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Dear How to Do It,
My wife and I have been together for six years, married for nearly three. On the whole, we’ve had a good relationship. There are ups and downs like any other, but we both support each other, sacrifice for each other, and make a point to communicate our love to each other frequently. During a recent argument, my wife made clear she was unhappy about my having gained weight recently. Hours after the fight had died down, I tried to approach her and explain how this had hurt me.
I admit I am especially sensitive about my appearance. I told her that it upset me that she criticized my weight and reminded her that she had made similarly pointed comments at me during previous fights, including about my looks, acne, and the size of my genitals. These were hurtful because they were directed at something I’m particularly sensitive about.
To my surprise, she doubled down on the comments and asked why she should have to lie. I was surprised because, after fights in the past, we have both usually been able to apologize for things we said or did that hurt the other person. I’m willing to improve my habits to lose weight and improve my appearance, but it’s not as though I have poor hygiene or completely let myself go. I work out three to four times a week and typically shower twice daily. My question is how do I get past these comments to be intimate with my wife again? Obviously, we have some emotional repairing to do. But even if we get there, as I sit here today, I just cannot see how I’d ever be comfortable being intimate again with her. I’d feel so self-conscious about how she sees me that I’d lose any desire or ability to be intimate. I love my wife and want to make this relationship work.
Rich: I’m curious where the conversation went after she doubled down. Is this just hanging in the air, and is there a greater message there? Is she drawing a line in the sand and being like, “I’m not attracted to you anymore”?
Stoya: I actually have kind of a different take on this one.
Stoya: I’m wondering whether the wife is much more attracted to things about the letter writer’s self. Their brain, their thoughts, their sense of humor, whatever it is. Our writer is saying that they are especially sensitive about their appearance and that opens up this question for me: How much fishing for physically-based reassurance does this person do?
Stoya: The wife definitely should not throw negative comments about the LW’s appearance at them in fights. But I do see a possibility that she’s baseline really frustrated and going, “Oh yeah, babe, you look great. Yeah, no, the outfit looks awesome on you. Yeah, your skin is looking better. Oh yeah, let me squeeze your arms.”
But I also recognize that I am often the person quizzically looking at this, questioning why people need so much physical validation.
Rich: That’s true.
Stoya: It seems to be a very frequent need. But at the same time, I insist on holding space for people who aren’t super physically motivated. Because I think that’s beautiful in our deeply commodified culture, to place more value on the things that are not, inevitably, going to shift.
Rich: I think to your point, one’s behavior can set the tone for both. So then they might both be in this dynamic where his appearance is often thrust to the forefront of their discussions. Certainly, there are people who think, “Yeah, you look a certain way, but whatever. I’m attracted to things beyond looks,” and it doesn’t actually have the bearing that it might in another context.
I find her comments worrisome. But I think that we can forgive people for a variety of reasons—especially since our LW expresses wanting to. During stressful moments, parts of your brain may be shutting on and off and you might not be yourself. Saying shitty things doesn’t necessarily make you a shitty person. In a high-stress situation, you may be acting without your usual filters. When those filters are on, that can be much more reflective of who you “are.” Things like amygdala hijack may lead people to say shit that they shouldn’t be saying. This is really hurtful, though, especially in a context when he’s asking her about it after the fact and she then continues talking in those terms.
Stoya: I think our writer should ask this as an actual question and inquire what their wife does like about them. It’s a really hard thing to phrase because it’s not, “What do you like about me?” It’s not, “Do you find me attractive?” It has to be phrased in a way that is very specifically likely to be heard by the wife as a legitimate question because it is possible that my hypothesis is correct. It is also possible that the wife is very physically driven and was into the writer years ago, and as the writer’s body has changed because of a very natural aging process, the wife no longer finds them attractive.
Stoya: If that’s the case, that’s important because there isn’t much hope of coming back from that. But if it is that the wife values other qualities far more than physical and has been sitting on this boiling resentment for years, then that’s also important information. Our writer would have to decide how much they need their partner to eroticize their body based on looks and then evaluate how functional the match is.
Rich: Yeah, our writer asks, “How do I get past these comments to be intimate with my wife again?” But my question after reading this is how interested in physical intimacy is she? I’m not saying that she’s not, but I just wonder how relevant it is. If in fact she is sexually attracted and wants to continue a sexual relationship regardless of what she said, she broke this guy’s confidence. It’s her job to build it back up. She broke it, she’s got to build it.
Stoya: I wholeheartedly agree, but also disagree. In the event that her priorities are not things she can see with her eyeballs, I think it’s unfair if our writer can only return to a place of self-confidence through physically oriented praise. It is just as unfair to say, “You have to verbally appreciate things that you actually don’t care about,” as it is to say, “Well, you have to have sex with people with these kinds of genitals, or you have to engage in this kink, or you can’t engage in kinks.” It becomes this policing of desire.
Rich: Definitely. If the scenario that you’re painting is the case, then the way that she would bring him through that is by saying, “I’m sexually attracted to you for reasons beyond your appearance.” I think that needs to be actually said out loud.
Rich: If that’s her way of looking at things, that’s fine and cool. I would think after six years together that there would’ve been some kind of communication about that. But sometimes people hold onto ideas that no amount of talking about unless it’s really focused and specific will eradicate. It seems like it’s time to have that conversation. Again, the most unresolved thing about this situation is where she stands. He asked a question about getting back to having sex with her but that implies that she’s somehow waiting with open arms. I really just want to know where she’s at. I think that he needs to figure that out as well.
Stoya: Yeah. Pick a good time. Not when everything’s chaos, not 10:00 PM after a long day, not in the middle of running errands, and not 20 minutes before the neighbors arrive for a dinner party. Pick a time when everyone’s calm and you have plenty of time and ask what she is into.
Presuming that she’s into anything, figure out what’s going on, and then look at the full picture of the situation. See if there’s potential to collaborate on what needs to happen to get everyone back to being happy within the relationship.
Rich: Yeah. I think the approach just needs to be one not of condemnation or accusation from either of them, but curiosity.
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