Tuesday 16 January 2018

Dear Patricia: The gap between men and women is filled with silence about sex

One theme stood out above all others when Patricia Redlich reviewed her postbag from 2010 -- the lack of understanding remaining between the sexes when it came to the loss of lust

SEX dominated the letters this year. The jaundiced might say, "so what's new? After all, it's an agony column". And that would be missing the point. What emerged was an apparently unbridgeable gap between men and women -- and no, it isn't anything as simple as a battle of the sexes.

The reality is that couples can't talk about sex. More precisely, they can't talk about its absence from a relationship. We can ask to swing from chandeliers, share heart-stopping details of past love affairs, park our condoms, contraceptive pills and diaphragms complete with spermicidal jelly beside the toothbrushes in the bathroom. We can't find the language for lack of lust.

Most sadly of all, couples can successfully negotiate a lifetime of togetherness, sorting out the myriad complex tasks involved in bringing up their children, managing their finances and facing down adversity on a thousand different fronts, but when sexual desire deserts one of them, silent and damaging withdrawal seems the only solution. There are, apparently, no words.

It is, of course, a difficult discussion to have. We're removing the central plank of our marriage, reneging on the deal about sexual love, and doing so unilaterally. No, lust is not lost deliberately. This isn't an aggressive act, like refusing sex when we're having an argument. None the less, it is still about changing the ground rules. It's serious. Small wonder, then, that instead of tackling the issue, we act as though we are deaf, dumb and blind. We waver between ridicule and authoritarianism, laughing our lack of interest off as if it were irrelevant, making it sound as though a partner's continuing sexual need is somehow shameful, simply saying a definitive 'no', allowing of no discourse, as the shutters are silently drawn.

Men and women write to me. They are uncomprehending, and terribly hurt. Sure, some of them are angry too, but that's just their way of handling the helplessness. Two things truly distress them, the absence of any communication, and the total withdrawal of all affection. When sex is silently dismissed, so is kissing, hugging, hand-holding, the touching of a shoulder as we pass by, the laughing eye-contact of two people who are close, the companionable banter in a shared bathroom, the appreciative glances when a partner dresses up, the predictable complaints when cold feet land on a warm bottom. Because under the old deal, all this could, at least potentially, lead to sex. And so a huge and all-pervasive chunk of the relationship disappears. Above all, the ease is gone. The resulting loneliness is awful.

Where courage fails us, psychologist Tony Humphreys's recent comment might help: "There is no greater wisdom than human kindness,'" he said. That is true. If we can't work up the gumption to do some straight talking, then perhaps it would help to search our hearts for kindness instead. Maybe to talk, all we need to do is drop the burden of being ourselves, and look at the man or woman sitting opposite us. And wisdom isn't just about helping someone else. Wisdom also embraces a large measure of self-interest. Why create an emotionally barren marriage, full of tension and silent stand-offs, when we could do otherwise?

Maybe it's time to challenge the inherent oppression that comes with our current social openness about sex. We now know that people want sex. We've forgotten that some people don't, or don't yet, or don't anymore. So we frantically try to ply our children with sex education when they're still playing with Lego, fail completely to understand the notion of a platonic relationship, and put a near-total taboo on the notion of lost libido. In a world where ads for Viagra run a close second to offers of replica designer watches in internet spam, it's hard to say you're not interested.

Women write to me as well as men, each of them sad because a husband no longer wants her. Yet I have the feeling women are more likely to turn away from sex than men. I have no statistics, and I may well be wrong. It's just that the women writers seem to be younger, and the likelihood that there is a specific problem underlying their husbands' sexual lack of interest seems to be greater, be it physical ill-health, psychiatric distress, hidden sexual orientation, or the reality of an unacknowledged ongoing affair.

So maybe it's time, too, to challenge the notion that women and men are the same when it comes to sex. Maybe there are even -- dare I say it -- biological differences too. I'm only asking. Because the letters I get from men, for the most part, talk of longer-term relationships where the wife has just opted out, apparently for no reason. And these women tend to be older. Do women change when the world of babies is over? Does their drive to be sexually attractive ebb with age? Or do women still want male attention, but only up to a point? Does sexual desire mask other needs, like wanting to be loved, emotionally safe and personally secure? And with time, do these needs get fulfilled through other channels?

None of this alters the fact that we owe it to our partners to talk to them, to take the sting out of what seems like rejection, to soften the blow of that resounding 'no'. If only we could see, we also owe it to ourselves. The failure in courage, or kindness, is a straight question of shooting ourselves in the foot. Why rob a relationship of its fun, and intimacy, and enduring gentleness? And whatever happened to loving submission? What's so hard about liking what is a partner's ardent wish? Yes, I know I'm now going to be shot, but it has to be said.

Silence is what kills when it comes to affairs too. And once again it's a question of courage, and kindness. When found out, the instinct is for instant damage-limitation -- which isn't just selfish, as in not wanting to face the music, but is also about the desire not to hurt more than we have to. In the real world, however, it seldom stops there. Few husband or wives believe it was a chance encounter, the product of deep drunkenness, or an entirely passive response to a persuasive come-on. Blaming the other participant is pointless. But worst of all is the suppression of detail. Finding out in drip-feed manner is most hurtful of all. Quite simply, it leaves a partner feeling like a fool. And that makes forgiveness pretty close to impossible.

Full and frank disclosure is the only road to redemption. That way, we give an injured partner the capacity to retain their dignity. Armed with all that is to be known, she -- or he -- can face the world. There are no uncomfortable truths still lurking out there waiting to be tripped over.

What am I saying? That love requires us to be honest. More importantly, it requires us to take responsibility for ourselves. Whether we lack desire, or have brought our desire elsewhere, we have to resist the temptation to divert, or ignore, a partner's unhappiness. It is never just about the deed, fact or omission. It is always also about the way we handle it. And no, it's not wrong that I refer to withdrawal of affection and affairs in the same discourse. I am not saying they are the same thing. That would be stupid. I am saying that they proved to be a constant in this year's postbag. And they are a template for a simple truth. There is no substitute for courage and kindness. They are the flipsides of the coin called wisdom. And without wisdom, we are truly lost.

As always, my deep gratitude to all who wrote to me. I am honoured that they trusted me with their heartache and despair. Thank you. And take care.

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