October 22nd, 2012
This week the problem I answered for Telegraph Wonder Women tackled the issue of a woman whose partner seemed fine in most areas of their relationship, but who had withdrawn from sharing any intimacy over the past year. That problem and my reply can be found here.
Last week the letter I replied to about painful sex resulted in feedback suggesting I had been overly medical in my advice. This week I was anxious to avoid a similar situation, with a question that also intersected with physical and emotional health, relationship quality and communication.
Following publication some readers highlighted how I had not mentioned the possibility of infidelity in my reply. While in some cases where a partner is cheating erection problems and withdrawing sex can be an indicator of an affair, there is the worry if you raise this in advice giving people may assume their partner is a cheater and may miss wider issues that could be behind the lack of intimacy. It may also lead people to be accusatory in approaching a partner which could shut down, rather than open up dialogue. People who cheat may also be overly affectionate or continue to have sex with a partner. So a lack of intimacy is not a reliable diagnostic of infidelity. That said, if your partner has withdrawn affection and experienced erectile problems while denying an affair the repercussions of this on a person’s mental wellbeing and self esteem can be considerable. If this is something that has affected you, help may be available via CORST or Couple Connection.
On publication I worried my reply had accidentally slipped into a standard ‘have a conversation’ advice format where you tell people to talk about highly sensitive issues without giving them the tools to enable this. Having now searched for some resources to help in future I’ve found this great tool by Cory Silverberg to enable people to communicate more effectively with a partner about sexual problems.
As ever I asked friends and colleagues for feedback on the reply I gave and their suggestions for improvement are below:
“Some posts really concern me. Maybe not in the first line, but as you all know, malignancy is one common ‘potentially lethal cause’ of this problem and seeking medical attention should be right up there”.
“I like your reply, Petra. I think it strikes a nice balance between the medical and psychological. And I love the ‘How to talk about sex’ link. Meg, I’d love to hear any feedback you might have on this: I often have a problem with mentioning the continuum of sexual desire (e.g. none) in such a context, since clearly it is experienced as a major problem for (at least) one of the partners. I absolutely agree that sex isn’t imperative in a relationship, but only for some people and not for others. I could be wrong, but I got the impression this lack of intimacy wasn’t always there (although it’s not entirely clear from the question).”
“It is a good answer, though a couple of points: you’ve mostly focused on the medical possibilities for the bloke not being, um, up for sex with his partner. I don’t know how universal it is, but in my experience, one partner going off sex in a relationship, especially if it’s been good in the past, is a relationship issue that can if it’s the bloke manifest itself in not being able to get an erection, so I wonder if it would have been good to talk a bit more about the possible relationship issues.
On the useless “talk about it” advice, very glad that you’re addressing that. I wonder if the way into that is to acknowledge in the answer that it’s really bloody difficult, and that the the ability to have big conversations might have been lost. I am not an expert like you are, but whenever I’ve discussed this issue with friends in this situation, my first question is – what do you think is happening? And that gets them to think about their dynamic, why the other half has gone off shagging, what that means to them, what they want to achieve – getting the sex back, addressing wider issues, maybe splitting up. I think it’s difficult to fix that kind of problem without knowing what the spurnee (is that a word? If not, it is now) wants. And once they’ve got a clearer sense of what they want, then to ask “what do you think he wants?” By identifying the issues, you’ve identified a way into the conversation. So “I am frightened that he doesn’t love me any more, and the lack of sex is just one thing – he’s crap at calling to let me know what he’s up to and he used to be good at it” plus “I think he’s too scared to split up with me” means the spurnee can work out how to say “I’m worried/sad that the love between us seems to have changed” rather than the more aggressive “Why don’t you want to have sex with me?”
Which brings me on to the purpose of the column. Is it to answer the specific problem, or is it to use the problem as a way in to discussing broader issues? If the latter, then you’re going to have to include a lot of links and suggestions that you might have felt from the letter aren’t really the right thing for the person writing it. If the former, you can zero in on what’s actually said in the letter and aim to be helpful on those points.
I’m really glad you mention the possibility of a non-monogamous solution – so many agony aunts are focused on monogamy as the only paradigm – but it’s a throwaway line towards the end. If you’d answered that on the Guardian with comments on, I am willing to bet that at least one person would go “oh, bloody great, thanks. I’m miserable that he’s not shagging me and you’re suggesting we shag other people”.
“My one thought to share about this column is to encourage you to think about the power you have to reframe issues for readers/writers, especially by choosing where to begin to answer the question. I would not have started my response to this question by going right to the ED. Because ED may not actually be the issue. I really like the question K has asked above re: what is the purpose of the column and what are your responses about. You need to answer this for yourself, but in my case because most of the time people who email me questions doesn’t ever follow up after I’ve responded, I consider their emails to be starting points, and I’m aware that my answer isn’t only to them but to all potential readers, which in the case of About.com is a very general audience. So after I write an immediate response my editing work always involves interrogating for a while which issues to put where, and where to start my answer”
“I agree with Cory’s comments. I’m sorry I’m doing all this in installments, but my brain’s in slow-motion mode lately. Yes, the first thing I do when replying to a reader is reframing. I kind of mirror back to them what they’re telling me, but in terms that reveal to them what they aren’t seeing, i.e. clarifying what is actually going on or is going on. Then I go into detail, e.g. adding other options. The main thing there is a relationship problem (the inability to talk about it), whether or not the source of it all is physiological. I would focus on that and how to deal with it. I know how some readers’ letters can be almost monosyllabic, in which case I “ask” them questions in my reply and answer them. I direct my reply to the person, but with an eye on being relevant to others in similar(ish) situations. I think it’s really good not to have mentioned the possibility of infidelity and to cover that in a general relationship sorting out advice”
This feedback was particularly helpful as it moved beyond the advice itself (and where that might be improved) to look at the structuring of answers, ways to get readers to reflect on issues, and how to set out replies that would stand as useful guidance to other people with similar problems – rather than be about a very specific relationship situation.
Thanks to those who took the time to think about the reply and give feedback on it. There’ll be another question up this Friday. And if you have a relationships or sex problem you’d like help or advice with email me at firstname.lastname@example.orgTweet