When the Best Sex is Extramarital by Lawrence Josephs, a New York psychotherapist, chronicles the study of one patient, Cynthia, who, though married to a devoted husband and father of their two young children, begins an affair with a co-worker. Sex with her husband is reported as “boring” while she claims to have had the best sex of her life with her lover, Neal. When Neal suddenly dies of a heart attack, she is left to mourn him in secret, which drives her to the therapist, Josephs, who makes her realize that her work is in reinvigorating her sex life with her husband.
Other than the therapist’s inserted judgment of the deceased Neal, which I found disconcerting, the article drew intriguing insights into that long-perceived dichotomy of good love vs. good sex. Apparently a Freudian, Josephs cites the good father of psychotherapy on love and lust:
Freud claimed that people often split love and lust. It is not uncommon to have great sex with someone who isn’t lovable, or to have a trustworthy loving relationship with someone with whom the sex is boring. Recent empirical research shows that individuals who exhibit high degrees of narcissism, like Neal, have difficulty integrating love and lust in a single relationship. This is also true of individuals, like Cynthia, who are “avoidantly attached” — they can’t tolerate the vulnerability of being intimate with someone on whom they are dependent, and so they create a self-protective distance from their partner.
The latter term “avoidantly attached” is not a phrase with which I am so familiar and since Dr. Josephs does not define his term or discuss how he reached the conclusion that Cynthia was “avoidantly attached,” I had to research.
Avoidant attachment yields two different separate behaviors: “fearful” and “dismissing.” Fearful avoidants have a negative self-image, but are also passive and dependent; they actually want intimacy but they are also desperately afraid of being hurt and distrust others. Fearful avoidants are the hardest category of insecure people to deal with in a relationship since they send out a mixed bag of signals. The dismissing avoidant has a more positive self-image but would agree with the following statement: “ I am comfortable without close emotional relationships, It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient and I prefer not to depend on others and have others depend on me. “ These working models affect individuals in myriad ways.
In the article with the above excerpt, Avoidant Personalities Destroy Relationships, author Peg Streep later notes what we all know: people marry their opposite sex parents. Hearing this early on in my dating days, I thought I was safe in that I married someone so different from my father. But having lived with my father the last few years, I realize I am mistaken.
My father, when physically present on those rare occasions he was not working or sleeping, was not a warm, accessible guy when I was growing up. As an adult, I was more relatable to him and he showed a very warm, sentimental side amidst his general crankiness and abusive language to not only my mother but all of his five children.
But that overly sentimental side lurched between the nasty brutal cutting side, which later showed me that he is simply incapable of relating to others, incapable of truly attaching. He either loves you or hates you depending on what you have done for him lately. Then again, how could he have learned how to attach when he was one of 9 children of scraping by parents?
So it’s no wonder I married someone devoted yet aloof and emotionally unavailable, he coming from parents who were the same. My mother, at least, was very warm and affectionate, but very busy with five children. I, being the middle child, fashioned my world, my niche in this enclave, as the independent one who needed her least so as to caretake her some. I still do.
All arrows point to the “dismissing avoidant” in the mirror, but the arm chair self-analyzing therapist is a lousy therapist indeed.
What do you do when the best sex of your life is outside of marriage, but you still want the emotional security of a stable long-term relationship with someone you love and trust? I’ve worked with a few couples over the years who have been able to make an open marriage work, but most people, even those who think they might want such an arrangement, are too insecure and jealous to do so.
Interestingly, Josephs does not discount that an open relationship could work, only that most people are too insecure and jealous to succeed. But how about two people forced into honestly engaging with each other about their needs and inability to fulfill them? What about those forced to stay together despite a lousy sex life because they have higher responsibilities to fulfill, like kids and aging parents?
Cynthia decided to work on her sex life in couples therapy, but how often does that “fix” an ailing sex life? I don’t have the data, but I do have a couple dozen years in divorce story land. My gut and experience tell me that many couples do not work out a sex life even after proper diagnosis and willingness to do so.
Sex is as mysterious as it is natural or primal.The complex of psychological, emotional, intellectual and physical cocktails that make some sex the best and some the worst is rocket science or voodoo to me. Honesty is critical to a healthy sex life but not easy. How do you instruct someone you love how to kiss you or please you, especially if you don’t really know how to instruct or what you need–for example, young teen or twenty something starter couples?
Sometimes the circumstances are such that two people want to stay together, perhaps at first for the kids, but later for more reasons than that; maybe there is no one out there to go rushing to that’s any better suited or as time tested as their marital partners, despite the dead sex life. Though the two may feel jealous and unwilling, they both know and are open to sex outside the marriage. And when they do so, in time both parties become acclimated. Exigencies make it work at first and time settles everything else afterward.
Freud claimed that children are emotionally possessive and jealous creatures who don’t like sharing their parents’ affection with anyone else. As a clinician I try to keep an open mind about romantic partner sharing, but when it comes to our spouses, it seems most of us never outgrow being fundamentally childlike in our possessiveness. At our best we learn to refrain from doing things that would make our spouses jealous and insecure, despite our temptations, and when they make us jealous we try to restrain our hostility, despite our hurt.
This would describe the majority of people most of the time and some of the people some of the time. I can remember being jealous of my husband’s friends, the coveted time he spent with them. When we separated and I dated someone else, he was jealous. And later when we reunited and then agreed to an open marriage, we were both jealous at times, but knew it had to be this way and so became inured to seeing other people come and go in our communal lives. The other option was divorce, which was clearly unnecessary.
We talk about our lives, but do not open up to each other much emotionally. He has always struggled with articulating what or that he feels. Yet, we provide each other the steadfast support that allows security, safety and adventure too–time tested love and respect–immeasurably comforting.
The best sex of my life has been with those I have been most emotionally connected to, felt the most love for–at that moment of enjoyment. With some, it has been easier to have great sex due to chemistry (scents, voice, hormones) or physical compatibility, similar aims, fantasies and spirit. Those relationships that afforded the greatest sex were firm, committed, yet clearly not forever. Perhaps the attachment avoidant in me has made that so.