So here it is, Monday night, and I’m headed into group therapy, determined to jump into the depths and see what happens if I talk about what’s really going on for me. I’m nervous, of course, that’s only natural. But I’m not second-guessing myself. I’ve already thought it through and decided it’s worth trying to experience something deeper than what group has been offering so far.
There are only five of us tonight–one woman is out of town for Memorial Day, and one is out because her mother’s desperately ill. Is it better or worse to have fewer people? I can’t decide, so I tell myself to set that question aside. A positive side effect of my yoga and meditation practices is that it’s become much easier to have some control over where my thoughts go. I can (sometimes) stop myself from going down a pointless rabbit hole.
It’s going to be okay,I tell myself. I’ve thought this through. It’s worth a try.
So when E asks who wants to start our usual check-in, I speak up (first time I have volunteer to start things off). “I am doing pretty well overall, still able to get work done, but also still pretty fatigued. No big change there. But if there is enough time tonight, I’d like to talk about something related to my relationship with my husband. It’s not urgent, and if someone has something urgent, I can wait until the next time we meet. But it is important, and I’d like to have the chance to work on it here.”
Everyone gets to check in… no one labels anything urgent… So when E says, “Okay, then, where shall we start with the work?” She always does that, leaving it to us to speak up if we want to do some processing. She says that forces us to practice speaking up to get our needs met.
When no one jumps in, I say, “Okay then.” It’s a little hard for me to get going. I have only been in the group since November, and I realize most of the women don’t know much about my backstory. So I try to give them a super quick background: “My husband is from Scandinavia. We’ve been married 17 years, and overall, it’s a smooth and easy relationship, the complete opposite of very difficult first marriages we both had. He’s very patient and supportive, and I’m content and happy in the relationship.”
Then I kind of take a breath and launch into the description I’ve prepared, how I didn’t even realize it for ages but as I worked in therapy on healing old wounds, I came to realize all the ways in which I wasn’t able to be emotionally present during sex, blah blah blah (all the stuff I already explained in my last post) and that I’ve been working with a sex therapist for about a year now.
(Side note: if you ever want to be sure you have other people’s full attention, just tell them you are working with a sex therapist. They will most certainly be interested, I can promise you.)
Then I explained my confusion: here I am, in a relationship with a person I love. I want to create a different kind of physical connection between us. I am spending a lot of time and a lot of money working with this therapist. But I realize I’m avoiding the homework, and I’m not sure why.
No one is sure what to say, I can see that. There’s a moment of awkward silence.
But Melissa (yes, another pseudonym) does something right away that I appreciate. She turns toward me, to look directly in my eyes, and she says, “I just want to thank you for bringing up such a difficult topic. I have my own struggles with this, maybe not for the same reason, but I know what it is to love a partner and still not have the sexual connection I’d like to have. I want you to know that I can relate. Also I think you are brave to talk about it, and I’m grateful.”
Her words feel like an encouraging hug. Phew, I think. I knew they’d be kind.
E suggests I go around the circle, telling each woman directly what I feel and letting them reflect it back to me. I turn back to Melissa and say, “I love my husband and want to be emotionally present with him in sex. I have help working on this, and my husband is patient and willing. But I’m not doing the practice homework, and I don’t know why.”
Melissa says, “You want to change your sexual relationship with your husband. But something is holding you back.” (or something like that). She’s practicing what E has taught us about mirroring what we hear. “Is that right?”
“Yes. Maybe I’m afraid my husband will judge me…” But as we talk a little more, back and forth, mostly Melissa mirroring me or asking a clarifying question, I realize no, that’s not the problem. I don’t really think my husband is judging me.
Rather, I’m judging myself.
E prompts me to move on to the next woman, Catherine. She has the most empathic expression on her face. It feels good, reassuring to look at her. E tells me to tell her the same thing, but adjusted based on what I’m realizing.
“I love my husband and want a connected sexual relationship with him. But I’m avoiding doing homework that might promote that because I judge myself.”
“You judge yourself… because?” Catherine asks.
“Um, I’m not sure…” I say. This is such uncertain territory. It’s not like I know what the answer will be before I speak. “Maybe it’s the connection for me between desire and shame.”
And as soon as I say that, I know that’s true. I don’t say the whole thing out loud to the group, but I know how much it pains me to remember becoming aroused in the middle of an abusive situation that I didn’t want, that I said no to.
So I keep going, slowly, around the circle, and gradually things become a little more defined. Paula asks me, “What do you think you can do?”
“I don’t know how to fix this,” I say.
“Do you think you could talk to your husband about it?”
I think about that. “Well, yes, maybe I can. I mean, I don’t think that will fix it. It won’t make me stop feeling that sense of shame. But even just telling him, I think that would be helpful, because he’d understand better what’s going on for me. And my real goal, even more than the sex, is the intimacy.”
The last woman, Anna, tells me, “I want to suggest to you that you might reframe how you think about this. I wouldn’t really say you aren’t doing the homework. I think there is so much work involved in the processing, the thinking, the considering doing something differently. It seems to me that all of that is also part of the homework, not just the moments when you are in bed with your husband.”
I realize, gratefully,that she has a point. It makes sense that this would take a lot of processing, a lot of time. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have needed therapy for it in the first place, if it were so easy to just change my behavior, right?
Anna goes on to ask me, “Do you know what it is that makes you feel shame? Is it the whole idea, or something specific?”
That’s probably a useful question, but suddenly, I feel exhausted and overwhelmed. I look away from Anna and stare at the window for a moment.
“Are you okay?” she asks. “I just notice you looking away.”
“I think I’m done,” I say suddenly. “I mean, thank you all, I really appreciate it. But I think I’ve just hit the limit of what I can do tonight.”
E points out that I notice what I’m feeling and I’m setting a boundary for myself. I smile a little, because even though I’m exhausted, I realize that stopping the conversation when I’ve had enough is also an achievement.
I have just enough energy left to thank them all, to tell them that they’ve helped me understand a little better what might be going on for me, and that I will talk to my husband about it, too. I also say how grateful I am for their kindness and gentle respect–for not snickering at me.
And in various ways, they all tell me how much it helps them to hear me talk about issue. They say things like
“It gives me courage to take greater risks here in group.”
“It helps me think about these issues in my own relationship.”
“This is the reason I come to group. I hope for the deeply personal conversations that we don’t get in our day-to-day lives.”
“It makes me feel more connected to you, and to the group overall, to have a very personal conversation like this. Thank you for creating the opportunity.”
Their comments make me happy, a little proud even, that I took the risk to share. So I leave group tired, a little shaken, but fundamentally reassured that it was not crazy to tell four other women about my challenges with sex therapy. I’m still a little amazed at myself, to be honest.