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Relationships • Conflicts

The Fights When There Is No Sex

It could, on the surface, be an argument about almost anything: what time to leave for the airport, who forgot to post the tax form, where to send the children to school… But, in reality, in disguise, unmentioned and unmentionable, it is typically the very same argument, the no-sex argument, the single greatest argument that ever afflicts committed couples, the argument which has powered more furious oblique exchanges among lovers than any other, the argument that right now, explains why one person is angrily refusing to speak to another over a bowl of Udon noodles in a restaurant in downtown Yokohama and another is screaming in an apartment on an upper floor of a block in the suburbs of Belo Horizonte, why a child has acquired a step-parent and a person is crying over a bottle or at their therapist’s office.

The real injury – you have ceased to want me and I can no longer bear myself or you – can’t be mentioned because it cuts us too deep; it threatens too much of our dignity, it is bigger than we are. In the darkness late at night, time after time, our hand moved towards theirs, tried to coax them into a caress and was turned down. They held our fingers limply for a moment and then, as if we were the monster we now take ourselves to be, curled away from us and disappeared into the warren of sleep. We have stopped trying now. It may happen once in a blue moon, a few times a year, but we understand the score well enough: we are not wanted. We feel like outcasts, the only ones to be rejected in this way, the victims of a rare disease; nursing an emotional injury far too shaming to mention to others let alone ourselves, the only ones not be having sex in a happy sex-filled world. Our anger aggravates our injury and traps us in cycles of hostility. Perhaps they don’t want us in the night because we have been so vile in the day; but so long as our hand goes unwanted, we can never muster the courage to be anything but vindictive in their presence. It hurts more than being single, when at least the neglect was to be expected. This is a sentence without end. We can neither complain, nor let the issue go. We feel compelled to fight by proxy about anything we can lay our hands on: the washing powder and the walk to the park, the money for the dentist and the course of the nation’s politics, all because we so badly need to be held and to hold, to penetrate or to be penetrated.

©Flickr/The Integer Club

It is in a sense deeply strange, even silly that so much should hang on this issue, that the future of families, the fate of children, the division of assets, the survival of a friendship group, should depend on the right sort of frottage of a few centimetres of our upper limbs. It’s the tiniest thing and at the same time the very largest. The absence of sex matters so much because sex itself is the supreme conciliator and salve of all conflict, ill-feeling, loneliness and disinterest. It is almost impossible to make love and be sad, indifferent or bitter. Furious perhaps, in a passionate and ardent way. But not – almost always – truly elsewhere or beset by major grievance. The act forces presence, vulnerability, honesty, tenderness, release. It matters inordinately because it is the ultimate proof that everything is, despite everything, still OK.

As ever, so much would change if only we could be helped to find the words, if we could fight our way past our shame, if we didn’t have to feel so alone (this should be proof enough that we aren’t); if we could point to the problem without fury, without humiliation, without defensiveness; if we could simply name our desperation without becoming desperate, if the one who didn’t want it could explain in terms that made sense and were bearable and the one who felt cast aside could explain without surrendering to vindictiveness or despair.

We would ideally, alongside physics and geography, learn the basics of all this in our last year at high school, learn how to spot and assuage the no-sex argument with an in-depth course and regular refreshments throughout our lives. It is the paradigm of all arguments. Those who can get over it can get over pretty much any dispute; those who cannot must squabble to the grave.

Were our species to learn how to do this, the world would be suddenly and decisively calmer: there would be infinitely fewer fights, alcoholic outbursts, divorces, affairs, rages, denunciations, recriminations, civil wars, armed conflicts and nuclear conflagrations. At the first signs of no-sex arguments, couples would know how carefully to locate the words that could address their sorrow. There would not always be an answer but there would always be the right sort of conversation – and, on a good day, the endurance of love.

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