Do you blackmail your lover in bed? Despite being the most physical of acts, fulfilling sex also needs skilful handling of the subtle slides of ourself too. Many couples I have asked about this admit that one of the most frequent causes of their sexual misery is bedroom blackmail.
For instance, a few weeks after their marriage, Tim got into bed with Peggy and found her withdrawn and unapproachable. Previously they had enjoyed frequent lovemaking, but now Peggy wouldn’t be touched, she wouldn’t speak to him, and making love was out of the question. Eventually Tim managed to get an explanation. Peggy said she would have nothing to do with him because he had a row with her mother. The row had been about Peggy’s mother attempting to dominate their newly founded household. Tim wanted them to make their own decisions, but Peggy said unless he changed, there would be no sex. Tom felt he could not change and develop their life together as he wished it to be. Peggy therefore maintained her no sex policy for six months.
The event took place twenty years ago. The intimacy and trust which was emerging in their relationship never fully returned.
Unfortunately, almost anything we feel strongly which conflicts with our partner, cannot help but change the subtle feelings of warmth, respect and pleasure which are basic in sharing not only our body, but ourselves. Whether in work or love, emotional attitudes we have either motivate or restrict us. If we have had an unresolved argument with someone at work, it will almost certainly rob us of whatever sort of energy and enthusiasm we usually arouse to carry us through the day. In love-making, unless we feel at ease with each other, it is difficult to allow the flow of feelings and pleasure which lead to the highly erotic and emotional exchange out of which satisfaction arises.
What occurred between Peggy and Tim shows that if the subtle differences which stand in the way of such sharing are not carefully dealt with, they can remain to block a full exchange for decades. It seems to be generally true that in the beginning of most relationships there is a time of spontaneous attraction and sexual excitement. This is followed, as with Peggy and Tim, by confrontation of situations where conflict or hurt arises. The spontaneous love is frequently broken at this time, may 0 e for ever. But in many oases one learns to make love. We learn how to create it again purposefully. Perhaps we learn how to become a partner instead of a blackmailer.
Ruth and Frank are a couple I talked with who are in the middle of trying to make that sort of change. Ruth feels she is not treated as a person by Frank or her children. She also says that from her point of view there is something missing in their relationship. It is that Frank seldom shares his feelings with her, or really gives of himself as a person. “If I go out of the house,” she says, “Frank doesn’t feel at ease, and I believe it is because he has never put anything of himself into it.”
When asked about this situation and Ruth’s feelings, Frank said that as far as he was concerned there didn’t seem to be any problem in the relationship. He found it difficult to see any other viewpoint than his own, and literally got up, refused to talk and walked out. Ruth’s response at that time, and at other similar times, was to sleep alone in a separate bed. Ruth is a romantic at heart and says that Frank’s answer to the problem he denies exists, will be to make love. Ruth finds it impossible to rebuff him at such a time to claim a hearing. If she sleeps in a separate bed, however, she feels she has at least made a stand for what she wants. After about two days Frank will arrive with flowers and much warmth, and Ruth returns to the same bed. Overall, the problem remains unsolved though, and the cycle will repeat itself.
Looking from outside of the relationship at what is being done, it is difficult to condemn Ruth’s bedroom blackmail. While Frank refuses to seriously consider that they have a problem, one of the few ways Ruth can impress him with her seriousness is to stop sex. Probably the prime stumbling block here is that if Frank admits he does not share his feelings, he will be faced by the need to change. While he refuses to see a problem, he can maintain his present lifestyle by occasional visits to the florist. If Frank refuses to see what is in front of him, Ruth’s growing frustration could reach the point where her sexual withdrawal stops being a lever to gain a hearing and becomes a statement of her choice. Instead of saying “Listen to me or I will stop sleeping with you,” she might say “I no longer choose to share myself with a man who will not share himself with me.”
Bedroom blackmail does seem to be more often a woman’s tactic than a man’s. This may be a heritage from times when women had little else to take away from a man than her ‘favour’. In those times it at least gave her a bargaining point. Today, women need to be aware that they have a lot more to offer than motherhood and sex. Many now own their house, have a car, and earn as much or more than their man. In other ways too, they are less dependent on their male for survival. So issues can be, and as far as possible should be, dealt with outside the bedroom. But the sexes do seem to have a generally different approach to this. Again and again women have said to me, “He thinks that if he can get into bed with me the whole problem is solved and forgotten.” So if women are quicker to use a ‘no sex’ policy to enforce a hearing, men are certainly quicker to use a ‘get her to bed’ tactic to avoid dealing6 with relationship problems. Unfortunately, what may arise out of a couple unconsciously playing these two tactics is a stalemate, which put into words states: “If you don’t, I won’t!” “If you don’t go to bed with me, I won’t change the situation.’” or “If you don’t change the situation, I won’t go to bed with you!”
Barry and Stella typify the sort of stagnant position this can lead to. Barry is married with two children. He never established a caring relationship with his wife, and began to do so with Stella, who is single and younger. Growing closer to Stella brought Barry into the stress of a marriage break-up and possible divorce. Also, he is torn in two directions by his emotions, which urge him to be with his two children and with Stella. He compromises by moving backward and forward, trying to find certainty in himself about what he is doing. His changeability during this period is a constant anxiety to Stella, who cries a great deal and begins to steadily nag Barry. She also becomes completely disinterested in their sexual life, and eventually refuses any more sex unless Barry makes a firm decision. He feels he has been trying to do just that, and is confused by Stella’s withdrawal. And if Stella, who now has his child, becomes as uncompromising as his wife, he feels he might as well support his child and look for other company. Stella, hurt so many times, and insecure during her pregnancy, will not trust her emotions to him any more. Barry, pulling out of one miserable relationship, is scared to commit himself to another which promises to be a repeat performance. He has the urge to make it okay by making love to Stella, which she refuses, or gives only her body to. Stella wants to resolve it by having Barry prove his love by committing himself totally to her, asking her to marry him and having no further relationship with his wife.
As a third person, it seems obvious that neither Stella’s or Barry’s approach will work. There is no way they can stop being the people they are and conform to each others wishes. Stella cannot stop being a young woman who has never been married, and desires, to the point of anguish, to be the wife of the man she gave herself to and who fathered her baby. Barry cannot stop being a man who has built deep ties with his children and wife. He cannot stop the conflict and guilt he experienced in breaking the family unit he helped build.
Although they cannot suddenly stop being the persons they are, it might be possible for them to recognise just who it is they are living with, what their partners needs are, and whether or not they are willing to meet them in some of those needs.
In fact, this is what Stella and Barry are attempting. Barry has agreed to a divorce. His wife is allowing him to take his children to Stella’s house, which was previously forbidden. Barry is also putting himself more fully into his work to provide for both his families, and is making a move to a better home for Stella and himself.
Stella finds it difficult to forget the past hurts and fully give herself emotionally, but has dropped her ‘no sex’ standpoint. She has begun to work on herself with a therapist, to deal with her emotional ‘sore points’ from childhood. This, she hopes, will help her react less painfully to the here and now events in her relationship.
To bring oneself out of the bedroom blackmail game into a problem solving relationship, needs mutual honesty and some acquired skill. It is not possible to do this when one of you really wants to end the relationship, and uses sexual withdrawal to bring it about. However, few of us are totally one thing or another. Frequently, a part of our feelings urges us to quit, and admittance of those feelings, although they may shock, usually leads to a solution. This is because admittance of the urge to quit most often gives us insight into why. For instance, Stella’s withdrawal emerged from a desire to end the relationship unless Barry could give her marriage and security. So her need is security. Knowing that, both of them may meet that need in whatever degree they can without committing themselves. This removes the breaking point from the relationship.
Therefore, the skill one needs to acquire is that of honestly stating what one wants, and the attempt at understanding what one’s partner wants. When this is done, practical moves can he made to meeting each others needs. No one can be completely responsible for another adult’s needs, so such an agreement can only be made when we do not wholly depend on each other for satisfaction.
Tom and Liz illustrate this point by the way they are dealing with a major conflict in their marriage. Tom’s work places him in close contact with a reasonable number of women. He is an affectionate person, sexually alive, and enjoys the contact with women his work brings. Despite this, he has never had a full sexual involvement with anyone but his wife.
Liz doesn’t share her affection with other men, and is painfully jealous of other women relating to Tom. So much so that although she realises Tom is not having affairs with women, she has at times been ready to end their marriage. When confronted by this, Tom finds that if he shuts off his love of people in general, his love for Liz also stops. When he allows himself a reasonable amount of freedom, then he has warmth for Liz.
Recently Liz realised that Tom was enjoying the contact with one of the women he worked with. She felt so hurt inside, as if it were a ‘she or me’ choice, that she withdrew emotionally and physically from Tom, although sleeping in the same bed. At the time she occasionally worked late, and she came home one evening to find Tom asleep in the single bed of their spare room. She went to bed alone, but was upset and could not sleep. So she woke Tom and asked him what the hell was going on. He said, “I’m in here because I don’t want to act out we’re close and loving when you are cut off. It’s so bloody uncomfortable being in bed with you. I might as well accept that you don’t want to be near me, and sleep alone. I can’t be bullied into being a different person, Liz. All you are doing is pushing me to be dishonest. Even if I became a tame yes-man and did just what you are emotionally blackmailing me into doing, would you then respect me as a person?”
Liz admitted that was not what she wanted. “But I can’t stop having these feelings either. I know I can’t blame you for my misery, but it doesn’t help if you reject me by sleeping in here.”
Tom felt he hadn’t rejected her. “I’m not a rapist, Liz. If you push me away I’m not going to fight you. I’m just not going to be emotionally battered because of your fears, and I’m in here because you couldn’t even bear to get your foot near me in bed.”
Making love, like making a home, means creating something good, perhaps out of unlikely materials. Liz, crying with her feelings, reached out to hold Tom. He was ready to hold her too, and share the warm and supportive feelings that are the heart of their marriage. If he had rejected her at that point it would have been hitting back and creating a bigger gap between them. If he was so deeply hurt by her rejection that he must hit back, he would need at least to share his hurt feelings to make it understandable. We can forgive someone who, when we tap them on the shoulder, hits us, if they explain their shoulder is broken and their hitting was a reaction from pain. Without the pain, the hit would have been malice.
Liz and Tom pulled out of a miserable situation by being honest. Tom was honest in making real what was happening in bed, and by not being blackmailed into becoming a person who had warmth only for Liz. Liz was honest by not hiding her feelings, which she had partially done in bed, and by not blaming Tom for her own misery.
Honesty and the sort of non-compromising forgiveness which enables you to make love, not war, in unpromising circumstances, are two alternatives to bedroom blackmail. Is blackmail your chosen weapon, or have you learnt something new?