I have a friend who has not touched his beautiful wife in over 20 years. He was looking for a relationship outside of the marriage in order to satisfy his needs for intimacy and his desperate unhappiness.
I asked him why they were not intimate and he said “she has no interest in me.”
I asked him how he knew, and he told me that one day she was in the kitchen cooking and he came up behind her and put his arms around her and touched her breasts. She pushed him away and said “don’t touch me like that.” He walked away and never touched her again.
I asked him about his marriage, they have a great family, a wonderful life, he loves her dearly and has no interest in changing the family dynamics or leaving because of this deep love. He is a smart guy, very successful professionally, well educated and considers himself to be a very logical and cool headed human being. "Women are the emotional ones" in his mind, and yet, his intense emotional reactivity has created a situation where he is desperately unhappy on many levels for TWENTY YEARS.
This situation is fairly common, with less extreme emotional reactivity, but the one where one approaches, the other says “not now” or even "not in that way, please do it like this" the approacher feels rejected and reacts accordingly, and the other one feels irritated at the rejection reaction and both enter an ongoing loop of reactivity.
Here is the thing, when you REACT you are never reacting to the situation at hand, no matter how intelligent or “logical” you think you are. When you RESPOND to the situation at hand you can manage it, and yourself, and create a good result.
This man had no idea what his wife was going through at that moment, all he knew was that he wanted to touch her body. When she did not like that, he took his toys and left for good, so deeply hurt that he preferred to remain celibate for 2 decades and to eliminate the physical intimacy from his marriage punishing not only her, but himself. Had he been responsive instead of reactive, not only could he have been able to respect his wife’s needs in that moment but he could have easily generated the space for intimacy at a better time.
One person says something. The other reacts, the first reacts to the reaction and the loop begins. Frustration abounds. Intimacy destroyed.
To break out of this cycle you must learn to become RESPONSIVE, instead of reactive.
Another quick one, but more personal. There was an attractive man who had expressed interest in dating me, although we had not yet met in person. A few days after talking he sent me a joke meme which I thought was absolutely disgusting, way way out of line. I gently said that it was a little too much for me, that I like a good dirty joke and some banter but this was not for me. His REACTION was to tell me that other people would laugh at it, just move on, and that he would never send me anything again. This “Fine. I’ll never say anything ever again” reaction told me enough about him to know that dating this man would be an exercise in frustration.
What about my friend?! Well, he’s a friend, not a client, and unwilling to take responsibility for the intimacy in his marriage so this will not change.
Reactivity is the bane of relationships and the death of intimacy.
The good news is that you can heal your reactivity and improve your patterns of connection. The other good news is that it can be done with or without your partner. The third and final good news is that it does not take years or decades of therapy and talking about why you’re reactive. It takes willingness to put in the work to learn some new skills, some new patterns of response and to have enough responsibility to put them into action. This is not magical thinking, it is specific practical tools that anyone can put into use.
Are you ready for reactivity to stop ruining your intimacy?
Book a free phone call, send a message, let's talk about it.
I got an email today from my subscription to Esther Perel, one of the teachers I admire most and wanted to share not just her words, but some thoughts that were provoked in me in how the art of conversation relates to your sex life. A common theme I hear -- from men, primarily so this is where this conversation is directed -- is how hard it is to connect with women and get them interested in sex. This is both about partnered men AND single ones. Most of them have stories about how the reason that women don't want them is: they don’t have enough money, they don’t have a six pack, they are “not an asshole” or whatever it is they think that women need in order to agree to sex... Since they’re looking for that magic button to open the legs and get what they want. They will drone on and on about how they are one of the good guys because they are willing to give oral sex and are resentful that this willingness is not gratefully accepted and praised.
The truth is that women want sex and intimacy just as much as men do, and we’re living in a time where it’s far more socially acceptable to engage sexually outside of the constructs that in the past made it extremely dangerous socially and physically to engage in the sex she wants to be having. There are as many of us wanton and willing women as there are you men, of any age. The problem is, if you turn her off with your poor social skills she is not going to want to have sex with you. Married to you or not! Sex is a choice, and when reasons such as marital obligation, attempted procreation, fear, coercion are not in play then unfortunately or fortunately there needs to be likability and attraction. Seductive conversation is a skill, one to use on your dates or when you intend to create an erotic environment, and it is NOT the same as your day to day buddy buddy conversation state.
Culturally, a lot of women are conditioned to be nice, to listen, to smile and to make sure that their social cues are not hurtful to the person they’re interacting with. This can be confusing to a male who does not actually know the difference between politeness, and interest, or who never learned how to engage in enjoyable conversation and instead is put in situations over and over and over where a woman of interest is tolerating his presence instead of enjoying it.
My invitation, if you suspect this could be your problem, is to find a man who is utterly charming and socially affable and spend some time with him. NOT basking in his attention, since chances are he is going to feel really good to hang out with, but in order to pay attention to how he interacts. What is he doing that is so nice to be around? What is the magic behind his easy manner? What does he DO to make people around him feel good? You do not need to learn how to be an extrovert or to be talkative, or entertaining. But it would be helpful to learn how NOT to be repulsive via your conversation and instead inspire others to feel good in your presence. I’d say that is something worth doing and could change your personal life dramatically. I do actually know someone who teaches this professionally, a brilliant teacher and human that I’d recommend above any other and am happy to recommend his material.
Esther Perel's email quoted below
“All too often, I see the tension between speaking and listening. We expect to hear people drone on about themselves in professional settings, hoping to stand out, get a promotion or investment, or make a life-changing connection. But lately that mentality of pitching oneself is showing up in smaller circles. How many dinner parties have you attended where one person seems to be talking AT everyone, at length, about their business or their back problems?
From the very beginning, Western parents tell children “use your words.” The current norm emphasizes direct communication and the ability to clearly articulate one’s needs as an essential step to building confidence and self-esteem. It’s interesting, isn’t it? We make of point of encouraging one another to be assertive—speak up! Communicate! Advocate for yourself! Yell it from the mountain tops!--but we don’t quite prioritize listening in the same way.
The art of conversation is about healthy amounts of both: thoughtful speaking and hardcore listening, asking questions and navigating commonalities and differences. Consider Erich Fromm’s six rules of listening. Or David Bohm’s writings on the paradox of communication in which he says “if we are to live in harmony with ourselves and with nature, we need to be able to communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds to or otherwise defends his own ideas.”
In an age of self-surveillance, of measuring oneself’s likeability based on “likes” and one’s network based on how many “connections” they have on LinkedIn, the collapse of simple but depthful conversation was almost bound to happen. Now, at least in cities, we’re more likely to meet a friend at a co-working space—those of the “venture-backed belonging” variety—than in our homes.
The gap between work and life is narrowing. So many of us are putting our whole selves into our work, investing everything we’ve got by betting on ourselves. In this state, transforming dialogues into monologues feels like a survival tactic. We know we need the support of our friends and communities, but we feel as if we must advocate for it. Rather than deep exchanges that are rooted in curiosity, or even superficial conversations floated by fun, our conversations become performances. How many opportunities do we miss because we didn’t ask someone about themselves? “
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