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The Sex-Starved Marriage
by Michele Weiner-Davis
Simon & Schuster, 2003

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Chapter One

The Sex-Starved Marriage

Dear Michele,

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.

Excerpted from The Sex-Starved Marriage by Michele Weiner-Davis. Copyright © 2003 by Michele Weiner-Davis. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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