There are moments when recovery from sexual addiction is a war against shame. That can be especially true in sexual intimacy.For a man in recovery, sexual intimacy with his wife can be a battle against old thoughts and shameful feelings. It can have an impact on his ability to stay engaged mentally, emotionally and even physically. In fact I’ve talked to 3 men in the last week who’ve lost an erection in the middle of sexual intimacy because their shame was so present. The guilt and shame associated with having previously committed adultery, for blowing up the family, for hurting his kids, for viewing outrageous pornography can be overwhelming.
For each of those men there is a wife who, sometimes equally, struggles with shame. The shame of insignificance and questioning if he’s thinking of the other woman. The shame of incompetency and wondering if she is being compared to women from the porn pictures. For some wives all the old messages come flashing back and the allegations are levied against herself: I’m not enough, I’m too old, I’m too young, I’m too prudish, If my body were different, if I didn’t have a checkered past, etc.
Here are a few tips to deal with shame as it pertains to sexual intimacy:
1) Pause – Stop the process and take a timeout. Many men, and women, will try to continue and just get the thoughts out of their head. They’ll try to ignore it, refocus, turn the lights on or off, change positions, say different things and so on. Don’t try to get around it; instead work through it.
2) Talk about it – Yes, it may ruin the mood. But the mood isn’t the most important thing! Your personal and marital healing are the most important thing. If you’re the husband, remind your wife that you love her enough to not have sex with her while another woman or pornographic thoughts are in your head. Talk about the pain it brings up, engage empathy and let your heart break for the situation. That conversation may not be pleasant. Here are 2 ways it could go:
“Honey, I’m stopping because I’ve got old memories in my head and I can’t get rid of them. I don’t want them, I wish I didn’t have them, I wish I had never done the horrible things I did. I am so sorry that even this sacred place in our relationship is ruined. I’m sorry.”
“Let’s stop. I’m thinking of how some of the women in porn seem to enjoy sex so much and you just don’t seem to enjoy it at all.”
Hopefully you see a difference. That second one is a direct quote from my someone in my office. As you might imagine, that conversation did not go well.
If you’re a wife, honor yourself enough to use your voice and share your pain and disappointment with your husband. You don’t have to shame in that moment, but you can express your hurt. And you can ask for reassurance. Give him a chance to assertively say that he is in fact NOT calling up old memories and is fully present with you.
NOTE: Guys, whatever you do, DON’T use pornographic thoughts or memories of a mistress to stay engaged in sex with your wife. This will only cause you more damage in that you are still not connecting in intimacy with your spouse, instead you are connecting with intensity via euphoric recall.
3) Don’t make sex the focus – Instead, make the focus intimacy. Make the point of your being together connection, vulnerability, security and reassurance. Sometimes we can experience that using our bodies, other times (especially in early recovery) we need to experience that with our words. If you’re having difficulty shifting the focus invite help from support folks or a counselor.
Remember that recovery is about intimacy, not intensity.
While this post isn’t specifically sexual integrity related, it is a tool that I commonly use at home and with couples in my office. It’s simply a way to raise a conversation (often amidst conflict) out of the muck of the subject to actually see what’s happening relationally.
If you’re into tech-talk, you probably know what Meta-Data is: data about the data. In this case a MetaConversation is, you guessed it, a conversation about the conversation.
Specifically it addresses 3 keys points: how you are feeling, how I am feeling and what’s happening in our relationship at this moment.
When a conversation feels stuck, often it is because the root relational issue isn’t being addressed. Being locked up in a he-said-she-said usually indicates there are emotional nerves that have been tapped, but aren’t being talked about. Thus, the conversation often ends in one or both people having hurt feelings, a stalemate of “agree to disagree” (which often provides no real resolution) or a combination of the two. When that stuck feeling occurs, it can be a signal to both parties to stop the current conversation and switch gears to a metaconversation. In other words, to literally talk about what’s happening in the current conversation.
An example might be a conversation about money. He thinks they should spend the tax return and she thinks they should save it. He’s been wanting some toy or gadget, and she’s been stressing about how they’ll pay for summer vacation, much less fund their retirement. She’s getting angry that he insists on spending, he’s getting frustrated that she won’t let loose a little and enjoy the hard-earned cash. Spend or Save? Is the issue really about the money? Probably not.
A metaconversation might reveal that he is feeling insignficant. Spending the tax return would signal recognition of his hard work, a reward for faithfully doing his job and providing for the family. She might be feeling insecure and anxious. Having the vacation paid for ahead of time provides a sense of security and planning for retirement actually adds an element of respect for her husband. Relationally, we might find that both are pulling back, walling off. She wants to feel protected but he is threatening that, so she’s going to protect herself emotionally. He wants to feel respected and validated but she is withholding it, so he is going to nearly demand it. The metaconversation can provide a space and language for both to recognize what the other is feeling (which 99% of the time seems to be unintentional) and to identify the divide developing in the relationship. Finally, it gives an opportunity to address a specific emotional, relational dynamic.
In response they both can speak to the others needs:
Husband: “The last thing I want you to feel is insecure and worried about our finances. I also want you to be confident that I have our family’s best interest at heart. I want you feel protected, and to know that a short term want won’t replace our long term goals.”
Wife: “I appreciate your hard work. I am proud of you, your commitment and your provision for our family. I want you to know I respect you.”
They can now make a decision on what to do with the money without it being a wedge in the relationship, and without the decision being motivated by shoring up emotional needs.
Men in my office typically ask something to the effect of, ” couldn’t we bypass all that stuff by just agreeing to compromise- spending half and saving half?” Well, yes, if by “all that stuff” you’re referring to the meaningful, relational communication that builds relational currency.
The metaconversation can be used regardless of the subject matter. Money, sex, addiction, parenting, moving, work, hobbies, dinner, you name it. And it doesn’t have to be in conflict, but that’s often where it can be a handy tool.
Remember that in conflict we want to value the person over the problem, and the relationship over the result. Metaconversations can help achieve this.