I think it’s safe to say that sex is an important part of any healthy marriage, and that it’s worth you and your spouse going out of your way to make sure it happens often.
Yet even the most sex-positive moms and dads out there can relate to those times when making love falls completely out of the frame. You know it’s in the periphery and that you should try to refocus on it, but everything else has crowded your view: the sick kids, the work stress, the AWOL relative, the house projects, the check engine light, the CAT Scan, the alarming news on the radio, the staying power of democracy (you know, the little stuff).
Life’s demands on your time and energy are steep as it is, and what you could really use – before even contemplating nudity in front of another person – is some good old fashioned sleep.
This is where forgiveness comes in. What does forgiveness have to do with getting it on? Plenty.
In its simplest form, forgiveness demands that we let go. Merriam-Webster reminds us that to forgive is, “to give up resentment of, or claim to requital.” (Bear with me and the definitions. Yes, I love “Word Girl”.) Forgiveness is releasing someone from bitterness, compensation, retaliation, or the expectation of something offered in return. This is a big deal. Especially when it comes to sex.
Maybe you need to let go of expectations and the frustration that comes along with them not being met. Maybe you need to let go of a predisposition to guilt or insecurity or a fear of falling short. Maybe you need to be forgiven for falling short.
Maybe you need to grapple with some pent-up anxiety that’s interfering with your bodily ease and morphing into anger under pressure. How do you let that go? You find a way to talk about it, and in doing so, forgive yourself for letting it rupture into a contentious or destructive force.
Maybe you’re terrified of being alone, and instead of grasping at unhealthy ways to remain in the forefront of someone else’s mind, you need to settle into who you are – also a form of letting go – and know that it is enough. It has to be enough. The people who love you know this already and can help you find comfort in acceptance.
Or maybe, as in my case, you need to forgive yourself for not being invincible and tag out every once in a while. A forgiving partner will understand where you’re at, even if he’s in a completely different place. A forgiving partner will rub your back as you drift into a dream, and she won’t act like you owe her one later.
I’ve witnessed so many relationships dissolve due to one or both parties refusing to forgive. They grip onto this idea that they must stand strong. And standing strong means cleaving, resolutely, to their side of an argument without attempting to understand the other side – without even listening, in some cases.
This is a missed opportunity. It’s also a misappropriation of strength.
You are not strong when you refuse to hear someone out. You are not strong when you shut your eyes to other ways of seeing. You are not strong when you are defensive, punitive, or vengeful. And you are certainly not strong when you can’t find it inside yourself “to give up resentment,” and free someone – above all, a lover – from guilt.
On the contrary, these stances are signs of weakness at the core. They are walls people build around themselves out of habit, or worse, fear.
I think generally people underestimate the power of forgiveness. It gets shoved in the same corner as backing down or giving in, as though being merciful is akin to being subordinate in some way. Yes, pain will get your hackles up every time. And stepping outside of your own assertions is hard.
Moreover, trying to understand another person’s hurtful actions can be mind-bendingly difficult. But addressing these discomforts and unpacking them with your partner always brings you to someplace new, to a deeper understanding of a relationship.
I asked an old friend recently about how sex had evolved for him and his wife since becoming parents nine years ago. “We just try to embrace it and appreciate it when it happens, and not put on pressure when it doesn’t,” he said. “We also go out of our way to remember we’re lucky that the flame is still alive.”
I loved this response because it’s all about understanding and acceptance. It’s ripe with an awareness of what my friend and his wife have built together over the years, as well as the determination to honor that work.
It’s easy to take our spouses for granted. It’s easy to assume that the closeness will always be there, that the things we’ve built will never come down. But they can. And they do. I’ve been on the jackass side of the relationship equation more than once. I also know how it feels when strangers trespass into a space I thought was mine, even though, when it comes to love, ownership is a total allusion.
Trust, however, is not.
Part of the beauty of (safe, consensual, loving) sex is the way in which we willingly make ourselves vulnerable to another person. We only do so because we trust that our partner will care for what we’ve offered them, hold it quietly behind their eyes and inside their mouths like a rare discovery, treasured for its secrecy and beauty.
We are so often guarded in life, calculating our next move or poised to defend, that an act of genuine openness can even take the giver by surprise. It brings tears to the eyes. And we need to feel those feelings! We need to be able to confide in people this way – to let our bodies soften and open toward one another. We may not be “young” anymore, but we’re not old either. We still yearn and fear and fuck up and fight and hope like hell the world’s not as hard as it feels.
In light of all this, forgiveness is fundamental. It’s heart food.
So yes, by all means, work at it, through thick and thin, sickness and health, and all those other dizzying oppositional states of being. Don’t let fear hold you back. Have fun. Let your kids see how much you love each other. Do what it takes to keep the matchless flicker of your connubial flame alive.
And do so with kindness and humility, and generosity, of course, and a boatload of forgiving. Because it’s from this tender place of conscious love that the most luxuriant things – including great sex – can bloom.