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.
1. Sexual Identity
The best metaphor to describe a man's psyche is that of a seamless fabric. Men see themselves as a whole entity. If they feel good about their sex life then that sense of adequacy spills over into other important parts of their experience. And conversely, if their sex life is floundering, then the rest cannot be too far behind, they reason. Men have much less ability to confine their sexual experience into one small part of the whole.
Ed is a case in point. He claims that inadequacy follows him around like a dog nipping at his heels. He may be great in a boardroom—but he's not all that good in bed, at least by his assessment of his wife's desire for him. In his mind, it's only a matter of time until others discover that he's not as competent as he's cracked up to be. He tends to measure himself, however unfortunately, by how physically connected he feels to his wife. Sex is the clearest language he knows and it speaks volumes to the whole of him.
While a woman might say she's happy in her marriage even if the sex isn't all that great and hasn't been for a long time, her husband would tend to say their marriage is in jeopardy. There is much more resting on the sexual connection—for most men, anyway—because sex says more to a man about himself.
2. Sexual Affirmation
Clark rises at the crack of dawn to iron the police uniform he proudly wears into town each day. There is something about a sharp, crisp shirt that helps him face the challenge of his job. He never knows what will come his way—domestic violence, a routine traffic stop where someone pulls a gun, a child lost on streets that aren't safe. He just knows he has to be ready to make the right call in an instant.
He's encouraged that, so far, no negative reports have been filed on his performance. One slip on his part could brand his record for years—that's the downside of guarding the public, he admits. Clark is up for a promotion this spring and with a third child on the way, he needs all the favor he can get.
Clark would tell you that a good word from his police sergeant is music to his ears. He loves the work he does. But as he crawls into bed with his wife at night, he's admits that nothing can touch what a warm reception from her means to him. Somehow her touch makes the rest of the world go away—at least for awhile.
I have wondered, along with many women I'm sure, why sex seems to mean so much to a man. How does a tryst so basic, so fundamentally simple, cut through all the underbrush of a man's life and touch something at the core of him? George Gilder, in his wonderful book, Men and Marriage, puts words to this mystery. Gilder calls women the "sexually superior" gender. By that he means that our bodies mirror more about being female. We can give birth and breast-feed children—glorious acts of power and influence unavailable to men. Our bodies can actually house people; they are versatile. Only one sexual act—intercourse—reflects to a man that indeed, he is a man. And in that act, performance is vital. A woman can relate to a man sexually whether she is into the experience or not. If a man cannot perform sexually, it's a "show-stopper," as they say. Gilder writes:
Men must perform. … The man is less secure sexually than the woman because his sexuality is dependent on action, and he can act sexually only through a precarious process difficult to control. For men the desire for sex is not simply a quest for pleasure. It is an indispensable test of identity (emphasis mine).
Every day a man walks into a world that says, essentially, "Prove yourself. Prove that as a man, you have something worthwhile to offer." In ways both blatant and subtle, a man is evaluated and measured and stacked up against the next guy all day long. The big question in his mind, conscious or not, is whether he is man enough. Does he have what it takes to win the contract, win the woman, win the war? Sex, then, is not the only route to affirmation—but it is surely the quickest and most direct one for a man. It is a confirmation so deep that it is far more soul-ish than physical in nature. Sex means more to a man because, indeed, he hears in it a message about himself.
The way this plays out in a marriage is that when a man is turned down in his overture for sexual intimacy, it feels more personal than seems reasonable to either party. It feels like rejection. When it comes to matters sexual, a man tends to lose his normal hold on objectivity. Other situations he can see clearly. If his wife speaks irritably at dinner after she's had a hard day—it's not about him. If she overspent on her credit card, then she's got a problem she's got to solve. But when he's denied a bid for sexual intimacy, it feels to him as though he, himself, his very person, is being rejected. And only after he works to get past that awful feeling does he stand a chance of hearing that his wife actually does, in fact, have a splitting headache. This is, at least, the internal process that many men go through.
3. Sexual Angst
Each conversation I've had with the men I've counseled brought big "ah-ha" moments for me as I've listened to them talk about their encounters with sexual angst. When a man chooses a woman to marry, he knows he is limiting his sexual options to her alone. In the arms of this one woman, he rests the most emotionally vulnerable aspect of his being.
In talking to couples, a woman's pain in a relationship comes out clearly, and usually rather quickly. She longs (and rightly so) for a man who will truly hear her and understand what she's up against. "I bare my soul to my husband and he just stares at me blankly and slowly starts to edge out of the room," a woman may complain. You can sense the pain in the betrayal and disappointment she feels. It's nearly palpable sometimes. But often the same woman will miss entirely the irony of her situation. Her husband feels the same pain just as poignantly—only his sense of being overlooked, not wanted, not attended to is sexual.
A major breakthrough in a couple's life happens when they let their personal pain guide them to the heart of the other person. The awful way I feel when my husband backs out of an important conversation is a window into the way he feels when his sexual life goes begging. The pain we feel, then, can tutor and motivate us to reach out and touch the other person in the manner for which they long. And wounds long festering can start to heal, bit by tiny bit.
The great danger zone in a marriage is when we withhold anything in our power to give that would bless the other person. Perhaps that's why the Bible encourages couples to make sure that sexual love is given freely. "Stop depriving one another," the apostle Paul says, "except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer" (1 Corinthians 7:5, NASB). In other words, don't let your sexual life degenerate to a place where either of you feels that the other person could give love yet chooses to withhold it.
I am grateful for the window into male sexuality that I've been afforded. It helps me sense a little more how much God intends sex to be a physical representation—the model of a spiritual mystery that we will understand one day in the presence of the Lord. For now, we have an experience that bonds us for life with the heart of another human being. We have a frame that holds us together when the days grow dark, and there are no words strong enough to make everything all right. We have a place of shelter, healing, passion, and dare I say it, grace.
Paula Rinehart is a counselor in Raleigh, North Carolina, and author of numerous books, including her most recent, Strong Women, Soft Hearts (W Publishing) to be released in July.
2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.