Fifty Shades of Reality: What's the big deal?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Mary and John have begun a new relationship.  It's thrilling and unlike anything they've experienced with anyone before.  Mary has three teenagers from a previous marriage, and she's excited to finally have a hardworking, caring person in her life who shows interest in her needs and dreams.  He's kind to her kids and a great listener.  It isn't long before everyone moves in together and they start operating as a normal American family.

Mary is a pediatric nurse, a fine example to the community around her of a caring, nurturing person.  While she and John aren't married, their commitment to one another is bound by something they both find more significant than a marriage license:  a contractual agreement between a submissive and dominant partnership.

Every day when Mary gets home from her shift, she welcomes home her kids from school and then puts on a manacle that cuffs her wrists and neck together with chains.  John makes all her decisions for her.  What to wear, eat, and say.  How to cook, clean, and act.  When to sit, sleep, and breathe.  And Mary complies willingly, relieved to have checked her power at the door and have someone she trusts completely dictate her every move, in and out of the bedroom, but only within the confines of their home.

This is a true story (with minor details changed to protect identities.)

Mary and John were clients of a colleague of mine, a therapist who has expertise in paraphiliac disorders, including sadomasochism.  Here's the deal though - Mary and John didn't see a therapist because of their contractual arrangement, their sex life, or even their own relationship.  They sought counseling because they couldn't figure out why the three teenagers living in the home were suddenly acting out, rebelling, throwing tantrums, and causing disturbances in the everyday home life that they otherwise deemed functional.

Mary and John's story will never be a Hollywood movie.  It won't be the fantasy that housewives giggle over as they sip Chardonnay.  It's not the kind of thing that people wish they were part of...because it's the scary, shocking reality behind what a day-in-the-life-of-regular-people looks like when they try to combine coping mechanisms with sexual escapism and power imbalances.

I've put off writing this post.  I've hesitated a million times since writing the post on Fifty Shades of Marriage whether I would open up yet another conversation about something I sort of wish would just die out all together.  But, with Fifty Shades of Grey opening on Friday and the news that two sequels have already been confirmed, I can't just sit silent (nor has that ever been my strong suit).

Two things right off the bat that you can go ahead and use to discredit me:
I have not read the books.
I will not see the movie.

I open with that to clearly let you know up front that what I have to say has very little to do with convincing you to not go see the movie.  You're a grown up (I assume) and I want you to make an informed decision.  What you do with your time is up to you, I'll leave that at that.

What I want to do here is expose you to the fact that what you read and see on screen (even if limited to the onslaught of ads and promotional posters that this film has paraded) is extraordinarily worlds apart from the reality that this fantasy embodies.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know by now that the film centers around the intoxicating relationship of young, literature student Anastasia Steele and the provocative billionaire, Christian Grey.   Their love affair (and what all the buzz is about) develops into an erotic S&M contractual relationship.

Even from the trailers of the movie, you can tell that Ana and Christian's trysts look far different than the picture of Mary and John I painted earlier.  His hyper-cool bachelor pad, exquisite suits, and apparent "date night" of flying through the sky in a zillion-dollar-drone would make any gal swoon.  It's all so exotic and enticing, and the simple-girl-next-door in all of us can't help but want to be swept off our feet.

But this is no Cinderella story.

If you've read the books, you might have a fair idea of what S&M entails.  If you haven't, you might be sweating right now at the idea of it, or feeling a bit queasy about where this blog might be headed.  No worries, we're not diving into details.

While I haven't read the books, I am getting my Masters in Marriage & Family Therapy, and have therefore read plenty about sex therapy, sexuality, and the attachment/trauma disorders that follow.  While I'm no expert, I've talked to and been taught by experts who have revealed to me a whole new side to this "fantasy" that gets the media all weak in the knees. (Seriously, I can't even turn on the Today Show without seeing new clips of this film!)

One expert I've talked to is a recovering sex addict herself who now, years later, helps run one of the most successful sex addiction recovery clinics in the Nashville area.  I asked her specifically about Fifty Shades (which she hesitantly and with much accountability did read so that she could discuss it openly with her clients) and she admitted to it being a difficult task that surfaced many past sexual addiction triggers.

She pointed out that one of the critical dangers with sadomasochism is that it combines a story of trauma with an act of attachment.  This is not trust-building, people.  It's a way of teaching your mind and body that where you find pain is the same place you find security.  (Talk about risky business.)

If that's not disturbing enough, consider that this is the same psychological trauma that occurs when children are sexually or physically abused.  It's what happens when wives are beaten but can't leave their husbands.  It's a learned, ingrained connection that wrongly brings comfort where there should be giant red flags instead.  And you don't have to be a sex addict for this fantasy to affect you in this way.

Just because someone can function and/or willingly take part in something, doesn't make it healthy.

Mary and John eventually ended their relationship.  My colleague who counseled them told me that she's more recently seen two other couples in her office that have been affected by the repercussions of reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

In both instances, the wives were unhappy, they read the fantasy novel and "realized" their marriages were not living up to the unattainable man-takes-charge-of-everything expectations that the book set for them.  The wives had affairs, the marriages were destroyed, and no one was left more satisfied after all the dust settled.  While Fifty Shades didn't cause these women to make the choices they made, it certainly influenced them.

Will everyone who sees this movie ruin their relationship?  No.  But, if you're looking for a way to spice-up the bedroom or reconnect with your partner, there are incredibly far better, more effective strategies for doing so than spending $35 at the movies and leaving with the disappointment that your man is only a hardworking, loving father-of-your-children, who sometimes leaves the toilet seat up and not some six-packed, power stud who relieves you of all responsibilities.

I'm gonna say it.  It's just gross.  It's a distortion so fierce that it makes Pretty Woman look like a silly reality show in comparison.

The most worrisome part of it all is that it's a trend.  A fab.  A blockbuster, even.  A ubiquitous phenomenon that seems to be inescapable from our culture at the moment. Something that teenagers will go to dates and see.  Something that bored stay-at-home-moms of America will drag their embarrassed husbands to on Friday night and then fight all the way home because they can't get the unsettled feeling out of their guts that life feels unfair.

Fantasy is a reality-killer.  It's dangerous, merciless, and feels temporarily amazing.  (Key word, temporarily.)

Fifty Shades of your own reality can be so much more than any book or any movie could ever offer.

The tiny joys and triumphs of embedding trust and intimacy into a relationship are far more worthwhile and long-lasting than whatever momentary pleasure could offer.  Healthy, consistent, consensual sex in the confines of marriage motivates things like honesty, communication, encouragement, affection, and provision.  True trust-building requires developing a cycle in which both parties are respected, heard, loved, nurtured, and considered.  Last but not least, safety and the desire to protect are essential to the foundation of any healthy relationship.

Just imagine if all those dollars going to Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend were redirected to marriage retreats, couples counseling, or a date night where people actually held hands and stared into each others' eyes discussing hopes and dreams about a future together?  How would our children be affected if we all praised our spouses for who they are instead of moped around looking for opportunities to criticize them?

This Valentine's Day, I invite you to shed new light on the real S&M: sex and marriage.  Hold hands and talk openly about your joys and needs in your current relationship.  Put yourself in your spouse's shoes, listen to their hearts and pray for the strength and patience to meet them where they are.  Real connection starts with compassion and a willingness to join your spouse in their perspective.  Sex will naturally follow, and naturally motivate the desire for more connection.

It's not rocket science, but it ain't easy.  And even if you think your marriage is beyond the scope of the skills you currently have, you're answers don't lie beyond your grasp.  Friends, therapists, pastors - there are many resources you can seek out to take the steps towards a more satisfying life together.

It's time to step out of the shadows.  Don't be tempted by the Fifty Shades of grayness that society is dangling in front of us.  Hold hands, step into the light, and open yourself up to the possibility that your reality can outshine the fantasy you've been searching for.

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