My wife loves her cats more than she loves me.
That’s not intended as an attention-grabbing joke. It’s the absolute truth, and I’m OK with it.
One of our cats only has one eye, and is not particularly adept at cleaning himself, and he is her all-time favorite of the dozen-or-so cats she has had in her life. I am sure I’ve disappointed her by not knowing the precise number of fur babies she has nurtured during the past five decades, but that’s not the point. The point is that I rank behind a cyclops with matted fur, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I spend time with the ocean.
When I visit her, we have conversations about life. I throw all of the pain and grief that has accumulated into the waves, and I talk to the people I’ve lost. We catch up, and I leave feeling cleansed and healed and whole.
I spent time with the ocean.
I traveled back in time in my thoughts as I walked along the water’s edge, back to when my struggles really began, to a fragile adolescence with big feelings and no skills to surf the waves.
As an active alcoholic, the only connection I could imagine between orgasm and addiction was that I sure liked to have sex when I was drunk. Even years into sobriety, when I thought back to the relationship between my drinking and sex, my sloppy, handsy, unromantic and insistent predatory behavior brought a wave of shame crashing over me.
And now – even as I’ve studied the issue from a scientific perspective – even as I make a pitch here based on what I’ve learned – I still feel compelled to defend myself. The compulsion for self defense can only come from one place. It comes from an indelible mark of shame stamped permanently on my soul. All of my sexual attention was always directed only at my wife, and I never raped my wife. I was often disgusting. I was verbally and emotionally abusive. But I defend myself by insisting that I did nothing worse, as if my transgressions are not far more than enough.
My mom’s alcoholism instilled in me a core belief that I was different, inadequate, and deeply flawed. I developed a belief that there was something wrong with my family, and there was something wrong with me. My parents were divorced. We didn’t have a lot of money. My mom was an alcoholic, and no one explained to me what that meant, or how she struggled with an illness.
Instead, it was normalized to smell whisky and see an adult passed out or wobbling around or urinating on the carpet in a half-asleep, half-drunk stumble. I didn’t understand, but I knew that this was my life. I didn’t know that my fight or flight system was in high gear, probably most nights. I developed a subconscious defense mechanism crafted from perfectionism and high achievement.
Sobriety sucks. Now that I don’t drink, I’ve been stripped of my alcohol-induced intelligence and infallibility. I used to be right all the time. That’s why I talked so loud and repeated myself so often. I had a lot to say, and I was proud to bestow on everyone within earshot my slobbery wit and careless observations. They talk about the health benefits of moderate drinking like poise, attraction, decision making and better-smelling breath. I’d like to add another one. Alcohol made me smart. I was always right. Now I’m wrong a lot.
My mom likes to tell the story at family gatherings and other social occasions. “When I approached Matt and told him it was time for us to have, ‘the talk,’ he replied, ‘Sure mom. What do you want to know?’”
It is a chuckle-worthy story that illustrates two things – one accurately and one inaccurately. As a teenager, and into my 20s, my sexual confidence often bordered on arrogance. But it also might lead one of my mom’s guests to believe we had open and honest communication about sex and sexuality. She tried, and so did my dad. But they both viewed “the sex talk” as something to check off of a list. We did not engage in the kind of honest vulnerability that might have led to a healthy education about sex and intimacy for me as an adolescent. I don’t blame them, really. I have yet to meet anyone from their generation who could talk about sex as openly as is required to lead youths to a healthy adult outcome. My generation isn’t doing much better.
I’m a hunter. I’m married to a gatherer. And it’s really fucking hard.
Does this stupid analogy really explain why we find marriage to be so difficult? Do you also want to hear my regurgitated insight about the mixing of oil and water, the distance between Mars and Venus, and the oh-so-soothing conventional relationship wisdom about how opposites attract? Is it really so simple? I have been accused of oversimplifying before. Usually by my wife after I have hunted down a solution while she is still gathering information on the topic.
She was good. Really good. Like most high school stars who are awarded full-ride athletic scholarships to division one universities, Amber was used to being the best ball player on the diamond. Her freshman year at Baylor University in 2000 would be her first experience having to work hard to keep up. How did she respond? She drank.
“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 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.