The purpose of the entire lecture series “Our Parents, Ourselves, Our Changing Lives” has been two-fold, to increase understanding of Holocaust survivor parents, and of ourselves, and in particular, to enhance the present and future resilience and quality of life of the second generation.
The previous sessions illuminated particular relational vulnerabilities common among the second generation, such as a tendency to put the parents’ needs, and later, the need of others, ahead of one’s own, and the lasting impact of childhood experiences with trauma survivor parents, which might continue to influence one’s responses later in life to spouses, children and others. Some of these themes, identified in studies of the second generation, include lack of parental emotional availability and lack of open communication in the family, and at times, the impact of frightening or hurtful experiences when trauma survivor parents, triggered by some trauma-related reminder, over-reacted or withdrew into emotional detachment at important moments in the child’s life. As a result, some children of survivors might experience exquisite sensitivity to feeling not understood, not cared about, and a hyper-sensitivity to perceived slights.
The goal of the discussion group has been to highlight our continued capacity to change relational patterns, mitigate trauma-related intergenerational transmission, and improve relationships with others and our own sense of satisfaction in relationships, when we use the knowledge we gain about our parents and ourselves in a self-reflective way. Improving our relationships is particularly important when we take into consideration the conclusions from research into the factors that are associated with happiness, longevity and a meaningful life. As has been shown by the longest study of human development, the Harvard Grant study which has followed individuals over 75 years, the clearest message is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier (watch Robert Waldinger’s Ted talk: “What Makes A Good Life?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KkKuTCFvzI)
As the series of meetings at the Boro Park Y, which started last May, approaches its conclusion in July, the last two meetings focus on the couple relationship. In midlife, after parents pass away, children move out of the house, and retirement increases the time spent together, the couple becomes the most important source of support in the later years. Sexual intimacy is a uniquely significant aspect of the couple relationships and has been shown by studies to be critical in order for couples to maintain or improve their sense of vitality and connection. When intimacy is lacking in the couple, it seriously threatens the quality of the relationship and the well-being of the individual partners.
Of particular relevance for the children of Holocaust survivors is the observation in many studies that symptoms of PTSD in both men and women following any kind of trauma, including non-sexual trauma such as combat, accidents and criminal violence, interfere with sexual functioning in all of its aspects, including desire, arousal, activity, and satisfaction. Each partner in any couple brings to the relationship their “relational templates”, automatic ways of relating, conscious and non-conscious beliefs and emotional attitudes about sex, their own sexuality and others’, and about sexual behavior. It is therefore possible that the legacy of parental trauma and parental post-traumatic symptoms has some effects on the second generation, through implicit and explicit attitudes about sexuality that were learned in the family. Moreover, studies have shown that children of survivors have higher rates of PTSD in their own life, and evidence shows that neuroanatomical circuits and neurochemical and endocrinological processes disrupted in PTSD are critical to those involved in all aspects of sexual behavior.
The templates that we hold about all aspects of relating to others are based on past experienced and observed relatedness, in our families and in previous relationships we might have had. However, relational templates also include fantasized ideas about imagined relationships, and these can lead to behavior different or even opposite of what was experienced or observed, and can be very adaptive. However, fantasy templates can also be too idealized and unrealistic. The goal of our continued growth and development is to come to a relatedness that is more functional and more realistic, allowing couples to connect in a mature and mutually satisfying way.
The sources for sexual dissatisfaction experienced by couples include complaints about the frequency, complaints about low desire, and complaints about the quality of sex. Some typical complaints are:
- “I’m so sick of always having to initiate. But if I didn’t, we’d never have sex.” !
- “I think my husband might be gay, his interest in sex is so low.” !
- “I don’t think she’s attracted to me anymore. Maybe she’s having an affair.” !
- “He’s mean to me or ignores me all day then expects me to jump into bed with him that night!”
- “He (or she) is: too tentative, too rough, too slow, too fast, too talkative, not talkative enough, etc.
- He/she is too focused on him/herself” (Leone, 2017).
Sexual problems are common, yet in comparison with other common couples’ problems, sexual issues can be among the most difficult for couples (and some therapists) to talk about. Despite the difficulties in discussing this topic, it is crucial to address these issues to improve the relationships in couples. This is especially important when affirming and vitalizing experiences in the couple become all the more important in midlife, as a way to balance some of the changes and losses that often accompany the process of aging. A clear understanding of how our individual sexual behaviors and attitudes have developed – and how they can be shifted towards change- can allow couples to reach a new level of intimacy at any point.
In many couples, at least one partner had been quite unhappy with the couple’s sexual relationship for many years, yet hadn’t done much of anything to address it. Many people have not been raised feeling comfortable speaking about sex. In some cases, this is difficulty is due to socio-cultural ideas about the meaning of “modesty”, and in other cases it is due to a belief that sex should “just happen”, without much discussion. Speaking about sex with one’s partner is often very scary, and many people might feel apprehensive about being criticized or hurt, or about offending their partner, in such a discussion.
The main areas of sexual problems are A-sexual marriages, due to Sexual Dysfunction and Inhibited Sexual Desire (ISD), resulting in sex-less marriages. There is a high rate of A-sexual marriages in the USA. By arbitrary criterion of less than 10 sexual encounters per year, 20% of married couples and 40% of non-married who have been together for more than 2 years have a non-sexual relationship. Inhibited sexual desire is reported by 1:3 women and 1:7 men. The longer the problem is allowed to go on, the more self-conscious, awkward and deficient couples feel. Being a non-sexual couple is often also associated with shame and stigma in one’s own sense of self and with an injury to feelings of general and sexual self-esteem. When functioning well, sexual intimacy contributes 15-20% to marital vitality and satisfaction, energizing the bond and making it special. When sexual intimacy is not functioning well, it has an inordinate role reducing satisfaction by 50-70%, draining the marriage of good feelings and intimacy. According to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (1994; 2010), a non-sexual marriage is a major threat to marital satisfaction and viability. The other major area of sexual problems in marriages involves Infidelity, including “real” and “virtual” extra-marital sex, affairs and addictions.
One of the existential issues that couples in long-term relationships must deal with is the inherent conflict between our deep need for attachment and security in our long-term relationships, on one hand, and our opposing need for novelty, adventure, and excitement. (See also Perel Ted https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sa0RUmGTCYY). Couples must figure out together how to balance the two contradictory needs, how to bring excitement and novelty into their relationships, and how to develop realistic expectations about the development of long-term sexual relationships over time. Such realistic expectations might contradict some romantic ideas, but make continuity and consistency possible, in what Alexandra Katehakis calls “Grown-up Sex” (listen to her presentation at: http://www.soundstrue.com/store/weeklywisdom?page=single&category=IATE&episode=12033).
In order to better understand our own personal templates, our personal relative balance between the needs for attachment security and for novelty and adventure, we must understand the emotional “dowry” that we bring to the sexual relationship and to the family relationship, which might be very different for each partner.
How can we bring excitement into the known and secure long-term relationship? Clearly, problems in other areas of the relationship might cast a shadow on sex, and must be addressed. However, even in marriages where the partners are generally fairly content, there is a need to attend to the balancing of individuality and togetherness, so that familiarity with one another does not breed boredom and lack of mutual appreciation. Outside the bedroom: individuality and separation have to be nurtured in various ways, including the maintenance and development of personal interests, and time spent with other people or activities. Inside the bedroom: sex is an activity requiring both (suspended) egocentric immersion, the capacity to let go of “taking care of the other”; fantasy and freedom to explore one’s own sexuality, and at the same time, good sex requires reciprocity, mutual attunement and care, and working as an “intimate team”, which will be expanded upon in the next meeting.