Life events, trauma and sex
Loss of desire can be so profound that it is as if it never existed.
People who come to talk to me about their relationship tend to respond to my questions about initial attraction with smiles. Invariably a liveliness, a lightness enters into the counselling room. Their answers frequently have a sexual/physical feel and are made with affection: “I loved the way she moved”, “he was brazen about the fact that he fancied me”, “she was great at kissing”, “he was just a sexy bloke, a lovely body”,“he was a generous lover”. The memory of the early relationship tends to be expressed with a sense of loss and regret and incomprehension.
So what goes wrong?
"Mostly the television is on
and the washer is running and the kettle
shrieks its boiling while the telephone
when the moment of vulnerability
lights on the nose like a blue moth
and filters away...
in the leaking
sieve of our bodies we carry
the blood of love."
- Marge Piercy.
Exploring the history of relationships reveals a multiplicity of circumstances that can leave couples reeling from one crisis to the next. Financial difficulties that require both partners to work; the emotional demands and compromises that may revolve around the simple division of labour; the exhaustion and huge emotional compromises involved in bringing children into the world and caring for them. These demands soak up energy and leave little room for the mutual giving of love and attention, the emotional food of life. It is important to stress that partners will often proudly claim to be excellent parents and are very concerned to protect their children from the friction and the growing distance in their relationship. They are often proud that they have developed strategies for the loving care and education of their children and indeed may enjoy a loving sibling type friendship with each other.
The absence, however, of the experience of mutual support and sexual attention can work its corrosive impact on the relationship of the couple and so their physical intimacy. As the caring for each other’s personal needs becomes secondary the couple lose sight of the sexual and emotional excitement. It not only involves the loss of the excitement of pleasurable sexual sensuality but also the loss of sustaining intimacy that counters the dread of existential loneliness. The powerful drive to be with another, to care for and be cared for by another can become lost in the confusion, frustration and disappointment of the relationship. Anger and resentment may grow and may turn into active aggression, or the more insidious, passive aggression. In the absence of open honest communication about what is happening in the relationship accusations of neglect and cruelty may become habitual. The sexual relationship may come to feel totally inappropriate if not just a distant memory. Sex may be used as a form of punishment, withholding sex can be very powerful.
Loss of communication is a poison in any relationship.
In addition to the practical demands that visit all couples, there are the challenges that may flow from their individual psychology. I have already discussed the impact of early experience on our capacity for a healthy sex life, 'when do we learn to have good sex' - Just to restate that our personal psychology, our beliefs and value systems are formed in the ordinary day-to-day living in our family, in the schooling and religious teaching that we may have been exposed to. It is necessary to be aware of the influence of cultural, class and religious differences. These differences can bring to the relationship exciting alternative visions of life or they may become a source of profound misunderstanding. There may be a cultural difference in attitudes to authority, to politics, to education, to religion, to sex. These differences may or may not cause difficulties. Certainly no one can predict how a relationship will grow. As in all relationships the basic need to fully accept the uniqueness of self and the uniqueness of the other is fundamental to the success of any relationship.
The impact of sexual abuse
It is generally accepted that physical and sexually abusive relationships can have a profoundly long term damaging impact on our capacity to relate intimately with another.
Ian McEwan’s novel 'On Chesil Beach’ illustrates the powerful and complex difficulties that an inappropriate relationship between an adult and child can bring.
“Florence suspected that there was something profoundly wrong with her, that she had always been different, and that at last she was about to be exposed. Her problem, she thought, was greater, deeper, than straight forward physical disgust; her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh; her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated. She simply did not want to be 'entered’ or ‘penetrated’ - Ian Mc Ewan 2007.
The tragic story centers on the relationship between two newly-weds on the first night of their honeymoon. They have not made love up to this point. They are completely in love with each other. The male, barely able to contain his swollen desire for his bride that he feels such overpowering love for but without an understanding of her profound fears of sex; the bride is full of a crippling anxiety, she is overcome by the horror that sex represented for her.
On the first night of their honeymoon both are shy and awkward fearful of the intimate act of the consummation of their love. They do eventually overcome their apprehension and find themselves in each other’s arms. She begins to explore his body without understanding the impact that this might have on his mind and his body. Her innocent exploration of his body causes him to lose control and he ejaculates. She is disgusted and feels violated. She flees the marital bed outraged. He feels totally humiliated and rejected, abandoned. Neither are able to find an understanding of what had happened in their aborted attempt at lovemaking. The marriage ends that first night leaving both achingly bereft for the rest of their lives.
McEwan’s novel implies, rather than explicitly states, that this young woman had been sexually abused by her father. The legacy of this relationship is fear and disgust of sex.
Sexual abuse, whether it be subtle and seductive or obvious and openly threatening, is traumatic. It undermines and damages our view of ourselves and our fellow man. Our capacity to love, to trust, to be vulnerable, to relate sexually is likely to be damaged profoundly.
The victim of sexual abuse may suffer the damaging effects from the moment of the attacks or there may be a delayed reaction. Under pressure from family or a sense of confusion and shame the mind may put a ‘block’ on fully knowing/accepting that a wound has been inflicted, that a profound assault has been made on one’s person. The fear of confronting the traumatic experience may be too great and so the mind splits the memory off. It is as if it never happened. The problem is that the mind cannot fully destroy the memory indefinitely and the wounded part of the mind and body reacts and the damaging events begin to intrude on life.
The mere thought of sexual contact may arouse fear, shame, guilt. The necessary trust and vulnerability which is a part of a loving sexual union may become impossible.
It can be hugely difficult for all of us to face our relational difficulties, to accept and own our wounds. Ironically this is the only way to find lasting relief.
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