Dr. Kelly Flanagan says marriage can’t make you un-lonely. It’s a place where two humans can share the experience of loneliness.
I feel bad for marital communication, because it gets blamed for everything. For generations, in survey after survey, couples have rated marital communication as the number one problem in marriage. It’s not.
Marital communication is getting a bad rap. It’s like the kid who fights back on the playground. The playground supervisors hear a commotion and turn their heads just in time to see his retaliation. He didn’t create the problem; he was reacting to the problem. But he’s the one who gets caught, so he’s sent off to the principal’s office.
Or, in the case of marital communication, the therapist’s office.
I feel bad for marital communication, because everyone gangs up on him, when the truth is, on the playground of marriage, he’s just reacting to one of the other troublemakers who started the fight:
1. We marry people because we like who they are. People change. Plan on it. Don’t marry someone because of who they are, or who you want them to become.Marry them because of who they are determined to become. And then spend a lifetime joining them in their becoming, as they join you in yours.
2. Marriage doesn’t take away our loneliness. To be alive is to be lonely. It’s the human condition. Marriage doesn’t change the human condition. It can’t make us completely unlonely. And when it doesn’t, we blame our partner for doing something wrong, or we go searching for companionship elsewhere. Marriage is intended to be a place where two humans share the experience of loneliness and, in the sharing, create moments in which the loneliness dissipates. For a little while.
3. Shame baggage. Yes, we all carry it it. We spend most of our adolescence and early adulthood trying to pretend our shame doesn’t exist so, when the person we love triggers it in us, we blame them for creating it. And then we demand they fix it. But the truth is, they didn’t create it and they can’t fix it. Sometimes the best marital therapy is individual therapy, in which we work to heal our own shame. So we can stop transferring it to the ones we love.
4. Ego wins. We’ve all got one. We came by it honestly. Probably sometime around the fourth grade when kids started to be jerks to us. Maybe earlier if our family members were jerks first. The ego was a good thing. It kept us safe from the emotional slings and arrows. But now that we’re grown and married, the ego is a wall that separates. It’s time for it to come down. By practicing openness instead of defensiveness, forgiveness instead of vengeance, apology instead of blame,vulnerability instead of strength, and grace instead of power.
5. Life is messy and marriage is life. So marriage is messy, too. But when things stop working perfectly, we start blaming our partner for the snags. We add unnecessary mess to the already inescapable mess of life and love. We must stop pointing fingers and start intertwining them. And then we can we walk into, andthrough, the mess of life together. Blameless and shameless.
6. Empathy is hard. By its very nature, empathy cannot happen simultaneously between two people. One partner must always go first, and there’s no guarantee of reciprocation. It takes risk. It’s a sacrifice. So most of us wait for our partner to go first. A lifelong empathy standoff. And when one partner actually does take the empathy plunge, it’s almost always a belly flop. The truth is, the people we love are fallible human beings and they will never be the perfect mirror we desire. Can we love them anyway, by taking the empathy plunge ourselves?
7. We care more about our children than about the one who helped us make them. Our kids should never be more important than our marriage, and they should never be less important. If they’re more important, the little rascals will sense it and use it and drive wedges. If they’re less important, they’ll act out until they are given priority. Family is about the constant, on-going work of finding the balance.
8. The hidden power struggle. Most conflict in marriage is at least in part a negotiation around the level of interconnectedness between lovers. Men usually want less. Women usually want more. Sometimes, those roles are reversed. Regardless, when you read between the lines of most fights, this is the question you find: Who gets to decide how much distance we keep between us? If we don’t ask that question explicitly, we’ll fight about it implicitly. Forever.
9. We don’t know how to maintain interest in one thing or one person anymore. We live in a world pulling our attention in a million different directions. The practice of meditation–attending to one thing and then returning our attention to it when we become distracted, over and over and over again–is an essential art. When we are constantly encouraged to attend to the shiny surface of things and to move on when we get a little bored, making our life a meditation upon the person we love is a revolutionary act. And it is absolutely essential if any marriage is to survive and thrive.
As a therapist, I can teach a couple how to communicate in an hour. It’s not complicated. But dealing with the troublemakers who started the fight? Well, that takes a lifetime.
It’s a lifetime that forms us into people who are becoming ever more loving versions of ourselves, who can bear the weight of loneliness, who have released the weight of shame, who have traded in walls for bridges, who have embraced the mess of being alive, who risk empathy and forgive disappointments, who love everyone with equal fervor, who give and take and compromise, and who have dedicated themselves to a lifetime of presence and awareness and attentiveness.
And that’s a lifetime worth fighting for.
Originally appeared at DrKellyFlanagan.com
Photo: Flickr/Jason Sussberg
Pete Beisner and his wife have found that sex is a great way to alleviate pain and help people heal after injuries or surgery.
In the years before I met her, my wife had a couple of experiences that left her with such serious injures she actually saw the proverbial light and the tunnel. Some of those injuries left her with long term complications, so many, in fact, that we’ve lost count of how many injuries and surgeries she has had during our relationship. But our best estimate on the surgeries is around thirteen.
One of the few upsides of being in a marriage with someone who has a broken body is that I now have a world of experience in loving someone who experiences pain and needs more physical help, and can pass along some of the things I have learned to help other people. Last year, I shared 23 tips for helping a partner in pain. I was surprised when we heard from a lot of people wanting to express their thanks.
When I wrote that article, I debated about whether to include information about sex during recovery because it can help manage pain. But in the end, I decided that it really needed its own article.
It is tough to get educational information about having sex with someone recovering from a serious injury or surgery. With most in-patient surgeries, you get instructions to abstain from sex until a certain number of weeks after the procedure. In most cases, that number coincides with return to part or full-time work. But there are problems with that estimate of time, and it leaves out a whole lot of information that could make your partner’s recovery easier.
To make this simpler, I am going to use an acronym for Sex After Surgery or Injury: SASI. Also, I use the pronoun “she” because s/he is too cumbersome and my experience as a heterosexual partner is what informs this article.
Here is the first thing you must know:
You can easily and accidentally hurt your partner during sex. I will explain how and why later. But suffice it to say, you need more than just common sense when it comes to SASI. However, it is important for you to know that I AM NOT A DOCTOR. I am writing from my own experiences.
1. Sexual arousal can diminish the experience of pain. In addition to providing comfort for some people, it can raise levels of oxytocin and release endorphins according Barry R. Komisaruk, PhD, a distinguished service professor at Rutgers.
2. Sexual stimulation is not a replacement for other forms of pain management, but it can make them more effective. Think about pain as a small fire, like one that can happen on a stove while cooking. If you have a large glass of water, or pain reliever, you can put out a small fire easily. But once the flames get higher, you are going to need more than just one glass of water to put out the fire. Augmenting other pain management tools with sexual arousal can be very helpful for some people.
3. The pain blocking effects of sexual arousal are not all good. If you think about sex as exercise AND a numbing agent, you should spot the problem pretty quickly. Your partner can get hurt because she fails to notice when an activity or position is not good for her.
4. Have a clear talk with the surgeon or treating doctor in front of your spouse. It is important that you have this talk with the person in charge of your partner’s care, not a nurse or other doctor.
It is important to have the conversation yourself because you are responsible for keeping your partner safe during a very vulnerable time. Reading the discharge instructions are not enough because the kind of sex referred to in those documents is stannous penetrative sex.
Here is what you need to ask: What bodily activity (motions or physiological processes) would be harmful? If you understand the mechanics of what kind of activity should be limited, you will better be able to help your partner in every part of her recovery.
For most surgeries and major injuries, you will be instructed not to have sex before the six week check-up. But unless you are otherwise instructed, if your partner wants gentle and non-penetrative sexual contact that is perfectly reasonable. And it may even be very helpful and healing for your partner (See #3)
There are exceptions to this, of course. If your partner has had surgery on her reproductive or lower digestive tracts, it may be important for your partner to avoid orgasming for a number of weeks. For a few conditions, even getting sexual aroused can be dangerous.
Unless you are told otherwise, it is usually safe to pleasure your partner at whatever point your partner wants it. But, just in case I have not said this enough already, let me say it one more time. If you have any questions ASK THE DOCTOR.
5. For the first several weeks after a person starts recovering (that may not be the date of injury or surgery if there are complications) sexual contact should be about making the recovering partner comfortable – and nothing else.
As stressful as this time is, it is not a time to expect you partner to help you with your sexual needs. Of course it is okay to talk about how you feel. But personally, and this is just my opinion, it is not really cool to ask for anything sexual until your partner has returned to her normal routine.
6. It is not weird or wrong for your partner to want sexual contact and for you to give it. There are lots of reasons why your partner might want sex other than just pain relief. Some people are comforted by it. Others find that it helps them manage the frustration caused by the limitations that their illness or injury has put on them. If sexual contact has the power to make your partner feel comforted or less pain and it is what she wants, there is nothing wrong and everything right with giving it to her.
7. Don’t wait until you are in the moment to make a limit for what you are willing to do. People who have learned about the obliviating power of sexual feelings either by experience or from hearing about it can become desperate for sexual tough when their pain gets out of hand..
But sometimes a partner’s need to make the pain go away can cause her to ask for things that she is not ready for. That is why you want to have safety information and make decisions about your limits ahead of time.
8. If either of you are not comforted or comfortable with sex, non sexual touching can promote healing and drastically reduce pain. There are only so many touch messages that the brain can process, and sometimes you can overload the nervous system with positive touches so that negative ones are not as “noisy.”
9. At some point, it is a good idea to make friends with the injured part of your partner’s body. Kiss the scar. Touch the area with as much gentleness as you would the eyelids of a newborn. When a part of your partner’s body fails, your partner can feel alienated from it or betrayed by it. It sounds goofy as shit, and I hesitate to say this because it makes no sense, but consider taking to the injured area, telling it that you will protect it and that you want it to heal. I know, it sounds all airy-fairy, but it can be hugely healing for your partner. My wife says that she has been able restore a good relationship with parts of her body because I touched them, included them in my love-making instead of ignoring them.
10. Pain medication can make it easy for a partner to get aroused but hard for the person to orgasm. There is a blissed out state that your partner may be able to enter. It provides a brief vacation from pain that sort of resets the pain meter to zero.
11. Pillows, pillows and pillows – also lube, if needed.
12. When possible, try to rehearse positions without either of you being aroused. If your partner cannot kneel or lay on her back with her legs in the air when she is not aroused, she should not be doing it when she is aroused.
13. Orgasms can cause a person’s whole body to contract. That full-body jerking can jar the injured surgical site causing a great deal of pain. Talk to your partner about the possibility of helping her restrain the injured part of her body when she is about to orgasm.
14. Check in with your partner often, more often than you even would with a new partner. You may want to take mini-breaks if you have returned to strenuous activities so that your check-in is when your partner is less aroused.
15. Ice first, then cuddle. Both of you may not think that you have done anything harmful, but apply ice anyway. Trust me – just do it.
People who are “normal” often don’t even know what that feels like.
I have been legally blind for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t caught until I was in first grade – I simply didn’t realize that there was writing on the blackboard. It took the teacher a while to realize I wasn’t just dumb – I simply couldn’t see what other children could see. I remember the series of eye doctor appointments, as my eyes got progressively worse. Back then, there were the eye charts with the big E at the top, and optometrists would ask me, “what’s the smallest line you can read on the eye chart?” And I would say, “where’s the eye chart?”
So when I finally was able to fix my eyes, it was very much as they had promised. Pretty much a miracle. The operation itself took 15 minutes. It was weird to feel the surgeon cutting into my eyes, but not all that painful. They put blinders on my eye for that evening, I went to sleep, woke up the next morning—and could see.
Two weeks after the operation, I walk into the doctor’s office for a check up. Yes! I can see the eye chart! The doctor projects the first line of letters on the wall and asks me to read them. I get through all the letters. The second line is a bit harder. I can guess, because I literally know that, for instance the letter A is the only letter that is pointy on top and a T is the only letter that wide on top and pointy on the bottom. In my years of being blind, I have literally memorized what the alphabet looks like when fuzzy.
Then the third line. The doctor says “Ok, if you can read this line, it will be 20 / 20!”
I can’t read it at all. I can’t even guess. It’s all a blur.
And I say to the doctor “Oh man! I am almost normal!”
That sensation of being “almost normal” was an extraordinary sensation to me. And in a flash it explained to me something that I had understood but had never been able to really internalize.
“Almost normal” must be what gay couples feel like when same-sex marriage is approved in 38 states.
“Almost normal” is what a Stay-At-Home dad feels when he takes his kids to the playground and is just experiencing the sheer joy of being with them – until someone comes up to him and says “taking the day off from work today?” or worse “oh, so you are babysitting?”
“Almost normal” is what is what a brilliant person feels like on a conference call when no one can see his wheelchair.
“Almost normal” is what Jackie Summers felt like, as an entrepreneur speaking to a group of 200 salespeople. As he was waiting to walk into the conference room to speak, a security guard walked up to “check him out.” He found out from the receptionist that someone had called security because an unknown black man in an office building is somehow suspicious—even if he is an entrepreneur and public speaker.
Having privilege means you don’t know what it feels like to be almost normal. Privilege IS normal. A lot of people seem to think privilege means that someone is standing on a street corner handing out benefit after benefit to, say, the straight white guy. But that’s not the way it works. Being able to get married is a benefit all heterosexual people have but not all gay people have. Not having to worry about getting shot when you are stopped for a traffic violation or jaywalking….most of us don’t see that as a benefit to living in this world. We see it as normal.
And being able to be seen as “just a normal person” is one of the greatest privileges there is.
photo: wwworks / flickr
Gena Raymond tells her story of rape and how she found the courage to go on from Elizabeth Smart’s story.
I was raped when I was fourteen years old. I didn’t call it rape until I was 31 years old. Until then, there was always a part of me that blamed myself.
Although my family was not very religious (we’d only go to church on holidays), I became very Catholic very quickly when I entered a Catholic secondary school. The values and structure really appealed to me as a type A personality coming from a Bohemian, unorthodox, anything-but-nuclear family. It wasn’t unusual for me to visit the chapel before school to make a confession or spend my lunchtime praying the rosary there in solitude. On Sunday evenings, I would often walk to church on my own and I found great comfort and solace in religion. I even went so far as to become an altar girl and I seriously considered becoming a nun.
And then, on my fourteenth birthday, I met a boy. I experienced so many complex emotions at the intersection of teenage hormones and religious doctrine. I felt so conflicted that I eventually gave up my role as an altar girl. It did not help that my boyfriend was constantly pushing my boundaries. Boundaries I didn’t know I had. I always felt like I had to justify why I didn’t want to go further. I didn’t realize “No.” was a complete sentence.
After several months of dating, I found myself in his bedroom “fooling around” one day after school. When he tried to remove my underwear, I panicked, grabbed his hand, and told him no. I was adamant about saving “myself” for marriage and he knew that. It had been a topic of conversation many times. He recoiled and acted very hurt at the thought that I didn’t trust him. “I know you. I would never do anything you didn’t want me to.” he reassured me.
I went home feeling guilty for not trusting him. I scolded myself for thinking that he would ever hurt or disrespect me.
A few weeks later, we found ourselves in the same situation, home alone, in his room, making out. As things intensified, he removed my clothing one by one, and I let him. When he reached for my pink and white flowered Hanes, discomfort flashed inside me, but I shushed it. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings again and I wanted to trust him.
Before I could get a grasp on what was happening, he was lying naked on top of me. A sear of pain turned my confusion to numbness. I knew what had just happened and I wasn’t confused anymore. Even though someone that had proposed to love me had just betrayed my most intimate trust in the most devastating way, all I could think about was the fact that I was no longer a virgin.
I went home and stooped in the bathtub while the water swirled down the drain in front of me. I tried to process what had just occurred. That’s when I saw my sister’s razorblade on the soapdish. I carved shallow horizontal lines onto my pale, skinny wrist over my green veins while I contemplated going deeper. I didn’t want to be alive.
I locked myself in my room and stayed there for many years. People noticed a change in me, but they didn’t notice that I was gone. I was only a shadow of a girl that I didn’t know anymore.
I stayed with him for several more months in an abusive relationship. I tried to break free, but I didn’t know how, didn’t know I could. I couldn’t find my voice. I didn’t reach out for help, and no one reached out to get me.
It ended when he decided to trade me in and let me go. The color slowly returned to my soul. I remember being in the backseat of the Grapemobile one day with my stepfather driving me to school. I looked up at the sun and then closed my eyes and let it warm my skin. I remember feeling happy for no reason, then sad upon realizing I had forgotten what that felt like. But I remembered often soon enough.
When I turned 18, I met a boy who ended up being my boyfriend for many years. I told him early on that I didn’t want to have sex until I was married. He never asked me why and I never told him. I don’t think I even knew anymore. He never pushed me or pressured me. He never made me feel like I wasn’t enough. He never asked me why it took me over a year to feel comfortable enough to want to have sex with him. This deeply healed me.
When I was 31 years old, I went to see a counselor. He told me that I was raped when I was fourteen years old. I told him I didn’t see it that way, that I saw rape as something violent.
“What would you say if one of your students told you that story, Gena?” he asked me. “What would you say if she told you that her boyfriend promised not to do anything she didn’t want and then proceeded to take off her underwear and have sex with her while she was saying no? Isn’t that violent? Would you blame her?”
Suddenly, everything changed.
I freed myself from the guilt of losing my virginity as a fourteen-year-old Catholic school girl. I freed myself from the shame of staying with him and doing whatever he wanted me to do.
I didn’t fail myself. I had been failed.
I had been failed by a system that taught me that the abstract concept of virginity was more important than ME. That enrages me to this day.
I had been failed by a family that was too caught up in their own lives to see that I was trapped in an abusive relationship with a sick individual and love me enough to get me out by any means necessary.
A few months after this life-altering revelation, I read an article about Elizabeth Smart. She talked about all the people who questioned why she didn’t run away from her captor for all of those months. She stated that after being raped by him, she didn’t feel like she was worthy of being loved by her family anymore because she was no longer a virgin. Her abstinence-only sex mis-education program had taught her that if she lost her virginity she would be as good as a “used up piece of bubble gum.” And who wants to chew on that?
I wept because Elizabeth Smart stayed with her kidnapper and rapist to preserve something that didn’t exist while her soul withered away. I wept because we were taught that being a fresh piece of ass was more important than just being. I wept because we were brainwashed and we were innocent enough to believe it.
I am by no means comparing my experiences to the hell Elizabeth Smart endured, but for the first time in my life, I felt like somebody understood me.
So where does a fourteen-year-old girl get the idea that she doesn’t have the right to defend her own body and her own truth? And where does a fourteen-year-old boy get those ideas about her too? Maybe he got them from his seventeen year old neighbor who was “having sex” with him when he was twelve while her friend had sex with his twin brother in the other room. Maybe he got those ideas when they discussed trading them like baseball cards right as they were standing before them. Maybe he had those ideas about himself too.
The answers to these questions are so deeply rooted in our society that I’m almost sure I will not live to see them answered, but I’ll be damned if I don’t live to see them challenged.
Domestic Violence Is Not a Problem Women Can Solve