Wednesday, August 30, 2006


I know the place that we have come to, and it isn't good. And I know that it is on a path that can ultimately have only one end. I keep thinking of a quote from the play I saw the other night, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: That the play ends when things have gone about as far as they can possibly go. And things have gone about as far as they can possibly go when things have got as bad as they can reasonably get.

This place is called being polarised. Regular readers of the comments at Digger's blog will have heard me describe this phenomenon before, but I want to think about it here and work my way through it.

When people encounter large differences between themselves and the person they're with, they tend to get polarised. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in other contexts. For instance, when people from different cultures first encounter each other, they are their usual, mostly reasonable, well rounded selves. As they relate to each other, they are confronted by a series of differences. At first, they deal with these differences quite well, with humour and good will, but over time, the accumulation of differences tends to confuse and frustrate them and make them anxious. Anxiety and frustration and getting tired from operating in unfamiliar modes makes them retreat to what they know best - their own "default" mode of operating - instead of continuing to reach out to the possibility of doing things differently.

Before they know it, they are behaving more and more differently to one another, and more and more true to stereotype. The Italians get more excitable and wave their hands around more, the Germans get more humourless and focused on rules and organisation, the Americans get more rampantly brash and pushy, the Arabs get more fatalistic, the British get more quietly superior and "stiff upper lip", etc etc. Have I offended all possible readers yet? The point is that they start behaving in ways that they probably wouldn't if they were among their own kind. They become like an exaggerated caricature of who they really are.

And because sex is so intense and so personal, and yet sexual desires and needs are really quite malleable, I think polarisation around sex is even more likely to happen between couples.

When I was first with my partner, and kept encountering his attitude to sex, for quite a while we managed to deal with things with a lot of good will. But over time, I just got sick of having to work so hard on things. I retreated into my own head, and got frustrated and depressed and obsessed with the problem, constantly fantasising about sex. And I would have estimated that I wanted sex just about every day and considered myself someone with a very high sex drive and therefore deeply, deeply deprived. And he retreated into his own head, into a sense of injury about the whole subject, and fantasies about being left alone. Somehow, from being two people who had somewhat different sex drives but who both enjoyed sex, we got polarised into me wanting sex constantly and him wanting sex never.

Then I broke up with my partner and, for a while, I was with someone with a very high sex drive. As you can probably imagine, I was delighted at first. It was fantastic to be with someone who wanted me so much, and never having to question his enthusiasm and pleasure.

But interestingly, after about two to three weeks, I was astonished to find that I had started to get tired of it. I realized that, in a context of sex being available all the time, instead of a scarcity environment, I was more of a 2-3 times a week girl, which I guess is average sex drive. Within a few more weeks, I was more of a once a week kind of girl. As time went on, my new guy, who had originally rejoiced that he had finally found someone who had a sex drive equal to his own, was dismayed to find that I had started to turn off, make excuses, and trade sex for things I wanted, like a back massage or help with errands.

And over time, I began to feel increasingly beseiged. As more time went on, I started to feel downright hostile towards the whole subject and increasingly to him. Nothing I could do was ever enough. Sex started to become, in my mind, not something we shared, but something I "gave". And it was being robbed of all pleasure.

Towards the end of the relationship, I would feel a kind of chill come over me when he touched me, a real "fight or flight" stress response as if I was being invaded. I didn't want to discuss it and I didn't want to examine my own feelings about it. I was surprised by my feelings of hostility and coldness towards him and his apparently never-ending needs. I couldn't have cared if I never had sex again, particularly not with him. Somehow, from seeing myself as a person who wanted sex constantly, I had come to see myself as a person who wanted sex never.

I think it might be sort of like food. When people are starving, they constantly fantasise about food. I have read the memoirs of people who were in concentration camps during World War II, and one thing they have in common is how much they dreamed about food, thought constantly about food, and developed rituals around the sharing of memories of past feasts and the trading of recipes which became increasingly elaborate. Without wishing to trivialise their obviously far greater suffering in any way, thats kind of what I was like about sex in the first years I was with my partner, before the breakup.

When I was with the other guy, it was like constantly being asked to eat a huge meal before I was hungry. A little snack anyone can manage when they are not that hungry, just for the pleasure of it. But if someone is constantly standing by you asking if you are hungry, are you hungry yet, are you even a little bit hungry yet, can't you eat something just for me, and being disappointed at how little you can nibble on when they were planning a huge gourmet feast, you will seriously go off food. You will feel constantly stuffed to the brim and never hungry. The very sight of food will make you feel sick, and you will feel like you are being force-fed over and over again, which in its way is just as bad as being starving.

So, I have reason to know what its like to be on the other side of our current situation. I know that being stuck on either end of these extremes is no fun.

So I have to calm down. Both of us have to find a way to ease ourselves out of this polarisation, and our respective corners. I need to back off a little, maybe a lot, and he needs to come forward at least a little.

Because we can't afford the "luxury" of polarisation any more. When we were just two people, we could both sulk as much as we liked. And we weren't even married. We hadn't made any promises to each other. I was free to stay and sulk. I was free to leave and have any kind of sex or any kind of relationship I wanted.

But I am no longer free in that way. People have sometimes asked me why my partner and I are not married. But I have made a promise far more binding than any wedding ceremony could ever be. I have had a child with him. I freely took on that responsibility, it is mine, and it cannot be handed back.

And the other night, while I was fantasising about splitting up, I looked at my Beautiful Boy, and it occured to me how much care I have taken with every aspect of his life. I have taken weeks even before buying basic items, summing up costs and benefits of particular models of high chair or particular toys, putting them on lay-by, paying small amounts at a time, denying myself things I would normally have taken for granted, determined to get those things for him. So how can I not put far more care into his emotional environment? The stability of our little family?

I know there are people who say that children survive the separation of their parents, that the needs of the parents are important, yada yada yada. And I know that, at some level, this is true. But as a child of divorce myself, I know that, while I certainly survived it, I was also damaged in some fundamental ways that I still live with.

And my boy is so beautiful, so new, so perfect, that I cannot bear to think of any damage being done to him.

I love my partner. I still don't really want to lose him, even if sometimes I do. But more importantly, I love my Beautiful Boy.

I seem to have some Inner Toddler that can't just bear to go without sex. That stamps her feet and flings herself on the floor and yells and cries I WANT I WANT and truly believes her heart is breaking when she can't have what she wants. But now I have a little pre-toddler of my own, and I have to be the grownup.

I think, when it comes right down to it, I could go without sex for the rest of my life if I had to, for the sake of that little boy's wellbeing, to spare him what I went through. I don't want to, I REALLY don't want to, but I will if I have to. And I think that my partner, who I can see is reeling with the shock of the last few days, will also do whatever it takes.

And that should be our starting point for getting ourselves out of this place. For easing ourselves out of our respective corners. For getting to a different place and a different path that we can travel down together.


Blogger Satan said...

Good luck. ;)

2:54 AM  
Blogger freebird said...

Brilliant post, Emily. Sounds like you've got it all crystal clear. You have the advantage of seeing the situation from both sides. Just keep communicating and hopefully you'll meet each other half way. Good luck indeed!

6:14 AM  
Blogger FTN said...

I think your situation really shows us that working on a compromise is the only good option. We can't honestly want or expect our "low libido" partners to suddenly turn around and become freewheeling sex maniacs.

(Which, incidentally, is why I try to keep myself from reading the erotic "sex blogs" written by women. That'll never be my wife, and reading a lot of that stuff would just drive a bigger wedge between us.)

Also, our partners obviously can't expect us to stop desiring sex. The fact that you've seen both ends of the spectrum should help your perspective. You know NOT to act like your previous partner did, pestering and pressuring for sex. Yet there is a way to go about compromise. And you've tried, and you've failed even at that, so you're frustrated.

I wish I could encourage you somehow to just keep trying. Talk about it, come up with alternatives and compromises. Don't expect steak and wine all the time, just go with the soup or salad or tofu or whatever for the time being. It's hard to have the same conversation over and over without sounding like a pest, but I think if you stress to him how important it is to you, and to your relationship, maybe he'll be willing to compromise and meet you in the middle too.

And there's no excuse for "backing out" on a planned date or planned sex. I'd tell him that straight up. That's something that you've already compromised on, and he's not even meeting you in the middle.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Mu Ling said...

People's heads sometimes explore when I say this, but sex isn't everything. We can make lives out of what we have. It's horrible, but it's possible, if we believe enough in the reaons why we're doing it.

My heart goes out to you. You're not alone.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

Thank you. I agree with all your comments, and have just written a post about what has happened.

The answer always seems to be communication, realistic expectations, some resignation about what isn't possible and a lot more effort. Damn, why isn't the answer consumption of more chocolate???

5:04 PM  

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