Between sex education class in school, and, “the talk,” with our parents, we were thrust eagerly into our teenage years prepared to defend ourselves against pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. When we graduated without contracting AIDs or becoming parents, there was a collective sigh of relief.
But the truth is, like every other kid I knew, we were woefully unprepared for a sexual relationship in adulthood. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.
Now we know, but the damage is done. We are left in midlife – parents of teenagers ourselves – trying to pick up the pieces and heal our wounded hearts.
I asked my best friend, DJ, for advice the night after the first time I kissed my future wife, Sheri. DJ and I had worked a bartending shift together. While we waited for the manager to count and distribute the pooled tips for the night, I was consumed by memories of the previous evening. Sheri and I had been co-workers and friends for a few months, but something changed at that party. I can’t explain it – partly because it happened so fast, and partly because Sheri and I both had a lot to drink. For me, that unexpected kiss changed everything. I don’t know if I was in love as I sat in a booth in the back of the bar begging DJ to tell me what to do next, but the spark between Sheri and I was unlike anything I had experienced in my 21 years. I would do anything to keep that feeling alive.
Alcohol played a major role in our romance. We drank at parties and we drank when out on dates. On nights when we bartended together, we drank after work in the dark early morning hours. We drank and laughed and we drank and kissed. Our drinking fueled arguments based on jealousy and lack of maturity. As our relationship became increasingly intimate, alcohol was there to lubricate the anxious, awkward moments.
At first, our physical relationship was wonderful for both of us. We were falling in love and the tender touches and eagerness was mutually exhilarating. We became increasingly comfortable in each other’s arms. I learned Sheri loved to have her back and ears tickled, and Sheri discovered that I would drop just about anything to spend time alone with her.
We seemed to be made for one another as we meshed perfectly together. But as time wore on, our youthful ignorance caused unexpected challenges in our intimate relationship. As a young man with young man hormones, I thought the only thing better than a good thing was more of a good thing. I poured copious amounts of alcohol on my desires, and I became increasingly needy for closeness with the woman I loved.
Sheri, on the other hand, being a young woman with young woman hormones, didn’t get the same effortless rapture from our intimacy that I experienced. She was eager and willing to provide me with the connection I longed for, but she became increasingly aware that I was wringing all the pleasure from the relationship. We both drank too much for me to notice much of anything. Because we had never learned the differences between what men and women need and reap from a physical relationship, I was oblivious to Sheri’s increasing disappointment, and Sheri was increasingly dismayed that despite our constant efforts, she wasn’t finding contentment.
What was once exciting and new for both of us made me thirsty for more. Sheri’s needs were drifting in a different direction. She longed for more tenderness and quiet time together. She had never learned to express those desires, and feared my reaction if she found the words. I was oblivious to the existence such human needs and wouldn’t have understood had she explained them to me. I loved our physical contact while Sheri began to wonder what was so great about it. She began to wonder if something was wrong with her, and I worried about her, too. We were both so uninformed – so naive and confused.
So we drank to wash away the confusion and began a pattern of physical contact that would doom us for decades to come.
I had needs, and Sheri reluctantly fulfilled them. Our intimacy was still there, but it became cold and arduous. Love was being replaced by resentment, and we were both too ignorant to understand what was happening. Sheri grew to find me greedy and selfish, and I blamed her because her attitude changed while my needs remained the same.
On top of, and to a certain extent, because of our intimacy confusion, our drinking patterns also diverged. I began to drink more heavily as I entered the self medication stage of my drinking. My nightly cocktails transitioned from fun and relaxing to stress relieving and necessary. And yes, they eased the pain from the increasing chill in our marriage.
As my drinking increased, my neediness increased as well. Sheri became increasingly disgusted by my consumption and my desires. Watching me drink made her lose her appetite for alcohol and contact with her husband. The physical attraction my wife once felt for me was evaporating right before our eyes.
The strain on our marriage encouraged me to drink more. The strain on our marriage created in Sheri a contempt for alcohol. We were growing apart, and we were powerless to bridge the divide.
We tried. Our marriage remained of the utmost importance to us both, and we still felt love for each other. We read books about love languages and compromise. We had long talks about our divergent feelings and made fruitless efforts to force change on each other.
Sheri occasionally pointed to my drinking as a source of our marital troubles, but I dismissed her comments and changed the subject. Our marriage had plenty of potholes not directly related to alcohol, so it was easy for me to deny the role of alcohol in a convincing way.
Our marriage became increasingly complicated. We had children and built a small business together. Our lives became so intertwined that staying together in pain seemed a far easier path than to even consider separation.
And there was still love. There was always love. We just had a hard time accessing the love through all the resentment, shifting values and our love/hate relationship with alcohol.
Finding a path back to the joy and excitement for one another that we felt early in our relationship seemed hopeless. But we never stopped trying.
Along the way, we both read extensively about relationships – both emotional and physical. We both learned that Sheri’s growing dissatisfaction with intimacy was not just common, it was to be expected. We learned that the relaxation and closeness that she required for physical satisfaction starts hours – even days – before physical contact. We learned that the disgust Sheri felt as she watched me drink away my pain daily was eradicating any chance for her to reach the necessary relaxation and desire to be with me.
It didn’t matter what else we tried. As long as I drank, enjoyable intimacy for Sheri was unattainable.
And yet, I chose alcohol. For years Sheri calmly and rationally explained that she felt like she would always take a backseat to my beloved drink. I was so convinced and determined to have both – a loving marriage and my beloved alcohol – that I denied her allegation. I told Sheri that she and the kids were the most important things in my life. And I meant it. I wanted it to be true with every fiber of my being. But when push came to shove, I consistently chose alcohol over my wife’s happiness.
Then I quit drinking, and nothing changed.
Sheri was proud of my dedication to my sobriety, and she supported my efforts in recovery. She understood that our healing from the disease of alcoholism had to – absolutely 100% must – be the top priority in our lives. She supported my research and reading for comfort. Sheri helped me find time for my writing and encouraged me to share my story. When I wanted to hire a writing coach, Sheri approved of the considerable expense. When I decided to start a podcast so I could learn more about addiction recovery, Sheri convinced me we would find a way to make it work. When I insisted that she needed to recover from my alcoholism, too, she agreed and took steps to address her recovery.
Sheri has supported me in every step in the process. And in doing so, she continued to take that same backseat to alcohol.
I started drinking years before that first kiss. For our first twenty-two years together, Sheri was the second most important thing in my life. For the past two years in sobriety, Sheri’s position remained the same.
We are in our mid-forties. We have four kids and are in the middle of a career transition. Our stress and responsibilities are at an all-time high, and yet, we are both desperate to feel the way we felt when our youth and naivety made predicting the years of resentment and acrimony inconceivable.
Sheri accepts me as a man with male hormones. I understand that Sheri is a women with very different female hormones. We are educated, willing and enthusiastic to prioritize our love – emotional and physical.
Just like with all of the damage reaped by alcoholism, our intimacy will not be repaired overnight. Alcohol abuse is not actually a prerequisite for drifting apart physically the way Sheri and I did. All that’s required is a lack of understanding or consideration for the differences in the genders. I’m thankful we didn’t become parents in our teen years, and I grateful we did not die from a lack of protection.
Still, I wish we had known then what we finally understand now. I’m confident we’re not alone in our young adult ignorance.
Our’s is a love story. It’s a story of a love that struggled to persevere. It’s a story of a love the went dormant as a defense mechanism. It’s a story of a love that survived ignorance and addiction. We can’t revise the past, but we will write the next chapter of our love story together.
Our love will never again be relegated to the backseat…unless we decide to climb back there together.
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This post is part of the next chapter of our love story, so Sheri and I wrote it together. If you are wondering how I wrote with such confidence about Sheri’s feelings, it is because she explained them to me as we wrote. I am blessed and eternally thankful to have such a strong, beautiful and committed woman with whom to spend my life and share a loving, intimate marriage.
Now Featured on the Untoxicated Podcast: Ep6 – Relationships in Recovery with Therapist Melissa Ryan