Repairing Relationships

Building intimacy and joy into your relationships

Does Love Keep An Account Of Wrongs?

The basic disconnect that sends marriages spiraling downward

The internet exploded this summer after a shocked wife posted on Reddit an angry email from her husband, sent to her as she was driving to the airport. Attached to the email was a detailed spreadsheet  documenting how he attempted to initiate sexual relations with his wife almost daily during the previous month—and listing the various reasons she used to deny him. The husband bitterly concluded his presentation by stating that they'd only been intimate with each other three times over a seven-week period.

A disconnect over expectations of frequency of sex is a common source of conflict in marriage. Men generally consider sexual relations unconnected to the interpersonal aspect of a marriage or cohabitation. Dr. John Gray, author of the bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, has observed that resentment is temporarily washed away for men when they enjoy regular sexual relations in a committed relationship. But marriage and family psychotherapist Sonya Rhodes has pointed out that women tend to see sex as a natural result of a healthy relationship. When a committed relationship is ailing, a woman may tend towithhold sexual relations, while a man may want to have sex even when the relationship is under stress.

In such situations, a primary reason for many men to have sought marriage or cohabitation—sex—may diminish as his partner's feelings about their relationship wane. The husband may find his moments of physical intimacy declining as his partner's opinion of the union's emotional intimacy declines. He may consider his partner's "withholding" of sex to be fighting unfairly. That's what this spreadsheet represents: This husband is attempting to throw a penalty flag on his marriage. And many such fed-up men don't really know what else to do. As they become more resentful, their partners will find their own attempts to address areas of conflict in the marriage cut short. In a snowball effect, wives may then communicate their growing displeasure with the relationship by withdrawing physically even further.

As painfully obvious as this is to women, some men tend to be blind to the reasons why physical relations in a marriage or cohabitation decline. They have no idea why their fed-up mates withdraw from them. Marriage researcher Pepper Schwartz identifies this scenario as the most common type of sexless marriage, in which "there's a lot of anger and two people who simply don't know how to change their behavior."

Men in these situations feel victimized because they are being denied. They may head to sports bars, card rooms, gold club locker rooms, or bowling alleys to commiserate with other men, rationalizing that this is the way all marriages and cohabitations end up. In doing so, they feel no personal responsibility for their present predicament. All they know is that they aren't getting what they want.

With both partners angry, resentful, and disillusioned, the best outcome is for the couple to realize their problems are beyond their power to mend on their own and  hit bottom. If the husband and wife both realize their union is in serious trouble it can usher in a time of healing as they seek outside help.  Marriage counseling, psychological services, and 12-step groups for codependency are just some of the resources available to men and women ready to heal their ailing unions. But both partners first have to stop pointing fingers at each other, accept joint responsibility, and slowly work together to build a new, stronger foundation.

J.R. Bruns, M.D., is co-author of The Tiger Woods Syndrome, a book about repairing relationships.

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