Friday 16 November 2018

What psychologist David Coleman has learned about love, rows and sex in 20 years of marriage

This week is Men's Health week, with information events and talks planned around the country. With that in mind, David Coleman writes here about how he and his wife have sustained their marriage through two decades.

'When men get better at understanding what meaning sex has for their partners, their shared sexual relationship becomes healthier and more fulfilling'
'When men get better at understanding what meaning sex has for their partners, their shared sexual relationship becomes healthier and more fulfilling'
David Coleman

David Coleman

Wedded bliss? You don't get to sustain a relationship with your wife or partner for more than 20 years without learning a thing or two… and changing a thing or two. So I'd thought I'd share a couple of things that I've learned and changed to try to keep our relationship healthy. I'd certainly never put my marriage up there as a perfect example of a healthy relationship (because that seems cocky and my wife would give out to me for lying), but it feels like a good relationship to be in.

Some of the times when we, as a couple, have struggled most are when I've taken my eye off the ball, so to speak, and prioritised work over my family. I think I'm pretty typical in that regard. Lots of us men get respect, satisfaction, even enjoyment, from the work we do. It's easy to justify working hard, because it usually facilitates all the other things our families need and want.

But, there is a real danger that all of our energy, goodwill, consideration, compassion and care get spent outside the house. That means we come home with few spare resources and a strong desire to just switch off, take some "me" time and not have to give anything, to anyone.

I always recognise that I've fallen into this trap when myself and my wife end up having the same row, probably one that we've been having for months, with no resolution and increasing bitterness and isolation. They are rarely about big problems, but when I take the time to really engage with them, I always notice that they come back to core and critical issues about respect.

So, what I've learned is that it is one thing to say that you respect someone and something completely different to show it. Lets take, for example, one of our repeating rows about housework and who shoulders that burden. I do get the concept of fairness and equality. I do get that my wife and I both work to earn money and that we equally need to share the domestic tasks too.

As my wife will tell you, I can talk a good game when it comes to being understanding, and caring, and showing lots of love and compassion… but I can also sit on the sofa, watching TV while she hangs out a load of washing, without once offering to help. Telling my wife that I agree it's important that we share the burden is not the same as sharing the burden.

So we will occasionally row about washing the dishes, cooking the meals, ferrying the children around to all their activities and who vacuums what.

We don't row every day, but the apparent inequality in our approach to these tasks eventually reaches a tipping point and a "discussion" ensues. I hate the discussions. More often than not I end up angry, resentful and I retreat. That never helps.

Engaging in the conflict, and really trying to see it from my wife's perspective, and trying to show her my perspective, is what works. Having a desire to use the conflict as an opportunity to bring about some kind of healthy change works. Describing my frustrations, and tuning into my wife's frustrations, works.

So, I'd suggest that lesson one in how to have a healthy relationship is to know what you want, and to listen carefully to what your other half wants too. Then be willing to stand up for what you believe, but try to find where your beliefs can overlap with your wife's or partner's. Recognising that your relationship must work for each of you, never just one or the other, makes it healthier and stronger.

Successfully managing conflict increases our emotional intimacy in a relationship. If I can talk openly, and equally about the stuff that really bothers me and be open to hearing about the stuff that really bothers my wife, we find the reasons to care about each other, to be compassionate and to love each other.

This slots right into a second thing I've learned over the years. Trying to create physical intimacy, without attending to the emotional intimacy, is doomed to failure. Lots of us men use sex as a way of trying to express emotional intimacy, which is fine, but we forget that women are not the same as us. Sex is, I'd guess, equally important for men and women. But the meaning sex has for us is very different.

When men get better at understanding what meaning sex has for their partners, their shared sexual relationship becomes healthier and more fulfilling.

Foreplay doesn't just start with kissing, it starts with sharing. Sharing meals, problems, disappointments, successes, laughter, sadness, warmth on a cold night, money, opinions, dreams, and mostly just sharing time.

I think women see sex as just one way to express emotional intimacy, not the only way. All of the other tendernesses, kindnesses, thoughtfulness and caring are just as important, if not more important. I think men are willing, indeed sometimes happy, to have sex without love. We can really enjoy the physicality of it, or the physical release it offers. The whole of the pornography industry is based on our willingness to do this. But sex without the emotional intimacy that comes from really striving together, may not offer the same pleasure to women.

So, I've learned that sex has to be an integrated part of our relationship, not a bolted on, adjunct to it. I've got to be able to talk about what I want, and, unsurprisingly, I have to listen carefully to what my wife wants. That way we find balance.

If I've discovered one more thing that makes our relationship healthier it's that we have both come to understand that we don't need each other. We don't need to be together, we want to be. That desire to stick together is what gives us the impetus to keep struggling on when the bliss seems far away.

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