Bob and Anne have been married for 10 years, more or less happily. No kids. Two busy, stressful careers that are still stuck in no-longer-beginners-but-moving-ahead-way-too-slowly mode.
Last month she found an anal toy in the back of her husband’s sock drawer and freaked out. She then went through his website searches and found he’d been look at transgender porn. She freaked out more. She also found that he had searched a few sites looking for “grannies in Toronto,” which is where they live.
Calling him pervert and unfaithful, she moved out. She’s heartbroken. She’s also angry, confused, and “completely, totally mistrustful—possibly damaged forever,” she says.
“She’s crazy,” is his basic response, “without a clue about human sexuality.” He isn’t sure he can ever forgive her—the intrusiveness, the bizarre (to him) conclusions, the abandonment.
They emailed last week, pleading for a skype session.
They’ve seen two therapists and a pastor; she’s gone to countless websites; and he’s gone to several friends (with some substantial changes in the story, of course). All of them agree on one terribly unhelpful thing—that one of these spouses is wrong, one is right, and they need to decide who is which. Not surprisingly, everyone has offered to help in this crucial task.
But that’s making things worse, they’re now talking about divorce, so they did an internet search and called me.
My approach is different.
I have lots of information—which I didn’t discuss very much. I have lots of clinical experience—which I didn’t discuss very much.
Instead, I listened. Of course, I have an advantage that they don’t: I’m not angry, hurt, scared, confused, or feeling pushed away. They are. Which makes it hard for them to listen to each other.
That’s the first thing I explained: that they almost certainly weren’t listening to each other—not because they’re bad people, or because they don’t care about each other, but because they’re each just too filled up with feelings. I suggested they could each be a little sympathetic to their partner’s current dilemma.
I asked her to explain what she was actually concerned about. She wandered all over the place about people interested in T-porn and T-sex, people who keep secrets, people who are gay but won’t admit it to themselves, and about protecting herself from future betrayals.
“Whoa,” I gently said. “You have a complex brew of fears, fantasies, and theories here. Let’s try and sort that all out. You seem to feel that his fantasies have meaning—meaning that you understand better than he does, or meaning that he’s not willing to admit?”
“They’re not just fantasies,” she said. “He’s looked for local grannies. He’s stimulating his anus when he masturbates. That’s behavior,” she said firmly.
“Well, yes and no,” I replied. “Going on websites, that could easily be window shopping—you know, ‘I wonder what’s out there. I wonder what they look like.’ Stimulating his anus, the simple explanation is that it’s pleasurable. Anything else is a pretty complicated explanation.” Which is what people in pain manufacture, of course.
“You’re taking his side,” she said. I could see him rolling his eyes in the background.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Your explanation of his behavior and fantasies gives you great pain. Mine could give you some comfort. That doesn’t sound like taking his side.”
“Besides,” I continued, “I want to talk with him about his hiding.” So I asked him, “Would you please tell her the truth—the absolute truth, please—about why you’ve hidden these various sex-related activities?” This is where I trust the process, and assume I’ve correctly assessed that this guy isn’t totally crazy.
“The truth? The truth is that I was afraid she’d get mad, or misunderstand. I see I was right!” His tone was triumphant, but bitter. “Well,” I replied, “You were partly right. Yes, she got upset, and she’s even pretty judgmental. But given the strength of her feelings, they’re probably about something else.”
They were both silent for a moment. I looked straight at her, as softly as I could.
“It’s not just the anal masturbation or the porn itself, is it? Maybe you’re feeling left out? Maybe you’re feeling this is the climax of months, maybe years, of drifting apart, or feeling uncared for or pushed away?”
She burst into tears. “Yes, I felt left out when he used to drink all the time. Then he quit drinking last year, but almost immediately started smoking pot every night…”
“Not every night,” he interrupted angrily. I reproached him—“she’s talking about feeling left out—if you argue about the details you’ll only prove her point,” I said.
“…smoking pot almost every night,” she continued. I got lonelier and lonelier. We don’t have much sex anymore. I’m not sure why, but it’s scary.”
“And so finding out this news about his fantasies, his interests, his curiosity, that all seemed to fit into this pattern, didn’t it?” She nodded. “And instead of telling him how you felt, you called him a bunch of names and ditched him for a while?”
She nodded glumly. I turned to him. “And instead of asking her what she was so upset about, you called her a bunch of names and just turned away, right? I imagine you feel abandoned just when you need her reassurance the most. Do you suppose she knows how bad you feel about that? Or have you mostly talked about how unfair and wrong she is? Talking about the first more than the second is way more likely to get you what you want.”
I hadn’t said much about the facts, so I did want to address one thing. “The range of human sexual fantasy,” I said, “is broader than any one person can possibly imagine. The connection between fantasy and actual desire in most people is weak. Why do people fantasize about one thing rather than another? Sometimes they know, and sometimes they don’t.”
She had to make her point: “I don’t want sex with someone I don’t love, and I certainly don’t want to imagine sex with someone I don’t love. He obviously does. What’s wrong with him?”
“Oh,” I smiled. “After ten years together, have you not noticed that you two are different people? He apparently enjoys fantasizing about sex with someone he doesn’t love, doesn’t even know. That’s a far simpler and more feasible explanation than your psychodynamic one, or your explanation that he wishes to do these various things. I’m certain that if he wanted sex with a transsexual, he could arrange to do so. Look at him, really look at him right now. Do you really think he’s done that?”
“Then why…” she started, but I interrupted. “Most people fantasize about people and activities that aren’t available in real life. You may not be like that, and that’s OK. He seems to be like that. You can decide that’s fine, or you can torture the both of you.”
I also told him that he could be ashamed of his fantasies and anal self-pleasure, making excuses and attacking her for being a prude. Or he could accept himself, talk with her quietly, and answer every question she had (probably more than once). That would put a human face on what he’s doing and feeling and imagining, inviting her away from the baroque story she’d invented about this bizarre person she found herself married to.
“And if she’s feeling she can’t get close to you because you’re stoned a lot,” I added, “you might want to look at her reality about that, rather than try to convince her that you don’t smoke too much.”
As our session drew to a close, she asked for a book recommendation. I pushed just a bit more instead. “You don’t need a book about people like your husband. You need to get to know your husband better. Talk to him. Ask him questions—not criticism disguised as questions, but questions that will help you understand his unique lived experience.”
He needed the same thing, so I told him “Talk to her about yourself—not what’s wrong with her, but about how you feel, how you want to feel, what you’ve liked and hoped to enjoy from your various private sexual visions.” And what you’d like with her if the two of you were to resume sex.”
Turning to them both, I said, “When you feel disappointed or confused, start with simple explanations before imagining complicated ones. When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses rather than zebras.”