Blog by Miriam

Sex Therapy 101: Overcoming a Lack of Intimacy

By Miriam Bellamy, LMFT

Serving Georgia for 20 years.

Online therapy for couples and individuals now available. Convenient. Confidential. Effective.

Does your husband constantly pursue you for sex? Does it feel like all he wants is sex, and that he’ll take it, even if you’re not interested? Are you wondering where the intimacy went? Do you sometimes wish he would leave you alone? Or maybe you feel guilty and feel like you should be giving it up to relieve his apparent misery. Perhaps you are torn between the resentment and the guilt.

The last post was for husbands who pursue their wives. This one is for the wives they pursue. Are you craving intimacy? Are you longing for an emotional connection with your husband? What do you think gets in the way? Most women feel it’s his lack of communication or his lack of emotional sensitivity or his lack of…you-name-it-he-lacks-it.

After seeing many couples turn this around in my 20 years of doing marriage counseling in Georgia, I’ve found that his lack-of-sensitivity isn’t an adequate explanation. When these couples have turned this painful pattern around, it’s not because he’s suddenly developed some skills he didn’t have before. It seems to be more related to a change they make in a fundamental pattern in their relationship. A pattern in systems theory known as distancing that I believe contributes to the most common relationship problems people have. Distancing is also known as a pursuer/distancer pattern, and it is a pattern that both men and women find themselves instinctively using to deal with relationship stresses and anxieties.

Pursuer/Distancer: Here’s how it goes

Years one to five: Husband comes home from work. He’s tired and preoccupied with a deadline he’s facing. Wife is excited to see him. He’s not responsive. Wife believes it is a lack of interest in her, but doesn’t want to be perceived as too sensitive, so she doesn’t bring it up. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Wife starts not bringing up other things as well. She’s tried to bring up other sensitive topics before, but they always end up in some kind of argument. He seems so offended when she shares her hurt or fear. She suspects he’s missing a few brain cells in the emotion department, so she only brings up topics she knows won’t lead to an argument. She starts to fear she married the wrong guy.

Years six to ten: Both wife and husband have continued down a path of not bringing up what’s on their minds to the point they are not revealing much about what they think from day-to-day, be it feelings or thoughts about their work or excitement about something new they’re learning…certainly not anything deeply personal. They’ve got two kids now, and Wife is busy with them. Husband seems not as involved with or interested in them, and Wife’s fear about marrying the wrong guy increases. As her fear increases she develops tunnel vision. She’s gotten to the point where she can’t see the times when her husband is responsive or attentive. She can’t see that he brings value to her life anymore, despite the facts. As husband’s fear increases, he develops tunnel vision as well. He senses wife’s distance and knows he feels connected when he has sex with her, so growing increasingly desperate, he pursues her. She is wondering how he could possibly think she would be interested in sex. He is wondering what he did wrong.

Years eleven to twenty: The couple is in real trouble now. Their marriage difficulties have started distracting them from work and social life, so they go for marriage counseling. Well intentioned, the therapist guides the each of them to tell the other what they feel and what they each need. The therapist encourages the wife to communicate her feelings like this: I feel left out when you don’t tell me what’s going on in your life, and I’d like to know what you’re thinking. Or I feel unimportant when you watch TV when I’m trying to talk to you. I’d like to learn more about your day. They have a lovely moment or two in the therapy session, but the feelings don’t last very long. Somehow they haven’t been able to reliably duplicate the lovely moments at home. Sex is almost non-existent. They both feel hopeless and scared. They’ve tried everything.

In this scenario the husband and wife take turns being the pursuer or the distancer. But the underlying pattern was that of distance. Each spouse was focused on the other. You know you’re in a distancer/pursuer dynamic when you or your spouse says something like this: “I’ve done my part, but we’re still having problems because you haven’t done yours.” It’s a statement that quickly halts open communication.

Some Signs You May be Using Distance

Roberta Gilbert, in her book Extraordinary Relationships, lists some signs that you may be in a distance pattern in your marriage:

  • Excessive periods of non-communication when one is emotionally reactive
  • Workaholism
  • Overuse of substances such as alcohol
  • Excessive time spent on hobbies or religious activity
  • A tendency to be quiet when anxiety arises
  • Talk that includes nothing of personal importance
  • An inability to relate to some of the people in one’s immediate or original family

Gilbert writes, “people who are involved in a distance relationship often see their part in it as an attempt to help the relationship—to give it some breathing room.” She says they could also be using distance in a manipulative manner “in an attempt to draw the other in.” Then there are those attempts to get far enough away from the relationship in order to gain control of one’s emotions. On the whole, distancing seems to be an attempt to find relief from the emotional intensity of the relationship. An attempt that rarely, if ever, works.

What She Did

Wife did what is widely accepted as “good” and “healthy” among marriage therapists: she shared her feelings with her husband with a great deal of feeling. But the more she shared, the more he seemed to back away. Her initial reaction was to conclude what she had from the beginning: that he lacked the fundamental ability to be close. But upon further reflection, and the help of a therapist versed in systems theory, she was able to consider there were other ways to approach him that were both meaningful and calm. She began to notice that the more calmly she approached him, the less he distanced from her. Over time and with a lot of practice, she was able to approach her husband more regularly, even if briefly. He began to do the same. This regular, calm contact freed them both up to focus on their own goals and aspirations and to enjoy the goodness each brought to the other’s life. And this included sex.

Want more information? Check out Roberta Gilber’s book Extraordinary Relationships or give me a call. I’m glad to help you develop your ability to get close to each other.

Sex Therapy 101

The people have spoken! It was clear from my last survey that you guys want to read more blogs about sex, and specifically about an unsatisfying, lack-of-intimacy kind of sex life. So, here you go. Part 1 in a 6-part series.

Intimacy Problems in Marriage

Part I: Bad Sex Does Not Lead to Good Sex

Are you having sex with your spouse but finding it to be a monumental task trying to get her to be interested? Are you finding yourself constantly pursuing her and almost begging for sex? Maybe you feel it’s the only way you’ll ever even have sex. Maybe you’re afraid of where this could lead for the two of you. Is she complaining to you about a lack of intimacy and suggesting that if she could feel close to you she might want sex more? Maybe you’ve heard her and tried to increase intimacy, but it still doesn’t change the amount of sex you’re having with each other.

I recently asked a husband who was struggling with intimacy problems in his marriage, “Which kind of sex would you prefer: really great sex once a month, or the unsatisfying sex you’ve been having once a week?” When he didn’t hesitate to answer that he’d rather have the unsatisfying weekly sex, I asked him why. His answer was, “Well, because it has to get better, right?! It’s our only chance!”
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He was more than aware of her lack of interest in sex, and he was constantly making moves to try to get her to be interested. From “being nice,” to doing dishes, to bathing the children every night after work, and even to the moves he’d make during sex, he was always thinking of the next time they’d be having sex and what it would take to get her there. And he really thought that bad sex was going to somehow lead to good sex.

When I suggested that he wasn’t going to have good sex until he asked for it, he was perplexed. He thought he’d been asking for good sex, even begging for it all the time. But I asked him, “What would compel your wife to give you good sex if you’re willing to settle for the crap…even beg for it?”

Many spouses in this man’s position will react to this and say that they will never initiate sex again and leave it all up to their spouse. But this is more of the same kind of behavior. It’s reactionary. Just like his constant pursuit of his wife.

Good sex is less reactionary and more dignified. In other words, one’s dignity is in tact. Dignity, in close emotional proximity to our spouses, is sexy. When we’re less needy, we’re more attractive. I’m not saying your wife is going to jump you if you were to develop more of a sense of dignity. I’m not saying that you will ever get the frequency of sex you believe is essential. But if you can work on that dignity thing, you’ll be a lot closer to a more satisfying sex life than you are now.

Sex therapy can help with this and with taking it to the next level. What I’ve described here is simple, conceptually, but not so easy to accomplish. It’s not a matter of changing or “behaving” for a few weeks (or for those of you with real stamina, it’s not about “behaving” for years). It’s about real and sustainable change. Stay tuned for the next post in a couple of weeks about his wife’s position and the possibility of change on her part.

Belonging in Marriage

Ed Wilson, Harvard professor, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of On Human Nature, was fascinated with ant colonies from a young age. It was enough of an interest for him as a boy that he continued it over the course of his long, successful career as an entomologist.
He was most intrigued by the similarities between ant societies and human societies. One of the things Dr. Wilson believes, after his many long years of thought and study, is that our two species share the same biological drive to be connected, to be a part of, to belong. He believes both ant (16 species of them) and human evolution took a major turn when each developed the DNA that made us utterly and irrevocably, emotionally dependent on each other—to our families, our tribes (and yes, ants have families and tribes and are “emotionally” or instinctively dependent on each other). When this occurred, when we became more emotionally tied to one another across generations, both humans and ants began to thrive and to multiply exponentially.

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So, what does this have to do with you and your marriage? That emotional or instinctual connectedness that developed thousands of years ago is part of not only what made us produce offspring by the billions, but also what made us a little too focused on each other…with too much, and at the same time, too little expectation of each other.
We come into marriage with highly romantic expectations of our spouses (you-complete-me/I-complete-you), which of course doesn’t pan out. So, we try really hard to make it pan out. Which, of course, usually leads to trying to get our spouses to change…to listen better, to understand, to be more loving, to see us as equals, and on and on. When that doesn’t work, our high expectations turn to low expectations. We expect them to fail us. Let the blame game begin.
While this process is terribly painful and feels “unhealthy” and like something is wrong, perhaps it would be helpful to remember that the heart of the issue has more to do with our instinctual focus on other rather than on self. We are more tied to our evolutionary history than we really know.
But how to we turn this focus on other into something else that might lead to a greater sense of belonging?

The “I” Position: A Bastardized Concept

I’m sure most of my readers have heard of the communication technique known as the “I” statement. It’s a tool by which the speaker uses the word “I” rather than “you” to work out a conflict. Here’s a great (and funny) example of how this technique falls apart: This is 40
The original concept known as the “I” position, has unfortunately been bastardized into the “I” statement. I say bastardized because most people don’t know where the idea originally came from…they don’t know the father of the idea…and it’s hard to really understand the concept if you don’t know where it came from. If you’d like to learn more about the man who observed that developing your “I” position (a.k.a. maturing emotionally) is a powerful and more effective way to solve problems, you can go here.
The “I” position is the idea that despite what difficulties your spouse (or son or daughter, mother or father) is causing you, you can learn to better manage your reaction to it. You can work on ways to react less emotionally, and more empowered. This doesn’t mean talking yourself out of what you think your spouse is doing. It just means doing something different with your self in response. When family relationships are troubled, developing your self (your “I” position) is your best bet for developing a greater sense of belonging.

Examples

So, instead of coming from here: You are making me miserable…or…If you would just listen…or…I just need you to understand me better… or Can’t you give me some space?! Consider coming from here: I am miserable, and I think my reactions to you might be a part of my misery…or…I wonder if I stopped taking so much responsibility for your feelings, I might start acting a little better…or…Ya know, I know you’re a good person, and I know you have a point of view that’s is legitimate, and I’m not sure I really understand it. Will you tell me again what you think about X, so I can try to understand. I’m going to try to listen and not react so much.
As Michael J. Fox once said (and I’m paraphrasing here)…the key to a good marriage is to keep your fights clean and your sex dirty.

Belonging is not romantic.

I think it’s helpful to think of belonging as biological rather than romantic. I mean, I get it. Feeling like you belong to someone is pretty darn amazing. I want someone to think my spindly legs are all that and that my bulging thorax is just beyond! But being unrealistic about our expectations of what belonging is supposed to be and how it is supposed to happen leads to low expectations and resentment and bitterness. Try approaching it more objectively, like it’s a project you want to use to learn more about yourself and your spouse (or any other family member), the easy-to-learn as well as the difficult. Try developing your “I” position. It won’t happen in a vacuum.
The hope is that we can come alongside each other and hold hands as we face our relationship difficulties separately from our loved (or not-so-loved) ones. Together and separate…at the same time.
Where do you belong? With whom do you belong? If you’re struggling with the answer or if you know exactly where you belong I’d love to hear from you. How did you cultivate that sense of belonging? What do you think goes wrong when you are attempting to connect?