By Sarah Ensor
After our twins were born, my husband and I went to counseling for relationship trouble that was somewhat caused by and somewhat contributing to a mismanaged sex life. Parick’s insurance sent us to Paul, whose office is at a holistic health center – a serene oasis in the woods, where wealthy naturalists go to practice yoga and Tai Chi.
Women during pregnancy and moreso after childbirth go through dramatic physiological changes that affect their health, body shape, body image and mental status. Intercourse in the aftermath of childbirth is painful. Things are in the wrong places, breasts are leaking, and abdominal skin swishes desperately in the opposite direction of force as if trying to escape the horrific scene before it. Although your desperately undersexed husband tells you repeatedly that you are sexy to him, you are deeply aware that sexy to him is not the same thing as sexy in general.
For us, this awkwardness continued, but sex eventually improved slightly. At least it wasn’t painful, but for the first time in my life, I wanted to cover my body. Also, we were exhausted. We had two babies and work to manage. What little time we had was spent doing laundry or, better, sleeping. Although we were step-in-step on child-rearing, we grew apart sexually. I was frustrated with the infrequency of sex, but I had no idea how to fit more of it into our busy schedule.
In November 2007, on a hunch, I checked the Internet browser history on my laptop and found long strings of cybersex. Patrick had a whole sex life that didn’t include me. I approached him, and we talked about the changes to our sex life. After about a week of consideration, I decided to try sex chatting, too, in the hopes we could regain some intimacy. We tried it, and sex became more frequent but hardly better.
A month later, the day the twins turned one, my grandfather died. My grandmother, his wife, had died two weeks earlier. I spent the evening packing our bags to go to my parents’ house for the weekend, so we could attend the services. Patrick spent the evening having cybersex with a brunette from Portsmouth.
It would be months before Patrick and I finally went to counseling. We each met with Paul separately, and then together. With Paul’s help, we sorted through our biggest problems and some smaller ones, too. That is how we resolved the Goddamn Sippy Cup Dilemma.
The Goddamn Sippy Cup Dilemma began when, at some point in the blur of having babies and sleep deprivation, dead grandparents and a flailing midriff, I didn’t always manage to rinse out the cups in a timely manner, an act that was as important to my marital status as not having sex apparently, because one day, Patrick said, “I’m bringing up the sippy cups in therapy.”
In therapy, we learned a technique called reflective listening. One person expresses a feeling or a thought, and the other person repeats it back. At first, it felt awkward, but once we were listening to and thinking about each other’s feelings, our relationship started to improve.
It works like this:
Person 1: When you don’t have sex with me, and instead make up a story with an anonymous person on the internet, it hurts my feelings.
Person 2: When I don’t have sex with you and instead make up a story with an anonymous person on the internet, it hurts your feelings. Is that right?
Person 1: Yes, that’s right. Also, I feel abandoned when I’m grieving and instead of hanging out with me, you jerk off into a trash can.
Person 2: I hear you saying you feel abandoned when I jerk off into a trash can instead of supporting you while you’re grieving. Is that right?
Person 1: Yes, that’s right.
Person 2: I am sorry for abandoning you to jerk off into the trash can. I would like to have sex with you, but I don’t want to bother you. Also, it makes me feel bad about myself that you feel insecure about your body. Also, you never rinse the sippy cups.
Person 1: I hear you saying you don’t want to bother me, and you feel bad about yourself because I am feeling insecure. Is that right?
Person 2: Yes, that’s right. Also, it makes me angry that you never rinse the sippy cups.
Person 1: I am sorry you feel bad about my insecurity and that you don’t want to bother me. You don’t bother me. I want to be near you. I love you.
Person 2: And the sippy cups.
Person 1: I hear you saying you’ll change. Is that it?
Person 2: No.
Paul: Sarah, what I think Patrick is saying is that he is concerned for the health of your children, and he views rinsing the sippy cups as a courtesy to a fellow parent and a sign of respect.
Person 1: What I hear Patrick saying is, “Blah, blah, blah, fuckity blah,” because I don’t have any time to go to the bathroom from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and I’m not exaggerating, so Patrick is correct that I truly, deeply do not care about his feelings on the goddamn motherfucking sippy cups that he can shove in his stupid, furry ear.
Paul: I feel this dialogue is breaking down.
Person 2: Why can’t you listen to reason on this? Why don’t you respect my feelings? I listen to yours!
Person 1: Because mine are important. And yours are about plastic cups.
The reflective listening goes on like that for a while until someone wins. Winning is a really important part of any couples therapy session, because without it, one person could wind up rinsing out sippy cups for the rest of her children’s young lives. If you succumb to humility and acknowledge that perhaps you’ve become obstinate on the issue, you will have lost. On the other hand, you’ll probably have a healthier relationship.