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December 15, 2011
In The Village
Guessing can harm marriages
by Orson Scott Card

Why do marriages break up? Arguments about the children, about money, about religion, about sex; personality conflicts, incompatibility, bad conflict resolution; all these things are true, and all are incomplete.

When President Kimball told us that any Latter-day Saint couple of good will could make a happy marriage, he was right -- but he didn't mean that it would happen automatically.

Quarrels over child-rearing or money or ambition or scheduling are rarely caused by those issues -- though the issues are usually real enough, and need to be resolved.

Often the reason they can't be resolved is that spouses are so filled with resentment or anger or loneliness or despair that the subject under discussion is merely an excuse for lashing out to hurt the other person -- or another reason to withdraw and move farther apart.

Some marriages fail because one of the partners is, in fact, completely evil or utterly weak. Desires and impulses cannot be controlled, with destructive results. Prideful people are determined to get their way no matter what the cost to someone else.

Such people are simply incapable of sustained partnership of any kind, and any marriage they're pretending to be a part of is doomed. But such people are rare. Chances are your spouse is not one of them.

Most of the time, marriages fall apart despite the fact that both people are good at heart and want to make it work.

But in their hearts, they have either the cold stone of disappointment and despair, or the boiling cauldron of resentment and anger, caused by a failure of intimacy; as long as such deep pain persists, nothing else goes well.

One of the meanings of marriage is "bringing together two unlike things to achieve a common purpose."

Men and women are unlike -- deeply, profoundly different. And nowhere is this more apparent than in matters of physical intimacy. Male and female bodies have radically different hungers and are satisfied in very different ways -- yet throughout the animal kingdom, their natural behaviors do result in the propagation of the species.

In a vast number of marriages, even ones that seem to be working rather well, times of intimacy leave one or both spouses feeling either the stone or the cauldron.

The results are loneliness and unsatisfied yearnings, which makes them vulnerable to many temptations.

Part of being a good person -- a responsible adult -- is the ability to master temptation, to set it aside, to ignore it.

But isn't it better to also work to take away the stone, to cool that cauldron in your partner's heart?

In far too many marriages, matters of intimacy are never, never, never discussed, except perhaps to quarrel over frequency or the time of day or who initiates it.

We have the irrational and unjustified expectation that our partner will simply know what we want.

It will never happen. Your own body and brain will never teach you what will please your partner. You can only learn how to please each other by communicating clearly. With words. While you are so closely involved that each can act on what the other says.

Everybody starts out bad at intimacy. Especially the people who are proud of being good at it. Almost always, they assume that because they feel good, the other person does, too; almost always, they are wrong.

A chaste woman at the beginning of a marriage rarely has much idea of what will please her. Often the sensations of pleasure are so new and sharp that she registers them as unpleasant. It will take time for her to learn, over weeks and years, how her own body works.

She needs a patient partner who is willing to listen, to hold back, to do things differently, to learn along with her. It takes years. It takes a lifetime.

Eventually, the same thing is true in reverse. While men's desires seem to be easily satisfied, they change over time, and women, too, need to learn how to meet needs that men don't understand themselves.

It is impossible to learn these things by reading each other's physical responses. A sharp intake of breath can mean pain or pleasure or a combination; it can mean stop or please go on; the meaning cannot be reliably guessed.

Words need to be said -- kindly, with the assumption that the other person means well and wants to learn. These words cannot be taken as criticism, and they must not be said that way.

Nor can the words be engraved on stone. What was pleasing one day may not please the next; what was thrilling when it began may be tedious, uncomfortable, even painful when repeated too often or too long.

Intimacy is a dance, but it is a dance with music, and the music is the language of love: Yes please, slower, more, less, now, wait, not that, not yet -- and the listening partner responds, changes, tries, refrains, explores, extrapolates ... and loves.

The dance of love is not taken or given; it is not demanded or bestowed; it is created together. It is better some days than others. It yields varying results, sometimes rapturous, sometimes comforting.

But when intimacy is a dance you perform together, helping each other learn how to make each performance go well, always alert to what will please the other, never having to guess because you know your partner will tell you what you need to know ...

That dance reaches out into every other aspect of life. That cooperation, that alertness to each other can be seen in decision-making, alone or together: How can I help her, what does he need here, I should wait to bring this up, I think this may please her, I will do this now because it will make her, make him glad.

There is a reason that marriage takes place in mortal life. With roots in the flesh, nurtured by spirit, it blossoms into joy.


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