Intimacy during war

by Brian on March 9, 2024

in Health,Living Through Terror,War in Gaza

War is hell, not just on the battlefield but in the bedroom.

The ongoing hostilities between Israel and its jihadist neighbors are forcing couples to rethink familiar patterns of intimacy. When partners are consumed or paralyzed by the news, it’s hard to keep one’s mind clear for romance. 

It gets even more complicated when lovers have different ways of relating to said news. One partner may be proactive, fast to get out of the house and volunteer, while the other curls up on the couch, avoiding anything that might be traumatizing.

“We didn’t have sex at all during the first week of the war,” Sigal from Ramat Gan told Dana Spector in an article for Ynet. “It was all such a shock. We’d sit there from morning until 3:00 am, each of us glued to our own phones. We couldn’t even talk to each other.” On the outside, she says, “I was the same woman, but I was completely disconnected. I couldn’t feel anything at all. My libido dropped to zero.” 

Indeed, with the war still raging and the remaining hostages unaccounted for, “Sex is the first thing to give up on,” Michal Nir, who coordinates the sex therapy program at Bar-Ilan University, told Haaretz. “You have to eat, sleep and breathe. You don’t have to have sex.”

“There’s also ‘survivors’ guilt’ – people taking on the guilt of what happened to women who’ve been kidnapped and punishing themselves as a form of ‘moral duty,’” comments Keren Gilat, who heads the School for Holistic Psychotherapy at Reidman College. “If they can’t experience pleasure, how can I?”

But there’s also the risk that the emotional distancing will translate into long-term issues with intimacy.

Sigal knows this, too. “It’s not healthy going so long without,” she laments. 

Survival mode doesn’t necessarily mean sex is off the table entirely. People had sex in the concentration camps. People with cancer still desire sex.

For women, the impact has been particularly difficult. 

A senior high-tech manager, who finds she suddenly has to hold down her job while simultaneously handling all the household and childcare responsibilities as her husband is away fighting, told Ynet, “I pray that he’ll get hit by shrapnel and that he’ll come home. These past weeks have broken us.”

That brokenness stems in part from what nearly all Israelis are suffering from today: “secondary trauma.” 

Secondary trauma, or “compassion fatigue,” refers to distress that’s experienced indirectly by hearing details,or witnessing the aftermath, of trauma experienced by another person. 

Secondary trauma shares many of the same symptoms as full-on PTSD: intrusive thoughts, avoidance of everyday activities (going to the supermarket, taking kids to the park), irritability and mood swings, negative thoughts (“what is there to live for, anyway?”).

“In reserve duty, I saw some very disturbing videos,” explains a soldier in the Ynet article. “True, I wasn’t there, but I’m inside it. I’ve been traumatized ever since.”

Secondary trauma has entered my household, too. 

A few nights ago, I found myself yelling at my wife, Jody, for something ridiculous: She hadn’t read a WhatsApp I’d sent to her. We defused the situation quickly, but that’s not me – I don’t scream at my spouse. 

Secondary trauma in the bedroom means that getting into a sexy situation can be scary because there might be a siren. That kind of excessive arousal (and I don’t mean the “good” kind) makes it “hard to be in a pleasant, intimate situation,” notes clinical psychologist Gilad Horowitz.

Talli Rosenbaum, cohost of the Intimate Judaism podcast and coauthor of a new research paper on intimacy in times of war, points out that “we are now wired in a way that’s not meant to be the default way of being in life. We’re wired in a hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused state, as if we’re numb.” 

This state of hypervigilance, she explains, is “dissonant with intimacy.”

Rosenbaum wants us to remember that “one of the most important tools for maintaining marital harmony is self-awareness. ‘Am I going into a stress response?’ ‘How do I calm that stress response?’ ‘How do I regulate myself emotionally so that I can go into my more cognitive, logical, rational space?’”

The study Rosenbaum helped compile revealed that nearly half of respondents reported watching disturbing videos from the Hamas attacks several hours per day. “They were almost addicted to watching war-oriented content,” notes Aryeh Lazar, who coauthored the study with Rosenbaum and Ateret Gewirtz-Meydan, an associate professor in the school of Social Work at the University of Haifa. “The amount of viewing time correlated with a self-reported decrease in sexual desire, arousal and orgasm.”

For those who do want to restore intimacy, even in the midst of war, what can they do to make things better? 

It might seem obvious, but patience is the new state of play. “You mustn’t pressure someone who just can’t think about sex right now,” says sex therapist Shelly Varod. “You need to let them heal emotionally.”

Now is the time for baby steps. Look for something small – bird song outside your window or some favorite music playing in the background – to ground you in the reality that existed before Oct. 7. Crack open a bottle of wine. Watch TV together with your partner – just not the news.

Finally, “don’t give up on your grief – not for a moment,” stresses psychologist Ruth Ben-Asher. “It doesn’t mean that you’ve forgotten or you’re abandoning all those who lost loved ones or were actually hurt. [But when] you renew your connection with your spouse and make yourself stronger, you can get on with your grief much better…and not from a place of trauma.”

I first explored intimacy during war for The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Womanizer Toys on Unsplash

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