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Ask Dr. Norman Brown Your Own Question

Dr. Norman Brown
Dr. Norman Brown, Marriage Therapist
Category: Relationship
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Experience:  Family Therapist & teacher 35+ yrs; PhD research in couples
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My husband and I have been married for almost 15 years, but

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My husband and I have been married for almost 15 years, but he's 66 and I'm almost 60. We were both married before and have been divorced. I was very happy to find him at a more mature age and thought this was the best thing! We had a very good passionate sex life until about 3 years ago when he retired too soon from full time work, and we were put in a financial bind -- and I had to find my own health insurance from a modest monthly income. He is an ordained minister and is well educated with a doctorate. On Valentine's Day of that same year, my husband did not observe the occasion by getting me a gift, but I presented him with one -- as we had always done. He made all kinds of excuses, even claiming that I told him not to buy me anything! Ever since, he has had "no desire" for sex and has withdrawn most husbandly kind of affection, and there's no atmosphere of romance or fun like we used to experience. There is no medical explanation such as low T, and he refused to find out why this has occurred. The last time he had a checkup with our family doctor, I'd asked him to discuss it with him, but when he got home, my husband claimed, "I forgot." I've begged him and begged him just to hold me, explaining how this is so upsetting to me and is damaging our marriage -- without his even trying so much as to hold my hand! He says the time is not right or there's not enough time. But there's more time than ever, especially since we both worked when we first got married! He told me when we went on vacation while he slept on the other bed in the motel room, "Just to be happy I'm in the same room as he is." When I try to discuss the subject, my husband has responded by saying, "It's not nice... or It's not right for me to talk about this subject with him." Just today when I told him I couldn't go on with a sexless marriage or intimacy of any kind, he won't present any plan or thoughts about how to get help, but says things will eventually "fall into place". I don't think it will happen this way without effort from both of us, and he seems to blame me that I'm creating stress --that's why nothing ever happens regarding physical intimacy. I've threatened to leave, but don't have the funds to do so and have severe pain and fatigue from fibromyalgia, so cannot work a full time job to support myself. I don't want a divorce at this time of my life, but can't deal with this at the same time being responsible to oversee my aging parents and alcoholic 38-year-old son! My husband claims to "be in love" with me, but why does he then "have no desire" for any physical contact with his wife?! I'm not overweight and people tell me I'm very attractive -- and I'm a very nice person, except I get frustrated and angry at him when he's become more like a girlfriend roommate than a husband! Thank you for "listening"!
Submitted: 2 years ago.
Category: Relationship
Expert:  Dr. Mark replied 2 years ago.

Hi! I'll be glad to be of help with this issue.

I can imagine how frustrating and hurtful this situation must be for you. You are clearly a loving, caring, and normal woman and wife. And this is not a livable situation. He has put you in truly a terrible place, a real bind.

And this is actually the key to my answer to you that you need to consider and think about. Many men find their whole sense of manhood is disrupted, diminished, and close to lost when their career flounders or is disrupted or diminished. There's a lot of identity that males have intertwined with their careers, their bringing in money, their being financially "on top".

Your husband has taken this to a terrible extreme. You've tried enough techniques that you've described for us to be able to say that he needs professional help here, by which I mean therapy. But I understand that he for sure will not go and even if he agrees were you to place an ultimatum on him, he will hedge and delay like with talking with his doctor. And if he does go to therapy, he very well might minimize this and not bring it up and therapy will be like circling the airport and never landing.

I am so sorry you're at this juncture. It is truly painful and I wish I could call it something other than a juncture. But you are an intelligent woman and you know very well he's forcing you to make a move. He's extremely depressed most likely. But as above, you can't force treatment on him. Perhaps he would be willing to take an antidepressant as opposed to therapy. If so, you run the risk of him not telling the doctor of the sexual issue and many antidepressants have a side effect of inhibiting sexual desire. Not a good thing here. So if he is willing, make sure you can go with him to the doctor to bring this up. There are a number of antidepressants that are better in this area: Viibryd and Wellbutrin are two.

This is if he will agree to that if not therapy. But he may not agree to any help. At which point he does have the right to be depressed. But you also have the right to not be dragged down into depression alongside him. And so if you do decide to move on in your life, I certainly would support you as I am concerned for you here. I also support you if you choose to stay just as much.

Okay, I wish you the very best!

My goal is for you to feel like you've gotten Great Service from me and the site. If we need to continue the discussion for that to happen, then please feel free to reply and we'll continue working on this. If the answer has given you the help you need, please remember to give a rating of 5 (Great Service) or 4 (Informative and helpful), or even 3 (Got the job done) button. This will make sure that I am credited for the answer and you are not charged anything more than the deposit you already made by pressing any of these buttons. Bonuses are always appreciated! If I can be of further help with any issue now or in the future, just put "For Dr. Mark" in the front of your new question, and I'll be the one to answer it. All the best, XXXXX XXXXX

Customer: replied 2 years ago.

Dr. Mark,


This is Michael, the low life, negligent, abusive, forgetful, ,etc., etc., husband of Debbie. I will not say that what was written to you by Debbie is incorrect, I will say, however, it lacks some facts. The reason I retired as a full time hospice chaplain two months after I reached my 62 birthday was because I developed an eye condition that limited my ability to drive at night. As a chaplain, I was required to be on call once a week and one week end a month which, for the most part, involved going out at all hours of the night and early morning. There really aren't many other full time positions around this area, if any, for 60+ year old preachers/chaplains. Ever since retiring, I have been working as a substitute teacher for the county in which we live. Of course the pay isn't great, and I'm off all summer long, so it does cut down the spending money. Another point of contention I have with Debbie's essay, is the Valentine gift thing. Yes, it's true I did not give her a gift that year. I did give her a very lovely card, which she tore into many pieces, but regardless of that, here's what happened. Debbie and her son Aaron were planning to go to Austin on the Saturday before Valentine's Day and I was going to be home alone. My plans were to go out shopping on Saturday for a gift. Debbie, late in the week, decided she wanted my to go with the two of them, so my plans to go shopping were stymied.


One of the HUGE boiling point items Debbie has is that she is now on Medicare and pays for most of her own medical expenses. Two points, when we were first married, we discussed expenses and Debbie paid her insurance and took care of her medical expenses. That hasn't always been something that I was responsible for throughout our marriage. After I retired and attempted to get medical insurance coverage for the two of us, I was told by more than one insurance agent it would be best for Debbie to be on Medicare because she is on disability income. However, this issue comes up almost every time she gets upset with me and the history of all my failures and short comings are laid at my feet once again. These are just a couple examples of getting the facts from both parties before making such a profound diagnosis.


Now, I will not go on with any more excuses or explanations, because one thing Debbie cannot stand for me to do is to try to explain my actions or provide an excuse.


But I would like to share something with you before I close. This afternoon is a perfect example of a situation which occurs within our home more often than I would like to see. Debbie and I were planning on having our children, actually Debbie's sons, and daughter in law here on Saturday for a nice lunch and little birthday celebration. We cleaned the house together Wednesday and Thursday and went out today to do the shopping to prepare for a nice occasion on Saturday. Unfortunately, Debbie's day was hospitalized Thursday night, nothing serious, but it has upset her and caused her more concern. Her son Kevin who is 38, a recovering alcoholic, and is in need to find a place to live, is quite on Debbie's mind, as she's very worried about him. We received a call from Aaron, the 25 year old who lives in Houston, that he and his wife won't be able to come tomorrow because Aaron is very sick. Of course we are very disappointed because of this. As we tried to store everything we could in the freezer, Debbie asked me to put something in the freezer in a particular way. I suggested it be done more securely and she absolutely went bonkers. She yelled and screamed and went through the entire list of all my mistakes and shortcomings again. That's when she got on the computer and contacted you.


These outbursts are not rare. She has many worries and concerns on her mind and I know little things can set things off. That's all I'm going to say, and if you think I'm depressed and need therapy and medications, I guess I'd better look into it. Actually, I'm a pretty easy going guy who likes to just sit back and let the world roll by. I think that's one of the things that upsets Debbie at times.


Thanks for reading my little side of the story.


Michael Insley

Customer: replied 2 years ago.
Relist: Incomplete answer.
My husband wanted to get into the discussion and "give his side of the story". We're waiting on Dr. Mark since he's the one who originally answered my question, but further discussion became necessary. if Dr. Mark is offline, then someone else's input would be appreciated because we're having a difficult time this evening! Thank you!
Expert:  Dr. Norman Brown replied 2 years ago.

I can add a little now, and more when I get back from bringing yoghurt to a neighbot whose only recourse against a lung cancer death now (because he refused medical attention & it's too late for chemotherapy or radiation) is an alcaline diet and some other alternative treatments. It's not unusual for the sexual intensity among people in their 60s to decline and even cease altogether. The two of you seem to have picked opposing strategies for dealing with it: withdrawal, which Michael calls "sitting back" and boiling frustration leading to attacking the other verbally, which Debbie neglects to mention. but the two responses also mutually intensify each other.

 

It's also quite common for the man's retirement to trigger a marital crisis like what you're experiencing, because now the normal limitations on time spent in each other's presence are gone, and the structure of your relationship leaves no room for absense to make the heart grow fonder. So you have a vicious circle where each person's unsatisfying response triggers the other's, and each sees the log in the other's eye but not in their own.

Dr. Norman Brown, Marriage Therapist
Category: Relationship
Satisfied Customers: 1168
Experience: Family Therapist & teacher 35+ yrs; PhD research in couples
Dr. Norman Brown and 3 other Relationship Specialists are ready to help you
Expert:  Dr. Norman Brown replied 2 years ago.

I can add a little now, and more when I get back from bringing yoghurt to a neighbot whose only recourse against a lung cancer death now (because he refused medical attention & it's too late for chemotherapy or radiation) is an alcaline diet and some other alternative treatments. It's not unusual for the sexual intensity among people in their 60s to decline and even cease altogether. The two of you seem to have picked opposing strategies for dealing with it: withdrawal, which Michael calls "sitting back" and boiling frustration leading to attacking the other verbally, which Debbie neglects to mention. but the two responses also mutually intensify each other.

 

It's also quite common for the man's retirement to trigger a marital crisis like what you're experiencing, because now the normal limitations on time spent in each other's presence are gone, and the structure of your relationship leaves no room for absense to make the heart grow fonder. So you have a vicious circle where each person's unsatisfying response triggers the other's, and each sees the log in the other's eye but not in their own. I'm in the same age range as you are, and so is my wife of 27 years, so I know whereof I speak.

 

The roots of your problems may lie in some physical conditions related to sex, but what's maintaining them is a cycle of emotional mismatching, and the fundamental emotions whose handling is derailing your intimacy belong to the family derived from the inborn emotion whose technical name is SHAME. This family includes shyness, awkwardness, embarrassment, disappointment, vulnerability, hurt, guilt, humiliation, and "feeling bad" to name the most common. The shame family of emotions can be triggered by any situation that has made us shy, awkward, embarrassed, etc before. But it arises anew in any situation where one is feeling interest/excitement or joy/happiness, whenever something interrupts and impedes the excitement or joy but doesn't completely eliminate either of them.

 

Shame emotions are Extremely Frequent in Love relationships, as shyness, disappointment, vulnerability, hurt, guilt and humiliation, because Love itself shows up most often as interest/excitement (where interest is what makes us pay attention and excitement is its most intense expression) and joy or happiness. So any time the interest & joy we feel in our partner's presence (or even when we think or imagine about him or her) gets interrupted, a shame emotion is triggered: The evolutionary purpose of this shame emotion is to put the brakes on the positive emotions, so we can pull back a bit and revise our thoughts and actions in order to get back on the right track to harmoniously relating again. Fear warns us against physical dangers, so we'll stop, look and listen before proceeding; shame warns us against mismatches in our social interaction, so we can pause, step back and make adjustments in interpersonal situations.

 

The problems in our intimate lives are not due to (what I call) "shame moments," because shame's healthy purpose is to stop our excitement- and joy-driven interactions when we're not on the same wavelength, so we can make helpful adjustments before moving ahead with each other. A Shame moment is like a warning light on your car's dashboard: Check engine, or Refuel. Our relationship problems arise because of four ways we normally react to shame moments that don't necessarily fit with what our partner is doing:

1st, We WITHDRAW, which is instinctual, because in the first moment of shame/shyness/etc we can't think straight; so we need to pull back from our interpersonal situation to collect our wits and THEN figure out what to do to rectify the situation. :

2nd We may "Attack-Self" that is blame ourselves for the discomfort in our situation. This can be helpful because it encourages us to look for what we might be doing to make the situation uncomfortable; and it may also prompt us to openly take the blame and apologize or try to make things better, or lower ourselves to get the other person(s) to forgive us. This can also be depressing, and it can lead to internally "beating ourselves up" and at worst, suicide. Girls and women are more inclined to do this, which leads them to apologize and to try harder than boys and men to find ways to improve inharmonious and uncomfortable situations.

3rd, We may Avoid the feelings of shame, either by refocusing our attention onto something else that provides excitement or enjoyment, or by engaging in play, alcohol or drugs that make us feel good instead of uncomfortable--which is why 95% of my college students wrote in papers about why they first used alcohol (or pot) that it was because it made them unable to feel shy, so they could talk to the opposite sex. Alcohol is called "liquid courage" because it interferes with the brain's ability to feel both fear and shame. We can also AVOID feeling uncomfortable around other people if we carry around a superiority complex, believing we're better looking than others, richer, better educated, nicer, more important, or special in any other way.

4th, We may Attack-Other and avoid feeling shame-discomfort by blaming someone else for the social glitch, or just flipping into anger at anyone or anything, because anger makes us feel strong, while shame makes us feel weak.

 

One more point before proceeding to advice for how to cope more effectively with your shame moments, which seem now to be overwhelming the intimacy and love you both want to continue having--which is why neither of you has filed for divorce.

 

If Loving is a prime emotional state for triggering Shame moments with every glitch, SEX is even more likely to spawn shame moments like sticking a sparkler into an anthill. For sexual arousal intensifies excitement and enjoyment even more than love. So sexual arousal has been ringed with shame triggers ever since early childhood--and the natural WITHDRAWAL response to shame applies to shutting down and withdrawing from sexual arousal with the slightest glitch in mutual erotic stimulation. That's why sexual activity must be so private for most people, and why the conditions for each partner being able to enjoy their arousal without repeatedly shutting down can be so tricky, and both partners need to exercise extreme care and compassion to keep the flames of erotic activity from suddenly snuffing out.

 

So now we're finally ready to approach your present self-sabotaging emotional cycles with regard to both sex and other intimate issues. Michael, you report feeling criticized by Debbie: if you feel it, then it's how you feel, whether Debbie wants to call "having a different opinion" "criticizing" or not. You can't change how your partner feels by telling him that he's wrong about what he's reacting to. If you (M) feel hurt (that is, your expression of your ideas and beliefs is negated) when Debbie counters your statement with a different one of her own, then you've become uncomfortable, and your discomfort will probably rise if her disagreement is vehement--as it's more likely to be emotionally intense if she's living with a lot of underlying frustration of her hunger for your touch. Debbie, you are in Attack-Other mode, which may be only a tone of voice that for you is justified because Michael doesn't seem to be trying hard like you are to make things better between you. In fact Michale is WITHDRAWING because he's probably learned way back in his childhood that pulling back from any dispute with other people works pretty well to cool any hot situation down; and chances are good that you (M) learned your withdrawal as a way to keep from running into your mother's dominance and temper (or perhaps your father's).

 

I'm worn out now, so I'm not going to work on how to change your patterns until tomorrow. But I will suggest this in the mean time. Each of you, separately, start recording WHEN you personally have a shame moment that occurs in the context of your partner-interaction, either person-2-person or in thinking about your partner. Take pauses in your day and write down very briefly what the "shame moment" was (1 sentence if you can keep it brief), the names you'd give to your shame emotion, and then which of the 4 coping responses you engaged in, including often 2, 3 or even all 4 of those possible (sometimes "attack-self" or "attack-other" don't get expressed outwardly, but they happen inside of your own head; but that doesn't make them any less real or important in your experience. Then finally, spend a little thought&writing time guessing at what else you might do in the situation you've just recorded if you wanted to adjust YOUR actions & thought so your interaction MIGHT go more smoothely next time.

 

Notice that one way to detect a lot more Shame Moments than you would expect at first to be having is to note each time you 1. WITHDRAW from engagement with your partner, 2. BLAME YOURSELF or FEEL DEPRESSED, 3. DISTRACT YOURSELF by quickly shifting your attention to something absorbing, like your Computer, TV, or when you reach for food or drink, or 4. BLAME or HAVE NEGATIVE THOUGHTS about your PARTNER, or ESCALATE AN ARGUMENT. For you can backtrack from every occasion of 1, 2, 3, or 4 to the Shame Moment that came right before it.

 

Notice also that Shame Moments are not to be blamed on the other person, or even discussed with her or him until you've learned what you can from your own shame moments FOR YOURSELF. You're not going to stop doing 3 or 4 of the coping types, but you can go back afterwards to the Shame Moment itself and then brainstorm about how you might respond differently to improve the situation for both you and your partner. And THOSE reflections will eventually bear fruit in putting out the brushfires that are currently making your intimacy like sitting on a hill of fireants.

 

This is the core of a couples relationship mending program I developed and field tested with my college students and also with couples in short-term counseling almost 10 years ago. I have more to write about it, esp because your extreme discomfort around sex needs more than just the mending influence of your shame moment awareness. The next steps up from what I've described would be Sex Therapy if and when you're ready to trust each other enough to open up to sexual arousal. (I assume that you, Michael, feel very uncomfortable and vulnerable about something involved in your sexuality, and you don't want to discuss it at all with anybody, even though that's what urologists do every day. You've probably dealt with very uncomfortable life situations through withdrawal before, so that's how you're dealing with it now.

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