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"I know this is really hard, Sharon," Dr. Anna said after I cried for a few minutes. I swear, my eyes were so puffy I wondered what people thought.
"I have seen many couples go through sexual betrayal and heal well from it. Yes, many divorce, but you and Robert love each other. He didn't have an affair because of being unhappy with the relationship, as is often the case."
Her professional tone felt reassuring, but it seemed to be on the other side of the world where it had no meaning to me. Could I plug myself into a list of statistics and feel better? I didn't think so.
"I want to recommend that you go slowly in your explorations of becoming sexual again. I suggest that you read Anne Stirling Hastings' book about how to give up the idea of what having sex means, and go about it differently. This can allow you to diminish the painful interaction, and create an arena for the two of you to heal your sexuality together."
I could barely heard her words, but I did understand that she wanted to help us. "OK. What do I do? What do we do? I will read the book tonight."
Dr. Anna smiled warmly. "It goes like this. No expectations. No goals. Just be open to sexual feelings and follow them. Sex could be nothing but kissing. If you think about moving on to another action, both of you check what you are feeling. When you tried to have sex last night, you wanted to go from kissing to intercourse, and you set out to cause Robert to have an erection. But you didn't know what he was feeling, you didn’t know if he was ready for that. And he didn't check in and stop you. If you talked about it, one of you would have changed the outcome."
"So talking about everything, right?" We did start practicing that last year, but we still had a long way to go. I couldn’t imagine asking him if I could blow him, if he was okay with that. I could say something like, 'Would it be okay to do it?' I felt a little nauseous just talking about it even here in a therapist's office. How could I do this with Robert in bed?
"The point is to go slowly. Yes, talking about what is going on, but agreeing to take one little step at a time and see what happens. Both of you will have a variety of emotions, and making room to explore them is the purpose of talking."
Robert got home as I was fixing dinner, and I started in. Might as well. It was easier when I could look at the stew I was taking out of the crock pot. I tried to enjoy the savory smell that usually made my mouth water. As I prepared bread, I filled him in on what Dr. Anna had said, and how I had pushed us too fast. When I glanced up he was smiling, the tension gone from his face.
I kept going. "You know how good the kissing was. Maybe we just do that. And if one of us wants to do more we ask. Or just say, 'I would like to do this now, how is that for you?' Something like that."
Robert nodded. "Yeah. I think it would be great to kiss like that, and nothing else. It makes me feel love, you know, that scary feeling of loving, but not as much as if we do more, if we do it all."
"But I get aroused. What then?"
He was silent as I put bowls on the table and poured water into our glasses. We sat down and picked up our forks, but neither of us put food in our mouths. Stomachs don’t seem to work well during conversations like this. Robert broke the silence.
"Well, one idea is that we could masturbate. You know, separately from each other. Have orgasms but not in that way that scares the shit out of me."
Robert looked at me with a quizzical expression that seemed sort of shame loaded. Maybe fear.
"I don't think we've ever used that word with each other, have we?" I asked. I did it occasionally and I figured he did, especially now that we weren't having sex. But that was something you just don’t talk about. Or tell your partner about. Wasn't this still off limits?
My mind started doing that egg beater thing where thoughts get all scrambled up. I couldn't pull one out by itself. It's not like I stopped thinking, like what I call brain freeze. It's that thoughts can't be pulled apart into expressible form. So I waited. That was all I could do.
I had three years of education to be a masters level counselor, but we had little training in sexuality. Mainly it was learning how to help people who had been sexually abused relieve that trauma. There was a little sex therapy, but the focus was more on when to refer someone out than doing it ourselves. My supervisors and fellow students seemed to be just as uninformed as my teachers, and just as uninterested. Dr. Anna said she thinks it's because sexuality carries so much shame that the therapist who sets out to learn about it has to face their own. Hopefully heal it. She read a book about it, about how therapists can work together to heal their shame so they can understand their clients. Maybe if this works with me, and with Robert, I can help my clients better.
I could feel the flush creep up my face as I finally opened my mouth to speak. "OK. I'm ready to hear about it," I said.
"Well…" he started. "I do it probably twice a week, maybe more. Usually when you aren't home, so I don't feel like I'm hiding something. Sometimes in the shower."
My heart rate was way up. Now why was that? It's just a kind of sexual expression.
"What do you think about?"
"When masturbating? I don’t think about much. Sometimes you. Sometimes just a faceless person I don't know. It doesn’t take long. I just get it over with. It feels so meaningless compared to making love."
"With you," he added.
He looked at me with a melting softness, and warmth flooded over me. We were loving each other. No sex, but this was still gratifying.
But how could he have gotten in bed with someone else? How could he do with her what he did with me? I started crying again. All this love, and all this betrayal.
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