What happens when intimacy fails?

Presented by the Rev. Ann Stevenson and the Rev. Dr. Tad Meyer, husband and wife priests of the
Episcopal Church

Since much of what we will say today will be specific to marriage and marital intimacy, I thought that I should start out with a few disjointed thoughts about what makes marriage, specifically what makes Christian marriage. Since the days of Roman Empire, there has been a general consensus that what makes marriage is mutual consent given in the present tense. That is why the vows are so important and are really at the heart of our marriage service. The consent of the two parties to marry spoken to each other in the present tense is the act which defines and establishes marriage legally as well as spiritually. In the Roman understanding, proof of matrimonial consent was honor matrimonii, the decorum with which a husband treated his wife and affectio maritalis, the bond that joined husband to wife. The former, matrimonial honor, was often seen to be the outward and visible sign of the existence of the latter, marital affection. To my mind, the sacrament of marriage, the outward and spiritual sign, is, to borrow the Roman term, marital affection. In modern parlance, marital affection is, I believe, intimacy and it is the growth and nurturing of such intimacy that is the raison d'etre of marriage. It is through such intimacy that we experience the inward and spiritual grace of an Incarnate God who has made human love a reflection of the love that moves the planets in their spheres.

The institution of marriage must be seen as the context for such intimate, loving sharing. It is intimacy that truly makes marriage valid. Without intimacy the institution is simply a legal contract, a contractual union without a soul. Once when I was preparing a paper for presentation at a conference of Episcopal scholars pretentiously titled "Covenant, Contract, and Commonweal: The Ordering of Community in a Litigious Age", I asked my beloved wife what she thought was the difference between a covenant and a contract. Without a moment’s hesitation, she responded that a covenant was a contract made with the heart. Marriage is a covenant of the heart experienced through intimacy which is encased in a legal contract. Marriage is not the product of a moment but is the fruit of a life lived within the bonds of an intimate relationship. The validity of the marriage does not rest on a contractual agreement but on the ongoing presence of an intimate and loving relationship. The cultural, social, legal and religious framework of the institution exists solely to provide a context, a nurturing environment for the emergence and sustenance of such intimacy. It is our faith in an Incarnate God that enables us to engage the daunting challenges of intimacy, the joyful and painful task of truly experiencing the "otherness" of another human being and of revealing our deepest selves to them. It is also our faith which gives such intimacy its true purpose and meaning, making it a vehicle by which we encounter the full humanity our Lord accepted and redeemed. Intimacy engaged in faith is what defines Christian marriage. What makes it holy is the sacramental and sanctifying grace which God continually showers upon all those who offer Her their broken humanity couched in faith.

The real problem is what do we do when the spiritual foundation of the relationship, the intimacy which is at its very core, has died and we are left with the shell of the marital contract. What happens when the intimacy fails and a couple is held together solely by their commitment to a legal contract? I remember once seeing a comic in the newspaper with a middle-aged couple the Lockhorns leaving a marriage counselors office. As they went out the office door, the marriage counselor – who looked like Sigmund Freud – turned to his secretary and quipped “They’re two sides of the same coin…They stay together, but can’t face each other.” Sadly, we have all known couples like the Lockhorns, two sides of the same marital coin who no longer face each other in intimacy. The reasons for such a tragic bonding can be complex and painfully understandable. Ann talked about a few last week which bear repeating. Sometime the couple stays together out of fear: fear of loneliness, fear of change, fear of the costs of aging or of the cost of living. They fear that they might not find someone else or that if they do, that person won’t find them attractive. Some fear the social stigma that might come with a divorce or the financial burden it might entail. Whatever the root of the fear, the fear itself keeps them from either addressing the underlying reality or leaving the relationship. On the other hand, some folk are too comfortable in the present situation to change or leave it. In many instances, couples find ways to meet their intimacy needs outside the marriage through other relationships or through affairs. Some find that their work becomes increasingly important and that it is sufficiently fulfilling in its own right. Some focus on children and grandchildren filling the intimacy gap by loving and caring for them. In these instances, the couple discovers ways to compensate for the loss of intimacy by finding some sort of substitute which allows them to stay within the institution of marriage without too much pain.

Some folk, however, cannot bear the painful loss of an intimate relationship and they decide that despite their fears or successful substitutions, the underlying problem needs to be addressed. The first stage in that process is often very problematic. Quite simply it is trying to get both parties to agree that there is a problem. Far too often, I’m afraid, one partner has been more successful than the other in developing coping mechanisms. They may have so dulled their sense of intimacy that they no longer feel the need or they may have been incredibly successful at finding other ways to have those needs met. The end result is that they don’t think there is really any problem and that their partner has to address on their own their sense of unhappiness. On another level, they may acknowledge their partner’s unhappiness and agree to some program to address it but they do so still thinking that it is the other person’s problem and they are participating simply in order to help them address it. Like the joke I once heard: How many psychiatrist does it take to screw in a light bulb? One but the light bulb really has to want to change. They acknowledge that their partner has a need to change and they will help them make that change, specifically so that they themselves won’t have to change – after all, it’s not their problem. Let’s imagine a scenario. The wife has realized that the intimacy in the relationship is dead and she wants to address the problem by getting some help – marriage counseling. The husband doesn’t think that there is a real problem – he is so successfully defended – but he realizes that she is unhappy and so he agrees to go into counseling, not because he thinks he really needs it but because he wants to help her with her problem. Unless the husband changes his outlook, the marriage counseling won’t be able to help them at all even though it may help them clarify the underlying issue.

Ann and I were talking the other day about teasing. Ann mentioned a couple of weeks ago my encounter with an old friend of mine who had that rather flippant, teasing sense of humor. He once came to hear me preach and afterwards as he was walking out, he patted me on the back and said, “You know you’ve got promise.” Not an insult by any means, but certainly deprecating and many of his “joking” comments have that cutting edge. As we talked about that type of humor, I realized that I had another friend who teased me a lot but I never seemed to mind. In fact, he has said a few things that were downright insulting but I can always laugh with him. As I thought about the difference between those two friends, I realized that the difference between my reaction to them was a matter of trust. I could take the kidding of the second friend because I really trusted him. I know he loves and respects me and he knows that I love and respect him and so we can kid each other, rather ruthlessly, without doing any damage. I don’t really trust my first friend and so when he teases me, I assume that he might be saying something that he believes is really true and so I feel that it belittles or demeans me. When a couple seeks to address the death or absence of intimacy, it is always very difficult because usually their sense of trust has been eradicated long before and so there is always the real possibility of misunderstanding and misinterpreting motivations. If the intimacy of the relationship is to be recovered and rebuilt, there has to be a renewed level of trust. They have to both believe that this is their problem and that they are both willing to engage and address it because they trust each other which may mean that they simply trust the intimate relationship that they once had. In other words, they may not know that their partner loves them at present but they trust that they once did and they trust the fact that they both would like to recover, if possible, what it is that they lost.

When couples trust each other on that level and are willing to see this as their shared problem, they can do incredible things to mend and repair the damage they have done to each other and recapture a healthy sense of intimacy. Often it does require professional help, an outside presence that they can use to help them identify and correct some of their destructive patterns of relating to each other. When both are willing to change, change can indeed come and they can find new ways to create a shared emotional and psychological space where they can both be themselves. The most important aspect of all this which I am repeating ad nauseam is that the death of intimacy is always a joint problem. Both parties have contributed to its death and if they cannot see their own culpability in that demise there is really no sense trying to mend the relationship. There are, of course, some situations when one member of the couple may have violently violated their vows through abuse or neglect but in those cases, I believe, there probably was no real sense of intimacy at the beginning of the relationship just some sort of infatuation or intoxication. There are people who for a variety of reasons are incapable of healthy intimacy but they are attracted to someone for money, sex or a sense of security and they get married. When and if their partner decides that they need to address the issue and change, they will simply leave and will then create a scenario that suggests that it was all her or his fault and they will go out and find another person that meets their financial, sexual or social needs. Unfortunately, I have met several people who have had a series of marriages and can tell you in no uncertain terms what their partner did to destroy each one of them. When intimacy fails, both parties need to recognize that fact, accept their responsibility for it and be determined to take any steps to identify, address and remedy the underlying problems even if it means radical change. I have seen several couples who have done exactly that and have managed to recover and restore a healthy, vibrant and vital intimate relationship.

There are times, however, when intimacy has failed and the institutional framework of marriage is the only thing that is holding the couple together and one or both of the partners no longer believe that the legal contract is enough to sustain the relationship. Last week, I told you the story of how intimacy died in my first marriage. It was my first wife who finally spoke the truth and said that she could no longer live within the confines of the institution. In all honesty, I think that I was much more invested in being married than I was in being married to her but when she spoke the truth, I was devastated and immediately offered to change, suggesting that we see a marriage counselor. Even though I think she had already made up her mind, she took pity on my distress and agreed to give it a try. We were in counseling for six months and I worked very hard to try to read what she wanted from me and to change accordingly. Finally, the counselor seeing my desperate attempts to save the marriage and my wife’s apparent indifference, asked her point blank what she wanted me to do or become. She looked the counselor in the eye and said that there was really nothing I could do or change because the simple fact was that she did not love me. I suddenly realized at that moment that there was no future for our marriage and we had to divorce. She also said in that session that she thought I would be a great husband for someone else, just as I am now sure that she became a great partner for someone she now loves. There are moments when intimacy fails and the institution that is designed to protect and sustain it is no longer viable for the couple and the only tragic way forward is to sever the legal contract.

A few years ago, there was an article in the Boston Globe entitled The Joy of Less Sex? At the risk of over-simplification, the author’s basic point is that expectations about what marriage will provide have gotten out of control. As she notes, marriage is at its lowest rate in a century – 31% - and she adds Who’d want to enter into an agreement where you’re expect to meticulously parse the housework, boost one another’s career, and balance childcare, only to end up sexually unfulfilled. Later in the article she interviews Professor Brooke Blower at Boston University who believes that American marriages have faced a confluence of challenges over that last century, such as the rise and popularization of the idea of romantic love, which have imbued marriages since the early 20th century with greater power and significance but also greater expectation that at times can be impossible to live up to. He goes on to note a second challenge which concerns the rather dramatic increase in life expectancy which means that marriages have to endure much longer than in previous centuries. In addition, the author of the article goes on to note, the United States lags behind all other industrial countries with regard to parental leave and universal childcare and couples are having children later in life when they tire more easily. Is it any surprise, she notes, that CNN survey reported that one in four Americans report that they are too tired for sex.

At the end of the article, however, there is a bright spot. Intimacy, she notes, has become more precious with a more nuanced definition. She interviews a 48 year old mother of 11-year old twins who says: Intimacy might have an exclusively physical definition but relationships aren’t just about physical intimacy. There’s a richer, deeper emotional connection as well. Another 30 year old young mother suggests: It used to be that a woman handed her husband a martini as he walked through the door. I hand my husband the baby and go to the bathroom. But it’s a comfort thing. It’s kind of nice that my husband and I don’t have to worry about sex so much. We’re a lot kinder to each other now. There’s new appreciation, more understanding, more patience. Some energy gets displaced to that, and when we do have sex it’s exciting.” The author concludes by suggesting that such comments represent a liberating perspective, free of the pursuit of the ultimate marriage by leaning in, having it all, or calibrating housework against sex. We’ve made our bed; now maybe we can learn to enjoy lying in it.

I think that there is enormous pressure these days to have the “perfect marriage” and I am equally sure that many divorces and separations have been rooted in unrealistic expectations on what marriage should be and should bring. A healthy intimate relationship does not mean that there will not be any significant fights and disagreements. There will be times when you will argue, when you will lose your temper and say the very thing that you know will hurt the most. There will also be times of questioning about how the relationship is going to survive deep differences of opinions, moods and motivations. We should not encase our intimacy in unrealistic expectations that will never be met and always produce frustration and doubt. When times of trial emerge, we need to affirm the truth that it is a joint problem and as Ann mentioned last week, we must be prepared to say “I’m sorry.” The failure of intimacy should not be the result of setting the bar too high. Intimacy will fail, however, if we set the bar to low and don’t pay attention to maintaining healthy boundaries and paying attention to the needs and expectations of our intimate partner. In Meredith Goldstein’s advice column in the Boston Globe a young woman described the state of her own marriage in an article labeled Is this boring marriage normal? The young woman seeking advice writes:

 

I’m in my 40s with no kids. My first marriage lasted five years and I’m glad I ended it. It was definitely a starter marriage with a lot of verbal abuse to boot, and when I finally grew up a bit, I left. I was single for a few years and dated around, had a couple of short-term boyfriends, then fell head over heels for husband number two. He is a good guy — responsible, active in the community, generous, super cute, nice family. We got married really fast and have just passed our five-year mark. And I’m going crazy.

It’s all the usual stuff. We don’t talk about anything but schedules — his kids, the dog, grocery shopping. I get stuck with the dishes and all the housework. He doesn’t think I’m grateful enough that he goes to his job every day (even though I go to a job too). I don’t think he appreciates my domestic efforts. Bedroom stuff is happening regularly but without a lot of zing. He doesn’t like it when I talk about emotions. I don’t like it when he forgets to tell me where he is and what time he’s coming home. I want to express myself. He wants to know where to put the WD-40 and whether I fed the dog. And yes, I have tried talking to him, many times. His eyes just glaze over. I’m sure my voice sounds like the adults in a Charlie Brown special.

Does this sound about right for the five-year mark? Is this just normal in all long relationships? Does it get better? Does couples therapy actually help stuff like this? And if all this is normal, how do people tolerate boredom and missed communication for so long?

Meredith pointed out to her that some of the issues she mentioned were normal challenges like planning for the children, fixing schedules and sharing housework and other chores. We all know how difficult managing a “joint” life can be. But she went on to point out that her degree of unhappiness, her boredom and depression is certainly not normal and she recommended marriage counseling to help them recover a sense of intimacy. To my mind, the young bored woman is in danger of setting her bar way too low, accepting the obvious death of intimacy as a normal marital outcome. It is a tricky but very necessary business to create realistic expectations about what constitutes a successful and fulfilling relationship, expectations which are attainable and sustainable, capable of creating and maintaining a healthy sense of intimacy.

 

Wendel W. Meyer

 

The Boston Globe The joy of less sex? Kara Baskin/Globe Correspondent March 26, 2014.

The Boston Globe Is this boring marriage normal? Meredith Goldstein March 29, 2014