Thursday, March 7, 2013

Breadcrumbs and Grief Sex

Despite what some well-meaning-but-myopic feminist sex researchers might think, there are indeed more types of sex in marriage than just “bad” and “feminist-empowering”.   While the endless gentle foreplay leading to non-penetrative orgasms and non-patriarchal progressive power structures sound like a mystical forest of erotic delight, the cold hard fact is that married people – that is, people who are committed to their marriages, and aren’t just playing house until something better comes along – have all sorts of sex that have nothing to do with ensuring the proper consent paperwork is filled out before initiating foreplay.  

 Especially once you have children, the type and manner of sex a married couple has gets exotic and frustrating at the same time, as one navigates around the rocky shoals of nap time, exhaustion, and spousal resentment.  But even within childless couples there is more than one kind of sex.  That has been one of my consistent problems with the sex researchers, feminist and non-feminist alike, when it comes to their discussions of sex and “the right way to do it”.  Focusing on sex-for-pleasure or sex-for-intimacy, both with a strong emotional component, covers but a tithe of the varieties of married sex.  Most of the time when husband and wife manage to knock boots, personal fulfillment and mutual orgasm aren’t even vaguely fuzzy goals.  

Sex researchers who ignore the social component of modern sexuality, or downplay its importance (or even dismiss non-feminist-empowering sex as a “necessary evil”) miss the sophisticated and complex role that sex plays for a couple in a long-term relationship.  When you take the “sex act”, from flirtation and initiation to consummation and afterplay, outside of the context of the relationship and attempt to impose standards by which to judge the quality of the experience, most marital sex comes up depressingly short on paper.  

But if you consider sex within the context of the relationship, it can bee seen as a powerful normalizing factor in a functioning relationship, and that is due primarily to its versatility and variability as a means of providing balance to a marriage.

One of the more important, but rarely mentioned, elements of married sex is Grief Sex.

This isn’t necessarily tied to a death, although that’s when it’s seen most often.  Next to weddings, funerals seem to have an aphrodisiac effect on people, prompting all sorts of outrageous behavior as folks try to work through their grief with the most basic and life-affirming of all human acts.  People hook up after funerals – it’s a pretty common occurrence.  I've been known to do it myself.

But people grieve for other things than death.  All of us, particularly if we have children, are faced with a myriad of potential calamities that can kick the legs out of our “normal” lives.  When you’re an adult and your parents tell you they’re getting divorced, for instance, or even a couple that you are close to gets un-hitched, you and your spouse may grieve their relationship and the role that it had on your own . . . even if the two parties involved both remain in your life.  

When a cherished pet dies, or a vocational path dries up, when the dream house you got when you got married gets foreclosed on, when something awful and life-changing happens to someone you love, all of these can lead to a feeling of grief that can sap the vital spark from your sex life.  A miscarriage or other tragedy can certainly cast a long shadow into your bedroom.  Triggered memories of abuse can kill sex dead in a marriage.  So can illness, mental or physical.  Morbid obesity.  Depression.  Affairs, of course, are their own special kind of grief, and so I won’t speak to that here. 

But it’s almost inevitable that during the course of your marriage something will happen in your life that hangs like a cloud over your marital bed.  At some point, your “normal” will be taken from you, leaving you speechless, shocked, embittered, and grief-stricken.  Since men and women respond to grief and profound emotional insecurity in different ways, in general, this can lead to some treacherous intimate waters.

And when that happens, the shiny-happy-people-sex of the sex researcher’s ideal is so utterly off the table in a marriage as to be laughable.  How do you stay “fully present, attuned, and connected with your partner RIGHT NOW, RIGHT HERE” when the very subject of sex sends one or both of you into an emotional spiral?    When grief fills the air like a fog you move through in desperate search for your lost “normal”, trying to manage “traveling through someone else’s mind and body, while we allow them to travel through ours” when your emotions are volatile, frustrated, angry and bitter is just not an option.

So the right thing to do in a time of grief is to take sex off the table, right?  Something that everyone just knows is supposed to be “joyful” is the last thing you want to consider when your heart is breaking.  Sex is not a drive, it’s not a need, it’s merely a reward incentive system.  If there is an overabundance of grief haunting the couple, then just . . . postpone sex for better times.  Until you are both feeling "into it" enough to resume your normal sexual relationship.  It’s the prudent thing to do, right?


From what they tell us, “we can only have it when all the layers of us and all the ways of knowing we have are aligned, attuned, and paying attention right now to how we feel, how our partners feel, who we are together.”  And the fact is, when we are in the midst of grief our hearts and emotions can be closed, even walled up, as a means of personal survival . . . yet the need for sex and intimacy  for both people is nearly as overwhelming.

Part of the issue is how men and women view sex and grief differently, of course.  Women in the midst of grief often seek the intimacy that they find in sex in an effort to collect and build emotional sympathy for personal support.  But when it comes to the necessary precursor of that intimacy with their husbands – sex – sometimes these women aren’t just 'not interested', they can even get offended that their husband would have “that” on his mind when she is quite-clearly grieving.  

Meanwhile, the husband is merely seeking his own level of intimacy and comfort.  Male response to grief and other such strong emotions is to harden their hearts in preparation for doing something unpleasant - even when their need for emotional connection and emotional expression is just as great as that of his wife.  One would think that when both parties are seeking essentially the same thing -- comfort and intimacy -- then it would be easy to come to some resolution for this issue.  The problem is that the husband usually has a far more difficult time accessing even himself emotionally without sex to establish intimacy first.  

Or, of course, in your marriage it could quite easily work the other way around.  Grief is weird that way.

That doesn’t mean you should force yourself to have sex, exactly.  But a prolonged period of grief and sexual inactivity can be hard for a couple to recover from if they have ceased all relations . . . or even any reference to sex.  Some couples, in grief, can go months without even mentioning sex or the possibility, even if they are both desperate for it.  They have been trained to view sex as only a celebration of their love and mutual pleasure.  They have been lectured about respect and consent and emotional connection their entire lives, so when presented with a situation in which having sex would be a practical benefit to all involved, they shun it, to their mutual detriment because of their perspective on sex is so myopic.  

In a recent round of grief at Stately Ironwood Manor (no, no one died) the situation was such that even ever-horny Ian was uninterested.  Yeah.  It was that bad.  A high-stress situation, and one that made “joyfully moving toward” Mrs. Ironwood . . . difficult, for emotional reasons.  It wasn’t that we didn’t both recognize the need – we were past-due, time-wise, and overdue from the High Quality Nookie perspective.  My stress level was reaching historic proportions, to the point where medical intervention was necessary.  Mrs. Ironwood was enduring as much grief, fatigue, and emotional investment as I’ve seen without a birth or a funeral being involved.  While other events overwhelmed us, both of us understood the pragmatic advantages to tearing one off . . . as well as the desperately-needed emotional intimacy we both craved.

But there just wasn’t time nor inclination.  We had more important shit to do, and for us that’s saying a lot.  Mrs. Ironwood and I consider sex the fulcrum of the see-saw of our marriage, a way to keep things in balance and fully functioning.  For us, sex is the Great Equalizer, allowing emotional and psychological stability to prevail over our personal desires to behave unreasonably.  It's an extension of our normal on-going marital conversation and provides important subtext for it, in context.

The fulcrum sex provides in our relationship has certainly allowed us to leverage each other into a fair amount of joy – but that’s easy.  Any  couple of idiots can associate sex with joyousness, unity, and happiness.  That's a serotonin binge that's implicit in every infatuated coupling.  The see-saw ride is smooth and easy and fun.  If one of us is down, sex is an important way for the other person to bring them up.

But there comes a time when Something Happens and we’re both left with our legs dangling in the air at the same time.

Grief sex isn’t fun.  It isn’t joyous.  Sometimes it’s good sex, technically speaking, and other times it’s bloody awful.  Sometimes it’s a way for you to share the burden of responsibilities by clinging to the strength of your union . . . but sometimes it’s a needfully selfish act, or laden with emotions far from joy and happiness.  Grief sex can be an opportunity to wallow in the emotional wellspring of your spouse’s feelings, gaining new perspective and emotional intimacy through the physical act.  Or it can be a desperate attempt to re-establish a lost normalcy after crisis or catastrophe, when even the hope of joy seems hollow.  Either way, the solace of a sexual embrace offers comfort and refuge even if the connection with your partner is lacking because of the nature of the situation.

It’s not something you can jump right into – usually you have to drop what Mrs. Ironwood sometimes calls “breadcrumbs”: conversational and physical suggestions of intimacy and sex without immediate fulfillment.  While that sounds needlessly frustrating to a spouse with a high drive or high desire for sex, the act of dropping breadcrumbs for each other does some very important things to alleviate that sense of frustration.

Firstly, it communicates that yes, sex is on your mind in some form or fashion, even if the nature of the situation or crisis makes the notion socially appalling.  It's a recognition of the loss of normalcy, and the importance of losing that fulcrum on the health and welfare of the union.  Mrs. I’s first breadcrumb, three days after feces hit fan, was along the lines of:

“If I hadn't just stayed awake for almost three days straight, I’d almost consider talking you into sex.”  

It wasn’t a rejection – she brought it up before I even thought about initiating – but it was a polite way of saying “I’m intellectually and maybe even physically interested, but I’m also so emotionally and physically exhausted that sleep wins out over your mightiest efforts – but it’s on my radar.”  That meant a huge amount to me, because yes, despite the stress and adrenaline and rage and such, a good scrumping would have revitalized me in the way only a good scrumping can.  

But I also knew that approaching the subject, under the circumstances, would be “delicate” at best.

So Mrs. I took the pressure off by basically saying subtextually “Yeah, I’m horny too, but not now . . . but real soon now.”  That’s different from the more-typical female response, “how can you think about sex at a time like this?!”   Needless to say, it's far more preferred to the masculine ear, too.  Rejection is one thing.  Rejection and a follow-up questioning your emotional depth is just insulting.

She followed up the next day with some sexually-suggestive kissing in a rare private moment that was filled with a confusing mix of desperate need and deep appreciation . . . but ended the session with “that’s all we’re going to be able to manage for a few days . . . God, I need some intimacy about now!”

I nodded.  I needed it too.  Good and hard.

I dropped a breadcrumb of my own that night, when I was tucking her in – a bit of routine normalcy that made her squeal with delight.  “I missed you doing that for me when I was on the road,” she said with a wistful smile.

“Gosh, y’know, there were a few things you do that I missed while you were on the road, too!” I answered.  She smiled and nodded.  I didn't push it.  It wasn't time yet.  I was just dropping a breadcrumb.  We went to sleep.  Message received.
The next breadcrumb was when things were – finally – settling down from acute emergent crisis to merely profoundly serious crisis requiring most of our energy and attention.  After a particularly emotionally draining day in which several important decisions had to be made, we were both feeling  shell-shocked and emotionally exhausted.  In crisis mode, we usually relocated our base of operations to our covered and screened back porch, where I’m free to chain-smoke without giving the kids cancer and we’re both free to speak candidly about the freaky shit going on without them overhearing.

I’d snagged a double Irish on the rocks, because the Irish invented whisky to fortify you for just this kind of grief-tinged situation (ever been to an authentic Irish wake, with the dead guy on the dinner table and gallons – GALLONS – of liquor?  No one grieves like the Irish).  Mrs. I had elected to pop her prescription anti-anxiety meds instead.  It was the first real “calm” moment we’d had in days, and the quiet exhaustion led to a peaceful silence that was tantalizingly close to our lost sense of normalcy.  It was the first time either one of us had seriously considered sex.  The kids were in bed.  It was dark.  We were awake.  Motive, method, opportunity.

I looked over at her, the barest hint of a suggestion in my eyes.  Thanks to marital telepathy and her own unique insight into the masculine soul, she didn’t even blink.  

“I get eight hours of sleep, minimum.  Then a shower.  Then you are going to take me to Pound Town like you just got back from sea.”

“It would be rude to argue with such compelling reasoning,” I agreed.  “I’m almost at the point where some titties in my face would prove a welcome distraction.”

“I can make that happen . . . tomorrow.”

“It’s a date,” I agreed.  And it was.  The last breadcrumb was in place.

It wasn’t great sex.  It wasn’t even good sex, from a technical standpoint.  It was almost like (but not nearly as dreadful as) the first sex postpartum, when you know you should want to but you’re so wrapped-up in being gentle and tender or desperate and needy that “good” sex can be defined as any kind of sex at all. 

It wasn’t great sex.  But it was seething, passionate, emotionally explosive and physically challenging.  It was an opportunity for her to feel owned and protected, and an opportunity for me to feel like I was in control – of something – for the first time in days.   Grief sex is like an emotional dam bursting. The frustration and the anger and the helplessness turned into a frenetic need to drive away thought and replace it with the splint of soul-cleansing sexual pleasure so that – for at least a few cherished moments – we could pretend that the Normal had returned.  

And in some ways it had.  When you’re on the Red Pill and married, getting laid regularly and frequently becomes a part of your life.  When anything from travel to birth control to grief can stand in the way of that, then the very absence of sex in your relationship (in addition to other factors) becomes a problem, perhaps as much as the original problem, and certainly compounding it.  

So by having sex – even a mediocre, emotionally-overblown and largely un-fulfilling quickie in your hour of desperation – you can help re-establish the normalcy of your life.  For dudes, especially, the metric of sex is important to define the scope of a relationship.  By trying to return to the sexual rhythms of your marriage, even if the sex sucks the attempt will be important in and of itself.

For women, the emotional connection implicit in sex builds the intimacy she needs to feel safe.  Due to long cultural association, if not biological holy writ, women in insecure situations often seek to find security through connection and community, and intimate connection with a partner.  If she is aware enough of her own psychological needs, then the frustration she may feel at her partner's masculine emotional detachment in times of crisis can be seen as what it is: a cry for intimacy and connection, but not necessarily sexual intimacy and connection.  

Conversely, men need the physical release of sex  not just to re-connect with their deeper emotions, but also to validate their actions in crisis.  If sex is a "incentive reward program", then a crisis requiring a robust response from a man (such as defending his family or making a herculean effort to save the house) is going to encourage his body to seek just such a physical validation . . . while his bruised psyche cries out for the soothing and healing of caritas.   When men push for sex in a time of grief, it's a request for validation and approval, as well as a path to allow him to feel what he had to put aside in crisis.

Understanding this dynamic properly, and appreciating the suggestive and gradual power of "breadcrumbs", can allow a couple to cut past the bullshit and both get what they need . . . if not always when they need it.  Avoiding the topic entirely is not recommended, unless the issue involves sexual abuse or rape and you are under the guidance of a mental health professional.  

Sex can, indeed, be about joy, and a married couple who has made it past the decade hump usually has it in bucketfuls.  But in grief, even fondly-remembered joy can turn bitter in your mouth like ashes.  Remembering that things were once better often just makes you sadder.  Trying to imagine things being better seems a betrayal of your loss, as if hoping for better times and lighter feelings diminishes the value of your grief.  

Sex in grief isn’t about joy, it’s about sadness – and tenderness, and need, and pain.  It’s about the selfish desire for comfort and understanding when we do not necessarily deserve it or invite it.  It’s about the fundamental agreement not to just be a rock for your mate when the storm clouds come, but to indulge their sometimes jagged response to grief with understanding and support.  Sex in grief can be the frictiony abrasive needed to trim away the illusions and impractical perspectives, to gel both our emotions and resolve during a time of turmoil.  Sex is our desperate, individual cry for the Normal to return, as if we could wipe away the tragedy one orgasmic stroke at a time.

The fun and exciting sex is the sex you remember most.  Those happy times of joy in the past, where the physical met the emotional and even the spiritual in a vortex of infatuation and the seeds of nascent love.  The times where you did something particularly well, or made a particularly good impression, those are highly memorable.  Hotel sex weekends, heated quickies at a friend’s party, that one night after those two bottles of wine – those are the highly-positive experiences we want to associate with sex.  

But the reality is that the interplay of eroticism and emotion really is in flux in a marriage.  Consider it an Advanced Sexual Skill, and one your marriage will not survive without you becoming proficient in.  That's one of the biggest myths about sex-in-marriage: depending on the infatuation-laden blush of a fun-filled single life to sustain you through all of the Bad Times to come without a more sophisticated approach is to invite suffering and misery into your marriage.  Married sex isn’t like single sex much at all.  It’s more complex, more sophisticated, more complicated.   Sometimes your wife isn’t even thinking about sex at all when you recognize a good scrumping would improve both her mood and her effectiveness tremendously.    

Sometimes sex is the last thing on your mind.  She proposes it out of the blue for reasons you clearly don’t understand and you have to make a conscious decision whether or not to have sex – all the while wondering how she will react if you decline.  Does she need affirmation?  Normalcy?  Comfort?  Connection?  Intimacy?  Assurance?  To feel safe and protected?  Even if that doesn’t mesh with your level of arousal at that point, rejecting her out-of-hand could be devastating, for her and for your relationship.  But if you really just can’t, for whatever reason . . . drop a breadcrumb.  

Let your spouse know that it’s on your mind, you understand it’s on theirs, and that it is on your agenda . . . but your mind/body/spirit combo is just too weak to indulge it at the moment.  Always remember to thank them for asking and assure them that it’s the situation, not your feelings for or attraction to them, that is behind your reluctance.  If you’re smart, you’ll bring it up before they do . . . and then just leave it alone.  Grief takes time to process, and “soon” might well mean two weeks, not two days.  You might need to follow a dozen breadcrumbs, not three.  Harping, nagging, and complaining are all annoyances that can compound grief and exacerbate an already-stressful situation. Don't do that shit.  If you make a suggestion and she passes, understand that it isn't time yet.

So drop a breadcrumb . . . and then back the fuck off.  Your spouse will know how to follow them, and until you can both manage the mental and emotional transition from “crisis mode” to “clitoris mode” these hints/promises/wishes are the best way to ensure that you both face the problem together, not blame the other for keeping their feet dangling.  


  1. LOVE this framework.

  2. Peace to you and yours.

  3. This has given me a lot to think about. Great post, Ian.

  4. This post brings back such painful memories of the grief on my ex-wife's part that played a key role in the breakup of my marriage that it took me a few days to make myself finish reading it though the events took place over ten years ago. But now I hope I have a better understanding how to deal with this in the future. Thank you.

  5. Very sorry for your difficult situation.

    If it's any consolation, your courage to post about your experience has given me great insight into the grief my marriage and given ways to deal with our problems in a better way.

    Thank you for your writing.

  6. Thanks meant for sharing this type of satisfying opinion, written piece is fastidious, that’s why I’ve read it

  7. Fantastic. Simple yet brilliantly articulated. Holy shit, somebody understands!

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  9. I would love to have a wife. I would cherish her and she will cherish me. Instead, I have been alone for my (now) almost 41 years of life. It is sad, and pathetic. I have been diligent in my quest for love and partnership (and of course sex) and always failed so miserably. I'm sure I have a female counterpart out there who has the same struggles. If so drop me a line, maybe we can finally fill that deep void that is getting more and more painful and alienating to leave empty. I live in Chicago, IL you can reach me at