Men “always” seem to want or expect more sex from their partners than they get. And, women also sometimes complain that they are not getting their fair share of action in the bedroom. I was once told by an old man that if you put a penny in a jar every time you have sex during your first year of marriage, and then you took a penny out of the same jar every time you had sex after the first year of your marriage, that your jar would still have pennies in it when you died. [sigh] Is it any wonder that so many young people are hesitant to get married?
Last year a German company began to seek FDA approval for the drug flibanserin as a treatment for a condition the diagnostic manual (the DSM IV-TR) calls hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). The targeted application: to treat women who have decreased desire for sex. Some were excited and began to tout it as the long-awaited bookend to Viagra; a “female” Viagra. Others, such as the groupOur Bodies Ourselves, were less excited about the drug and the diagnosis of HSDD, and issued this statement:
“The diagnosis of HSDD unnecessarily medicalizes women’s sexual lives. Attempting to treat low libido with a pill ignores the fact that many women’s level of desire is deeply affected by everyday life stress and interpersonal relationships.”
I agree with that. And in 2010 the FDA declined to approve the drug in an almost unanimous vote, citing problems of efficacy and that the “dizziness and fatigue” experienced by 15% of test subjects outweighed the slight benefits of the drug. Good riddance, and please don’t come back, if you ask me.
It is my experience that the majority of sexual problems between partners are about relationship dynamics and/or unresolved wounds. They aren’t about being bored or about a decreased lack of interest in sex. It’s also not about getting older and losing one’s libido with age. It’s not about needing sex toys, lube or about a need to “experiment”. In my experience, nearly all adults are quite ready and able to have satisfying sex with a committed partner, but many of us who are married are having very little sex, or we find satisfying sex elusive.
Frankly, if you are in a sexless marriage you need to quit rationalizing and making excuses for the situation. It goes against our design to be sexless, especially when we have access to an appropriate sex partner. At the risk of over-generalizing, let me simply state that if you are in a sexless marriage, you probably have a relationship problem. (Or, it could be that you have a two month old baby; a very legitimate reason for not having much sex.) The general rule of thumb is that if you have sex no more than ten times a year, you are in a sexless marriage. And you can’t count the sex that happened because someone was drunk or the trying-to-have-a-baby-sex that reduces you to being little more than a stud horse. We’re talking about two people making love, and whether or not it’s happening with satisfying regularity in your bedroom.
Let’s look at some legitimate explanations for why you couples may no longer be having sex.
There are many physical problems that can make sex problematic or impossible. Some of those problems involve the presence of pain during sex: female sexual arousal disorder (a lack of natural lubrication), dyspareunia (pain in the genitals during sex; in either gender) or vaginismus (when her vagina uncontrollably tightens around his penis really hard). These conditions can make sex impossible due to the level of discomfort experienced during sex. And, if you have a television, you probably know more than you want to know about erectile dysfunction (ED) and the number of companies who want to sell us a pill to treat it. ED is a condition where a man is not physiologically able to get (or maintain) an adequate erection, usually due to blood flow problems to the penis. There are also issues related to our orgasmic functioning, such as premature ejaculation on one end of the spectrum, and orgasmic disorders related to the inability to orgasm at all on the other end of the spectrum. There are lots of ways to not enjoy sex that at least seem to be completely physiological in nature.
Most of these problems can be due to physical injury, infection or can be in part due to age. However… we are sometimes too quick to assume that these are problems requiring medical treatment, because all the symptoms related to the conditions I just listed can also have their root in emotional difficulties or relationship problems. If you are experiencing any of these problems during sex, I advise you to have a doctor assess you for any medical conditions that may be the cause of your distress. If a medical examination doesn’t produce any red flags, then it would behoove you to consider looking more closely at matters of emotion or intimacy, or to consider relationship issues that may cause your body to say “No” to sex. These problems (assuming the absence of any physiological issues) are your body speaking for your soul and informing you that you are not ready for intimacy at this time in your life, or with the particular person you are with. If you once had a satisfying sex life with your current partner but your physical experiences of sex have since changed (and not because of a medical condition), you’ll want to consider that relationship issues may be at the root of the problem.
Sexual or Emotional Trauma in the Past
It can be hard to predict how a victim of sexual trauma will respond to the trauma. Some “act out” by becoming hyper-sexual. I know a woman who was raped in her early teens. Her response to the rape was to spend most of the rest of her teen years in a dating (sexual) relationship with her rapist. Now, as an adult, she has cheated on her husband several times. What she’s doing is “acting out” of her trauma; she hasn’t healed or recovered from the sexual trauma of her past. Her trauma is begging for attention by throwing temper tantrums in the form of sexual “acting out”, but she’s not addressing the issues that her trauma is asking her to address. Sadly, she’s at risk of more “acting out” behaviors until she finally starts looking at the pain she’s been avoiding.
In other cases, there is an “acting in”, or an aversion to sex and intimacy as a result of past trauma. These people have experienced some sort of perpetration in their past and now are fearful of anything sexual. They may also have shame issues around their sexuality as a result of their sexual trauma.
Still others are like a former client of mine who was “all of the above”. She was gang raped in her teens and she blamed herself for it (she became “shame-bonded” to sex). She then spent most of her adult life in hypersexual, abusive relationships. She ended one of her marriages on a Monday because she had been in a three day sexual binge with a man she met at a church conference on the Friday before, and she wanted to continue the relationship with the man. Her husband wouldn’t agree to share her with her new boyfriend, and the new guy eventually became her next husband. She later became aware that she was an emotionally and sexually unhealthy person, and she began to seek ways to heal from the wounds of her past. It was at that time that she began to put up sexual boundaries for the first time in her life. She requested that she and her husband have a period of abstinence from sex so they could build healthier patterns in their marriage (and healthier behaviors in the bedroom), and so that she could take some time to heal. He was fine with her wanting to heal, but the abstinence thing was… not easy for him to adapt to at first. I ran into them a while ago and they seemed to be doing well.
Here’s an explanation of possibly why you are in a sexless marriage that many don’t want to accept: You are in a sexless marriage because that’s what you have earned. Sex is about intimacy. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about having joyful connections with each other. It’s about mutual respect, appreciation and love. But a pattern of insincerity, betrayal, abuse, inconsideration or emotional neglect will foster hurt, anger, anxiety, shame, mistrust, distance and loneliness. I’ve seen it go both ways: Men who rage against their wives also somehow become confused when their wives don’t want to get naked with them; and women who don’t want to share their hearts with their husbands will still expect their husbands to share physically intimate moments with them. I remember one session where the frustrated wife complained “Why can’t we just have sex? Why do I have to deal with all his feelings?”
A Lack of Connection
Similarly, if you want to have wonderfully messy sex with your partner, then be willing to “earn” those moments by participating in some messy emotional encounters beforehand. Our sex lives tend to be a powerful metaphor for the emotional and relational truths of our marriages. Some of us become emotionally detached during sex, while others might make a lot of eye contact, talk and laugh during sex. A client of mine recently told me of a particularly empty sexual experience he had. He paid for a lap dance at a strip club. The girl was appropriately flirtatious and seductive right up to the point when she did the actual “dance”. At that moment, she seemed to completely unplug herself from what they were doing. Her face became emotionless; she seemed to just “check out”. And why wouldn’t she? She wasn’t the least bit invested in him. It was a business transaction, with as much commitment as the Redbox machine will show my wife tonight when she pays her $1 for a one-day rental of Robin Hood. When it’s Redbox machine or a stripper, we understand it being very “mechanical”. But if we see sex as an opportunity to make love, we desire a connection with our partner. Some of us are OK with sex being little more than an act of mutual masturbation involving our and our partner’s genitals, but if we prefer to make love rather than to just copulate with each other, we’ll grow tired of disconnected sex. We may even become… sad about having meaningless sex. Sad because of the emotional connection that is missing from sex, and as a result, sex may no longer be just “disconnected”, but it may become emotionally painful. So we may just avoid sex altogether rather than be reminded of how much we’d prefer love making over an impersonal mechanical act.
In a recent blog installment I made mention of how the Biblical word for sex is the same as the verb “to know” in the ancient Hebrew. When Adam “knew” Eve in Genesis 1, we are reading the Hebrew wordyada, which is “to know” or “to make self known”, but when Lot’s daughters “lay with” their father (they thought he was literally the last man on Earth so they got him drunk and used him for his sperm), it was the word shakab, simply meaning “to lie down”. Do you wish to experience sex like it was when the fearless and naked Adam and Even pioneered sex, fresh and bold, or do you simply want to get horizontal and ejaculate with your partner? In the spiritual sense, we need the “nakedness” of Adam and Eve if we wish to have intimate love making. And if you aren’t promoting “nakedness” with a partner who desires (or, who requires) intimacy, you might find yourself in a sexless union.
You may want to ask “Why was it OK to have sex earlier in our relationship when we didn’t have “naked intimacy”, but now, all of the sudden, it’s a requirement to have sex?” A: Because you aren’t kids anymore, that’s why. Relationships are like children. They start out small and unsophisticated, but we eventually anticipate that they will grow up and mature. Some of us yearn for our marriages to grow beyond the groping newness of our honeymoons into something… more. You may be one of those people who now wants your union to be mature and grown up, or you may have married someone who desires to experience that with their partner. In either case, you’ll need to invest in the maturation of your marriage if you want to return to satisfying sex. If you make those investments into the maturation of your marriage, your sex life can potentially become… more than your fantasies have dreamed it could be.
The Sexual Anorexic
Groucho Marx once said “I would never be the member of a club who would have me as a member.” That is a wonderful way to explain the identity of the sexual anorexic: They loathe themselves, and think that everyone else should loathe them as well. It can be hard for sexual anorexics to see themselves truthfully just as it is hard for those with anorexia nervosa to see their protruding bones in the mirror. I’m somewhat well-acquainted with this because (prepare yourself for some major TMI…) I was sexually anorexic. I was a raging porn addict for much of my adult life. I entered into recovery and began to gain some control over my “solo sex” behaviors with porn, but I was still being sexless in my marriage. It took me some time to realize that if I was really becoming sexually healthy, I would be actually having sex in my marriage. My porn use was my “acting out”, while withholding sex from my wife was a form of “acting in”. I thought that I wasn’t having sex because I had gained control over my sexually compulsive behaviors, but if I was “in control” of my behaviors, I would have been doing the natural thing: having sex with my wife, and with regularity. When I began to address my sexually anorexic behaviors, it became more clear that I didn’t want to be sexual within a relational context because I didn’t see myself as someone that someone should want to have sex with. I “wasn’t someone to be with”, in my own eyes. I had a hard time accepting that a woman might find me acceptable; acceptable to the point of sharing intimate moments with. I needed to deal with some shame issues in order for me to work through the problem.
The difficulty in addressing sexual anorexia is the same as the difficulty of confronting anorexia nervosa in that perception is an issue. “How could a porn addict be afraid of sex?” is the question that puzzled me. There are lots of rationalizations and explanations for why we aren’t having sex that are easier to swallow than “you don’t think people should like you.” But if you are in a marriage where your partner has a desire for sex and none of the other explanations listed above have revealed an explanation why you aren’t having sex, then I encourage you to look deep inside and consider whether or not you might be sexually anorexic.
They Want Sex with an Adult
Yes, I know, you are an adult. Do you behave like one? People who beg for sex are not “sexy”. People who complain about sex are not “sexy”. People who use guilt, shame and other forms of manipulation are not sexually attractive. If you are throwing tantrums about matters of sex, you are not presenting yourself to your partner as one who appears to be “mature and ready for sex”. If your partner is giving you sex because you are whining about it, they may eventually burn out and just decide to quit being co-dependent with you around your demands for unearned, false intimacy. When I was 16 I used a fake I.D. to get into disco in Wichita called Pogo’s. I pretty much just stood around watching others enjoy themselves for most of the night until I began to realize that my adventure into a real 1970’s disco would end without me even dancing with someone. So, I saw two college-aged women sitting at a table and I approached with the super-irresistible line “I’ve been here all night and haven’t danced with anyone, will you dance with me?” With a minimum of eye-contact she said “No”. Why would she dance with me? I appealed to her sense of pity. I suppose that sex-because-I-pity-you is better than none at all, but you can’t expect to do that week after week for the life of your marriage before someone decides that they miss having sex with an equal, with someone who acts like they are actually bringing something good to the relationship. Whiny, desperate pleas for sex send the message that you are still growing up into an adult. Adults don’t beg for intimacy, they partner with another and then they both build it.
Eventually a girl I kinda knew took pity on me and we danced to Le Freak faded into Another One Bites The Dust. I was a charity case, and I knew it; but I was 16, not 30 years old, and I wasn’t married to her. If someone has sex with you because you are a charity case, don’t expect it more than once, even if you are married to them.
So what are good “first steps” for you and your sexless partner? Start with some frank, daring talkabout how/why the sex stopped happening. Keep in mind that lots of fat, ugly and old people are having plenty of good sex, so don’t be afraid to say “We can still be awesome lovers, stretch-marks and all.” Avoid blaming each other for the lack of sex, even if you have legitimate complaints and wounds to resolve. Regardless of why you aren’t having sex, the “sexlessness” you’ve both created is having a negative impact on both of you, so commit to working on the problem together. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that only one of you is/has the problem. These problems are likely about relationship dynamics, with means it takes two to tango, especially if it’s a really bad tango.
For related information visit Sex Intimacy in Marriage