I’m going to get naked with you, sharing the one secret that gave me a life of emotional and physical intimacy. Getting there was the scariest thing I ever did, and you won’t believe how simple it was.
First, some background.
I had three older brothers and two younger sisters in a lively Irish-Catholic family on Grand Island, New York. My parents loved each other, but bickered all the time. If Dad said the couch was red, Mom corrected, that no, it was rust. They could bicker over anything.
Mom’s world consisted of emotions, beauty, family and charity. Dad’s was reason, ideas, facts, perfection and competence. Logic and force of personality won out and my father frequently had the upper hand, unless memory was involved. Then my mother won.
Our family dinners were fun and energizing, but sometimes resembled a blood sport — eat or be eaten, wit being the coin of the realm. Mom stayed on the sidelines, not suited for battle — rarely a participant. Like a baby mouse imprinted with her mother’s scent, I adopted their style; it was more important to be right than happy.
At 20, I married a man much like my father, blazingly intelligent, quick, cutting and defensive. We reenacted my parent’s dynamic in many ways, but I vowed not to be vulnerable like my mother. I dressed in Levi’s and plaid shirts, cut my hair short, gained weight and hid any sign of femininity. I appeared asexual, but more important, learned to cover sadness, concerns and anger, acting like one of the boys. Being tough and invulnerable, I couldn’t be hurt.
Once, five months pregnant with our second child I camped for a week in Algonquin, Canada, with my husband and our church young couples group. I carried a heavy pack, portaged through the woods and slept on a thin foam pad. It was only after days of trying to sleep on tangled roots and rocks that I discovered all the other couples had air mattresses. Such amenities were for sissies.
My androgyny affected our sex life; very little of it and not good. I joked that there was only three subjects my husband and I could not discuss: sex, money and chores. I needed more.
Just as blocked arteries develop other pathways to deliver blood to the heart, I developed alternate routes to receive love — I built up a collection of friends who loved me, mostly female, occasionally male — all platonic. I would have said I was happy, justifying the creative financing of my love bank.
But deep inside, was a woman wanting out — a soft-hearted, tender creature who wanted to be cherished by one man. Eventually, through the magic of therapy, good friends and re-discovering musical gifts, I reclaimed much of my femininity, but it was too late for us. After 25 years, we divorced.
At 46, I faced a brand new future, a future I could choose.
I created a vision statement for my new life. It described the house I’d live in, kind of music on the stereo, paintings on the wall and, of course, the man who would share it with me: he would be smart, funny, hospitable, sensuous, and above all, kind. And we would be intimate, whatever that meant.
I dated 18 men in one crazy year, then, took a sabbatical. At the end of it, there was Dave. He matched the man I’d pictured in all the key ways, but —closest to my heart — was kind.
I’d found my ideal mate and I was terrified. So terrified, a latent case of colitis kicked into high gear. I was touching on deep fears and my body was objecting. I had not seen intimacy between my parents, had not experienced it with my ex, yet that is what I desperately wanted in my new life. How could we create this?
We started with one basic rule, we would be kind to each other — literally, a zero-tolerance for unkindness, and it had to start with me.
How did this play out?
We didn’t allow blaming. For anything. Ever. Especially when driving or discussing money. No criticism was permitted. If we had a beef, we either sat on it or discussed it as a thing we might solve together. Sarcasm was also barred at the door — including that ominous fourth horseman of divorce: eye-rolling behind each other’s backs. We argued and sometimes heatedly, but never hit below the belt. Public putdowns were forbidden too.
We were patient with each other, listening without jumping in, even when a story took so long, you could picture cows wandering in and out of the pauses. We created an environment where we could be ourselves without criticism or judgment.Most frightening for me, we admitted fears, cried in front of each other, shared hopes, budding dreams, and let down our guard. Slowly, I reprogrammed that baby mouse for a life of love instead of one of conflict and competition.
Do you know what happens in a relationship where both people can be vulnerable and truly themselves? When you know your tender bodies and souls will be cherished and not ridiculed?
You feel safe, relax, and have a lot of really great sex.
Dave and I will be married for five years this October, and they have been the happiest years of my life. Over time, I learned to be OK with both emotional and physical intimacy and my colitis went away, but we’ve had our hard times too. It’s then that kindness kick in — the touchstone we always return to when we’ve lost our way.
Ultimately, intimacy had to begin with me. I had to let go of a lifetime of defensive tactics, unconscious behaviors and a pathological need to be right. I could expect kindness in my life and marriage when that’s what I gave. And I discovered that when you remove arguing, anger, blame, bickering, sarcasm, insults, criticism, pickiness and fault finding from a marriage ... all that’s left is love.