The other day, in a random conversation, I heard a married woman mutter that she plays possum in the bedroom. There were a few nods from those who heard her, but it took me moment to find the connection.

My childhood memories of fairy tale possums recall only two things about these strange marsupials: they play dead and they hang from trees by their tails in neat rows when they go to sleep. 

I figured it wasn’t the latter, because I knew she wasn’t into suspension play. 

Turns out she was referring to the ‘playing dead’ bit. You see, when possums are scared they experience ‘tonic immobility’ – their bodies go limp and they stop responding to any external stimulus. 

In this woman’s case, when she went to bed, her form of ‘playing possum’ was to pretend to be asleep so that her husband wouldn’t approach her for sex. 

This made me feel sad and uncomfortable. I wish I could’ve boiled her comment down to youthful ignorance, but she was somewhere in her 50s, and the women who nodded in agreement at various ages between there and 20. 

I remember doing this many years ago when I was still too inexperienced to know that I could use my voice or that my body was my own – or that healthy, strong relationships don’t hide from conversations. 

You see, ‘playing possum’ isn’t about ‘not wanting to get physical’, it’s about not knowing you can express your needs. 

And if you don’t feel comfortable expressing your needs, that says a helluva lot about where you’re at with yourself – and where you’re at with your partner.  

I recognise that it’s a difficult conversation to raise. So difficult that I’d file it under ‘courageous conversations’, those dialogues that require our truth, openness to uncomfortable feelings, and the willingness to set aside our ego. 

Frankly, it might feel easier to stop at ‘I’m tired and don’t feel like dealing with this shit now so I’ll just pretend I’m sleeping.’ Or even: ‘I’m working late and can’t go to bed with you.’ 

Playing possum when it comes to sex can take many forms of intimacy avoidance for men and women. Either way, it’s just not a viable long-term solution. 

I think the reason people might avoid the conversation is because of the changes it will demand of the both the individual and the relationship. 

When you take action, stepping into your ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or unpacking your feelings about why you’re avoiding a situation, you will start a ball rolling. 

When you both ask honestly, without prejudice, how your intimate relationship is serving you, you will get a response. 

And there is nothing scarier than the truth. 

But scarier still? Living in a partnership where walls are built silently, methodically, one conflict avoidance at a time. 

If you’re ‘playing possum’, pretending to sleep to avoid intimacy with your partner, it’s time to wake up and have that courageous conversation. If not, you both risk going to sleep on your relationship. 

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