A Letter to My Classmate Fatima, Many Years Late

At the Jesuit run Catholic university I went to, all students regardless of major were required to take four Theology classes.

Th 121: Introduction to doing a Catholic Theology

Th 131: Marriage, Family Life and Human Sexuality

Th 141: A Theology of the Catholic Social Vision

Th 151: The Catholic Commitment of Today’s Filipino: A Synthesis.

As with any university, a professor’s reputation often precedes them. In particular, I was told that B.G. was the best teacher for Theo 141  (I did take his class and ended up asking him to witness my wedding) and for Theo 131, there’s no one better than Father D. At that time, I did not think it odd for a priest, a celibate, to teach a course on marriage and family life. Many college sweethearts talked about getting the legendary Father D to officiate at their weddings.

My nervousness on the first day of class was aggravated by the inordinate amount of sternness packed into Father D’s squat frame. Behind his glasses that looked too small for his balding head were a pair of unforgiving eyes. He was quick to give a disapproving look to anyone who gave unsatisfactory answers to his questions. But once in a while, he would crack a joke, made all the more effective delivered in his dour manner.

The highlight of the course was a session in which Father D invited two or three married couples to speak about married life and the students were encouraged to ask questions. Father D teaches several classes each semester and all these students gather in one big hall for this session. I do not remember what stock advice the married couples gave, nor do I remember anything at all of what they shared. Nothing struck me as new. What I do remember was the question my classmate, Fatima, asked during the Q&A portion.

“What do you do about sexual incompatibility and differences in libido?” she asked the couples.

None of the guest speakers had a chance to answer. Father D, who, just moments before was amicably chatting with the couples, could barely contain his distaste at Fatima’s question. His reply was measured but a scowl perceptible. “That question is nonsense. There is no such thing as sexual incompatibility.” If two people love each other, he said, this is a non-issue.

Having been married for 8 years now, I wish I heard what the couples had to say. I wish the married couples acknowledged that yes, there is such a thing as sexual incompatibility and differences in libido and yes, this can be a source of immense conflict in couples. This conflict can be very sensitive, difficult to talk about, and it can touch upon some of the most painful and repressed memories. I wish they reassured us that it’s a common problem.

I wish someone, one of the couples, said something to Father D. Yes, this has been a problem for us. What could a celibate possibly know about sexual incompatibility or differences in libido other from what they can glean from books and confessions (if anyone dared confess)?

So here is my reply, many years late.

Hi Fatima,

It’s me, your classmate. I’m 8 years and 2 kids into my marriage but many years late in answering your question which Father D unfairly disparaged — I wished I had the courage enough to say so. Sorry about that.

My first two years of marriage were extremely difficult. There were many times when I was tempted to walk away. Once I returned my wedding ring to my husband and said “Here. Take this back. I don’t think you want to be married to me. Give it back if you decide differently.”

I got the ring back and we can say with honesty that after those two difficult years, we have been mostly happily married.

Still, 8 years into our now mostly happy marriage, we still deal with what Dr. John Gottman calls “gridlocked perpetual problems” — problems that come up again and again just because we are two different people with different personalities and personal histories. We somehow have not handled these issues well because whenever it crops up, conversation becomes uncomfortable and we find ourselves walking on eggshells, shutting down, or escaping through distractions.

Sex is one of the 6 most common things couples fight about, according to Dr. John Gottman. I don’t know on what grounds Father D based his comment, but Dr. Gottman (also married himself) has done scientific research on thousands of couples for over four decades. Sex-related marital conflict includes the question you raised on sexual incompatibilities, or differences in desire and needs. And as ordinary as one of the thousands of couples Gottman has researched, my husband and I have conflict about our sexual mismatch — one person craves more physical intimacy and affection, the other person could go by with less.

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Image credit Dreamstime

The only way we could talk about sex was to create an environment where we both feel safe. Sex is a very tender area of marriage — in the act of taking our clothes off to make love, we literally allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our partner. Just as we are drawn to have sex when we feel most connected with each other, we feel the least desire when we don’t feel the connection. So what do you do about sexual incompatibility, as you asked in class? You work towards creating a safe space to talk. You work towards closeness and connection by listening, really listening to each other and listening to the painful and uncomfortable and embarrassing parts. The conflict probably won’t be resolved (that’s why they’re called “perpetual problems”) and will probably come up again in a different form or shape, but with a commitment to turn towards each other, our sexual differences do not define us or our relationship.

I would love to see you again and talk about how life has unfolded for us and share with each other the lessons we learned along the way.

With love.

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