Lori Lothian reveals the hidden ingredient that spoils most romantic unions.
I thought I had solved our latest relationship problem using my down-to-earth fix-it approach. He wanted more sex, so I chose a Nancy Regan slogan cure: I would “Just say yes!”
Even if I was tired, preoccupied or grumpy—after all, it wasn’t like sex was a chore. Sex was typically pleasurable and invigorating. So what did I have to lose by being available whenever my husband was in the mood? In fact, there was almost something hot about the idea of being at someone’s beck and call, like a harem wife or a sex slave (though I’m not into kink, novelty is always stimulating).
So for two weeks I put up no resistance and even suggested sex a couple of times when I would normally have opted for a more passive approach like falling asleep. This could have been the upbeat ending where we live happily ever after, having regular episodes of enthusiastic sex. However, something tricky happened which I am going to call the “mood of unlove,” a phrase coined by relationship psychotherapist John Welwood, author of Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships.
According to Welwood, despite all the psycho-spiritual relationship panaceas out there, most of these solutions fail because they miss the hidden cause of conflict between couples. This mood of unlove is actually a deep-seated and universal suspicion we are not loveable just as we are, a basic insecurity that generates a whole laundry list of bad sabotage behaviors in relationships:
“Difficulty trusting, fear of being misused or rejected, harboring jealousy and vindictiveness, defensively stonewalling, having to argue and prove we are right, feeling easily hurt or offended and blaming others for our pain.”
What does this have to do with my new rip-roaring sex life? Well, for one thing, it was never about the sex, not really.
I figured this out when the most obvious solution (more sex) did nothing to permanently resolve the relationship tension. While it seemed like infrequent intercourse was originally the culprit, that gripe was a decoy for a deeper grievance all tied into the mood of unlove. I was busy polishing the surface while oblivious to what lay beneath it.
My understanding of the subterranean nature of the real problem (think deep, dark wounded psyche) arose from a kiss. We were dancing one night at a party and ended up in a passionate lip lock that I’d not experienced since our courtship phase. I mentioned this fact to my man and suggested we do a lot more ‘From Here to Eternity-style necking because frankly, I was having a turned-on response.
The next day he was distant and reflective, and by that evening a new issue appeared. He realized he had been unconsciously locking away parts of himself to appease me. For instance, he’d cordoned off his swaggering male self that, when we first met had embraced me on a dance floor and kissed me deeply. It was this same unapologetic self that would just make a seductive move without too much concern for whether or not I was in the mood, unless of course I returned his efforts with an outright no. Where had that assured man gone? Somehow, he had negotiated away a big part of his identity in a bargain for love.
Yet I didn’t set this bargain. I wasn’t asking him to be solicitous and cautious as my lover, nor to tip-toe around my tepid desire levels. I missed the strong masculinity I first encountered when he courted me, the man with whom I told my friends I had experienced unparalleled sexual polarity. Post-mortems are rarely fun but they can be useful in determining what killed something. In investigating the demise of a strong sexual current between us, a question arose: Did I play a role in this lockdown of the very dynamic that attracted me to my man in the first place? Because as much as I wanted to blame him for the problem, I was pretty sure my only role wasn’t the one my ego cast me in, that of the long-suffering good sport to my partner’s issues.
So while he was busy figuring out if a counselor could help us get back on track, I read John Welwood’s book and then sat in contemplation of my mood of unlove. How exactly did I suspect I was not loveable just the way I am? And how did this fear gradually erode what had started out as a robust sexual chemistry?
The answer shocked me because my self-image as a sexually adventurous free-spirited type (I’d missed the 60’s but had always imagined the summer-of-love would have been a blast), was suddenly under siege.
My answer? I am not loveable when I am not sexual.
Somehow I had unconsciously decided that my sexual expressiveness equaled lovability. This meant the inevitable times when I am not feeling sexually open (when I am sick, exhausted, preoccupied, peri-menopausal or emotionally distant), my lovability was in question. In fact, not only am I not loveable, I am flawed in that place of sexual ambivalence.
All at once I understood my man had picked up on this from me—that when I was feeling sexually unavailable, I was feeling unlovable. With this unworthiness leaking from me, I was probably about as inviting as a toxic spill behind a bolted door. Sure he could swashbuckle his way in like the leader of a hazmat team, but that would require a heroic belief in his own lovability no matter what. So he had backed off from sexual advances unless it was clear to him that the door was wide open. In the face of my fear of being unlovable, he had stopped loving and I had stopped allowing love in. (This is not to say he too does not have his own mood of unlove and carries his half of what goes wrong in our union. But here I am focusing on my side of the story).
The question I will surely dance with from this new self-awareness is just how can I love myself whether I am sexual or not? How can I accept all of me just the way I am? Because only when I can give myself this gift, can I offer it to another.
Photo: Flickr/Amnesty International
This piece originally appeared at elephant Journal.