Jim looked at Shannon with a cacophony of feelings; love, lust, appreciation and fear and wanted desperately to reach for her.
Shannon could sense his looking at her, in spite of her back being turned to him as she washed the dishes. Her spine tensed and she felt afraid and then angry.
Jim felt her energy shift and could feel the coldness she projected out at him. He stood frozen in his tracks uncertain as to what to do.
He knew she loved him, and that she wanted to please him. He also knew she would succumb to him if he asserted himself, but she would be angry with him for days. He went back to clearing off the table and securing their doors for the night.
How it all began
“Jim and Shannon” are a composite of couples I have worked with over the years. Shannon is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and had yet to understand all the ways it impacts her relationship with Jim.
Shannon thinks Jim is too focused on sex and, unspoken she really believes he only loves her for what she does for him sexually. She feels shame that he can’t love her for who she is, but doesn’t really think anyone would.
Jim spent his life craving touch. His mother knew that she shouldn’t “coddle him”; her mother taught her well that boys need to be “toughened up”. She let him console himself when he fell and discouraged his affection toward her.
When Jim became a teenager he discovered the joy of touching girls, and the rush of hormones that came with that touch. Touch then, for Jim, became inseparable from sex.
When he met Shannon he thought he had found a woman who was very open and comfortable with sexuality. She never denied him anything he wanted and he felt loved for once in his life.
Ramifications of abuse
Now, as he stood in the kitchen wanting her so badly, he didn’t understand why she no longer seemed to be able to love him as she once had. He felt guilty for wanting her and confused at her rejection of him. His anger and resentment built every time she rejected him.
Shannon had started therapy and she told Jim her therapist said she should not have sex with him until she wanted, and to assert her own needs rather than always succumbing to his.
Shannon’s sexual abuse had taught her to please men, but not herself. The disgust and pain she felt at the thought of sex convinced her she could just as well live without it.
It made her angry that Jim continually pushed her to do something he knew was painful and not fun for her. It reinforced her belief that he could only love her if she gave in to his sexual needs. She felt resentful and angry at his insensitivity, a belief her therapist reinforced in each weekly session.
How to untangle the mess
How do you untangle a mess like this? Neither fully understands the other’s pain. Both are completely focused on their own needs and their own wounds. Hearing their story there are few of us that could not feel empathy for each of them; yet they don’t have it for each other.
While sorting out their wounds and re-discovering each other is not simple; the underlying process is really quite simple. Both “Jim’ and “Shannon” are wounded in complementary and remarkably similar ways.
Both have had their sexuality interfered with through their early childhood experiences. Both were taught erroneous things about their value as human beings and the meaning of the sexual act.
To survive, Shannon had to adapt to her environment by pretending that her needs don’t matter. So did Jim.
But their needs persisted. Meeting each other’s needs early in their relationship fit right in with their childhood patterns; but continued to require their ignoring their childhood needs.
This leaves both of them feeling like a victim to the other. Both fight in self-protective stances to get their needs met by the person they perceive of as the perpetrator of their pain.
Shannon’s well meaning therapist empathized with the horror of Shannon’s abuse and worked to protect Shannon from further pain by encouraging Shannon to avoid sex with her husband.
This attempt to rescue Shannon from her pain resulted in Jim being stuck in a situation that mimicked his mother’s rejection and perpetuated his touch deprivation.
Hearts are broken and marriages fail in this process of trying to rescue a survivor wife from a husband who, naturally, wants an active sex life.
Help both partners understand the dynamic between them. Teach each partner to experience and practice compassion for the other, as well as themselves. Help them to feel their fear of each other and to accept that fear as a part of the natural development of intimacy, not something to be avoided or disowned.
Encourage them to allow their own feelings to flow in the presence of the other and teach the other to accept and support each other’s pain, sorrow, and joy.
Encourage them to touch each other often in non-sexual ways. Encourage them to learn what healthy sexuality really is: a chance to experience each other fully and joyfully. The process may be painful and difficult; but the result is the ability to love and be loved.