As Jews in Israel and worldwide absorb the horrifying reality of the atrocities suffered here at the hands of vicious terrorists, it seems surreal to think or talk about intimacy. Hundreds are still being held captive or are still missing, the dead have not all been buried, we are all in mourning and in shock. Who is thinking about intimacy or sex?
Yet, in the face of threat, the safety and security of a committed partnership can be a comforting resource. And in the confrontation with death, people sometimes seek the vitality and life affirming energy that sexual relations provide. Talking about intimacy now is important because we are experiencing something that most of us have never felt before: ongoing stress, anxiety, horror and overwhelm and we don’t really know what’s normal. Partners may respond completely differently. For example, one partner may seek closeness and attachment, while the other need distance. And in a state of acute and persistent stress, both are normal reactions.
A simple description of acute stress is that when we are threatened, we enter a state of fight or flight. We may feel shortness of breath, anxious sensations in our chest or stomach, blood flowing to our hands and feet, as the release of stress hormones help us prepare to fight or flee. Alternatively, we may freeze. Normally, when a stressful event has ended, our bodies return to a normal physiological resting state, and we recover. Another feature of the stress response is that our higher rational, thinking part of the brain, known as the pre-frontal cortex, goes offline. We need to act quickly to survive, not think too much, and these instincts are part of our lower “reptile brain.”
We currently are in a persistent state of stress. As opposed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is defined by symptoms of stress that persist long after the threat has passed, we are in a state of present traumatic stress. In a prior TOI article I explain how the ongoing stress responses in people with PTSD can be incompatible with the experience of calmness necessary for both emotional and physical intimacy. This is true with emotional intimacy as well. At its core, the survival adaptations that we use in stressful events, such as running away, fighting, or shutting down, are essentially poor relational skills. To be relational, we need to be able to calm ourselves down when we feel upset or triggered, to speak rationally and not attack, criticize, stonewall or act defensively with our partner. So now, when we are feeling anxious and jumpy, we don’t always have access to our wise adult brains. Awareness of this helps because if we do snap, we can take accountability and apologize if we acted out of line. Recovering from conflicts with your partner will help your body go back to a more calm and relaxed state. It is a time of global threat, and lack of security and peace. And that is why seeking peace in the home is so crucial. Make your marriage a resource for surviving and ultimately thriving.
Because of the war, Rabbi Scott Kahn, my co-host of the podcast Intimate Judaism and I, decided to delay releasing our season premiere episode about navigating sexual desire discrepancies. Instead, we sat down to discuss intimacy and sexuality during wartime. In this episode we talk about how stress can impact relationships and what to do about it. This is a time where many couples may be in disagreement about a lot of things ranging from religious and political views to matters regarding security, volunteering, or the children. Although we can’t be experts on a situation never previously encountered, we do offer a discussion and practical suggestions for maintaining relationships during wartime. We discuss the importance of being aware of and communicating your feelings, we discuss the common feelings of helplessness and survivors’ guilt, and the impact of past trauma on current coping. We also talk about the ways in which sex may be impacted. This can include having intrusive thoughts related to images of the assaults that took place, emotional releases such as crying or uncontrollable laughter, or a complete lack of arousal or desire. At this stage, this is all normal. We are all on an emotional roller coaster.
We also acknowledge that many couples are physically separated by this war. Some, tragically, by the death or disappearance of their partner, some by injury, and some by military service. We also acknowledge the difficulty for people who are single or dating and trying to navigate a new relationship. This is a sobering episode, concluding with prayers for better times ahead, for peace, for recover, for resilience, and eventually, for post traumatic growth and transformation. The episode, entitled “Love in war — strengthening security and connection amidst threat and trauma,” can be accessed here.