My boyfriend “Eric” and I have been together for three years now, and neither of us ever talks about ever splitting up. But I have a problem: until about six months ago, or maybe a year, we had a normal, satisfying sex life, by which I mean that we found each other attractive and enjoyed ourselves making love. We had sex maybe twice a week, on average, and probably would have done it more except that we were both so busy. Nobody kept track of who initiated it; it just seemed to happen naturally. But then it started to get so that he never initiated sex, and never responded when I did. The only time he wanted sex was after the two of us had a fight—which, now that I think back, happened maybe twice a month at first, but is happening—the fights and the sex, I mean—somewhat more often lately. I have to admit that it is usually more exciting sex than we had before, but I still hate the way this is going. I have tried to talk to Eric about this, but he denies that anything is happening. Says it is just coincidence. What should I do?
—Sparring in Spartansburg
Let’s clear something up right away. I assume that he “fights” you refer to involve no physical or verbal abuse. If you two are having physical fights on a regular basis, get out right away. The same goes if Eric belittles or threatens you during nonphysical fights, or coerces you in any way either to fight with him or to have sex afterwards.
I have read that “make-up” sex after an intense argument can be very exciting, either because the couple is so relieved and happy to be on loving terms again, or because the passions stirred by fighting somehow transfer to, and enhance, the sexual act. If so, that’s great: more pleasure in the world.
But the circumstances are quite different when make-up sex is the only kind a couple engages in. For one thing, it creates an incentive for couples to get into fights —and you have already noticed that you and Eric are doing battle more often than before. Do you think that he has started any fights for no apparent reason other than getting to sex? Do you think that you have?
But even if neither of you seems to be starting fights just to have sex, your situation would almost have to damage a relationship over time, as it becomes harder and harder to imagine, much less create, intimacy without a basis in antagonism. I have trouble envisioning a state of real mutual trust between romantic partners who, basically, cannot get close without picking a fight. Besides, even if there were no inherent problems in the situation you’ve described, the fact is that it makes you unhappy, which is something Eric should care about if you two are to stay together.
I am also concerned that Eric and you have such different views of what’s going on. Unless you are misstating the facts, it seems to me that Eric is in denial, or is not being totally honest with you and that, in any event, the two of you are not very good at discussing matters crucial to your relationship.
Although this is probably a long shot, I suggest that you, Sparr, look back over the past several months, try to remember and make a mental (or even physical) note of the times you’ve had sex, and the times you’ve fought, and then approach Eric again —not brandishing a list, but with the information you’ve retrieved quite clear in your mind. Tell him that you really do see a pattern and are concerned, and ask him if anything is wrong.
By the way, IS there anything wrong, in your opinion? Do you know of any problems Eric is having? Is either of you under any major stress? Is there anything about his current life or health that may be affecting his libido? Have there been any other strains on your relationship?
Maybe Eric will open up a little if you approach the matter again during some calm moment. The two or you may uncover some useful truths that help your repair your sex life —or you may have to face some unpleasant truths that cause one or both of you to reevaluate your relationship. But even the latter result is probably preferable to the way things stand now.
If Eric still won’t talk, or if you both do talk but still cannot agree about what’s happening, and if you want to save your relationship, I suggest counseling. If he resists, go by yourself, at least for a visit or two.
You could also continue trying to initiate regular, non-make-up sex —perhaps more often, more insistently and more imaginatively than in recent months. Of course, I can see why this idea might not appeal to you after Eric’s past rejections. You will have to decide, based on your knowledge of Eric, whether persistence, and perhaps a little more assertiveness and spice, are likely to appeal to him; and whether, knowing yourself, you think such tactics might be damaging to your pride, or your sense of self, and just not worth it.
Do you and Eric have any interest in role-playing? I ask this because you might want to see how fake arguments work as a prelude to sex. The idea of having to shout insults or feign violent disagreement in order to make love does not strike me as very appetizing, but it may work in some cases, and you did say that sex has been better recently.
The course of a relationship is difficult to chart. It is possible that Eric is pulling away, at least in the sexual area, or that you two have become sexually incompatible over the years. But it is at least equally likely that this exclusively-make-up sex situation is just a blip in a long, happy relationship, and that a little more conversation, a little counseling, one or more changes in other areas of your lives, or a bit more edge in your sex life will get you past it. I hope so. Or, to be more precise: if Eric is worth it and will make you happy, I hope so.
I know that what I am going to write about is not all that important compared to the really serious problems looming on the orange horizon, but I think it is a symptom of our national divide, and it really annoys me, and I do not know how to deal with it.
Yesterday I was revising some complicated gift orders over the phone. The lady who was helping me was very considerate and quite friendly. We talked about snow in Minnesota, where she is from, and about our kids, who are almost the same ages (I was ordering sports equipment for my sons). We really hit it off. When we were saying goodbye I added “Happy Holidays!” and she changed her tone completely, shouted “Merry Christmas!” as if she were throwing down the gauntlet, and hung up without telling me all the usual stuff the store says about getting an email confirmation and tracking number and so on. I felt as if I had been slapped in the face. Other times, in other situations, people have seemed equally annoyed, almost affronted, at my saying “Merry Christmas!” If it matters, I was raised Methodist.
My question: What do you say to people at Christmastime?
Flummoxed in Ft. Lauderdale
It’s a sorry state of affairs when a person can’t offer best wishes of the season without tiptoeing around so nobody takes offense. An ironic state, too, since the people who seem most ultrasensitive in this regard —the ones who insist that anyone who says “Happy Holidays” or serves coffee in a paper cup without angels on it is “waging war on Christmas”—are the same ones who rail against the culture of so-called political correctness.
Given how defensive Americans are these days, I am not sure I can come up with anything you could say, including saying nothing, that won’t offend somebody. But I can offer some guidelines that should work for anybody but the most unreasonable among us—and, since History is currently punching us in the jaw several times a day with examples of how we should avoid catering to the most unreasonable among us, giving momentary offense to such people may not be a bad idea.
Here are my guidelines: If you do not know a person’s religion or traditions —the woman on your phone call is a clear example, unless the two of you traded funny tree-trimming stories —it is just fine to say “Happy Holidays!” or the equivalent. I kind of like “Season’s Greetings!” although I am not sure why: maybe it’s because, when spoken rather than written, it sounds charmingly stilted.
It is also just fine to say “Happy Holidays!” and the like even to known Christmas-celebrators if you, the greeter, do not wish to identify with any religion or culture. This may be because you are an atheist, an agnostic, or a non-Christian. Or you may be a devout Christian and/or Christmas-celebrator who has gotten into the habit of using a more generic greeting to ensure against offending people. There is no reason to break that habit. Christmas will survive if you don’t. Five minutes in any CVS will show that Christmas, at least the commercial side of it, is as safe as anything gets.
Or saying “Happy Holidays!” may be more than a habit, which is fine, too. You may (like me) be a cultural Christian and a near-fanatic about Christmas cheer, trees, carols, lights, sappy black-and-white movies, gifts, peppermint, celebrations, stockings, and so on. You may actually still get choked up when Tiny Tim says “God bless us, everyone!” But you may nevertheless prefer to use extreme caution when extending a greeting that appears to be taking on a new meaning these days, at least in some contexts. It seems that the far-right, and our president-elect in particular, are doing to Christmas what their predecessors did to the flag: creating a climate where, if you do not say “Merry Christmas,” or wear a flag pin in your lapel, you are taking a side—indeed, you are showing yourself to be on the un-American side. (I realize that the correlation is imperfect, at least to people who do not conflate American patriotism with Christianity. But you get the idea: something stirring and lovely has been appropriated as a means of exclusion and threat.) Besides, even if all those ostentatious “Merry Christmas!” signs on Trump’s victory-lap podia are totally benign, and I am Marie of Romania, it is thoughtful and wise to take care lest, in these contentious times, your simple “Merry Christmas!” makes it sound as if you are assuming that everyone around you is a Christian, or should be.
On the other hand, it is fine to say “Merry Christmas” when you know you are among fellow-celebrators, or exclusively among fellow Christians. I plan on saying it often when Santa comes to my dog’s obedience class on Monday; actually, I am not sure all of us are Christian, but we all worship the same dogs and are happy to have them pose with Santa and get new dog toys. And I think it is generally fine to say it on Christmas Day because, well, that’s what day it is, so everyone gets a little leeway.
Whether or not you share their beliefs or traditions, it is acceptable—I think it is great, actually, and a sign of respect—to wish known Christmas-observers a merry Christmas, known Jewish people a happy Hanukkah, known Kwanzaa-celebrators a happy Kwanzaa, etc. But do not make assumptions about people: not all bagel-eating native New Yorkers are Jewish, and not all African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa. And don’t overdo it. For example, I would avoid walking up to anybody and saying “Habani Gari” unless you are part of the Kwanzaa tradition (and know what to say next).
I am willing to risk some inconsistency by adding that, when you are lucky enough to live or work in a community of reasonable, tolerant people, you can probably wish them whatever you want. They will know that, if you tell them to have a merry Christmas, you are simply wishing them joy in the language of your tradition. They will also know that, if you wish them happy holidays, you are not a demon seeking to destroy either Santa or the Nativity.
In sum: wish people a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, or a glorious Anything Else if you have a good idea who they are and what will please them. But, when in any real doubt, be inclusive, even at the risk of offending the bigoted and hidebound. Making anyone feel overlooked or excluded based on religion or culture is ill-bred, unethical, and—come to think of it—un-American. Thanks so much for your letter. I wish you all the blessings of the Isaac Newton’s Birthday season.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
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