Your Parents, Your Children and the Marital Bed
By Gabriella Kortsch, Ph.D
So you had a mind-blowing passionate affair. It lasted five weeks, or six months, or two years. You each lived in your own place. Then you decided to move in together. Maybe you even marry. You were so much in love. It made sense to commit. But now, your once passionate partner who desired you so much doesn't want to make love anymore. They avoid you, they shun you, and you are bewildered, self doubt arises, you feel hurt, unloved, and finally angry. So you leave, or you threaten to leave, or you find yourself someone else who does find you desirable. Suddenly, magically, your partner wants you again. The passion is back. The old chemistry is flying once more. So then things settle down. Everyone is happy just like at the beginning. But it happens again. Your partner doesn't want to make love anymore. What on earth is going on?
Some readers may be surprised by this month's topic. It veers away from the more self developmental nature of past articles and moves into the relationship many of you may have had with one or both of your parents, and then the content of the article walks right into the privacy of your bedroom as an adult. I have chosen this topic based on the queries I receive and the number of clients I have seen over time that present with this dilemma.
Are you a man, and when you were a child you were - in some fashion or another - abandoned by your parents? Perhaps you were ill and had to spend a lengthy period of time in hospital, and perhaps the hospital was too far from your parents' residence for them to visit you more than once a week. Perhaps your parents - and particularly your mother - were kind and caring, but you perceived that they simply did not love you enough for your needs. Perhaps an event occurred while you were still a child, that caused you to feel rejected by your mother in a particularly important way.
Are you a woman, and when you were a child you were - in some fashion or another - abandoned by your father? (See also my article: Fatherless Women). Perhaps your parents - and particularly your father - were kind and caring, but you perceived that they simply did not love you enough for your needs. Perhaps your parents divorced and your father left and rarely saw you. Perhaps he was physically there, but emotionally absent. Perhaps he rejected you. Perhaps you felt he never gave you the approval you so avidly sought. Perhaps he (or another important male in the close family environment) abused you sexually, physically, psychologically, or emotionally.
When Love is Learned Incorrectly
Whatever the case, in the scenario both for boys and girls, the missing ingredient, or the essential point to realize, is that something has gone awry in the way the child views the love he or she receives from the parent. In other words, the child has not received - or perceived - a developmentally healthy lesson about love from the parent.
And what happens when you learn something incorrectly?
Think for a moment how you were taught how to hold a pencil when you were learning how to write. Most of us learned it properly. Some didn't and you can see it in the way they hold a pen, or in the way they scrunch their fingers together. How about when you learned how to slice or dice vegetables? Do you julienne? Or do you chop and cut a mess of unequal misshapen pieces? And what about how you learned how to use Excel? Or sew? Or ride a bike? Or dance the tango?
So what happens when you learn something incorrectly? Don't many people continue to do whatever it is wrong again and again and again? Until something happens to make them want to change their method? And this is exactly what happens when a child learns dysfunctional lessons about how love works. The child continues to "do it" incorrectly. Why? Because he or she believes that that is the right way to have love.
Love Means Getting Hurt...
So here you have a kid who learned that love means getting hurt...whether the pain is in the heart or in the body is actually not so important. Pain of whatever kind hurts, and much of this kind of pain, however it originated, leaves noticeable impressions and trauma. But before the pain came, the child felt - even if only briefly - real love. The child experienced something that he or she believed to be the real thing. The love it felt for the parent was magnificent, the way love is meant to be, and the child reveled in it, the way most of us do when we feel we are truly loved and cherished. The child believed the parent reciprocated this love in the most wonderful and caring way. The child felt safe. The child felt loved. The child felt secure.
And then the blow fell. Whether it came in the form of rejection or coldness or abuse or abandonment is not as important as the message the child gives itself in order to try to understand what happened. And although the content of this message may be varied, with consequences of a varied nature, for the purposes of today's article, the message the child gave itself was that love is not safe. Love is dangerous. Watch it! When you feel truly safe and loved, something bad will happen.
Looking for Love
Fast forward. The child is now a teen or an adult, embarking on relationships. Keenly interested in finding love. Frequently looking for it in the guise of sex (see also my article: Sexual Energy http://advancedpersonaltherapy.com/articles-by-gabriella-kortsch-therapist/articles-by-gabriella-kortsch-therapist.htm). Frequently this individual is - or appears to be - highly passionate. Sometimes this individual sees him or herself as more passionate than most other people. He or she may believe sometimes, somehow, that sex is love. And when this individual finds another person with whom the sexual flame ignites in the way of great passions, then typically, frequently, this person falls desperately, frantically, obsessively, fearfully, longingly in love. (See also my July 2006 Newsletter: I Need You...I Need You Not).
Passion and Love
All of the adjectives in the last sentence that describe the state of mind of our protagonist as he or she falls in love tend - in some fashion or another - to form part of the scenario which is now choreographed (see also my article Are You in Love, Or Do You Love?). A dance begins. The individual often shows him or herself as a highly passionate, highly sexual person. He or she shows boundless desire for the partner, particularly during the phase of the relationship where the partner is not yet quite committed. None of this happens deliberately, or in a calculating fashion. It is an unconscious pattern in which sexuality plays a leading role, but not a scheming mindset designed to catch an unwitting prey.
The less accessible the partner, the more highly the flames of passion will leap, and eventually in some cases, the couple commits to a life in common. They decide to live together, to get married, or even, in some instances, to commit by deciding to have a child or buy a home together.
So now our protagonist has achieved what appears to have been the goal: love, a committed relationship, a life together. Finally there is this long-desired state of love. Love is corresponded. A long awaited state of circumstances has arrived, so now they live happily ever after, right? Well, possibly yes, but not, perhaps, without first going through some tough trials that involve the most intimate aspect of the couple's bedroom...the sexual relationship.
Now a phase begins that is generally misunderstood by both partners. Neither can explain how this once passionate person quickly turns into someone who shuns the marital bed, making up the most ludicrous excuses to avoid sex, or, if sex continues to play a part in the relationship, the partner who is turning off, finds it more and more difficult to continue playing a role that is no longer tenable. In other words, the erstwhile passionate individual no longer wants sex. He or she may even find it disgusting, having a hard time keeping this fact from the bewildered partner, and frequently the turned off partner will do his or her utmost to make certain the partner does not know how much sex has become repulsive, because love has not necessarily diminished, and there is no wish to hurt the shunned partner further.
In the meantime of course, the confused partner suffers a gradually decreasing sense of self esteem, at least as far as his or her sexuality is concerned. He or she may believe that sexual desire and hence the frequency of sex has waned because he is less attractive, less desirable, or because the partner has found someone else. They may also believe that the partner has become frigid or important, indeed, the person who no longer wants sex may believe this also. Occasionally they may seek out a new sexual partner, just to convince themselves that they can still function. Many things are imagined, but the truth of the matter is rarely realized, particularly not by the partner who has turned physically cold. And the solution never lies in exchanging one partner for another, because invariably the pattern will repeat itself. Like most issues I discuss in my articles, this one must be resolved from within and not from without.
The Danger Zone
The truth of the matter - at least in some instances of the type of background described above - is the fact that the individual with the difficult childhood came to believe, back then, and on subconscious levels, that being safe in a loving situation is the threshold to some kind of pain...emotional pain, psychological pain, etc. When this person was a child, and when he or she felt safe and loved, something happened to cause this pain. The connection between feeling safe and loved on the one hand and pain or danger on the other hand, has been clearly established in the subconscious mind. So when this person finds him or herself in a safe loving situation, a type of inner panic button begins screeching a warning, albeit on subconscious levels, and something has to be done to upset the applecart and avert the danger.
This is the moment that some of the people in this situation turn "cold" on their partners and sex goes down the tube. Almost as though by doing that, the connection between love and safety is successfully broken. They have been striving for just such a situation for so long, but nevertheless, they are sabotaging it in the most insidious way. Insidious not only for their partner, but also for themselves. And of course no one knows what on earth is going on. Typically the individual who no longer desires the other continues to love the other very much. At least for a while. They feel tremendously guilty about not desiring them. The other partner feels rejected, but the one who is off sex, in time may begin to believe that it's actually due to the fact that the partner truly no longer is desirable. Or that their personal hygiene is off, or that their love-making techniques are no longer interesting, none of which of course have any relation to the real reason. Ultimately neither partner is looking for the answers inside. Ultimately it is such a difficult situation that many couples just give up. The guilt and the hurt can grow to enormous proportions.
So Now What?
There are solutions. But I can't pretend they are easy. Or even that there are always solutions. (See also my Sept. 2006 Newsletter: Marriage in the 21st Century). The dynamics of this particular psycho-emotional dilemma whose almost invisible tentacles reach into an individual's sexuality, are difficult to disentangle. They require a great deal of awareness, not only on the part of the person who has gone cold, but also on the part of the partner. For some reason the rejected partner has also drawn this into his or her life, and so, on another level, this is a secondary dilemma that also needs to be faced, but that is the topic for another article.
If you are reading this and have recognized yourself or your partner, I urge you to seek help. Not because either of you is sick, but because this is a hard one to grapple with on your own. A very important element of the solution lies in removing pressure from finding the resolution as the solution is being sought. By that I mean that although the solution needs to be sought actively, it needs to be done in such a way that the partner who has gone cold does not feel pressured to have sex for a time.
Another very important element is allowing love to live and flow despite the problem, in order that the partner who has gone cold begins to realize that he or she is loved despite the problem. For some people, on the receiving end of the sexual coldness this may be impossible, and in that case, the relationship has probably come to an end. But for those who are capable of continuing to love, there is hope for the relationship, and hope for the eventual resurgence of passion.
And finally, the most important element of the solution lies in psychological and emotional awareness on the part of both partners about the dynamics of what is occurring, and to recognize that love - especially when our early lessons about it have been dysfunctional - is both the cause of the problem and the solution to the problem.