Ed sits across from me, during our counseling session, blowing the steam off coffee too hot to drink. A confident man in his late thirties, he searches hard for words that explain the unexplainable—why his marriage is ailing.
Really, it's a bit of a mystery to him. Other parts of his life are trucking along, he assures me. The small insurance agency he started ten years ago has taken off nicely. His son is finally getting to play quarterback on the high school team. He and his wife recently remodeled an old home. Running his fingers through thinning hair, he jokes about a receding hairline and how badly he needs to exercise. Finally, he gets to his marriage. No, things with Anne aren't all that good, he admits. They just haven't been on the same wavelength for some time. He has no idea how to make their marriage better. He hates to be in my office—it makes him feel too much like a failure. But he needs somebody to whom he can talk, someone he can trust.
I edge closer to the question I know I have to work into the conversation. "So … how's your sex life?" I ask.
Ed turns quiet. His eyebrow registers surprise at my forthrightness. "Well," he finally admits, "sex is a real problem." Ed looks back down at the floor and takes a gulp of coffee.
I know better than to retreat at this point.
"Sex is a bit of a problem," I say. "So how does that affect you?" I ask. Ed starts to talk now, as if someone waved a green light, and I have to work to keep up with all he's saying.
One of the unexpected gifts for me in turning fifty is that, suddenly it seems, I've become a "safe" woman. The men I see in the context of my family counseling practice talk far more freely about their lives. They confide their secrets. They actually put into words how they feel. Especially about sex. I hear about the male experience in ways I never heard before, and I think, I wish I could have understood where men are coming from earlier in my life. Maybe that was my problem: I just couldn't hear the longing, the emotional need beneath the raw physical desire. Or maybe there are other reasons that a man doesn't talk sooner. Perhaps life itself puts a sock in his mouth and he knows he dare not come across as anything but utterly confident, self-possessed, and brimming with testosterone. The fewer the words, then, the better.
In any event, what I hear from men has opened the world of understanding how they actually experience their lives—their sexual lives. That understanding, I realize now, holds the key to the empathy that brings a husband and wife together in ways that feel good and right to them both.