It’s understandable that couples are wary about bringing up sensitive topics. The avoidance of pain and distress are major motivators to go into hiding. But too much avoidance or passive behavior can lead to marital corrosion. So how can this difficult problem be managed? Because of the extra length, this month’s column is divided into two parts with the second part finishing next month.
We will follow Tina and Tom through their truth-telling process. They met as students at a large Midwestern university and married soon after graduation. They both come from religious, church-going families. In their five years of marriage, they have been busy starting their careers and buying and fixing up a house. Tina has always faked orgasm when they make love; she’s beginning to feel she wants to speak up about it.
STEP 1: MAKE THE DECISION TO BE TRUTHFUL
Tina recognizes that sex is becoming more boring and longs to feel more pleasure. She wrestles with the thought of mentioning this to Tom. She doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, but the pretense has worn thin. She hates feeling like a phony.
Tina decides to be truthful because, there’s a chance that they’ll be able to change their sexual routine. If she doesn’t tell him, she’s only going to become more and more frustrated.
STEP 2: DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO HAPPEN
Knowing what you want helps you formulate your approach and what you say. Tina hopes that telling Tom the truth will allow her to:
a. feel more genuine
b. make changes to improve their sex life
c. overcome her anger
STEP 3: EXPLORE YOUR OWN AVOIDANCE
It’s important to understand what led to the deception. Tina recognizes that, because of the way she was brought up, talking about sex is uncomfortable for her. She has also been reluctant to say anything that might hurt or humiliate Tom. She started faking orgasms to help Tom believe he was a good lover even when she felt completely apathetic. Admitting that she was faking would have defeated the purpose. And so on it went.
A key component of Step 3 is understanding your own ambivalence. You can ask yourself, “Is there a part of me that doesn’t want to change?” Understanding your own doubts will help clarify your resolve.
Tina realized, ironically, that faking orgasm eased some of her anxieties about sex: If she knew she was faking orgasm, she didn’t have to worry about whether or not she would actually have one. Also; a “yawn” of a sex life meant that they wouldn’t have sex very often. Though that wasn’t necessarily a good thing, it did feel predictable and safe.
STEP 4: SET A TIME AND PLACE
You want to create a situation conducive to your partner hearing your message and sensing the compassion you bring to it. It would be best for Tina to bring up the topic when Tom isn’t tired or otherwise preoccupied, such as when they are taking a walk or when they’re sitting comfortably in front of a fire.
Bad times would be right as Tom is walking out the door or the instant he comes home, weary with jet lag, from a business trip. Be sensitive to anything your partner may be dealing with that might make your truth an unnecessary burden. If there’s illness in the family or serious trouble at work, postpone the discussion.
With significant or surprising truths, the setting is important. Choose a time and place that’s comfortable and where you’re not going to be interrupted. We’ve heard men, in particular, suggest going for a walk or talking while working in their garage or woodshed.
STEP 5: DON’T BE PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE
There are definitely ways to reveal truths that don’t make things eas¬ier. One woman hid the fact that she was pregnant from her husband because she knew he didn’t want another child. She finally enlightened him by leaving a voice mail message at work when she was away. This was playing hardball because she’d waited past the first trimester before giving him a chance to respond.
It’s also unwise to wait for a time and place to choose you. Some people are so passive about truth telling that their mates have to chase after them. For instance, we’ve seen people conceal the fact that they were heavily in debt until the local utility cut off the heat and electric¬ity. It’s also common for people to leave clues around and wait to be caught in an affair, or for women to stop using birth control and not tell their partner until they’re pregnant.
Tina would be passive aggressive if she started avoiding sex alto¬gether to force Tom into asking questions. This way Tina would be denying responsibility for her own indirectness, and it would cause Tom to feel angry and distant.
STEP 6: PLAN WHAT YOU WILL SAY OR DO
Nobody would go on a four-day hike through the jungle without plan¬ning ahead. Yet people invariably launch into an explosive conversation with no forethought and then wonder why it was a disaster.
A little preparation can avoid a lot of grief. You can say to yourself, “My partner will probably get defensive. When am I most likely to cave in? When am I most likely to counterattack?” Refrain from speaking in a moment of anger. Do enough preparation, either mentally or by writing it down, so that you aren’t impulsive.
Being candid takes courage and forethought. Next month we will review these steps and finish the process of strengthening your relationship with increased truthfulness. As always, we invite you to visit our website for more information and resources on improving your relationship.
Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.
Ellyn’s first book, “In Quest of the Mythical Mate,” won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including “The Today Show” and “CBS Early Morning News,” and she has been quoted in many publications including “The New York Times,” “The Oprah Magazine” and “Cosmopolitan.”