Those two words in response to the question, “Oh yeah, what in?” elicit stunned looks and awkward silence with consistency. Depending on who I am talking to, I hesitate to varying degrees to acknowledge that I am finishing up my master’s degree.
People who know my passion for writing about and studying maladaptive coping mechanisms like alcoholism assume psychology. Others who know my wife and I are self-employed assume it’s an MBA. A master’s degree in sexual health drops jaws to the floor. Those who compose themselves always have one or both of the same two follow-up questions. “You’ve got to be the only 50-year-old heterosexual white cisgender male in the program, right?” and, “Why?” The answer to the first question is, “I am meeting a lot of people I would not otherwise encounter, and it’s great to hear different perspectives (that is a long way of saying, ‘yes.’)” The answer to the second question is so simple in my mind, but it’s a bit hard to explain.
The simple reason I am 12 weeks from completing the course work for my master’s in sexual health is because I have learned to value vulnerability, honesty and deep conversations over almost anything else. When it comes to all things related to addiction and recovery, we live in an amazing era where people are eager to discuss their challenges with alcohol openly and with wide and diverse audiences. They will talk with me about almost everything. Everything, that is, except sex. At least for people who are in or were in committed relationships, sex is where the fear overwhelms the benefits of vulnerability. The world is like one big open research project when it comes to maladaptive coping mechanisms like addiction. When it comes to what creates dysfunction in the areas of emotional intimacy, physical intimacy and sexual satisfaction, I needed to go back to school because conversations with people with lived experience are hard to come by. And going back to school has proven to be one of the most enlightening decisions I have ever made.
I realize that only partially explains the, “Why?” The natural follow-up that is rarely asked because of the sharp turn into awkwardness that the conversation takes is, “But why do you need to learn about sex and intimacy to write about alcoholism? What does one thing have to do with the other?” My answer was tentative when I started my graduate education experience. Five semesters of school and a few dozen brave souls willing to talk to me about it later, and my answer is the same, it is just no longer tentative. I needed to learn about the impact of alcohol on intimacy and the impact of dysfunctional intimacy on alcohol consumption because they are inextricably linked, and it is the biggest, most common issue for people in committed partnerships who cross the invisible line into alcohol addiction.
My insecurity, were it given the keys to drive the keyboard, would type, “That is a bold statement. Sex and intimacy is the biggest issue? Aren’t you just super horny looking for excuses for bad behavior?” Maybe you have the same questions my insecurity pesters me about. I hope you’ll keep reading.
Let me be clear now and always. I am not blaming my alcoholism on my wife. I am not giving anyone else permission to make the case that because their intimate relationship lacked, alcoholism was their inevitable destiny. This is not about shifting blame. In fact, this is not about blame at all. This is about education and understanding. And if we keep refusing to communicate about it, both privately in the sanctity of our own relationships, and publicly in the places where vulnerability is thriving, we are refusing to address the perpetuation of the epidemic of alcoholism. The Big Book was written 100 years ago. The solution to alcoholism isn’t to build more church basements. We have to be willing to have new and different conversations.
We have to be willing to talk about sex.
And the foundational belief on which we have to build that conversation might surprise you. In the world of addiction where everything is about bad choices, bad behaviors, bad reactions, chaos and trauma, the foundational belief that will allow us to move toward a solution to the negative impact of intimacy on committed alcoholic relationships is to acknowledge that no one is broken. In fact, we must be willing to go further than that. We have to do more than acknowledge it. We have to believe it. We have to believe that the needs, desires, wants, safety, and trust that have been strangled out of most alcoholic relationships are not gone because one or both of the partners are broken. We are both hurt, scared and traumatized humans with the potential to thrive, and thriving in our sexuality is a flashlight in what might feel like crippling darkness.
I am not going to suggest that you need to have more sex. I am not now, nor will I ever, advise anyone who has lost interest in sex with their partner to give it up for the benefit of individual or relationship recovery. In fact, I think that is terrible advice with disastrous consequences. I am a huge proponent of not just consent, but of enthusiastic consent. Stick with me. I will explain.
My relationship with my wife, Sheri, started when we were both in our early 20s in college. There was a seemingly endless supply of both alcohol and sex for the first few years we were together. There were also alcohol-induced arguments, alcohol-induced bad decisions and alcohol-induced selfishness and jealousy. Each time drinking ended in conflict, it had an impact on both of us. For me, I would feel shame and guilt, apologize for my transgressions, and compartmentalize the whole incident in an effort to move on and leave the past behind. Sheri, on the other hand, couldn’t compartmentalize my bad behavior. Her experience was cumulative, with each incident adding onto the previous ones. For Sheri, I became less attractive, and it had nothing to do with physical appearance. As time moved on and we moved closer in tangible ways (moving in together, getting engaged, getting married, having children), she grew less attracted to me in the more important intangible ways. My mood swings made me unsafe. My unpredictability destroyed her trust in me.
What do you think happens to a person’s desire to be intimate with someone when that someone becomes unsafe and untrustworthy?
From my perspective, Sheri was the one who changed. I drank a lot when we met, and I drank a lot as we built our life together. She drank less as the years passed, and that was her decision. I didn’t like it, but I knew I couldn’t control it. The part I didn’t understand was the waning of her sexual interest in me. It wasn’t that we stopped having sex (although that is a common alternative course that a lot of alcoholic relationships take), it was that she stopped getting excited about it. My enthusiasm was met with her reluctance. The changes were gradual, and I didn’t have the words to describe it, but sex became emotionally painful for us both.
When it is not enthusiastic, there is rejection inherent in consent.
I felt rejected. Sheri felt unsafe. Our emotional intimacy was caught in a slow death spiral that we didn’t understand and were incapable of communicating about to each other.
The lasting damage came from our naive impressions of each other. This is important. This is the universal misunderstanding. Sheri thought I was selfish and horny and only appreciated her for the sex to which she reluctantly consented. I thought Sheri was selfish and bitchy and withheld emotional intimacy as a punishment.
We were both so wrong. We were both in so much pain.
There are a bunch of things at play here. Let’s start with the emotion we had in common. We both thought our partner was selfish, or at least not trying hard enough. As it relates to sex and intimacy, the selfishness is tied to misaligned libidos. If there is one thing I’ve learned in five semesters in grad school, it is that you are more likely to get stung by a bee in Minnesota in January than to mate with someone with the same libido as you. We are all sex-drive snowflakes. The stereotype is that guys are hornier than women, and for really interesting evolutionary reasons (that I’ll save for another day), that is often true. But not always. No universalism here. There are lots of relationships where the woman has a more intense libido than the man. And the desire discrepancy can go either direction in gender and orientation diverse relationships, too. The sooner you accept that we all have levels of sexual desire that are both unique and beautiful, the sooner you’ll put batteries in that flashlight.
Here is the foundational belief on which intimacy recovery can be built: No one is broken. I was not selfish, horny, gross, pigish or only interested in Sheri for sex. And Sheri was not selfish, unloving, cold, mean, uncaring, or broken because of her father’s alcoholism and some bad sexual encounters as a teen and young adult. She was traumatized and I was lonely.
We were both in pain. And pain isn’t very sexy.
This foundational belief is so important that I am going to end here for now. This is the introductory post in a series about emotional intimacy, physical intimacy and sexual satisfaction that will go into detail on topics like desire, attraction, enthusiastic consent, arousal, orgasm and (drumroll please) TRUST. That’s where we are going with all of this. Even people reluctant to talk about sex in their alcoholic relationships will acknowledge that the trust is gone and elusive to recover. That is a universalism. Rest assured, all of this uncomfortable sex talk is all about trust.
For now, I ask only two things. First, please trust me that I will never suggest that you need to give your partner sex that you don’t want as part of finding your way back to intimacy or trust. Never. Don’t let anyone else tell you that, either. It will cause more damage in your fragile relationship. Second, please spend some time considering the foundational belief on which your relationship recovery can be built. Please talk about it with your partner. Don’t just send them a link to this post (although that is a great start). Talk about it. Don’t text about it. Don’t mysteriously soften your attitude and show unexplained empathy. Use your words. Communication is essential for intimacy recovery. There is no better way to start finding the strength to talk in a loving, caring way about such a taboo topic than to open a conversation about your belief that your partner is a normal, unbroken, unselfish sexual being in pain.
And as for your relationship with me, now maybe you understand why I keep coming back to the topic of intimacy. Maybe you can stop dismissing sex as a casualty of war never to be addressed until the relationship is better. Now maybe you can understand that intimacy is woven into the solution, and is not just collateral damage. Maybe this post has changed your opinion of me as some horny selfish drunk. Or maybe you think I’m full of shit. If so, let me know. I’ll send you a link to a great grad school application (my insecurity typed those last three sentences).
I’m not asking for much. Please just consider believing that neither you nor your partner are broken.
Come on…turn on that flashlight.
If you are ready to explore that foundational belief and work on your relationship in recovery, please consider joining us in the Marriagevolution.