Chapter One: The Sex-Starved Marriage
Please, please help me. I am going through hell!! I am twenty-eight years old, married with a three-year-old daughter. For the past three years, my wife has avoided being sexual with me. It has slowly gone from having sex maybe twice a week to now, if I'm lucky, once a month. And even then, it's not really having sex. It's more like her saying, "Hurry up and get in here, and let's do this before our child wakes up." There is no foreplay. She doesn't even kiss me. I'm the one who always is initiating any sort of affection.
I get completely angered, hurt, and resentful toward her because I can't understand how she could be so cruel to me. I want to tell her, "If you don't love me anymore, then we can split up and move on," but we have a child together, and I don't think that's right or fair to our daughter. I want to be there when my little girl wakes up in the morning and goes to bed at night. But I also don't want to be with a woman who doesn't want to be with me.
So I struggle every day with what I should do because I can't keep living like this. I'm miserable. I have talked to my wife about how I feel numerous times, and nothing I say seems to change anything. Is there anything else I can do besides getting a divorce? Is there something you could write to her so she hears from another person about the importance of a good sexual relationship in a marriage?
Does any of this sound familiar? Are these things you've thought or said to yourself? Or have you heard words like these uttered from your spouse in an attempt to get you to change? Either way, you need to know that you are not alone. It is estimated that one out of every three couples struggle with problems associated with low sexual desire. One study found that 20 percent of married couples have sex fewer than ten times a year! Complaints about low desire are the #1 problem brought to sex therapists.
And if you've been thinking that low sexual desire is only "a woman's thing," think again. Many sex experts believe that low sexual desire in men is America's best-kept secret. Just read what women have to say about what really goes on behind closed doors:
I am so tired of reading articles in women's magazines and watching talk shows that perpetuate the myth that men are always more interested in sex than women. This is a bunch of hooey! There are many, many women who would love to have a spouse who wants to have sex, touch, or kiss.
I've spoken to many women who have this same problem....Their husbands simply aren't interested. I cannot believe my circle of friends is so different from the average. None of their husbands are "getting it on the side"...they simply are not interested. In my case, my husband of 26 years has never been as interested as I in sex, and during the last 5 years our sex life has been nonexistent.
This lack of sex is more than just a lack of physical attention....It goes deep into a woman's heart. I think in a normal marriage, a couple can fight about anything, but then they can make love and soothe the bad feelings...sort of like a rebirth...a forgiving ritual. But when you are deprived of even that, bitterness and resentment and desperation accumulate. I have a husband who is a good guy, great father, good provider, but I have no lover. I'm angry about the wasted years, the years I could have been loving, but spent agonizing about why I was being deprived. It's so much more than sex. It's feeling wanted, and sexy and desired by the man that you are committed to for life.
As you can see, women have no corner on the low libido market. Maybe you're asking yourself, "If low sexual desire in men is commonplace, why are they so closed-mouthed about it?" That's a good question. When a woman lacks sexual desire, although it may be troubling to her, she's not likely to start questioning the core of her femininity. After all, she's almost supposed to have "headaches." Men, on the other hand, are thought to have only three things on their minds: sex, sex, and more sex. To be disinterested in sex is to feel less than a man. Just thinking about low libido, let alone talking about it, strikes terror in men because it threatens the very foundation on which their feelings of self-worth are based. No wonder they're tight-lipped. But make no mistake about it: there are millions of people, women and men, who just don't feel turned on.
It would be one thing if these lustless men and women were married to each other; they could agree to go off into the sunset, basking in platonic bliss. But as fate would have it, it rarely works that way. People with low sexual desire are generally married to partners who desperately yearn for more sexuality, intimacy, physical closeness, and connection. And this chasm between them -- a desire discrepancy -- spells trouble. How do I know?
I've been a marriage therapist for two decades. I've been privileged to hear the real stories of people's lives: the joys, the pain, the challenges, the payoffs. I've had a bird's-eye view of what truly happens to marriages in which one spouse has little or no desire for sex and the other yearns for it desperately. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that a marriage void of sexuality and intimacy is a marriage doomed to fail. Take Debra and Tom, for example.
When I met Debra and Tom, they had been married for ten years and had two sons, ages eight and five. They were strikingly handsome individuals, devoted parents, financially well off, in good health, and surrounded by loving and attentive friends and family. It's easy to understand why outsiders believed that they were the perfect couple. Yet despite all of this, their marriage was precipitously close to ending.
Debra spent much of our time together in counseling complaining about Tom. He was angry all the time and impatient with everyone in the family. His short-temper was poison to her soul. He snapped at her over the littlest things. He yelled at the kids "for just being kids." According to Debra, everyone always felt as if they were walking on eggshells. Debra also complained of Tom's lack of involvement at home. "He never seems to want to do anything as a couple or even as a family anymore. It's as if he's given up on our marriage," she said. "He never talks to me or even asks how my day was."
Tom had no shortage of negative things to report about their marriage either. He was quick to tell me that he didn't like being around Debra because all she ever did was complain. Whether he was completing a home improvement project or helping the kids with homework, Tom felt that Debra always found fault with him. Tom also talked about a deep disappointment in Debra as a companion. He wistfully recalled their early years of marriage: "She used to be fun to be with. She had a great sense of humor. She made me feel like I was the funniest man in the world. Now, everything is serious." And after a moment of silence he added, "We don't have anything in common anymore. She does her thing, and I do mine. At this point, I actually prefer it that way."
We met for several sessions, and very little changed. I was unable to help Debra and Tom find their way out of the exasperating labyrinth of blame versus counterblame. They were both more intent on being right than finding solutions to their long-standing problems. Nonetheless, Debra and Tom still claimed that they wanted to stay together. Yet I could see that unless something drastic changed, they were headed for marital disaster. Confused, I asked the couple, "What's the glue holding the two of you together?" and Tom's response offered the first real inkling of what had been really troubling them and why they had been so stuck.
Tom's tone softened considerably as he spoke. "I've given this a lot of thought, and besides staying together for the sake of our boys, I think I'm still holding out hope that some day we'll be able to recreate some of the feelings we had earlier in our marriage." And Tom proceeded to describe what he saw as the progressive unraveling of their intimate relationship.
Tom said that when they first married, he was passionately in love with Debra and found her irresistibly attractive. Their sex life was wonderful; they made love frequently, and he felt extremely close to her. His ability to satisfy Debra sexually made him feel good about himself as a lover and as her life partner. He recalled how their close sexual relationship reverberated throughout the rest of their marriage. They often snuggled on the couch while watching television, held hands when they walked, and kissed each other affectionately. He loved their time together. Tom felt that Debra was his best friend. All that changed after the birth of their first child.
Debra became extremely focused on her new role as mother, and when she wasn't caring for their baby, she felt fatigued. Sleep, not sex, was the only thing Debra found herself craving. Tom's need for companionship and intimacy was not one of Debra's top priorities. In fact, to hear Tom tell it, his needs were not a consideration for Debra at all.
Initially, he spoke to Debra about his hurt with this change in their lives. He told her that he didn't feel important anymore. He wondered why she wasn't into sex. He kept asking, "What's wrong? Did I do something wrong? Aren't you attracted to me anymore?" But because Debra was sleep deprived, hormonally altered, and overworked, she found herself having little compassion for her husband's feelings. In fact, she commented, "I couldn't believe he was complaining. I had so much to do with very little help from him. I felt like I had two babies, not one. It just seemed like he was jealous of our child, and I found that unfathomable. I never thought the man I married would be so selfish. After a day of taking care of our son's physical needs, the last thing I felt like doing was having one more person's needs to think about. I needed to think about me."
As the years passed, Debra's repeated rejections of her husband's advances hurt and angered Tom, and as a result, he stopped investing energy in their marriage. He focused on himself, his work, and his friends. And the more he distanced himself, the less inclined Debra felt to touch or kiss Tom, let alone have sex with him. "After all," she told herself, "why should I have sex when I don't feel close to him at all?" Now their infrequent sexual encounters, too often tainted by feelings of resentment and hurt, left them both feeling empty.
Finally their incessant blaming, their lack of empathy for each other's feelings, and their cold, inflexible body language that permeated our sessions made complete sense. Their marriage had become sex starved.
If you're asking yourself, "Now what does that mean?" I can see why. After all, the phrase, sex starved typically refers to a person, not a relationship. Sex-starved people are generally thought of in one of two ways: they're either so highly sexed that sexual satisfaction is a moving target, or they're people who, for a variety of reasons, haven't had sex in a such a long time that they're obsessed with it. But a sex-starved marriage is different.
Contrary to what you might be thinking, saying that a marriage is sex starved tells you virtually nothing about how much or how little sex a couple is actually having. It's not about numbers. It's not just about sex-less couples who have slept in separate bedrooms for years. In fact, it includes couples who, according to national surveys, have an "average" amount of sex each month. Since, unlike vitamins, there are no recommended daily requirements to ensure a healthy sex life, a sex-starved marriage is more about the fallout that occurs when one spouse is deeply unhappy with his or her sexual relationship and this unhappiness is ignored, minimized, or dismissed. The resulting disintegration of the relationship encapsulates the real meaning of a sex-starved marriage.
Sex is an extremely important part of marriage. When it's good, it offers couples opportunities to give and receive physical pleasure, to connect emotionally and spiritually. It builds closeness, intimacy, and a sense of partnership. It defines their relationship as different from all others. Sex is a powerful tie that binds.
As with Debra and Tom, when one spouse isn't interested in sex, the touching, kissing, and other forms of physical affection and intimacy often cease as well. Spouses distance from each other emotionally. They carry on their lives together in much the same way that two toddlers might engage in parallel play -- involved in similar activities in close proximity but without meaningful connection. Marriage becomes mechanical. Friendship often evaporates. Anger bubbles just below the surface. Misunderstandings abound. Emotional "divorce" becomes inevitable.
More highly sexed partners such as Tom feel confused and cheated by their spouses' lack of interest in their sex lives and try to figure out what's at the root of their partners' rejections. Unfortunately, they often assume the worst: "My wife isn't attracted to me," or "He must be having an affair," or "The kids' needs are more important than mine."
When people believe that their spouses aren't attracted to them, that their marriages or their feelings aren't important, or that an affair is brewing, they feel rejected, suspicious, hurt, resentful, and unloved. They start doubting themselves and their abilities to satisfy their spouses. They often feel deeply depressed about the void in their marriages.
When they try to explain these feelings to their partners, their explanations are often flatly dismissed. "You don't have the need to feel closer to me, you're just a sex maniac," or "If you would go to work in the real world rather than be home with the kids, you would understand why I'm so tired all the time," or "If you weren't so controlling, you would just accept that I'm not as physical as you are and you would leave me alone!" or "It's only sex. What's the big deal?"
However, to someone like Tom -- the partner yearning for a better sexual relationship -- being lovers is a big deal. It's much more than mere physical pleasure. It's connection, intimacy, closeness, and affection. It's about feeling attractive, feeling masculine or feminine, and feeling whole as a person. It's about being in love. It's about a feeling of oneness. But since people with low sexual desire aren't hungering for a sexual connection, they're not overly empathetic to their spouses' feelings and do little to make significant changes in their relationships.
Eventually, feelings of rejection become increasingly difficult to manage. Sadness turns to anger. Those yearning for more physical closeness vacillate between being distant and unpleasant. And although these behaviors are merely symptoms of underlying hurt, people with low sexual desire don't perceive their spouses' behavior quite so benevolently. Empathy is in short supply. Arguments about sex, or the lack of it, become the norm. Blame-slinging disagreements add to the already icy distance between spouses. Then, like a runaway train, it's not long before their bitterness and animosity collide head-on with every other aspect of their relationship. Nothing seems right anymore.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Have you felt starved for a better sexual relationship with your spouse? Are you desperately yearning to be touched, held, fondled, and caressed? Have your pleas for closeness and more sexual connection fallen on deaf ears? Do you tell yourself that your spouse will never understand your sexual needs? Do you sometimes feel defeated -- times when you've considered divorce or satisfying your needs for sexuality and intimacy outside your marriage?
Or on the other hand...
Are you someone whose sexual desire has plummeted out of sight? Do you feel mystified by your apparent disinterest in sex? Are you frustrated and angry about the never-ending arguments with your spouse? Have disappointment and hurt between you made intimacy an even less likely prospect? Or do you find yourself wishing that this whole "sex thing" would stop ruining your otherwise decent marriage?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, I implore you to keep reading because your marriage is at risk. Unsatisfying sexual relationships are the all-too-frequent causes of alienation, infidelity and divorce. Given our sobering divorce rate -- one out of every two marriages dies -- you cannot afford to be complaisant about the wedge between you and your spouse. You need to address this very important aspect of your relationship, and you need to do it now.
BUT I'M JUST NOT IN THE MOOD
If you have little or no appetite for sex, you might be thinking, "This is my spouse's problem. Why should I put energy into our sexual relationship if I don't really desire sex?" There are lots of good reasons. Let's talk turkey.
I've been a marriage therapist for a very long time, and I can tell you without hesitation that if you continue to look at the differences in your levels of sexual desire as your spouse's problem rather than as a couple's problem, you are courting disaster. Unless your spouse is superhuman with morals made of steel, s/he may not be willing to resist the temptation of having an extramarital affair. Late nights at the office with a seductive coworker, an attentive ear, and effusive ego-building compliments may be just the kindling your spouse needs to start a fiery sexual relationship with someone other than you. Infidelity is not something you want to experience. Having an unfaithful spouse is right up there on the short list of life's worst experiences. It's incredibly painful. Couples in my practice often tell me that healing from infidelity is one of the most challenging feats they've ever accomplished.
I tell you this not to scare you or make you feel threatened. I'm on your side. I want you to be fully informed about what your spouse might be feeling or thinking so that you can prevent unnecessary heartache. I also urge you to consider the unfairness of the tacit agreement you have had with your spouse so clearly pointed out in Dr. Pat Love's excellent book, The Truth About Love. It goes something like this: "I know you're sexually unhappy. Although I don't plan on doing anything about it, I still expect you to remain faithful." Can you see what's wrong with this picture?
Besides averting infidelity, there are other reasons you should consider making sexuality a more important aspect of your life. If you're like many people who are lukewarm toward or even turned off to sex, relationship issues might be a big part of what's standing in the way of your wanting to be close physically. For you, emotional disconnection to your spouse is a real libido buster.
If so, you need to know that once you start paying more attention to your sexual relationship, your spouse will become a happier person. And what does that have to do with feeling closer to your spouse emotionally? Everything. Happy people are more enjoyable to be around. They're nicer, more thoughtful, kinder, more loving, affectionate, and more communicative. It's a simple law of human nature. When you show your caring to your more highly sexed spouse by making sex a bigger priority in your marriage, s/he will appreciate your efforts and become more caring toward you. You will see it in his or her eyes. You'll start getting love notes and witness random acts of kindness. Your spouse will begin to open up and be decidedly more interested in you as a person. He'll stop what he's doing to hear about something you find interesting on television. She will notice your strengths rather than criticize. He will agree to go shopping with you to the mall. She'll give her blessings to that boys' night out for which you've been hankering. In short, a miracle will happen. It will take you back to the times in your relationship when everything was clicking.
Besides feeling closer to your spouse, there is another major perk to becoming more sexual, even if you aren't completely in the mood. You might discover something totally unexpected: your sexual appetite hasn't really vanished, it was merely camouflaged! Although I will explain this in greater detail in the next chapter, you need to know about some exciting new research. Until now, many experts in the field of human sexuality assumed that all people experience sexual desire in a similar way: something triggers a sexy thought, which triggers an urge to act -- to become sexual with your partner or engage in self-pleasure. Sexual stimulation then makes you feel aroused.
But some experts are beginning to question this one-size-fits-all perspective on sexual desire. They've noticed that for some people, sexual desire -- the urge to become sexual -- doesn't precede feeling aroused; it actually follows it. In other words, some people rarely (or never) find themselves fantasizing about sex or feeling sexual urges, but when they're open to becoming sexual with their spouses anyway, they often find the sexual stimulation pleasurable, and they become aroused. Once aroused, there is a desire to continue. And that's every bit as much "sexual desire" as the more traditional view of things (Basson, 2001).
If as you're reading this you're thinking, "Yeah, that's me," you may be one of those people whose interest in sex doesn't kick in until you've been physically stimulated, and your body, rather than your mind, tells you it's time. Your desire to be sexual only happens once the right physical buttons have been pushed.
I am extremely excited by this new view of things because it describes to a tee what I've been observing in my practice for years. I wish I had a dollar for each time a person with little interest in sex has told me, "I really wasn't in the mood for sex at all because ______ [I had so much on my mind; I had things to do; it was too early in the morning; it was the wrong time of month], but once we got started, it was fun. I really enjoyed it." Eventually, rather than spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing the causes for the absence of sexual thoughts and fantasies, I started to experiment with coaching people to get their feet moving, even if their heads and hearts were someplace else.
At first, many were understandably cautious about my Nike-style approach to their sex life; the "Just Do It" advice ran counter to everything they had believed about how sexual desire unfolds. But I persisted, and I'm glad I did, because the results spoke for themselves. I could often see the relief on people's faces when they learned that their lack of out-of-the-blue sexual urges didn't necessarily signify a problem. It didn't mean there was something wrong with them or that something was missing from their marriages. It just meant that they experienced desire differently.
Second, when those who do not experience spontaneous lust really took to heart the idea that they weren't flawed, desireless, or sexually apathetic people, their self-concept shifted considerably. "After all," they told themselves, "once I get going, I guess I really get going." This allowed them to see themselves as more sexual, desirable, and sensual people, which, not surprisingly, often led to more frequent and satisfying sexual encounters.
But perhaps you're thinking, "Just do it? That sounds way too simple to me," or "Even if I get going, nothing happens," or "I just don't have orgasms anymore, and that's why sex holds no interest for me." Unfortunately, as you are about to learn in Chapter 2, feeling more sexual isn't always just a matter of getting your feet moving. Your reasons for feeling disinterested might be considerably more complicated than that. A healthy sex drive is dependent on a number of complex and often interacting factors. Many things -- fluctuating hormones, medication (even birth control pills!), and illness -- can greatly affect how you feel about being physical with your spouse. In Chapter 2, I identify the main contributing factors to low sexual desire to help you understand your feelings better.
Having said that, I want to caution you about something. Knowing why you're not so interested in sex won't boost your desire one bit. Doing something about it will. I know many people who become experts on why they've been avoiding physical contact with their spouses while their sex lives continue to go down the tubes. So though it's extremely important for you to identify the potential causes of your lack of desire, it's even more important that you commit to doing something with the information you uncover.
As unromantic as it might sound, even for your more highly sexed spouse, once the intense infatuation characteristic of early relationships wears off (and it always does), desire is really a decision. You have to decide to make having a vibrant, exciting, emotionally satisfying sexual relationship a priority. You have to continually discover and rediscover new ways to keep your sexual energy alive. You must consciously work at understanding and keeping up with the changes in your body, your marriage, and the day-to-day demands of your life so that you can keep on reinventing your intimate relationship when it grows stale. It doesn't just happen. You have to make it happen.
With that in mind, you should congratulate yourself right now. There are millions of people in your shoes who are too busy sweeping things under the carpet to acknowledge there's a problem, or simply don't care about their passionless marriages to be reading this book. Instead, they'd be focusing on their spouse's angry behavior and feeling justified for being abstinent for the rest of their lives. You're way ahead of the game. Good for you!
Perhaps you're ready to take your marriage to a better, more loving place. Perhaps you're starting to wonder whether your little inner voice -- the one that whispers, "I'm just not a sexual person" -- may be completely off base. Although you feel somewhat certain that you may never be someone who swings from chandeliers or thinks that sex is the most important thing in the world, you're starting to question whether a satisfying sex life is still within your reach. It is. You just have to believe it is and then take steps to make it happen. I will show you the way.
THE HIGH-DESIRE SPOUSE
If you're the person who's been hungering for a better sex life, I wouldn't be surprised if you're feeling relieved right now because up until you got your hands on this book, you've felt like the forgotten spouse. You've been frustrated by the fact that a great deal of the information available about low sexual desire is geared toward your spouse. And perhaps you've pondered the irony in the fact that the preponderance of help for low sexual desire is aimed at people who may not even see it as a problem. That's like writing books for people who are overweight or depressed but feel perfectly content with the way they are. What's the use in valuable information if the people who could benefit from it don't think they need it? That might explain why the piles of books or articles that you've given your spouse on the topic of low sexual desire have become nothing more than an impressive collection of dust collectors.
If your spouse hasn't been very receptive to the idea of improving your sex life, you probably have been feeling frustrated and powerless. You shudder at the thought that your spouse has been calling all the shots when it comes to lovemaking. But the truth is, more than anything else, you have been feeling rejected, hurt, and alone. And now, as you read this book, my guess is that you probably feel comforted that someone is putting your feelings into words.
However, just when you start to think, "See, I told you so! I'm right about our sex life," you shouldn't get smug. Do yourself a favor, and don't indulge in this sort of self-righteous reflection. Not only is it sorely shortsighted, it's just plain wrong. Even if your spouse's lack of interest in sex stems from personal or physiological causes, you're still not exempt from examining your role in your less-than-satisfying marriage.
As someone who specializes in working with couples, I can tell you that problems in marriage are almost always due to the ways in which both spouses handle challenging situations. When it comes to your sexual differences, if you have been feeling hurt or rejected, I can safely predict that your approach to your desire gap has been less than sterling. Feelings of hurt and rejection often lead to defensiveness, not collaborative solutions. You will need to examine what you've been thinking, feeling, doing, and saying that might be backfiring; pushing your spouse away rather than bringing him or her closer. You need to become a less reactive, more effective catalyst for positive relationship change. But how?
First of all, you need to understand the real causes of low sexual desire because your favorite theories about your spouse's behavior are probably destructive and inaccurate. For example, you might be thinking that your spouse has been withholding affection out of a lack of love for you. A person's sex drive may have little or nothing to do with his or her level of love for his or her spouse. In fact, your spouse may love you completely, with all her or his heart and soul, and yet still not desire sex. Or you might believe your spouse is avoiding intimacy out of mean-spiritedness or vindictiveness. Although a lack of interest in sex has varied causes, generally the intentional desire to impose pain isn't one of them. Your spouse isn't trying to hurt you on purpose. When you truly take this to heart, it will take the sting out of your reactions to him or her.
Once you stop recycling inaccurate theories about your spouse, you will become more clear-headed, enabling you to educate yourself with the concrete, reliable information about low sexual desire in this book. This will offer you greater understanding and empathy, which will allow you to more readily apply the proven passion-restoring techniques I will share with you.
Second, since I've been helping couples improve their marriages for years, I have a pretty good idea about which strategies work and which ones don't. And oddly enough, sometimes the most logical, straightforward approaches to relationship dilemmas simply don't work. That's why I want to offer you a brand new passion-building toolkit filled with ideas that have been field-tested so that you can make your marriage more loving and satisfying. I want to coach you to find better ways to achieve greater intimacy and connection with that most important person in your life.
DOING IT TOGETHER
Maybe you've noticed that until now, I've been talking to one spouse or the other, not both. That's because it is often the case that one spouse is more motivated than the other to read a self-help book or consciously participate in marriage-improving activities. If that's true in your marriage, don't despair. I've learned that marriages can change and grow tremendously even if only one spouse is actively working on things. You'll learn a great deal about this later, but relationships are such that if one person changes, the relationship must change. You just need one person who's willing to tip over the first domino.
But your marriage might be different. Maybe you and your spouse actually agree that your sex life needs some more pizzazz. In fact, maybe you've decided to read this book together. If so, that's great! (Why not buy two?) You'll learn a lot, and you'll be able to use what you learn as a launching point for constructive discussion. And that will be a good thing because it is too often the case that when couples experience sexual difficulties, they suffer in silence. They avoid talking about sex openly and honestly because it is too uncomfortable and embarrassing.
That's too bad, because most people are pretty lousy mind readers, especially when it comes to sexual fulfillment. We don't know what our partners need and want unless they teach us. Many serious problems with sexuality can be traced to poor or nonexistent communication skills around this sensitive subject. So I'm going to get you talking -- talking and touching. The Sex-Starved Marriage will offer you specific guidelines for approaching the lull in your sex life as a team.
If you're the spouse whose libido has been lacking, you need to recognize that the most powerful sexual organ in the human body is the one between your ears; in order to feel more sexual, you first have to decide that a loving, satisfying sex life is important. Then you need to make a commitment to find your untapped sexuality within.
As the spouse with greater sexual energy, you need to approach your partner with greater understanding, compassion, and wisdom and learn skills that will lead to improved communication, compromise, and acceptance. And The Sex-Starved Marriage -- the couples' manual for overcoming low sexual desire -- will show you how to become loving allies in your search for solutions.
Copyright © 2003 by Michele Weiner Davis