Incompetent at romance

Saturday September 1 2018

A sad couple not talking to each other.

Prof Joachim Osur treats a couple in which the woman has no idea how to love. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

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Rose was on the verge of breaking up with her husband. What started as a trivial disagreement three months ago had turned into an energy-sapping conflict. At the persuasion of her pastor and her husband, she agreed to come to the sexology.

“I am not sure that coming here will resolve this conflict but let me give it a chance anyway,” Rose said as her husband narrated what they had gone through. Rose was 42 years old and a lawyer with no children. William, her husband, was a 45-year-old businessman. The couple had been married for three years.

“You people got into marriage rather late in your lives, was there a reason?” I askd.

“I am a widower, this is my second marriage,” William explained. His wife of seven years died in a road accident leaving behind two children who were in boarding schools. William got married to Rose two years after the calamity. Rose, on the other hand, had been single until the marriage at age 40.

“Rose has refused to have sex with me for the last three months because I snore. She has moved out of the bedroom and I am spending cold nights alone,” William explained. Rose had also warned him that she would sue him for attempted rape if he ever dared touch her.

William had seen a doctor to help him stop the snore. The doctor attributed his snoring to increase in body weight over a short time. He was advised on dieting and exercise. He went into a crash programme and lost seven kilogrammes in two months to save his marriage.

“My wife has however refused to come back to the bedroom. She has said I can get another woman if I want,” William explained.

“You know what, if you cannot meet my standards you better file for divorce,” Rose retorted. “I have lived all these years without a man and I never died.”

I asked to have individual sessions with Rose and William. I had two meetings with Rose and one with William. After the sessions I concluded that Rose had romantic incompetence.

Romantic incompetence is the inability to develop and sustain intimate relationships. It is a developmental problem resulting from abuse during childhood.

The hallmark of romantic incompetence is lack of intimacy insight for yourself and for your partner. What this means is that you are unable to understand your own and your partner’s emotional, intimacy and relationship needs. As a result, one becomes aggressive and does things to intentionally hurt their partner.

The second problem in romantic incompetence is lack of mutuality. What this means is that people become individualistic. They repeatedly remind their partners that they can do without them.


In fact they think that being in a marriage is unnecessary trouble. They lack the skill to show care and love. They do not appreciate attempts by their partner to show care and love. They take acts of kindness as their right and get aggressive if the kindness is not forthcoming.

Most people with romantic incompetence also lack emotional regulation. They tend to have emotional outbursts and do not care if this hurts their partners. They magnify small disagreements and put their partners in a permanent state of anxiety and confusion.

“I did not know that refusing to have sex with a husband can make one be analysed this much,” Rose interrupted as I explained my diagnosis. “So exactly what do you want me to do?”

Treating the root causes of romantic incompetence is the solution. Rose grew up in a psychologically abusive family and therapy was needed to help her heal. Sex was withheld till further notice.

It took seven sessions to pull Rose through some of her deeply engrained psychological difficulties. She had to learn new methods of behaviour. By the time she was done with the sessions, she was a transformed person.

“If I had been treated earlier my life would have been different; I would have married at the right time and I would be having grown up children now,” Rose said as I wished her well in her marriage.

She was worried that she was too old and would not be able to conceive. We were all however in agreement that since she was back to her bedroom, had learnt to love and she was not yet in menopause, a baby could come at any time.