II. 4. Deeper Relationships And Sexuality
Facing death can immeasurably deepen our relationships and sexuality.
Denial of death has a devastating impact upon our relationships and sexuality. But, because most psychologists themselves are in denial of death, it is both one of the most important and least-understood factors in the widespread dissatisfaction with relationships and sexuality today. (A 1994 study of 7,000 couples found that 3 out of 5 were emotionally dissatisfied with their sexual relationships.)
Dr. Robert Firestone has explained that people unconsciously seek protection from death when they enter into relationships, as they project the Fantasy Bond they developed with their parents as children onto their adult partners. They grow dissatisfied as it becomes increasingly clear that their partners can not only not protect them, but are looking to be protected themselves.
The tremendous energy we use to repress our pain about death also increasingly diminishes our aliveness, feeling, libido, and sexual vitality over time. "The denial of death often generalizes to an antifeeling, antisexual existence, and supports the choice of addictive attachments over involvement in genuinely loving and sexually satisfying relationships," Firestone explains.
People also withdraw from sex because it connects them to a body they will one day lose. Denying death thus leads to an identification with "spirit" rather than the body that will one day disappear.
And even when couples manage to be genuinely close, a failure to openly deal with death often leads them to withdraw from their intimacy. When we feel close to our partner, an unconscious anxiety often arises as we also feel greater pain at the prospect of losing them, and we unconsciously withdraw in order to protect ourselves. This tendency is amplified by the fact that awareness of our partner's mortality often reminds us of our own.
If denial of death damages our relationships and sexuality, however, developing an ongoing life-affirming death awareness can not only heal them, but take them to depths of intimacy, sharing, sexuality and love that are impossible to realize without facing death.
It is not simply, as we have discussed, that facing death can energize us, increase our aliveness, make us more vital and vulnerable, and heighten our feelings - key elements for deepening relationships and sexuality.
Nor is it only the fact that facing death gives us a badly needed perspective on our partner's faults, e.g. when couples going through a terminal illness find that faults that once seemed quite important now pale into insignificance when compared to the preciousness of a beloved mate's existence that has now been called into question.
But it may also well be that we cannot truly love, appreciate and be intimate with our partner unless we can openly discuss and feel our pain at the certainty of one day losing them. Rather than unconsciously looking to the other to protect us from death, we need to consciously and jointly share our own vulnerability, weakness and sadness at the prospect of our mutual mortality- a sharing that can take us to the deepest possible levels of intimacy, caring, and empathy.
As Firestone and his co-authors beautifully describe it, this level of vulnerability can also bring us our deepest level of sexual satisfaction: "We believe that during those moments when ecstasy and exhilaration combine with poignant feelings of sorrow and existential pain, lovers never feel more together and more alone ... This unique blending of eroticism and love represents a powerful antidote to the existential despair inherent in the human condition."
It is a basic principle of life that a given person, experience or object becomes more precious the more we realize how unique, rare and temporary it is. We take for granted that which we assume will be here forever or is easily replaceable. If this is true for a rare painting, jewel or stamp, how much more profound is it to let ourselves feel the poignant pain of realizing that a dear partner, friend, or relative will pass away far sooner than we would wish? Is it really possible to value our partner fully without opening ourselves up to the reality that we will one day lose them?
To put it simply, denying death closes us and honestly facing death opens us up. And it is only when we are open on every level that we are most fully capable of the intimacy, sexuality, love, feeling and empathy that we all seek.