In Absence of Intimacy
Years ago, as a graduate student in the Writing Workshop at the University of Arizona, I was advised to “get some emotional distance” on a subject before writing about it. Emotional distance, as I understood the phrase, meant putting some time between yourself and the events you were writing about, especially if you were writing narrative. Blogging is antithetical to this maxim. Blogs demand frequency and immediacy. And true to the form, I’ve characterized this blog as a place where I hope to prompt discussion about what it takes, here and now, day-by-day, to live a truly sober life.
So, in the spirit of blogging and the mission of RealtimeRecovery, I’m going to take on a subject I wouldn’t normally write about unless I were more “emotionally distant” from it. That subject is intimacy—or, more accurately, the truly devastating effect the absence of intimacy can have on a relationship.
Since beginning the blog, I’ve been as open and honest as possible about my own marriage, without going into gory detail. Bottom line: On Valentine’s Day ’09, my wife of (now) seven years informed me she didn’t know if she wanted to be married anymore. I’m not the first male in mankind to face this situation and certainly won’t be the last. The important thing in the context of this blog is to understand how to live a sober life, 24 hours at a time, faced with this revelation.
Really, there is no “good” time to talk about lack of intimacy in a relationship. It’s like trying to have a high-spirited and positive discussion about terminal cancer. In the end, the outcome isn’t likely an outcome anyone wants, no matter what they tell themselves to keep their spirits up along the way. And, like a cancer left untreated, the absence of intimacy will grow, consume, and ultimately destroy the host relationship, whether that relationship is a marriage, a friendship, or the forced affiliation of family ties.
So what exactly are we talking about when we talk about the absence of intimacy? First and foremost, I want to make it clear that I’m not talking “just” about sex. But, it is my experience that when a relationship suddenly takes a turn for the worse (whether it’s because one partner doesn’t know if they’re “in love” anymore, or because one partner has “cheated” on the other, or because one partner has somehow abused the other, or because one partner has plainly and simply checked out of the relationship after too many years), no matter the cause, physical intimacy is usually the first type of intimacy to either slowly or very suddenly disappear.
To some, this may not seem like such a big deal. But to many men, and to many recovering men with whom I’ve spoken about the topic, it’s a very big deal. It’s a big deal because, however shallow this makes us, the absence of sex in a marriage or partnership flat-out spells REJECTION. For many of us, the fastest and clearest way to say “I don’t love you anymore” is to lose interest in having sex with us. By no means am I asserting that this is true for everyone under all circumstances. I’m merely saying that for many recovering alcoholic men, the absence of physical intimacy is the first sign that they’re not good enough, a failure not only at love but probably everything else as well … it is, plain and simple, the first sign they’re on their way out the door.
The absence of sexual intimacy also makes it more difficult to engage in other simpler, but possibly much more important, forms of physical intimacy. Hugging, kissing each other good-bye in the morning or good night before going to sleep, holding hands, you name it, all of these become increasingly difficult to do. The longer the absence persists, the more difficult it becomes to be in each others physical proximity for fear of touching each other, even by accident. Watch how two people who share a bed and bathroom act around each other, and I’ll bet you can tell within minutes whether their relationship does or does not include an active sex life.
Even when physical intimacy is on the wane, or gone, many people can sustain a strong and lasting relationship by nurturing emotional intimacy. By emotional intimacy I mean the ability to be empathetic—or, put more simply, the ability to genuinely “give a shit” about your partner and what’s going on with them. In my case, this is what keeps me hanging on. In the absence of all else, I truly do care about what my wife is going through, partly because she’s my wife and my friend, and partly because she’s the mother of my children, and their “complete” well-being depends as much on her well-being as it does on mine. I empathize also because I’ve gone through what I think she’s going through—that point in your early 30’s when you suddenly feel as though everything fun and glamorous in life is about to pass you by if you don’t act fast. That very ethos cost me my first marriage, and in an ironic fashion, may cost me this one as well. But again, I can’t help but empathize. I’ve been there. I’ve also been in relationships that didn’t pan out, that led me to believe, rightly or wrongly, that I didn’t love and never would love the other person. Again, I empathize. I know what it’s like, whether I like it or not. I also regret, in my own cases, having acted too rashly, leaving my first marriage abruptly and later frivolously ending really good relationships that had far more depth than mere fleeting romance and temporary excitement could have ever provided. But again, I was young and shortsighted, and, as an actively practicing alcoholic, far too immature emotionally to appreciate what I had. I was thrill seeking while my partners were seeking meaningful relationships. Describe for me last time you had a meaningful relationship with a practicing alcoholic, and I’ll quickly and quite easily chart for you all the ways in which you have serious issues around DENIAL.
But again, for many men, myself included, being empathetic and emotionally available isn’t always easy in the absence of physical intimacy. Again, for many (not all, but many) men, the absence of physical intimacy spells REJECTION, and for any man with a decent size ego, this inevitably leads to deep and lingering resentment. In the long run, it’s hard to continue to “give a shit” about someone you recurrently resent. Eventually, it becomes hard to even like them, let alone love or care about them.
Once things get to this point (the point at which my first marriage crumbled), the last form of intimacy to fall is psychological intimacy—that very simple ability to communicate about and agree upon things that matter above and beyond the relationship itself. Whether the issue involves the kids, parents, friends, politics, religion, finances, it becomes next to impossible to discuss any issue rationally and civilly. When resentment and physical distance are running the show it becomes extremely difficult to want to agree with the other person about anything—even when you know they’re right. At this point, DOOM always feels as though it’s right around the corner—and left untreated, it usually is.
So I’m curious. Have others experienced some or all of the “absences” I’ve described at some point in a relationship? Do you advocate certain solutions or abject surrender? I have what I think are potential solutions—my own and those I’ve read about and gathered elsewhere—but I’m much more curious to know other people’s experience because, if I know one thing for sure, my own experience is hardly unique.