence to type for someone with an ounce of modesty, but it is important to our understanding of attractiveness. It also leads to why we had a meltdown on July 14th three summers ago. Both active alcoholism and early recovery are very serious business with little room for humor. Even when I tried to be funny as a drinker, what an intoxicated person finds funny, and what their partner finds funny, are rarely, if ever, in sync. As for intelligence, it is hard to make the case for smarts when I kept repeating the same preventable, alcohol-induced buffoonery over and over. So Sheri bonded her life to mine for, among other reasons, my intelligence and sense of humor, and as a show of appreciation, I spent many years dismantling any evidence that I was smart or funny.


Then on July 14, 2021, I was dismayed to find that my wife was not physically attracted to me. If you would like an example of someone who was incapable of reading the room he was in, listen to me on that episode. Sheri was struggling to regain a feeling of attraction to me around the characteristics about which she gave a shit, and I was upset that she once had more physical chemistry with someone else. Before we were married. Before we were dating. Before we had ever met.


I was clueless about attraction, about how it changes naturally over time, and about how we can crush it or nurture it by our actions or neglect. What I have come to learn in the years since is that I am not alone in my cluelessness. Not by a longshot. In fact, alcoholics in recovery misunderstanding what their partners might or might not find attractive about them is a universalism.


Two of the most common proactive actions taken by alcoholics in early sobriety are to incorporate exercise into their daily routines, and to choose a healthier nutrition plan. Those are solid moves when they are internally motivated. But when we are trying to get back in shape so our wives will want us again, health plans are destined to failure. Think about this from the perspective of the partner of an alcoholic. When they are trying to find hope in what’s left of their relationship with someone whose drinking caused nervous system dysregulation, resulted in verbal abuse, included wild mood swings, and created an unsafe family environment, do you really think they care what we look like without our shirt on?


When trying to understand attraction, it is important to consider a gender component too – especially among couples with kids. There are biological and hormonal changes that take place in a woman’s body when she has babies. No such reproductively induced changes take place in a man’s body. Think about it this way: I still find Sheri extremely physically attractive, and that is important to me. From a biological and hormonal perspective, I did not get pregnant and have a baby. My gears did not all switch from procreation to nurturing. My mission hasn’t changed. So it should be no surprise that finding physical pleasure in my partner is still high on my list of attractive attributes. But for Sheri, internal changes have taken place. She is no longer trying to get pregnant. Her biological and hormonal mission has shifted to helping our kids thrive. What I look like doesn’t matter much to that mission.


This past January, as we prepared to host our Marrigavolution retreat in the mountains, the POS car our teenage kids share broke down. Sheri and I needed both of our cars for the retreat, and there was no time to have the kid car serviced. We were about to leave our kids stranded in Denver in January. Half-a-dozen YouTube videos later, I was shoulders deep into the engine compartment working on a throttle body – in way, way over my mechanical head. Much to my surprise, I got the vehicle running literally minutes before Sheri and I headed out of town. The kiss Sheri gave me tells the whole story about attraction. She had not kissed me like that in years. No amount of time spent in the gym, or on hair loss reversal, could possibly accomplish what a few hours of bloodying my knuckles in the garage did for our relationship. I tried really hard for the safety of our kids, and that was wildly attractive to Sheri.


The way we show up in our relationship has a lot to do with attraction. Alcoholism brings us drinkers to our knees. The emotional pain involved in sobriety is like nothing we’ve ever faced – mostly because we have learned to drink the pain away. So when we find ourselves in early sobriety, with our toxic coping mechanism no longer available, it is very common for us to turn to our partners for support. What an innocuous word: support. It sounds like we need a listening partner or an occasional nudge in the right direction. In the case of alcoholics in early sobriety, what most of us actually ask from our partners is to take on complete responsibility for meeting all of our needs – both spoken and anticipated. And when our partners, who themselves are recovering from years of emotional abuse and trauma, fall short of providing constant external validation, we tell them it is their fault that the relationship is struggling because they suck as partners.


Can you imagine the nerve? I can, because I did it myself. I demanded more and more and more from Sheri in the way of support. More accolades. More listening to me explain my pain. More sex. More room to ignore my family responsibilities because I was in recovery trying to do the most impossibly hard thing. No amount of support would ever be enough.


Esther Perel, Belgian-American psychotherapist, and one of my relationship and intimacy heroes, explains that a woman cannot be someone’s mother and lover at the same time. “Caretaking is mightily loving,” she says, but quickly adds, “It’s a powerful anti-aphrodisiac.” So when we alcoholics in recovery tell our partners that we need their support and we can’t possibly stay sober without their help, we need to understand that we are crushing any lingering attraction they have for us. What we need more than their support is to find resources and community to own our own recovery. It is up to us. Making it up to them simply isn’t sexy.


Esther Perel goes on to explain that one of the most attractive things we can do is to do our thing in our own element. If you are good at gardening, garden. If you like to play the piano, share your talent. If you have charisma in working a room, let your partner see you move effortlessly through a crowd. If you know how to replace a throttle body on a 2013 Jeep Patriot, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Asking your partner to also be your mother is not attractive. Being the confident person your partner chose to partner with, on the other hand, leaves a warm impression.


Listening with empathy instead of solutions is another underrated and attractive attribute. For many years, Sheri complained about struggles she had with our kids. “You give them too many choices,” I would say. “Don’t ask them what they want to do, tell them what you want them to do.” I shared my infallible wisdom with the arrogance and oblivion of an alcoholic, of course. What Sheri wanted was some compassion and acknowledgement that parenting is hard. She didn’t want me to tell her she was doing it wrong, and insist that she employ the child-rearing tactics of her alcoholic husband. Listening is a lost art. It can be very sexy when found.


Attraction is a funny business. It is often counterintuitive, especially when we take our cues from classic Disney movies or the Hallmark Channel. But once we get it, it is hard to believe all the unattractive moves we used to make.


One rock-solid way to make sure our actions are attractive to our partners is to ask. Don’t guess. Have the conversation. Maybe your partner doesn’t think a slap on the butt as you walk through the kitchen is quite as sexy as you do. There is only one way to find out for sure.


Next up in the Intimacy Series is the critical topic of enthusiastic consent. Maybe you have been married for a long time, and you think consent is implied. If so, the next message is for you.


We’ve covered that no one is sexually broken, desire discrepancy, and now attraction. Stay with us as we continue to put together the pieces of the puzzle of intimacy and trust. It is hard work, but as anyone who has received a working throttle body kiss can tell you, it is worth it.


If you and your partner are ready to discover what post-alcoholism attraction can look like, we hope you’ll join us in the Marriagevolution.


My Victim, My Wife
February 28, 2018
The Clear and Manageable Timetable for Relationship Recovery
January 18, 2023
The Cost of a Perfect Wedding
April 21, 2021
  • Reply
    Anne K
    May 22, 2024 at 6:19 am

    Another raw and vulnerable offering. Tx Matt

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      May 22, 2024 at 8:25 am

      Thank you, Anne!

  • Reply
    Kirsten Wasson
    May 22, 2024 at 9:09 am

    Loved this. Not easy to write about. I’ve been mothering men most of my life, and didn’t realize it until I was 55!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      May 23, 2024 at 7:44 am

      You make an important point, Kristen. This is not just a realization for the receivers, but there is a message here for those who have strong nurturing instincts, too. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Reply
    Rich S
    May 22, 2024 at 12:43 pm

    I identify with the shocking and often embarrassing realization of the existence of true and absolute blind spots. For me, it’s like sitting on a peaceful park bench, casually watching the birds and squirrels and suddenly realizing there has been a giant purple gorilla sitting next to me the whole time! WTF? Has that been there the whole time!?

    It is very cool to see the growth. But embarrassing that it took so long.

    You are indeed not alone in your cluelessness! Thank you for all you and Sheri do!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      May 23, 2024 at 7:43 am

      I love the purple gorilla visual, Rich. Thanks for your support!

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