Becky Knight has a Masters of Public Health in Human Sexuality and is certified as a sexuality educator by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. Her private practice focuses on women's sexual health and satisfaction. Read more »
I agree with Pat Robertson about something, which surely must be a sign of the end times. I usually don’t pay much attention to what he (or TV preachers in general) have to say, but when I heard the uproar earlier this week regarding his answer to the legitimacy of divorcing a partner with Alzheimer’s, I surprised myself.
The question posed to Robertson was this:
I have a friend whose wife suffers from Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t even recognize him anymore, and, as you can imagine, the marriage has been rough. My friend has gotten bitter at God for allowing his wife to be in that condition, and now he’s started seeing another woman. He says that he should be allowed to see other people because his wife as he knows her is gone … I’m not quite sure what to tell him.
Robertson said it would be OK for this person to divorce their spouse with Alzheimer’s in this situation. As long as he made sure that her physical needs were taken care of, his emotional needs could be met elsewhere. And I actually agree with Robertson on this point.
The swift reaction to Robertson’s bold declaration, however, has been overwhelmingly negative, and I understand why. Any insinuation that a marriage partner should be “disposable” or that when a loved one becomes sick or mentally ill, we should stop caring for them is indefensible. But that’s not really what Robertson said.
Robertson equated Alzheimer’s to “a kind of death,” referring to the familiar marital vow “til death us do part.” This notion that marriage is a lifelong commitment has been enshrined in our religious and cultural practice since those words, “til death us do part,” were written into marriage liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549.
I’ve been married for more than 15 years, and I can tell you it’s felt like a lifetime. (Just kidding, honey!) Seriously, though, I’m glad when stories like this make headlines because they give us an opportunity to ask questions and consider what we really think about things like commitment and divorce and end-of-life wishes. And should we even still be vowing to our partners during our wedding ceremonies to be faithful “til death us do part”?
As I discussed this with my husband, I told him that I would not want to him to stay married to me if I became incapacitated by Alzheimer’s (or any other debilitating disease or condition). Make sure my medical needs are taken care of, yes, but please don’t stay married to me if I’m emotionally and mentally incapable of reciprocating.
I understand that some people value commitment over all else and will stay married because they want to uphold their vows (and sometimes because the known reality of married life is less scary than the unknown possibilities of life unpartnered). I respect them for living in accordance with their values, but I don’t necessarily share them.
I do value commitment, and when times have been tough in my own marriage, commitment has helped see us through. However, the commitment I am referring to is not a commitment to a vow I made or a piece of paper I signed in 1995. I am committed to trying my best to being a loving and caring partner, to honor the humanity and spirit of my partner, to creating a healthy relationship built on mutual affection and fondness. That’s a commitment I have to make — to myself and to my partner — each and every day.
If my husband and I are still together in old age, and if I should succumb to Alzheimer’s, and if he would like to visit me each day and snuggle in bed and sing to me (like the man in this ABC News story), then that would be quite alright with me.
But should he have made peace with my leaving him, in mind if not in body, then I will understand if he wants to seek out the companionship and affection of another person. I love him enough to let him go, as well.
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Update: It has been brought to my attention by a few folks that although the average life expectancy was low in the 1500s, that was due mainly to a high infant mortality rate. If people lived beyond childhood, they were likely to live long enough to see grandchildren.
I am still learning how to be angry. I have to fight the urge to keep the anger all in my head so that I can analyze every piece of it. Partly out of fear that I am angry out of selfish or silly motives, and partly because I don’t trust others to respond with understanding or compassion. Whereas I have prided myself on being in control of my emotions, I am beginning to see more clearly how I have allowed some emotions to control me — by keeping me locked into endless mental maneuvering.
I so seldom express my anger, that I am pretty terrible at it. Instead of anger, it comes out has bitterness, meanness and being just plain grumpy — not helpful at all for actually addressing the issues that are contributing to my anger.
One key is to recognize anger as a positive emotion. In fact, images from brain scans show that we experience anger on the left side of the brain, along with feelings of amusement and intense interest. Unlike sadness or fear — which are experienced on the right side of the brain and cause us to withdraw from the world — anger can stir us to engage with others, to take action, and to get involved.
Like all emotions, there’s a logic and purpose to anger. We typically get angry when we see injustice, believe we’ve been treated unfairly, or encounter an obstacle to achieving our goals. If we can learn to use anger constructively, it can inspire us to make positive changes on our own behalf — to try harder, to fight for what’s fair, and to communicate more passionately. We can use anger to italicize our language so that other people can hear and understand how strongly we feel about an issue.
When you can experience anger as a positive, constructive force in your life, you may no longer feel as if you have to keep your anger hidden all the time. You learn to express it, so that others can better understand your experience, which leads to less resentment and a better chance at problem solving.
In marriage, couples may improve their relationship by reacting to each other’s anger with this same kind of respect. If you approach your partner’s anger with the idea that there’s a logical, legitimate reason behind his or her feelings, then you may be able to use that anger as a resource for improving your marriage.
Responding to your partner’s anger with open-ended questions helps to show that you’re listening and also helps keep you from responding defensively. Here are some suggested responses:
“You seem really upset about this, can you tell me more?”
“Is there something I can do that would help?”
“What other feelings is this conjuring up for you?”
“What is the most upsetting part of all of this?”
“What kind of resolution are hoping for?”
And one final question for you, the reader, and for myself:
“Who would you express your anger to if you knew they would listen and respond with respect?”
I wrote an article yesterday for the February issue of Natural Awakenings, a free publication in the Charlotte area that covers Healthy Living. I wrote about desire since it’s been a hot topic as of late.
As I was looking for a quote by David Schnarch (something along the line of “if you don’t desire sex, it’s probably because the sex you’re having isn’t very desirable” – I think he wrote that in Passionate Marriage), I came across an interview he did. I bookmarked it so I could come back to it later. I try to ingest as much Schnarch as I can. Which reminds me, I really have to get his new book, Intimacy & Desire.
Tonight as I was reading the interview, I was reminded again how much I appreciate his approach to relationships. I thought I’d share this specific answer with you because it pretty much sums up my whole article. Read more…
When struggling to make sense of anxieties and tensions in your intimate relationships, look to your first family – your mother, father and siblings.
The degree to which we can be clear with our first family about who we are, what we believe, and where we stand on important issues will strongly influence the level of “independence” or emotional maturity that we bring to other relationships. – Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Ph.D.
Your first family is your context for learning about the world and about relationships. Often we don’t realize how thoroughly we have been shaped by our families until we leave home and experience a different world — perhaps realizing for the first time that some families exist, and even thrive, by attending to very different beliefs and values about what a family “should be.”
How we hold the ties to our first family has a big impact on how we hold the ties to our intimate partners. If the best way of dealing with your parents has been to distance yourself from them, either physically or emotionally (or both), you will probably tend to also distance yourself in intimate relationships. If you never learned to respectfully disagree with your first family (while still maintaining your Self), then it can be difficult to do it later with a partner.
If you’re having difficulty handling the inevitable anxieties of an intimate relationship, perhaps it will help you to think through a few questions:
How does my family engage in physical and emotional intimacy?
What patterns from my first family have I adopted or rejected?
Where unhelpful patterns are showing up in my current relationships?
How can I move toward a healthier way of handling anxiety and intimacy?
Much of what makes long-term relationships fulfilling is their sense of predictability. We’re no longer staring at the phone hoping *he* or *she* will call, and we’re not anxious about having a date for Valentine’ Day. We’re done worrying and wondering. Done stressing about impressing.
A good marriage is not smooth, and marriage is not reducible to a set of skills. People have difficulty with intimacy because they’re supposed to. It’s not something to be “solved” and avoided. Problems with sex and intimacy are important to go through because this process changes us. These are the drive wheels and grind stones of intimate relationships. The solution isn’t going back to the passion of early relationships because that’s sex between strangers; it’s about going forward to new passion and intimacy as adults. If we use relationships properly they make us grow into adults, capable of intense intimacy, eroticism, and passion-having sex with our hearts and minds, and not just with our genitals.
Steve and I try to have at least one date night a month. We spend a lot of time together as a family, and a lot of time together as a couple in the evenings after the kids go to bed, but it is so refreshing when we hire a babysitter, make plans, and venture out of the house.
And like Michelle Obama notes in this video, our kids notice that we make time for each other and it gives them a sense of security – as well as a good example.
Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety percent memory and less than ten percent sensory nerve signals.
This makes a lot of sense in sexology. So much of what turns us on and turns us off is not as much about what we are actually seeing — but about the feelings (memories) we associate with those things.
This is empowering — We can change our perception of sex by creating more healthy and happy memories.
David Schnarch, author of Passionate Marriage (one of my favorite books about couples and sex) notes that the reason so many people don’t desire sex is that the sex they’re having isn’t very desirable — on a physical, emotional and/or a spiritual level. They aren’t creating enough meaningful memories to make sex desirable.
And maybe that is why there’s a difference between “looking at” someone and really “seeing them.” We can look at someone or something and become sexually interested, but it’s a different thing to “see” someone and desire them sexually.
Could this be the secret to keeping sex alive in long-term relationships? Perhaps the visual turn-ons aren’t as hot or strong as they used to be, but the history (the accumulation of memories) is what can make sex meaningful, and therefore desirable.
Our culture focuses on how we look to others, but satisfying sex comes from how we are seen by others.