Rob and Beata
A typical scene on a Saturday afternoon for the last several years in Rob’s and Beata’s lives goes something like this: Rob’s been out, doing essentially anything he can to stay away from the apartment that he describes as dismal, claustrophobic and depressing. Beata is at home in sweats watching TV and eating chips from the bag.
She’s disgusted with the fact that she can’t fit into most of her clothes anymore, that her hair is limp and oily, and that she’s feeling down on herself – but that she can’t seem to do anything about it, and so she passes time watching reruns of Sex in the City episodes, feeling sufficiently distracted for periods of time that she can forget about the fact that she feels hopelessly stuck. She’d put on her sweats to trick herself into thinking that she’d go exercise, but she dislikes her body and doesn’t want to look at herself in the mirrors at the gym where she’ll begin, yet again, to compare herself to the other women, any one of whom, she’s sure, could be having an affair with Rob.
Rob and Beata are 35 and 36 respectively. Rob works in public relations and Beata in graphic design. They met in high school in a city in Pennsylvania where their families knew of one another, as each was fairly prominent in the community – in very different ways, one infamous, one illustrious.
Rob is having an affair – which Beata suspects, but she feels two things simultaneously: She thinks she knows him well enough to believe he’ll continue to stay in the marriage – which she’s learned from her own family is the singular goal of a partnership, even if it’s mostly out of guilt. And she knows too that she’ll never bring it up – lest he finally feel free enough to leave her. But she’s becoming increasingly aware that it makes her miserable and self-loathing. She watches the reruns and wonders why she’s not having wild sex – and why she can’t seem to entice Rob to have sex with her. But she’s just beginning to understand that there’s some sort of correlation between sitting home vegetating, compulsively overeating (and the concomitant diminished self-efficacy) and remaining in a passionless relationship. Some part of her knows she needs to get help with her own problems, but she’s kept veering toward the simplistic route instead, deciding it’d just all be better if Rob started loving her more – a quixotic belief at best, given that she knows she’s behaving in a rather unlovable way.
Once in therapy, she’s starting to become aware that she’s aborted any change or growth in the relationship in several ways, but perhaps primarily by avoiding being sexual herself. And she’s also recognizing that she has a good deal of anxiety about being sexual in the first place, and that she’s only been able to sexually engage when she was drinking – during those moments when she was, as I call it, a ‘not me’. Even as she describes these feelings in some of her individual therapy sessions, she turns tense and uncomfortable; she acknowledges she’s had anxiety about sex long before Rob began having affairs.
Shy about talking about sexuality, Beata herself has finally asked for some help in doing so because she’s coming to see that it’s been her very denial of her own sexuality that is playing a critical role in why Rob turns off to her – and not simply because, as she and her friends like to summarize, he’s a ‘bad boy’ or ‘incapable of love and commitment’. It’s an aspect of herself that she’s both shocked and comforted to understand: shocked because she’s simply always attributed the ‘problem’ to Rob, and comforted by the fact that if she herself is playing a role in this, then she can conceivably play an active role in changing the outcome.
Even as people learn about themselves they’ll often get stuck in their self-contradictions. Beata tells me (and herself) that, yes, she’s come to see a ‘wife’ as the quintessence of her mom: solid, calming, supportive of her husband by being his ‘rock’, his ‘home’- but not as a sexually interested party. But then she argues the point simultaneously and suggests instead that it’s only because Rob wants her to be a proper woman like her mom, and that he’d feel uneasy if she exhibited too much desire of her own. “He needs me be to be stable and comforting because his own family is so volatile”. I ask Beata later whether she could possibly also comfort him (and herself) in a sexual/physical way as well; and she’s floored that sex could be anything other than “out of control”. (Interestingly, it only comes out later in therapy that the apparently calm exterior of her own parents’ relationship masked years of unhappiness, depression and an asexual partnership).
It turns out that Beata is partially correct. Rob hasn’t seen Beata as sexual for a while and isn’t quite sure how he’d react to her if she were – though he loved her coquettishly sexual nature in their twenties when they’d first met and admits how deeply disappointed he was when that disappeared. In fact, he’d love her to still be sexually playful; it’s just that she’s moved into such an asexual way of relating to him that he doesn’t quite know how they’d get that part of the relationship started again.Moreover, Rob had been trying to tell her that her not showering, dressing in old sweats, not taking pride in herself all had an effect on him. When he’d say that, she’d scold him that he should “love her as she is” – for which he’d come to feel guilty, and which made him pull away further. It wasn’t until he learned more in therapy and read some psych articles about why and how partners turn off to each other that he came to understand his feelings and concerns were valid. The ubiquitous reprise of “you should accept/love me as I am” is a cop out – and highly manipulative – because it avoids a critical aspect of good relationships. That is, staying attractive and vital to each other (and to oneself) requires ongoing growth and change. Can you imagine saying that to your manager in a yearly review? You’d either be summarily booted out of there or sequestered to some superfluous position in the nether reaches of the firm.
Partnered relationships are and must be conditional to a certain extent; these become the checks and balances so necessary to making sure we’re being our best selves. (As couples stay together over time, a certain level of unconditionality does accrue simply because they become deeply caring of the well being of the other and thus feel they’d help each other out no matter what – even as many divorced couples come to feel). But this is different than the interest and excitement that only a growing partnership can have.
The only relationship that should be – must be – unconditional is a parent’s love for a child.
There are, of course, several other issues occurring in the marriage that have led to this level of withdrawal by both. There are always a series of micro-events that have caused changes in how the couple interacts but which never get identified or acknowledged as to how they’re affecting the interaction. And these must be addressed in as rigorous a way as the sexuality component.
But it’s when all these issues get ignored that relationships fail – often with one feeling “blindsided”. Yet it’s rare that one is ever truly blindsided; it has more to do with the fact that they weren’t paying attention to what the other was feeling/saying for a long time. That’s just a form of denial.
It is a critical error to assume that if a person in a relationship has an affair, it means that s/he is the problematic one in the relationship. Such reductionism leads to the belief that the simple fix is to just ‘get his/her act together’. But an affair is always about the couple as a whole, and when there’s an affair, there’s a problem in the system. It’s not unlike when a child begins acting out behaviorally in school but the parents believe the problem inheres in the child herself rather than in issues going on in the home as well (there could indeed be learning/developmental problems with which the child may be struggling, but if the system isn’t addressed, there won’t be much change). Similarly, without discerning the roles played by both parties in a partnership, there’ll be no opportunity for each to address their own problematic perceptions and behaviors affecting how they engage in this complex thing called love.