The holidays crystallize for us those critical moments when we didn’t get what we wanted or needed from our past relationships or our families of origin. Frank and Amanda had gone from having sex once every three months to twice a week. He expressed his doubt about the change, “Even though we are having sex more, it still seems like she doesn’t really want it or want me.”All week long the Christmas, holiday, and family disappointments have been pouring out of my clients as they struggle with giving and receiving sex now. Getting the special holiday gift meant your parents knew you, cared enough to understand what was important to you, and had resources of their own to provide for you. If Santa surprised you with the present under the tree, it was all the better. Not having to beg for it, not having to put it on the list was childhood magic.
Are we whining over not receiving the Red Ryder BB gun or Barbie? I don’t think so. Holiday rituals call forth the ghost of Christmas Past. Unfortunately, the way our family functioned as a whole is often starkly recalled by that sad scene at the holiday table when Dad was drunk, or the gloom we felt when our divorced mom forgot to put out the gifts under the tree, or the year we got the discounted gift instead of the brand name because our parent was out of work. If we haven’t worked through our losses from childhood, we feel the ghost hover near when our spouse does not or cannot perfectly meet our needs.
We ask for sex and when our partner refuses, we see an apparition on our spouse’s face that is vaguely familiar and frightening. Our fantasies of a sex life where our partner knows what we want, how we like it, and wants to give it to us are dashed like all our hopes have been dashed. Marriage tricked us into believing that we should trust again. Now we know that asking is foolishness. (If you think I’m exaggerating the point – ask a disgruntled sexual pursuer how they feel.)Sex is primitive; it’s skin love. Touch is the first form of love we got from our parents. The tender care or lack of affection we received in our family set the tone for our love lives for the rest of our lives. We are held, our basic bodily needs are met and we grow up to think the world is a good and safe place. Without enough love, we are anxious children unable to sooth ourselves. If our physical needs were not met or if they were delayed to the point of discomfort in the ego-centric stage of childhood, we conclude that we were bad and overwhelmed our caretakers. It leaves us with a worry that we will never be fulfilled. While sexual desire is a universal need in humans, the anxiety of never having enough, of never being satisfied come from an anxious childhood.
Sex is a wonderful opportunity to receive from our beloved the physical love we missed. For many of us it soothes us in an unsurpassed way. Orgasm is such a powerful, diffuse experience that we feel at one with our lover, at one with the universe; it reminds our unconscious of the early symbiosis with our mother. Love stands outside of time. If we are loved now, we feel good to our core, redeemed from a broken childhood. Sex can literally help heal us –if, (a big if)— we grieve the fact that we didn’t get what we needed then, and accept that now, love will come in bits.
Every once in a while, love and sex will be exactly the way we need it, but the other times, it will be a jigsaw puzzle of pieces that make up the whole picture of what we need. Because our partner is human, sometimes they will be too tired, not horny, angry with us for prior issues, etc. Our lovers are not responsible for our greater feelings of emptiness coming from childhood. Even if we’ve told them what we want, they are limited in their ability to meet our need by their very otherness. Hard to believe during the power struggle, but mostly they love us and do want to make us happy.Adulthood means we have to make a list. We have to ask for what we want. We must accept the love we’ve asked for. Amanda did love Frank. She saw how much he needed sex to feel her love and gave it more often. He nearly sabotaged their progress by fretting about her drive, her sometimes imperfect technique, and that she was doing it only because he asked. He didn’t think her passion was sincere when he had to guide her during sex.
We must give up the notion that our partner will have omniscience. They often don’t know what we want from them. They are not Santa. Though we get inside each other’s bodies in orgasmic ecstasy, we never inhabit each other’s minds. Assuming their best intentions for us exorcises our painful history and allows us to react afresh. We have to stop seeing our partner through the ghost of Christmas past.