It's not uncommon for heterosexual men to confide in me that they are no longer attracted to their wives. The youthful, strong body that they fell in love with is over-weight now and out of shape. "I'm just not attracted to her." Women will also tell me about their out-of-shape, beer-gutted partners, or their stressed-out, over-eating husbands who don't smell good anymore, to whom they are no longer attracted.
On the face of it, the complaint is about the other person's body; how they look and how unappealing their personal presentation is to the observer. OK. That's a real thing and can't be ignored. However . . . the context and conditions in which the body exists have to be taken into consideration. When a person's self-care is slipping, ignored or inconsistent, if there's a vibe that someone doesn't really give a shit, it follows that others may not be interested in caring for us either. However it may be that underneath the seemingly "it's no big deal," attitude, is a niggling belief that "I'm no big deal," that "I don't matter." It may be that taking care of one's self is avoided because when attention is focused on self-care, the self starts to show itself! Self-caring creates an atmosphere in which deeper needs might emerge. It may be too painful to pay attention to the deeply buried old hurts and unmet needs. So simple everyday self-care like diet or hygiene starts to degrade.
Most husbands will not tell their wives they find them unattractive. Most men are already aware that their women are sensitive about their appearance. In 21st century society, women are mostly conditioned to have some degree of body-hatred or dysmorphia. Husbands are afraid to exacerbate an already sensitive issue and are afraid that being honest will deeply offend. Hurting their wives in such a way will ensure her rejection of him and will pretty much put the last nail in the sex coffin. Being honest could also incur her wrath, creating greater emotional distance in their everyday lives. So . . . most husbands will not say, "I don't like the way you look, anymore." Or "I'm not attracted to your body at this weight."
Most wives will not tell their husbands that they are disgusted or repulsed by their husband's poor hygiene or droopy gut. They don't want to hurt his feelings, as doing so could risk further emotional withdrawal. Many women will confess that they already feel emotionally disconnected from their husbands and don't want to make it worse. They don't feel like their men really care about them or their feelings. But if they complain about it, their husbands will retreat further. Conversely, some wives will focus on their husband's bad breath, nag about the late-night drinking or over-eating, shaming his behavior or scent and communicating about his inadequacies in a disdainful or disgusted manner. Still other women just give their husbands the passive-aggressive treatment, withdrawing themselves and making artificial/false excuses for their distance.
But human beings are reading each other's energy all the time. Remember that 7% of our communication is verbal. The rest is all energy. We are sensing, smelling, listening, observing . . . like all mammals we are attuned to each other on multiple sensory levels all the time.
When one partner observes the other partner's body expressing itself in weight gain or poor hygiene, what is being telegraphed by the overweight or stinky partner to the other? What does the wife inherently know about her husband when she sees him couch-surfing and beer drinking? What does the husband instinctively know about his wife when he sees her sucking on sodas, downing empty carbs and hiding under over-sized sweatshirts? What is the unspoken communication between the partners in these instances?
Each person described above is in pain. Perhaps unconscious and unaware, using sodas and beer and other addictions to numb that pain perhaps, but in pain, nonetheless. The husband, ignorant of his loneliness or pain may present an image of "I don't care . . ." an image of tough guy with no needs . . . or uber-competent guy, know-it-all who doesn't need anyone. That doesn't mean he isn't hurting . . . he may just be in denial about it. If he's in denial about it, he's not taking care of himself. If he's not interested in taking care of himself, is he telegraphing that he isn't really worth talking care of? Or is he hoping someone else will care in a way that he cannot.
The woman sucking sodas or covering her body is also in pain. She is quietly bearing shame and low self-esteem . . . proving her worth by prioritizing everyone else before herself. She will reach for sodas or food for temporary comfort. She may present an image of someone who doesn't care or who is selfless. She may present as someone who is nagging and judgmental. Her disappointment in the quality of her own inner experience is almost unbearable. But if she distracts herself with temporary, empty comforts . . . if she isn't attending to her own heartache and loneliness, is she telegraphing to her partner that how she feels doesn't matter?!
Each person described above is in pain, and is unable to communicate about their inner life, their inner experience. They are, in many ways, unconscious of the true source of their unhappiness. Their partner's annoying behaviors are perceived to be the cause. If only the partner would change, life could improve. Communication with their husband or wife about their own inner experience feels almost impossible. For the woman carrying the extra weight and the husband lost in his beer and ballgames, there has not been any real modeling or education about how to express themselves, and no true sense of safety or reassurance that they could reveal the loneliness and isolation they feel without incurring shame, wrath or abandonment.
Loneliness and resentment are sex-killers . . . Repressed, unconscious, unexpressed feelings of shame, isolation and loneliness undermine sexual health. The deeply held, often unconscious belief that there is no way to truly be seen or heard in one's deepest pain is absolutely counter to the fundamental definition of intimacy. There is no intimacy in an atmosphere of denied low self-esteem or self-hatred. There is no intimacy with another when there is no intimacy with self. Sex is not only a function of hormones and visual/physical stimulation . . . Sex is the confluence of hormones, visual and physical stimulation with safety, self-esteem, courage, self-acceptance, compassion and love.
Tenderness to the truth of what we are is essential. When partners witness each other in addiction, anger, depression . . . in any behaviors that deny the truth of one another's essential, precious beauty, these are moments of knowing into which love, support and ultimately transformation can enter. Going over to the couch where your beer-drinking/ballgaming partner is planted; sitting next to him silently; placing your hand on his knee; kissing his cheek; resting with him there in his misery without looking for any acknowledgement, or needing him to change in any way . . . this is the beginning. This is a step into the shallow end of the intimacy pool. One step at a time. Linger with him there for two or three minutes, and then carry on with your day. Do it often, letting his system begin to register that you are a safe and loving resource. You caring about your partner helps your partner care about himself.
Similarly, when you observe your partner popping the lid on her fifth diet cola of the day, or grazing on the potato salad after dinner has been over for more than an hour . . . put your hand on her shoulder, gently. Kiss her cheek. Whisper in her ear, "I appreciate you, I'm so grateful for everything you do for me." Don't expect a response; and no matter what she says or does, remain silent. Let your words and your tender gesture stand on its own. Then move on. Let the moment close. Don't seek any validation for the offering you just made. Do it often, letting her system begin to register that you are a safe and loving resource. You showing care and love for your partner when she is struggling to hold those feelings for herself allows her system to register her worth and value, even if momentarily. Repeat these behaviors often and without expectation. She will blossom in the light of your acceptance.
And so it goes . . . baby steps toward safety . . . getting safer and safer and safer until sharing your bodies is as natural and safe as breathing together, quietly, just like you did on the couch or in the kitchen. Your wife's fuller body becomes interesting and beautiful when it is "home." Your husband's tummy becomes a pillow, a resting place . . . also "home." Not perfect, not fixed . . . fallible, scarred, wounded, afraid, tender and beautiful . . .