"I tell you, the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people."
-- Vincent Van Gogh
The art of love has its home in our ability to access and expand our capacity for sexual desire and arousal. This process is the result of a complex range of internal experiences that includes everything from hormonal stimulation to a prehistoric form of communication. Our ability to feel sexual is a product of our history, our biology and our current relationship. The match or mismatch of two partner's abilities to answer this need for each other is the foundation of the joy or frustration that their intimate life provides.
In my own marriage, we suffered through years of what often becomes one of the most hurtful and significant battles in a relationship -- the initiation question. On the surface, the question may be playful: "How about a date tonight?" or "Have any plans around midnight?" But when the requests come continuously from one partner and are rebuffed continuously by the other partner, the question is no longer playful and the responses begin to reflect all that remains unsaid. The classics "I am not in the mood" and "I am too tired" create a cycle of defensive and offensive reactions, almost like a pre-patterned dance.
Feeling wanted sexually carries so many meanings and has a great deal of emotional baggage attached; a lot of it is unspoken even to ourselves. The weight of these unspoken messages can start to feel like an invisible third person at the party. Shame of rejection is not a lot easier to bear than the shame of chronic lack of desire. It is important to realize that there is no winning side of this fence; the shame of rejection is really no better than the guilt of turning away. The pain is equal.
The first thing that helps to stop this cycle is to identify it. Find a neutral time to bring up the topic and agree to look at the issue from a distance, almost as though you were talking about people you both knew. This can be difficult to do, especially if the conversation is overdue. The moment you can both see the patterns that your intimacy falls into, there is a peace that comes from not being alone with it. This doesn't solve the problem, but it allows you to create a new relationship to it -- one of witness and investigator rolled into one; it makes you take time to learn to separate your feelings from the event.
Once you have both been able to see the issue from both sides, you can slowly unpack your feelings and start to see what it means to you and to your partner to be sexually desired and to feel sexual desire. It is really important to keep these discussions in the present tense. Don't be tempted to justify your behavior and feelings from before because that will remove the possibility of healing in this moment. And keep in mind, by healing the present moment, you automatically heal the past.
This is not a quick fix solution and it doesn't alleviate the push/pull roller coaster of living in a relationship. But by working to take out the sting and pain of rejection, abandonment and whatever else has been attached to these swings, you allow yourself the joy of exploring them.
Twenty-five years later, my husband and I still pass the weight of relating and intimacy back and forth on a squeaky but functional pulley that we have both come to understand and appreciate. It's a relief now that we have the freedom to invite an interlude without the fear that saying "no" will start another battle. Allowing yourself and your partner this freedom is a gift that will repay you many times over in discovering the joy and spontaneity of taking turns.