I punched my partner in the face with my open hand and poked him in the eye. He winced in pain, but started to laugh. “You poked me in the eye,” stating the obvious. I wasn’t a violent person, and I kept a pretty tight lid on my anger. Every once in a while I let a little steam escape.
The whole thing was on purpose, a calculated exercise to help our circumstances. It was supposed to help me engage with vulnerable emotions more readily. To ease and mend long standing discord in my relationship with my long term partner.
I started by punching a pillow, which only aggravated the osteoarthritis in my right hand. My flimsy fists gently hitting my pillow, barely making a dent. I was making a vocal guttural sound indicating I was giving the effort my full attention. My partner, Nate, poked his head out from the pillow, “Is that it, that’s all you have.”
“Yes, and it’s hurting my hand,” I replied. Nate went to switch pillows, that’s when I punched him in the eye. It was a classic scene that could have emerged from a movie. Nate was shocked, then we both laughed at the absurdity of the entire situation.
There was nothing funny about the deterioration of our relationship. We’ve been together for sixteen years, married for fourteen. We are raising two perfectly imperfect boys. We’ve moved across the country together, both literally and figuratively. Nate watched me grieve through the death of both of my parents.
He bought and pitched a tent in my uncle’s backyard in the middle of July, and slept out there with our son. All to prevent our son’s asthma attacks from an allergy to cats inside the house. Just so I could bury my dad. It was July, and hot, and high tourist season so there were no available hotel rooms.
He built a special shower chair for me when I had foot surgery, and carried my around the house for weeks. He shows up, fully present as a father and husband, cooking most meals and caring for everyone around him.
Yes, I punched him in the face.
That’s because I am trying to do my part. Trying to be comfortable being vulnerable in front of my partner. I do not want to feel vulnerable. Every part of my experience tells me vulnerability is what happens when feelings slip through the shield you’ve created to keep out intimacy. It’s a double edged sword. The very armor I built to protect myself from pain is the very part of me needed to maintain a relationship.
Being vulnerable doesn’t come easily to me, or to most women. It’s become a kind of, no thank you, feeling. No, I’m all stocked up with anger. I am fine, except not fine.
The first part of feeling vulnerable is peeling away the protective layer of anger. That part is uncomfortable, too. Anger has always been an unacceptable emotion, too. Raised to be a pleasing and helpful traditional girl, nothing too loud or too cantankerous.
I built this shield from years of pain and exploitation of my female self. A constant giving and not receiving. A protection from the innermost reflection of my trauma.
The layers of anger have created a terribly thick skin of denial. Although, it wasn’t always this way.
Vulnerability can be easy in the early part of the relationship. It’s exciting to give into a new relationship. Intimacy and sex are new and mysterious. Fun to wander around in each other’s hearts. Half invested, still unsure of the outcome.
Long term marriages are very different. They hold resentment, anger, sacrifices, and long held tensions. My shield started to grow back early in our relationship. Until it metaphorically enshrined my entire self.
I no longer wanted to have sex with Nate. He asked me to take down my shield, and I couldn’t, or didn’t want to remove it. It hurt, physically and emotionally, in such an intense way. Being vulnerable, or feeling vulnerable was so unbelievably difficult. I could feel it in my entire body, like a wave taking me along for the ride. Only the weight of the wave kept me underwater gasping for air.
The response to avoiding vulnerability is anger. So, I picked fights with Nate. I mean, instead of having sex, I would pick a fight. I would release my anger like peeling the skin of an onion. Peeling it off piece by piece. Any resentment was fair game in my insult.
It’s easy to see through it. The fights became insignificant, a part of our intimacy. My anger and lack of resistance to it. I started to like the anger. It was something I could control. I couldn’t control my vulnerability. Until I couldn’t control my anger.
Nate and I starred in this dance. The only way I could have sex with him was by staying bitterly angry, or through my complete disassociation during any part of our sex. We tried to spice up our sex life in the usual ways. Keeping sex and intimacy fresh and exciting. Role play and toys are fun and fantastic, but I started disassociating. At least in the beginning, and during foreplay. Once we were engaged I could usually refocus my energy. Not always, but some of the time.
I didn’t like the process of becoming vulnerable, but in about half of my sexual experiences with Nate I would be able to eventually melt my defenses once we were in the process of sex. After the anger and dissociation, it could be fun. It’s supposed to be fun, right?
Meaning, I could enjoy sex, I just didn’t want to.
The part of getting to the fun became a ritual that was more painful overall, and just a lot of work. It took most of the fun out of our sex life, more than adult life and parenting already manages to do on its own. It was frustrating and really difficult.
In order to be intimate, or to have sex at all, I needed to go through this mental process. Getting comfortable enough to wipe away the guilt and shame of my childhood trauma, rectify my anger, refocus that anger into openness, become present through mindfulness, and maybe find myself in an enjoyable sexual experience.
So, naturally things declined. We were hardly ever having sex. The conditions were grim, the work tiresome. We were getting older. It was unsatisfying, and the lack of intimacy made us less a cooperative team as a couple. We both were suffering.
The lack of sexual intimacy bled into resentments in other areas of our lives.
It was never fair to Nate. He was just this man who wanted to have sex with his wife. I kept changing the rules, and developing new strategies to cope with the uncomfortable emotions of vulnerability. A way to survive the emotions. Survival was all I knew in my life. I didn’t know how to live beyond survival. The problem was survival was about my defenses, the opposite of a deep connection.
Even though it was my partner who was doing all the suffering, and I was missing out on connecting with him. I was being really selfish. I refused to go to therapy to try and work through my shield of defenses and my childhood trauma to try and work on our relationship. It wasn’t hurting me, I assured myself, and I could use my anger to justify why Nate just needed to get over it.
I didn’t want to admit my weakness, or work through the hard feelings about my inability to be vulnerable. Screw him. He could survive. I needed to survive.
Except…Perhaps you know where I am going with this article. Surviving isn’t living. Living is moving beyond the crisis. I stuck myself emotionally, unable to drive away. I was losing out on the joys of a real intimate relationship, denying myself not just the love of my partner, but good feelings that come from positive sexual experiences. Mostly, I was really hurting my partner.
I reluctantly decided I would try and be more vulnerable. It was a sincere, but half felt promise like so many promises. I wanted to be intimate, I just didn’t want the negative emotions tied to being open. They were uncomfortable, and sometimes ugly. I knew they were temporary, in my mind, but the process of feeling them didn’t feel temporary.
Either way, I don’t like feeling uncomfortable. I knew I was causing him pain, and I didn’t want him to be in pain. I felt that, and that realization hurt more than the pain I’ve caused myself.
So, I started with punching the pillow, and then my partner. The laugh we shared about it broke down the walls. We shared an intimate moment. It was super nice, but could I do it again? I know I can do it. Perhaps without poking him in the face.
Pelvic floor exercises were suggested to me as a way to ease in a vulnerable state for increasing sexual intimacy. They are a series of exercises meant to open up the pelvic floor. The exercises are great, it’s a workout. For me, it was not an opener for vulnerability, but my particular defenses are thick. Nate watching me do the exercises and narrating while I fall all over the yoga mat was helpful.
I rub my face with my hands. I am still half-hearted, but committed to trying to open myself up to my partner to have better sexual experiences and to feel more connected to him. If at all, for his suffering. He deserves better than I give at times. I come at that honestly, but we are human.
I wish I could write this from the other side. I am owning my responsibility to my partner, and my willingness to try and work through my trauma, and emotional dysregulation. I am writing about it, and living it. In the moment. I am here. I am willing.
Joy Ellen Sauter is a freelance writer living in Seattle, Washington with her partner, Nathan, two teenage boys, and two cuddly pit bulls. She writes about mental health, popular culture, and disability rights. She studied History at Penn State University, concentrating on American mass-society movements. Joy’s work has appeared on Mammamia, Scary Mommy and Yahoo life.
She is looking for representation for her upcoming book, “I Want To Change the World.” A dystopian novel of historical fiction about the psychedelic 1960’s and 1970’s