I had dinner last week with a good friend of mine who is worried about her marriage. She and her husband have one of those marriages that I admire. Not that they don’t have their ups and downs because of course they do, but their relationship — after 18 years — is still based on a deep love and admiration. I can see it when she looks at him, and I can see it when he looks at her. Unfortunately, they can’t see it very well when they look at each other.
They are facing a crisis precipitated by a lucrative job offer she has received in another state, and decisions must be made, including the decision of whether he will be accompanying his family out of state, or staying here. She is frightened and sad and stressed, because she loves him and doesn’t want to lose him. Their main problem seems to be communication and emotional intimacy. She wishes he’d communicate more, be more affectionate, and share more of himself with her. He, I believe, wishes she would appreciate him more, spend more time with him, and focus more of her attention on him.
But for now, they are at an impasse, staring at each other across a divide carved deep and wide by their mutual retreat. Each is waiting, it seems, for the other to make the first move. And so they eye each other warily.
As I listened to my friend, I was reminded once again of the differences in how men and women communicate, bond, and reveal themselves. My friend’s husband is a reserved man of few words, a former farm boy with a broad chest and good heart, and not a trace of metrosexual in him. My friend is a strong and beautiful woman, a feminist who doesn’t exhibit her vulnerability easily, but admits privately how much she loves her husband’s masculinity. So what can two people who are so guarded and self-protective do to close the chasm between them?
Get naked, I say.
Get naked and have sex. A lot of it. Often. Be playful. Be flirtatious. Be sexy and coy and freaky and free. Talk and laugh and tease and admire. Make love and fuck and cuddle and kiss for hours on end. Walk around in your underwear — often. Sleep naked. Get reacquainted with the look and feel of each other’s body. Be shameless and vulnerable and open. Sure, at first it’s going to seem a little awkward, even stilted maybe. And that period may last longer than expected, but gradually, very gradually, I wonder if the walls will slowly come down and the tenderness they have for each other will fill the chasm between them. It’s sure worth a try, right? What the worst that can happen? A few good orgasms?
First, a short primer for anyone who has never met a man or a woman: Women are verbal creatures. Most of us communicate through words and expression and sharing our ideas and experiences and dreams and fears. We can talk about the same issue or problem for hours with our girlfriends, turning it over like a puzzle piece, examining every possibility. We feel grounded and rejuvenated and energized and connected after we’ve had “a really good talk” with someone we care for.
Men, on the other hand, are physical or tactile creatures. They bond with their friends by sharing an experience together — being on a team, playing poker, attending a sporting event, getting drunk and rowdy. They don’t usually tell their guy friends that they love them without simultaneously slapping them or punching them. And when they are with a woman they care about, they often struggle with expressing that. I am forever amazed at how even some of my most articulate male friends fumble and stammer when explaining their feelings for a woman in their life.
It took me many years, and many patient friends and boyfriends, to understand that sex is often more loaded for men than for women. For a lot of men, it is their primary — maybe even their sole — avenue to intimacy with the woman in their life. These men convey a million emotions and thoughts and needs and desires in how they touch and connect with a woman in bed.
If you’ve had sex with enough men, and you’ve been paying attention, you can tell that how a man is with you is usually about more than his technique or his level of sobriety or his ego. Many candid conversations with men have taught me that men really are different in bed with different women, and not always in the ways we women might expect. Sure, maybe their technique is basically the same, but — just as in other forms of communication — it’s the little things and the body language that speak volumes. The eye contact. The way he touches you. How much of his body he connects with yours and for how long. How he behaves as you lie there afterward.
Women know all of this, of course. We can all tell when someone is emotionally absent in bed, when they are “using” us purely for pleasure and nothing more. Every adolescent girl comes to understand very quickly that not all sex is created equal. But what I think escapes a lot of us — me included sometimes — is that if we’re not paying attention to those little things, we can miss some really big messages.
Last spring I was dating a great guy, who also happened to be a serious player. Really. We had been good enough friends for long enough that I knew exactly how much of a player he was and, truly, his escapades were pretty extraordinary. Shortly after we finally had sex for the first time, he did something that hurt my feelings, and when he asked me what was bothering him, I told him that I wished I’d never slept with him. He acted like I’d run him through with a dagger. I swear. He got so upset, I was terrified that this big, muscular, hard-ass was going to cry. I hadn’t said it to hurt him, honestly. I just figured that I’d been one of his many conquests and, especially because we were friends, I didn’t want to be that. When I explained that, he exploded. How could I think that?! he demanded. And then he listed off all the things that had happened between us that night, all the ways that he’d tried to communicate to me that I was special. And I’d missed them all. Pretty much every single one.
That was perhaps my starkest lesson in sex as communication, but there have been others. Most of us have dated a guy or two for whom sex is the only form of communication. These men can be frustrating because they have often gotten away with using sex as a means of smoothing things over, and have never had to develop their other communication muscles. When you try to talk to them about an issue or problem, they typically resort to kissing you or caressing you. This is sweet, but it can also be maddening. I mean, really, a little of both worlds is necessary, don’t you think? Otherwise, the woman ends up feeling like the issue has just been swept under the rug, with the expectation that the orgasm wiped the slate clean. This can be seriously unfulfilling in the long run.
Then there’s the sad experience of trying to reach a man through sex, only to discover that he’s not actually that interested in reaching you. This is the sexual equivalent of screaming at a deaf man, and leaves you feeling just as foolish. Remember: you can’t connect with a man, through sex or otherwise, if he doesn’t want that connection. This is the more mature version of the warning issued to teenage girls: he won’t love you just because you have sex with him. It was true then, and it’s true now.
As for my friend and her husband, I sincerely believe that they both desire to be closer, more connected. And, as I reflect on our conversation over dinner last week, I wonder if her husband has ever tried to reach her, to create intimacy with her, to express something to her, and she has mistaken it for simple passion or kindness or consideration in the bedroom. I don’t know if sex is the key to improved intimacy and communication for them, but I do hope they try. Because whatever key unlocks that precious door can only be a good thing.