Friday, January 10, 2014

Filled Under:

Sex, Marriage, and The Silent Treatment

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I hadn’t spoken to Mel since I got home. We hadn’t had sex for almost two weeks, so I was giving her the silent treatment.

It’s not that I hadn’t asked her for sex. I asked her the night before, but she had homework. I asked her the night before that and she had a headache. I’d probably propositioned her each night since we had sex last. “How about we… click, click.” Or “I’d really like an appointment tonight.” Sometimes I massaged her back, which lead to kissing her neck, and ended with the statement, “What are you trying to do?”
Sometimes I asked her via text message, “Sex is cool. Have you tried it?” She didn’t respond. I sent her a clever news article via a Facebook private message about how looking at breasts can lower a man’s blood pressure. I included something clever. Something that I thought was charming. “I think we should take steps to lower my blood pressure.”
She never responded to that message, either. But I know that she looked at it because Facebook reported that it had been “seen.” I imagined that she opened the message, rolled her eyes, and then closed it.
Perahaps I was being irritating.
That week, each evening after work, I’d washed the dishes, vacuumed the floor, got the kids ready for bed, and put dinner away. I always got up in the night with the kids, too. I’d been doing that for some time. In fact, Norah didn’t cry out, “Mommy” in the night anymore. She cried for “Daddy.” I hadn’t taken Mel out in the past two weeks, but we’d snuggled on the sofa and watched a show several times. With kids, work, and school, sometimes that is the closest we can get to a date.
I don’t do all these things only to get sex. I do them because I love my wife. I do them because I love my family. And I understand that they are required to make a marriage work. But the really strange thing is, whenever we go too long witout sex, I think about my obligations as a husband, I think about what I’ve done and what I haven’t, and then wonder what I’m doing wrong. I wonder if this dry spell is a result of me falling short as a husband, and I wonder if our lack of sex is some kind of punishment. I get frustrated, and then wind up acting like an asshole as a way to get back at something that has nothing to do with with me not fulfilling my obligations, and everything to do with the everyday stress of raising children.
So once I finally got sick of asking, once I’d finally reached my breaking point, I just stopped talking and started responding in Tim Taylor style grunts.
“How was your day?” Mel asked when I got home from work.
I grunted and shrugged, which translated to, It was fine.
I went in the bedroom to change from my work slacks and collared shirt, and to put my gym clothes in the hamper (I usually go to the gym during my lunch break). Most evenings I changed quickly so that I could help get dinner ready, or help Tristan with his homework, or something else that was productive around the house. But instead I took my time. I dillydallied so I wouldn’t have to talk.
I was pouting.
It was all childish. It was the same treatment I often gave my grandmother (who raised me between the ages of 12 and 18) when she wouldn’t let me go out with my friends or go to some concert. Only now I was 31-years-old, not sixteen. The silent treatment didn’t work with Grandma. She never caved. She just let me be quiet. In fact, I think she liked not having me talk for a while because I was a loud teenager who grew into a loud adult. Perhaps she even looked forward to these silent moments. 

But with Mel, the silent treatment usually gets a reaction. It always leads to a conversation, or something, that eventually leads to sex. 
Sometimes Mel and I will argue over the kids, money, house work, free time, all the cliché arguments, and I come at it face on. We might yell for a moment, but eventually we figure it out. We come to a compromise, or at least a temporary solution. I only give her the silent treatment when it comes to sex because I usually feel like I am out of options.
 And honestly, I am not happy about it. I feel really pathetic every time. I’m not sure when our marriage shifted to silence as a means of negotiation. Mel does it too, though, but for different reasons. When I keep putting off fixing something, like a curtain rod or a closet door, I might get the silent treatment until it gets done. And sometimes she gives me the silent treatment because I’ve been nagging her for sex, which is ironic.
This is what our marriage has become. We don’t fight about anything substantial. It isn’t like my parents who fought about my father’s drug addiction and infidelity. We don’t have major problems, so when we fight, it’s always over something that might seem petty to people with real problems.  And we never fight in the yell-at-each-other-you’re-sleeping-on-the-sofa way. One of us just goes silent until the other gives in. I don’t know if this is healthy or not.

That night we had dinner as a family, like we always did. Only instead of giving Mel attention, I talked to the kids as if what they had to say was the most interesting thing in the world. Like what they talked about was much more interesting than what Mel had to say. Once again, childish.
I asked Tristan (my six-year-old) about his day, and he told me that he farted on the swings. I complimented him on the accomplishment. I asked Norah about her day, and she told me about how a girl pushed her, but later the two played blocks. I complimented her on resolving conflict.
“Did you get a chance to call about the house warranty?” Mel asked.
I grunted. This was not a grunt-answerable question, but I did it anyway.
Mel rolled her eyes and looked down at her plate.

When I think back on the way I was acting, I ask myself this question: who am I to complain about sex? Or complain about anything really. Mel has been really good to me from the beginning. She took my name. She bore two of my children. She helped support me through college by working full time. When I was awarded a grant and a scholarship to study in London, she stayed with her parents for seven weeks and cared for our one-year-old son, while I went to plays at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and took a rowboat down the Avon River. She manages our budget. She manages our yard. She manages our home.
Sometimes I dream that Mel has left me, so I sit up for a few hours realizing that I can’t keep a budget, cook worth a damn, decorate a home, grow a garden, manage my emotions, sleep alone, care for the kids, or organize anything from my files to my dresser. I would be lost without her. I know what she means to me. I know that she is the love of my life. I have no room to complain. But each time we go too long without sex, I become conflicted.

Part of the problem is that the two of us have a very different understanding of what constitutes as a sufficient amount of sex. I’d like to have sex at least every other day. During stressful times, like when things aren’t going well at work, I’d like it more. Mel doesn't really have a set amount. Frankly, she doesn't think about sex as much as I do.
A few weeks before I gave her the silent treatment, Mel put her phone in my face. It was on the calculator app and it read “468.”
 “We have been married for nine years. If we had had sex once a week, we would have had sex this many times. That’s a lot! And I'm pretty sure we have done it more than that.” She raised her eyebrows, her face in a half grin that seemed to say, I don’t know what you are always complaining about.
I took out my phone and figured out how many times we’d have had sex if we’d done it every night for nine years. It came to 3,285. I held it up to her.
“This is what I’ve been hoping for,” I said.
She exhaled and rolled her eyes as though it was some crazy number between impossible and infinity. 

I don’t know how much sex other couples have. To some, my sex life probably sounds amazing. To them I have no reason to be frustrated. To others, it might look pathetic. But I don’t really want to compare my sex life to others’. I want to focus on my own. I love my wife. I think she beautiful, and I have an insatiable hunger for her. I don’t think that is a bad thing.
What I don’t think Mel realizes is that it is about more than just sex. When we don’t have sex, I get painful. I get lonely. I get frustrated. I look at other women more, which I hate, but somehow do subconsciously, before I have a chance to stop myself. I question my marriage more, which I hate even more. My self-confidence goes down. I feel less attractive. I feel like I’ve lost something, my charm, my appeal, my ability to seduce the woman I love.
I find her more attractive now than I did when we met, which makes things more complicated. It’s unexpected. I know her more now. I understand her more. I rely on her more. Her advice is better. She smells familiar, wonderful, like flowers and honey. Her smile is richer now, more sincere. Her hips curve. Her eyes are mature. Her hands are compassionate. Her stride is confident. She is a beauty.
Ironically, though, while I want her more, she seems to want me less. It’s frustrating and the opposite of what I expected at this stage in life. People often tell me that a man gets more attractive with age, but I don’t feel that way. Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting less attractive, which is very possible. I’ve gained weight, I’m getting a little gray, and I’m grumpier, less impulsive, and I snore.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that much of this is about self-confidence more than sex. I am not the most self-confident man. I want her to want me as much as I want her, because if she desires me, it shows that she still finds me attractive. (I know. This sounds so effeminate.) And I suppose the question I always ask is whether it is Mel’s job to help me feel more self-confident. I wonder if Mel would find me more attractive if I was more confident. Perhaps the problem has nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me. And when I think about that, I feel even less self-confident, and I wonder if I might have a twisted circular problem that cannot be solved by sex.

Mel is 31. People often tell me about the dirty 30s, where a woman starts to get randy. But we have yet to experience that. Probably because Mel is busier than ever before with volunteering at Tristan’s charter school, taking classes of her own, and dealing with Norah’s fits over potty training and learning to read. She is attempting to be a fulltime stay at home mom, a job I experienced last summer and can attest is very demanding, while finishing her degree. She is pregnant. Her life is demanding and her hormones are askew. The last thing she needs is one more thing in her life. The last thing she needs is me asking, and asking, and asking for sex. It is near the top of my list of priorities, while it is near the middle of Mel’s, and no matter how hard I try to change that, her priorities stay the same, and so do mine, so once things come to a head, once I am feeling frustrated and crazy, I pout because I feel it is my only way to get close to her, to feel like she still loves me, to feel, just for a moment, that I am still the charismatic, impulsive, attractive, and charming man she married.

That night I got Tristan and Norah in the tub, like I always did. I got them into their PJ’s, helped them brush their teeth, and got them to bed. Mel sat on the sofa and worked on her homework. It was just like any other night, only Mel and I didn’t joke about this, or that, like we usually did.  We didn’t talk at all. There was a nasty feeling in the room, one of hostility, of avoidance, that usually came about on nights like this.
Once the kids were in bed. Once they stopped asking for cups of water, books to look at, to be tucked in again, and for one last kiss good night, I sat down at the kitchen table and started grading papers for my online classes. My second job. Mel kept studying. And we didn’t talk for a good hour. It was round 9:30 PM when Mel put her textbook down, walked across the room, and sat down next to me. 

“You’re not talking to me,” she said.
Her arms were folded, left hand rubbing her right elbow, her head turned to face me. “What’s wrong?” 
There were so many thoughts running thought my head. I knew this moment was coming. It always went like this. I got silent and then Mel asked me what was wrong. And in my mind, in anticipation for this moment, I imagined how I would react. I’d tell her my frustrations. I’d tell her how I felt about our sex life, how I need sex to help me feel better about our marriage. To feel more self-confident. To help me feel like I was still close to her. Still valued. In my mind I said it so eloquently. But when it came down to the moment. When I was face to face with the woman I loved, I got tongue-tied. I got lost. I stumbled, and so I said, “It’s nothing,” hoping that Mel would realize that it was something.
Luckily we have been married long enough for her to realize that there was something wrong, and to know what that something was.
“I’m sorry we haven’t had sex for awhile,” she said. “I’ve just been busy with school and the kids. I always feel behind with everything. I can’t keep up. I can’t seem to find time for myself, even.” She paused for a moment. Took a breath. “The house is a wreck. I don’t have time to exercise. I’m behind on my papers. I’m pregnant, which is making me want to sleep during the day.” She went on, telling me that she was behind in her volunteer hours at Tristan’s charter school, and she was afraid he might get kicked out. She hadn’t looked at the budget in weeks and was afraid we might be over drafting our account. She listed out her life. Listed out her obligations that were extensive. Obligations that I knew of, but wasn’t thinking about at the time because all I could think about was sex.
 “I just…” Mel stopped speaking for a moment.
It isn’t always like this. Some weeks are better than others. Sometimes we connect time and time again. And in those moments, I feel very in love with her. But I am always surprised by how quickly my mood changes. How our sex life can be going well, then we miss a few days or a week, and somehow things change in my head. I get frustrated quickly. I don’t know why I am like this, but I have to assume that most men are, too. And I have to assume that I must come across as frustrating, contradictory, and unsatisfied.
Mel unfolded her arms and put her head down on the table. She was crying.
“I’m just really frustrated,” she said. Her words were muffled. They trembled.
And in that moment, as I look at her hunched over the table, stressed out and tired, overcome with frustration, I felt like an asshole. I always do in moments like this. She was trying to do big things. Raising children isn’t easy. Going to college while raising children isn’t easy. Going to college, while raising kids, and being pregnant is isn’t easy. Putting up with me must be a full-time job by itself. I still wanted her, but as I looked at her hunched over the table, crying, I started to see things more clearly. I started to think a little more with my head. And I don’t know why it always has to come down to this. Why I have to get angry and silent to let her know what I want. And she has to be brought down to tears to explain to me why she hasn’t been giving it to me. I don’t know what it is about sex that fogs my mind. I don’t know why it makes me see things as one sided, but it does, and it’s frustrating.
When I think about how conflicted I become because of sex, I start to understand how men can stray. I start to understand why my father cheated on my mother. I’m not saying that infidelity is justifiable. Far from it. I’m just saying that my desire for sex can make me confused and disoriented. It can make me want to make poor decisions, and I have to assume that other men must have the same problem. Men like my father. And those men might not have the restraint that I have. They might not have seen how damaging infidelity can be to a family. When my father left for another woman, it changed my life in ways I still struggle to define.
Living through my parents’ divorce has made me realize how fragile a family is. It helped me put my marriage and my life into perspective. To realize that I am part of something bigger than just my own desires.
I reached out and rubbed Mel’s back. I exhaled, still a little frustrated, but feeling more compassion now. More understanding.
I kissed the back of her head. Then she looked up at me. She was still crying.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just been a while.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry, too. I love you. I’d like to also. Tomorrow. For sure tomorrow.”
“Okay,” I said. “Tomorrow.”

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Clint Edwards is a tutor coordinator at Oregon State University. He is also the former co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU and a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University. His writing has been listed as notable by Best American Essays, and has been published in The Baltimore Review, and through The University of North Dakota, Boston College, Emerson College, The University of South Carolina, and Minnesota State University. 


Mrs_Snelly said...

It goes both ways. When my husband and I are in a dry spell, I find myself thinking about sex more than anything else. Interestingly enough, we also get along better with each other and the kids when the drought is ended. Rest assured it's not just you and Mel. And for the record, I find my husband so much more attractive now than when we were first married - 9 years, 4 kids, and who-knows-how-many-lb ago.

Clint said...

Mrs_Snelly: This is really comforting to read. I like to assume that I am not alone when it comes to this marriage frustration. And I really thank you for helping me confirm that assumption. It really is frustrating to love someone and want to be with them intimately, and yet there seems to be so many things in the way (kids, work, obligations...).

Skyler Manning said...

You are surely not alone, Clint. Try for a month or two at a time because of clinical depression. A lot of the things you said in this post mirror a lot of things most guys do and think about. It's our strength and resolve for the love of our marriage that keeps men like you and me from ruining our family's bond by being selfish. The urge is only human; to control that urge is superhuman.

Clint said...

Skyler: I agree. Marriage is full of these kinds of struggles. I have to say that being married is the most difficult and the most rewarding thing I have ever done.