Talking is not the only means of closeness; bodies talk too.
Laura describes Mitch as the classic sex-obsessed man, demanding his rights to sex regardless of how she feels. “The only time he really wants to get close to me is when he wants sex, and he wants it all the time, Laura says resentfully.” She values verbal communication as a way of connecting with Mitch. Mitch knows connection only through sex during which he feels free and uninhibited. Mitch sees Laura as a sexually inhibited woman who repeatedly rejects his advances from feelings of disgust and contempt.
For Laura, sex carries the sum of all the cultural and familial restrictions on women she has absorbed over her life time. She grew up believing that she could be smart or pretty, but not both. Mitch was a late bloomer, gawky and not particularly athletic. He had two things going for him during adolescence. He was a good dancer and he genuinely liked girls. Mitch’s seeking closeness primarily through sex is the residual of his own early experiences.
As Perel describes it, she seeks in therapy to help each each partner become more fluent in the language of the other. Laura must battle, like some women, the age-old repressions of female sexuality in which they are trapped in passivity, dependent on men to seduce them. Mitch has to become less passively resistant in the face of his sexual dissatisfaction. He has to learn to become verbally open about describing what sex means to him, countering how Laura sees him.
Historically, centuries of limited access to power has made women experts as relationship-builders; and the socialization of girls continues to emphasize the development of relational skills. Perel cautions that intimacy can become too defined by “talk intimacy”, i.e. the self-disclosure of our most personal and private material—our feelings. Since the socialization of masculine identity is too often based on self-control, invulnerability, and the suppression of tender feeling, the erotic realm offers men the way to experience their more tender side.
Modern intimacy emphasis on speech has emerged alongside the growing economic independence of women. However, defining intimacy as “talk intimacy” may create problems since the capacity to express feelings is not yet a prized attribute of men. When masculine identity gets defined by self-control and invulnerability, the erotic realm offers men the way to experience their more tender side.
As Perel notes, Laura and Mitch both must become “more fluent in the language of the other” to have both closeness and a vibrant sexual relationship.