Advice Informed By Psychoanalytic Thinking
People who seek advice are stuck and they will never get unstuck unless they can understand why they are stuck.
Most newspaper and magazine advice columns are written by thoughtful and intelligent women with a lot of life experience. Few are written by psychoanalysts or psychoanalytically informed thinkers. This means that people writing in for help get a lot of life tips and guidance on how best to manage their current situation. They are hardly ever helped with their thinking. There are good reasons for this – one letter isn’t a psychoanalytic session and the advisor can’t ask questions. There is also the word count to consider. We have to read between the lines and try to guess how the person has got themselves into this situation and what it really means for them. I often feel frustrated when I read advice like ‘enjoy your new found freedom,’ or ‘ask him why he is behaving like this.’ Clearly if the person could do these things, they would. People who seek advice are stuck and they will never get unstuck unless they can understand why they are stuck. So, I have decided to try and approach the letters differently. Here’s one that appeared in the Daily Mail.
At 44, I married a man ten years my senior. I love him, but our sex life makes me unhappy. I am a passionate person and want to make love several times a week, but he shrinks from me. When we do have sex, he is detached, as if he’s going through the motions. I often lie awake crying afterwards. He says he loves me more than anyone, but ‘just isn’t very physical’ and is too old to change. What should I do?
The way you describe the situation is interesting. Firstly, you give your age and I wonder why you do that. It seems to me that you are suggesting that 44 is old and that you married late in life, maybe feeling that you had better compromise quick rather than keep looking. There is a slight hint here that you felt obliged to marry, that you weren’t getting any younger and that maybe you felt grateful to this man for having you. You could have written, ‘at last I met the man of my dreams’, or any number of different things, but you give a quick one line that includes your age. You also mention his age, which suggests his age is significant to you. He is older than you but you use the words ‘my senior’, again suggesting you genuinely feel his is ‘senior’ to you in other ways, that you are grateful to him and that he, therefore, is in a position of power over you in a subtle way. You perhaps resent feeling grateful and compensate, or defend yourself, by stressing his age and your own compromise.
Then you say you love him but your sex life makes you unhappy. Like many people, you have separated love and sex life. Referring to your ‘sex life’ almost sounds as if it is not part of your ‘real life’, that it is a separate entity. This is not remotely uncommon, of course, but it does deny that sex life is real life as much as any other moment when you are, in fact, alive. For example, if you are chronically shy in bed it is hugely unlikely that you are massively confident in the rest of life. We are the same person while having sex as we are while loading the dishwasher. When you say you love him but your sex life makes you unhappy, you are actually saying that you are unhappy with your relationship because you feel very rejected by the person you love.
You say he ‘shrinks’ from you physically, meaning he actually shrinks from you as a whole, from real intimacy and connection. It cannot be confined to sex. I wonder why you married someone who shrinks from you and whether this feels familiar to you and therefore particularly painful? Of course, I can’t ask you this and you obviously feel devastated by the experience of desiring where you are not desired.
You say you are a passionate person and want to make love several times a week. There is a lot of accusation implicit in this – you are passionate and he, therefore, is passionless. There is something about the description of this shrinking, passionless, older man that feels a bit denigrated, as though you dislike a rather weak, aging side of him. I wonder if he is intimidated, or you intend him to be intimidated, by your passion. Is there a way in which being the more sexual, passionate partner makes you feel powerful? Perhaps you felt resentful at having to compromise and marry before it was too late and are now regaining a feeling of strength by insisting that your partner is the weaker one.
Your description of the sex is disturbing and it must be deeply upsetting for you to go through this. If he is detached and going through the motions then you are likely to feel used and perhaps even abused afterwards. You clearly do not feel loved and held. You conjure up a picture of sad little girl crying alone at night after something horrible. It is desperately sad and really underlines your grief and isolation.
The fact that you are willing to go through this repeatedly suggests the sadomasochistic tendency I think I have been pointing towards. It seems there is a lot of unspoken and unconscious power play in your relationship and ultimately you feel it to be, know it to be, abusive (possibly on both sides). Perhaps he puts up with your silent contempt for his passionlessness and age and then you, feeling guilty about how you really feel about him, put up with sex that brings you no feelings of love or satisfaction. Afterwards you grieve not, I would suggest, because of the bad or infrequent sex (because if you were having wonderful, passionate, loving sex once a month and felt intensely loved the rest of the time there probably wouldn’t be a problem) but because you do not feel loved.
You report that he claims not to be physical. It is hard to know what he really means and he obviously has his own baggage, but you take it to mean that he does not want to be fully intimate and loving. I think you are right.
He has stated, you say, that he is unwilling to change. You have said you are unhappy and cry after your attempts to engage him in being truly intimate physically and emotionally. What should you do? Seriously?
It sounds as though that is the only solution you can think of and you are asking permission to go. Though your husband’s position makes staying sound impossible, it is interesting that you still need permission to end your unhappiness. It may be that you feel you deserve to be trapped in this situation and are waiting to be rescued.
If you are able to take responsibility for your own happiness, I would be very wary of entering exactly the same kind of relationship again. I suspect you’ve been in these relationships before and will seek out the same again unless you have a proper think about what it is you get out of this, what is familiar about it and why, why you feel you should put up with it, whether or not you find men you can intimidate, whether you like to feel in control and what you really mean by both ‘sex’ and ‘love’.
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