Monday, November 30, 2009

Conclusions

I actually started this post a couple of weeks ago, but never got around to finishing it. Three things prompted its completion today: finishing a book titled, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, watching the movie Up and a complete lack of desire to clean out the detritus left over after vacation.

My Segullah post was not the only one on LDS sexuality during the month of November. In fact, the first such post received something like 75 comments. My own post was geared as much toward approaching children about this sensitive subject as it was about spousal relationships--a topic not quite as "hot" as sex drive, which is what the first post was about. From the many and varied comments on the posts, some of them surprisingly blunt, as well as the variety of personal e-mails I received, I perceive that I wasn't far off the mark when I implied that in matters of intimacy, LDS women aren't always sure about where they stand and whom to talk to about their difficulties. I think the relatively anonymous nature of blogging makes it easy to open up about things that you might not ever talk about otherwise. Such anonymity allowing us to be open can be both good and bad, but that is another topic.

As I've thought about all I've read in the last couple of months on this subject, I felt like I wanted to draw a few conclusions here about things that have been meaningful to me. Perhaps they will be meaningful to you also. If not, feel free to add your own insights.

The overwhelming theme in the topic responses is that communication is the key to any successful relationship. This is true whether we are talking about husbands and wives or parents and children. It seems that initmacy is nearly impossible for women to enjoy without honesty. I was the most intrigued by the sister who wrote in about her husband finally coming clean about his pornography addiction. Before this happened to her, she would have assumed that nothing would be more damaging to her sex drive than to have this knowledge. However, once her husband admitted to this terrible thing, a huge barrier was removed between them and she found him absolutely attractive in his "naked" honesty. I thought this was fascinating; I also think that with enough work this sister could end up having a very successful marriage, and such open-ness in their relationship will hopefully make it more difficult for her husband to be secretive in the future.

The same applies to our children. Respondents who believed they had the most positive relationship with their own children or parents all said they same thing--they feel like they can talk about anything together. That is very powerful. If my sons believe they can come to me with their problems from skinned knees to hurt feelings to the facts of life to dating relationships then I will have a lot of influence about how they perceive the world. Notice I didn't say "control." Ultimately, only my children will control the decisions they make. Again, another topic worth exploring.

A second conclusion I realized in teaching our children about matters of human intimacy is that it is better to have this discussion late than never. One sister said bluntly that if you had never talked with your children about anything to do with their bodies, and then you try to sit your twelve year old down and explain to her why she is menstruating, it is going to be terribly awkward. Yet, it still should be done. I have to admit that even after I'd been through AP Biology, I would have still appreciated my mom making the effort to help me understand a little bit more about how boys ticked and how she felt about my dad.

This better-late-than-never mantra should apply to spouses also. It is so easy to fall into a routine with those we love the best. Marriages fail for a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons is that they grow stale with routine and low expectations. When Plantboy and I were engaged, we went to see his bishop for a routine "check-up." I only remember one part of the interview. This bishop, a very traditional older brother, said that in forty years of marriage he'd hardly ever seen his wife without her make-up. That she made a point of getting out of bed before he did each morning and at least putting on lipstick before he saw her. My 24 year-old feminist self rebelled against this idea: that his poor wife wouldn't dare appear before him without her best face on! What kind of ogre was he? Now I see this offhand statement for what the bishop probably intended: that his wife loved him so much that she always wanted to look her best for him. Even after 40 years of marriage, his attraction to her was something she valued and cultivated.

I still don't put on make-up before I get out of bed. (Neither should Sister Bishop. I can just see her pink lipstick sneaking out of her natural lips and creeping up the lines around her mouth, but I digress . . . .) But when I get dressed up to go out somewhere, even if I am not going to be with Plantboy, it is his reaction that means the very most to me. And I've learned to never miss a chance to flirt or tease or give a kiss goodbye. I hope I don't forget this lesson, even when I've been married four decades.

As for whether YOU should put on make-up before your husband sees you in the morning, well, that leads into my third conclusion: each relationship is unique. During the comment phase, particularly of the first sexuality post, a lot of people were giving specific ideas about what made an intimate relationship successful. A couple of good sisters went so far as to discuss the merits of vibrators before the moderator cut them off. I'm not sure that any of the really specific advice, particularly in such a large forum, is helpful or appropriate. There is a Woody Allen movie (Annie Hall, I think?) in which he and Diane Keaton (his love interest) are going to therapy as part of the story line. Each character is shown separately with their respective therapist. Each therapist asks the same question, "How is your sex life?" The woman's response is, "Oh! All the time, at least two or three times a week!" The man's? "Hardly ever! Three, maybe four times a week!"

Hm . . . .

Communication problem indeed. I sometimes find myself thinking, "What is normal?" But perhaps a better question is, "What is normal and comfortable FOR US." Such a question can only be answered if you hold a conversation with your loved one, holding nothing back, and set reasonable expectations on your partner. There was another sister who wrote in that, at first, for a woman who is a virgin, hardly anything will seem comfortable and that to hold yourself to THAT standard is to deny a lot of pleasure and happiness. While her point is valid and interesting, I still maintain that sex should be something enjoyed by both partners. Something that crosses the comfort line one day, may not the next. Again, you have to speak up.

And yet, you might be in a marriage and have a personality where you feel more comfortable just not talking about it at all. As hard as that is for me to imagine, again, your relationship is uniquely yours and you know better what it needed than anyone. This is especially true when we expand this individuality to your children. Just as your marriage is unlike anybody else's, so is your precise relationship with each child. Books and advice are helpful, but ultimately you have to decide the best time, age and circumstances to approach your children about intimacy. I think listening to the Spirit is a big thing here.

It was Mike (the lone male willing to show his face on the subject, though Plantboy and I talked over nearly every comment together) who really got me thinking about my last conclusion on the subject. Discussions about sexuality need to be approached with values at the forefront, but also facts. While necessary between spouses (one sister indicated how valuable a book on female anatomy had been), such fact-based discussion is perhaps even more important with our children. From the young man who feels intense guilt over uncontrolled dream-fantasies after being told in a fireside that even sinful thoughts make you evil to the young woman who innocently sits on her boyfriend's lap while wearing a mini-skirt, a basic understanding of the biology involved is as necessary as a standards talk.

The problem, too often, is just that as we perceive a person's spiritual nature as completely different from and even opposed to their sensual nature, we also look at science and religion as dichotomies. This is a mistake. ALL learning can be for our good, particularly if we strive to understand just how important it is to our Heavenly Father that we have a body AND a spirit. Striving to defeat the natural man is not about learning to hate your physical body. It is about learning that there is a time and a place for certain behaviors, that self-mastery is the key to being filled with the pure love of Christ. A young man with self-control and integrity is still going to have wet dreams regularly. A young woman who dresses modestly still has to be careful about what she says to a young man or how she kisses him for BOTH their sakes. A husband who has a hard time helping his wife at home will find an uninterested lover. A wife, on the other hand, will nearly ALWAYS find an interested lover, so it is important that she not lead her man on too far without intentions to act on her teasing.

Being human is both complicated and wonderful. Perhaps the key with any struggle is to recognize that our Father created us the way we are for a reason. The spirit and the flesh.

As for why my entertainment selections of the last week prompted this post, The Memory Keeper's Daughter was one of the most depressing novels I've read this year. I didn't really like or identify with any of the characters, and I especially disliked the author's portrayal of marriage. In fact, my favorite character, was the Memory Keeper himself who gave his daughter away in a moment of supreme need to control the outcome of a difficult situation. I'm not sure if this says something disastrous about me, or is a tribute to just how unlikeable the characters in this story are. The movie Up, though I cried for nearly the entire length of the film, is probably one of the sweetest movies I've ever seen. It showed me that you can't just keep sitting around and waiting for life to happen. You have to seize the big opportunities when you get them sure, but you also have realize before it is too late that the real adventure is in living quiet, everyday moments with the ones you love best. Memories of a life are built as powerfully in simple things as in grand adventure. Ellie's message from the grave to her crotchety husband is that she didn't regret a thing. I don't want to regret a thing.

I'm thankful for my life, and for the love that Plantboy and I have worked so hard to cultivate. We have lived for some time now in relative ease and comfort, temporarily immune from the deep and difficult trials so many seem to be faced with right now. I hope that this season of joy hasn't made me complacent to my many blessings, or calloused toward those with greater struggles. As the holiday season moves into full swing this year, I pray that I will put off some of the frivolity in exchange for more meaningful thoughts and friendships. That I will decorate less and serve more. That I will fill my scrapbook with more memories and fewer unfulfilled promises.

Happy December-ing.

11 comments:

Janssen said...

I just love everything you write. What a lovely, thoughtful post.

I didn't read all the comments on your post, although now I'm about to head back over to check it out, but I'm just so amused by the women talking about their vibrators. The poor moderators.

FoxyJ said...

I felt the same way about that novel--thought it was interesting but hated most of the characters.

Not entirely related, but I've read several parenting books about the value of 'emotion coaching' your kids and my husband and I are trying hard to change our parenting approach to one that is more open to listening. We grew up with parents that, for various reasons, were emotionally unavailable and not very willing to listen to our feelings, so we really want to change that with our children. So far it is actually working well and I hope that we can communicate well with them as they get older. I've also found that as my husband and I are more honest with each other we have a better relationship. It does seem paradoxical--I come from a family that tends to ignore things and pretend problems don't exist. But instead I've found that for us we really need to just talk about things and it makes life so much better. Anyways, I liked your post and I thought the discussion was interesting as well.

Slyck and Slim said...

I love your perspectives! You can put into words what I feel sometimes. I must be off to spend some quality time with my hubby. Thanks!

Yankee Girl said...

I'm with Janssen--I love everything you write!

chicagosapps said...

Felt the same way about the book--came highly recommended by sister (which should have been my first clue) but it was so depressing I had to re-read Wednesday Wars afterward to feel better.

And I cried like a baby during UP. My kids were a little concerned, but I blamed it on the pregnancy hormones.

Doreen said...

I have vowed to teach my kids not only about their own bodies, but also about those of the opposite sex. And, whenever we feel it's appropriate, about the impact childbirth and child rearing has on a woman's body. Let's just say that our first pregnancy and the first few months after Tyler's birth were a HUGE surprise to both Dave and I. Hormones have a big impact on our bodies, and both husband and wife need to be aware of this. And nobody ever seems to talk about it...

Jenny said...

You have an amazing gift -- being able to put into words the complexity of such important subjects. Well.Written.
I have a hard time imagining you EVER complacent. Your brain must be very lean. That thing is always hard at work!

Melanie said...

Thanks for mentioning Segullah, I hopped on over there today and anticipate spending some serious time reading the posts and comments.

Satan uses media to make sex look enticing, but he can also use it to have the opposite effect. From raunchy entertainment, to the prevalence of pornography, to the seemingly constant revelations of infidelity by political and other leaders, oftentimes sex seems to me something dirty, carnal, and bad. Men are portrayed as lustful aggressors while women are cast as objectified sex objects. I frequently have to remind myself that sex is not only necessary, but good and right-under the correct circumstances.

Thanks for your honesty on this topic. Since I'm not yet married, it's not something that I should think about too too much, but it is helpful and enlightening to know that there are issues regarding sex (beyond the don't have it before you are married)that need to be addressed.

I like what Doreen said about the need to talk about the impact of childbirth. I find it funny/puzzling that my married friends talk about their pregnancies as if it's all completely expected and they know exactly what's going on. Maybe it's just because I'm the oldest child in my family, but I have pretty much no clue what goes on during pregnancy!

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

My parents didn't discuss sex with me at all (OK - my mom tried once and I brushed it off, saying if I wanted to know anything, I would read about it), so early on I didn't have any positive input about it--just the sense that it was some taboo thing I was supposed to avoid until I got married.

Fortunately, I had a YW leader and later some friends in college who were not only firmly committed to chastity, but also open about the fact that sex was a wonderful part of married life. Their frank, positive conversations helped me embrace intimacy when I married, instead of feeling guilty or awkward about it as I might otherwise have done.

My oldest child is two now, so discussions of intimacy are still a few years off for us, but I hope to give her a more clear and positive view of things than I initially had.

Caitlin said...

Thankfully I had a mother who never had any kind of "sex talk" and she vowed to raise her children in an open and honest manner, no matter how awkward it would be.

I appreciated this openness very much, and I plan on doing the same with my own family. I also appreciated an extensive talk I had with her just before I was married. Sure, there were things that I didn't know specific details about, but that is as it should be. As you stated earlier, certain things are unique and private to each relationship and there would be plenty of time for me to figure things out with my husband.

I appreciate the candid and thoughtful insight you provided. Sex is an emotionally charged issue to be discussed, both with children and between spouses. It can be hard to be honest about wants, needs, likes, and dislikes, especially when you are worrying about your spouse's feelings. You were exactly right in your observations of what intimacy can mean for both men and women in a marriage. For many men (not all), sex is a huge part of intimacy. For many women, communication is key. At least that is what I gleaned from what you had written. I think the more we understand our own bodies, our own feelings, as well as our spouses', the more effective our communication.

heidikins said...

I don't know how it is possible that this is the first time I've come across your blog--but I absolutely agree with everything you've said here and am so glad that you took the time to write it out so well.

xox