Thursday, July 19, is the first sex therapy session where both my husband and I are meeting with Marie. So far I’ve met with her three times on my own: Once to broadly describe the issues I’d like to work on. Once to talk about what frightens me about doing this. And once to lay out the plan for this first joint session, so I know what to expect.
In the meantime, just the anticipation of going to couples therapy has already started to affect my relationship with my husband. He’s very happy about it. I’m sure some of it may be the anticipation of more sex; there hasn’t been a lot of that happening in recent months. But I know he’s also feeling like, ah, at last, she’s letting me in.
Of course, that’s part of what feels frightening to me.
Rationally, I know I don’t need to be afraid. If anyone has ever proven his devotion, my husband has. He’s been so patient. He has not pressured me to “hurry up and get my act together,” or “better pull myself together and start contributing to this household.” I know husbands can say things like that, because Miguel, my ex-husband, talked to me that way when I was severely depressed way back when. In contrast, my “real” husband, as I tend to think of him, is always on my side, rooting for me to feel better and never judging me for not being okay.
But that’s rationality, and we all know, emotions are not rational. Emotions are, or at least they can be, memories locked in the body from childhood. Memories that say: Alarm! Alarm! It’s not safe here! If you tell them, “no, it’s okay, you are safe in this relationship,” they can’t hear you, because they are too busy running around in circles screaming their little heads off.
That’s why, I’m convinced, there’s no real healing from childhood trauma possible without engaging the body, learning to listen to it, respect it, and soothe it. Fortunately, that’s Marie’s approach as well.
Our appointment with her is at 8am, about as un-sexy a time of day as you can find. I think we’re the first clients of the day, as there doesn’t seem to be anyone else in the building. Marie comes down the steps and introduces herself to my husband. I notice she pronounces his name correctly, which is rare. He’s not picky about it, but it makes a good impression on me when someone bothers to get it right.
We head upstairs to her office. I sit on the corner of the couch, where I have already placed myself the last couple of times I’ve seen Marie. My husband sits down next to me and rests his hand on top of mine. It’s too close. I feel like he should sit on the other side of the couch. We shouldn’t start out this friendly, this intimate. I’m not ready. But that would be rude to say, so I don’t say anything.
The first thing on the agenda, of course, is making sure we’re all on the same page. Why are we all here? What’s my husband’s understanding of it? He says something like, he knows I carry a lot of pain from my past and that’s got in the way of our sexual relationship, and he wants to help me in any way that he can.
Marie asks him a few things about his feelings about the situation. I can’t remember it all exactly, but he says sweet things about his connection to me being multi-layered and so much more than only our sexual relationship. That part matters to him, but it’s not the only thing that matters to him. He’s not mad we’ve been living in a sexual desert for months, maybe longer.
Marie asks me, “How do you feel when you hear him say that?” (She asks some version of that question at least a dozen times during the hour.)
How do I feel? Grateful. Relieved. I say, “I know that, actually, that he is patient, that he wants to help me. But sometimes his way of helping me doesn’t work very well.” (I say this very gently, not as critically as it sounds when I write it down.)
“For example, when I told him I was feeling nervous about coming here together, he told me it would be fine, there was nothing to worry about, that he loved me, that everything would work out. And I know that comes from a good place, from a desire to reassure me. But honestly, it just makes me feel like he’s brushing away my fear, or doesn’t want to see it. So while he talks about how it’s all going to be fine, I zone out, and his words just float by me.”
Marie asks what might be more helpful. What could he do instead?
“I guess just tell me he sees I’m afraid,” I say. “I mean, it’s kind of basic, but really it just feels good if someone sees what you really feel and accepts it, just lets it be what it is.”
Marie and my husband talk about this a bit. I have tried to say this to my husband before, but I haven’t felt like it penetrates. Somehow Marie reframes it a little bit, and he seems to get it in a way he hasn’t before.
He tells me, “I do see that you are afraid. I don’t always understand why you are afraid, because there’s really nothing you could say that would change how I feel about you. But I see you are afraid. And I imagine I can’t understand it because I don’t have the kind of experiences you have had in the past.”
We talk about how he is an innately cheerful, optimistic person who genuinely believes that things will turn out okay most of the time. I say how much I enjoy and respect that about him, how I wish I could be more that way. I seem to have a lot more negative emotions in my make-up, however.
Marie says something to the effect that we are starting way ahead of most couples, in terms of our consideration and respect for each other. I think that’s true actually. At the end of this month, we will have known each other for twenty years. Twenty! And in all that time, we’ve never had a real argument.
Marie wonders if I can say more about my understanding of why we are there, in that room. What are we working on?
I take a breath. I don’t want to waste our time and money (I’m not cheerful and optimistic, but I am frugal, dammit!). So I’m going directly to the heart of it. So I say, when we have sex, I can’t stay present. It’s like my mind goes away somewhere. It’s always like that. I don’t think I even realized it was like that, because I was living a lot of my life that way, I guess, and it seemed normal. But now I’m aware of it, and I don’t want it to be that way any longer. But I feel stuck and don’t know how to change it. I need guidance, from Marie, and help, from my husband.
Marie turns back to my husband, “Did you know this, that she couldn’t stay present?”
“No,” he says. “I wasn’t aware. I couldn’t tell. But she’s good at pretending things are all right when they are not. It was a long time before I knew how depressed she was.”
“And how does it make you feel to know that, that she hasn’t been fully emotionally and mentally present during sex?” Marie asks.
My heart is fluttering in my chest as I hear this question. It rattles against my ribs, warming my torso, my neck, my upper arms. This is one of the things that has frightened me: letting him know that I haven’t been present. It feels like confessing to a betrayal.
“It makes sense,” my husband says, “Just knowing some things about her past, it makes sense that being sexual could bring up difficult emotions for her. I’m sorry I didn’t know about that. I really believe we should only have sex when it’s fully consensual, when we both want it and feel safe.”
Or something like that. I can’t remember the exact words because there are too many emotions swirling around.
“How does it feel, to hear him say that?” Marie asks. (I told you, she asks this a lot.!)
I think, I am supposed to say: good, great, I am relieved, or something like that. But I say what I am really feeling instead, “I feel hot and flustered. I feel like I want to run away and hide.”
“Oh no, you don’t have to feel like that,” my husband says right away.
Marie calls to his attention that he’s doing the thing we just talked about, trying to talk to me from a reassuring place but in the process telling me not to feel what I feel. What a great opportunity to practice! She also manages to explain to him what is happening, without even using the word “triggered.” She just talks about emotions getting really big and overwhelming, and when that happens, it is good to slow everything down or even stop and stay still for a bit.
He’s able to tell me that he’s surprised to find that this conversation could bring up such big emotions for me. He’s glad, though, that I said something about it. He’s glad to know how I really feel. And he’ll be here, by my side, through whatever feelings I’m having. The feelings won’t scare him away.
He’s a fast learner, huh? I’ve always known he’s super smart.
Maybe we talk some more; it’s hard to remember. Oh, I remember, one other thing: Marie had us agree to take intercourse off the table “just for a while.”
“It’s not like it’s been happening much anyway,” I point out.
“Still, if we take it entirely off the table, then any expectations or sense of pressure are also gone. It allows us some time to focus on things that are less intense first, and practice all the skills of staying in the body, of speaking up in the midst of emotion, of being together in whatever’s going on.”
Then the hour is nearly over, and she assigns us our homework. We’re supposed to write on each other’s backs with our finger, short three-lettered words, doing it over our clothes. It’s a non-threatening way to have the mind pay attention to what is happening with the body. We try it once in the office. I write my husband’s initials on his back. I have to do it twice before he recognizes them.
Then he writes on my back, three letters: J O Y. I get it immediately.
That’s it, time’s up. Next appointment is in two weeks, and I am going by myself again. Marie says she’ll probably be meeting with me alone quite a few times and then we’ll periodically bring him in, too. She also told my husband that he can come in by himself whenever he thinks that would be helpful.
We leave the office together, and now I do feel able to hold his hand. I drive him to work, then come home and crawl into bed, as exhausted as I might be after a hard workout. Exhausted, but grateful and relieved.