There are couples who have frequent highly emotional fights followed by passionate love making. One sees them in Italian, Spanish and Mexican movies. You know, “those hot blooded Latins”. These couples, however, are by no means the majority. What is far more common is that when one person is angry with her or his mate there is no sex, let alone passionate love making . The two terms “anger at” and “making love to” are not complementary.
As a couples’ therapist and sex therapist it’s not surprising that a large percentage of the people I see are coupled with unsatisfactory sex lives. One in the couple might come in alone to decide if there is anything personally to be done to fix the situation or to decide whether to leave. More often the couple comes in together to find out why they are no longer having sex.
If one of them offers a reason for the coldness between them (e.g. “My partner just isn’t a very skilled lover” or “We never seem to find the time”) we will work together on sexual skills or time management, but very often one will say s/he doesn’t know why but there is just no interest in sex – not with the partner, not with anyone else, not with the self. Sometimes, when that happens I’ll ask directly “So what are you angry with your partner about?”
Yes, sometimes one will answer guilelessly “I’m not angry”, but far more often the anger is so close to the surface it just comes spilling out. Rarely is it just one thing: “You forgot to send a card to my mother for her birthday.” If it were just one misstep the couple might have fought about it then and there and cleared the air. It’s more likely to be something that has been stuffed, kept quiet, held in and festered: “You NEVER send cards on important occasions and you know how valued they are to me and my whole family and you didn’t even give me an anniversary card and that was five months ago!”
Anger can be expressed: “Damn it! I am really very annoyed at the way you ignored my friend at the party!”
Anger can be suppressed: “I didn’t want to make a thing of it at the party but I do wish you would make more of an effort with my friend in the future. Could you try please? I was embarrassed all evening.”
Anger can be repressed: “I had a wonderful time at the party and now I’m going to bed. Cuddle? No, I’m far too tired. Wrong? No, nothing is wrong. I just want to go to bed – alone.”
You recognize that last one? That mechanism of stuffing one’s anger, hiding it not only from the person at whom it is directed and with whom one might find a solution, but often hiding it from oneself as well. It’s the familiar scenario of the religious crusaders who often rail loudly and publicly against sins of sexuality who are subsequently caught with a sex worker, or keeping a mistress, or being overly fond of young boys. Sometimes it’s not overt hypocrisy but literally a case of the right hand not acknowledging what the left hand is doing because such thoughts and feelings have been so deeply repressed.
Some people sulk until they are over their angry feelings. Some blow up, vent, and then it’s over. Some instigate a fight so that they can achieve a comfortable distance from the partner with whom they are angry. Some talk about it, or try to, adult to adult. It’s important to learn one’s partner’s usual method of handling anger. Anger that is not dealt with honestly and in an adult manner can be poisonous. The first thing it kills is loving feelings, sexual feelings, anything that might connect the two people and bring them closer to a resolution.
Sex between a loving couple has its busy times and its slow times. Work, health, life, can intervene in a couple’s typical rhythm of physical closeness. If you find yourself in a lull for no apparent cause, try asking yourself first and then your partner “What are you angry about?” Then prepare to listen.