Every Monday I like to post a Reader Question and try to take a stab at answering it. Today a reader is asking, “how do you reset your sex life?”
I have read The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex and am intrigued by the mention you make of the first four years of your marriage. You mentioned having a lot of pain during sex and that it started your sex life off in a bad way. I had a similar start and now, a year after having a baby, sex is much easier. The trouble is that my husband is so demoralized by our early experiences that we still don’t have sex much, and I’m often rejected. No matter how I plan, prep and try to make it happen, he can be pretty cold. It’s like he’s used to and expects a bad sex life. I’m thankful that you try so hard to put a positive light on intimacy, but it would be nice to hear suggestions on dealing with a cold husband.
That’s a difficult question, isn’t it? It could take other forms, like:
I’m a victim of child sexual abuse, and for the first few years of our marriage I was scared of sex. I’ve received healing now and I want to have a great sex life, but it’s like my husband has shut down.
I spent years refusing sex with my husband, but I’ve now realized that was wrong and I want to change. But he doesn’t believe me!
When we start marriage seeing sex as a negative thing, it’s really hard to establish a new dynamic in your relationship where it’s fun, easy, and spontaneous.
I’m going to point you to some resources I have at the bottom of this post, but I’d like to tell you a bit of my story. I don’t do that too often anymore; most of my posts are suggesting advice. But I thought some of you may want to hear more of my story.
Like the original questioner said, I did have pain during intercourse for the first few years of our marriage. I shared that in my book The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex; I wasn’t sure if I would or not because it’s something really personal to me, and it really was a very painful part of my life and my marriage. I’m still dealing with some emotional scars from it, as is my husband, although we honestly have emerged really strong together.
Keith and I have been speaking at marriage conferences since 2005, but I never really shared that much about this part of our life, even though we were very open about sex in general. But when it came time to write the book, I really thought it needed to be in there. And so I did write about it, and even shared some rather funny–in retrospect–stories of running screaming from doctor’s offices who thought that all I needed was a mirror and an anatomy lesson to get over my condition!
What I really needed was time, space, and healing–and delivering three children vaginally probably helped quite a bit, too. And so I honestly am totally and completely over that.
But the problem is that because that was such a defining part of our marriage in our early years, it was hard to readjust emotionally and relationally once things were “working”, even when the physical wasn’t a problem. We were in a rut where Keith would want sex and feel guilty; I would feel obligated and feel guilty; and both of us just in general felt a lot of shame.
This questioner is saying that her husband is cold towards her. He very well could be. But I wonder if something else is going on, where he was so ashamed of still wanting sex even when it was painful to her that he eventually just shut down. You see, sometimes it’s easier to shut down than to deal honestly with what’s going on inside your head and your heart. And when we don’t see how we can get legitimate needs met, we often try to build these walls to protect our hearts. And perhaps this man has built a wall, and he’s afraid to see things as having changed because he may get hurt again. And he’s trained himself to think of sex as a negative in their relationship.
This can happen for a variety of reasons, too–it isn’t just if she has a physical condition that makes sex difficult. If she has sexual abuse issues (which we’ll be talking about later this week) or other fears, he can also shut down. It’s his defense mechanism because something that really matters to him seems to be making the marriage worse.
The problem is that even though the husband may shut down his sexuality due to a combination of self-preservation and love for his wife, because he’s shut down sexually it’s now even harder for him to feel or express love, since for most men sex is so intertwined with love. So while he may have shut down sexually to protect them both, out of purely altruistic motives, it often ends up hurting both of you. You’re missing that deep connection–not just sex, but real intimacy. He’s shut off a part of himself, and because of that you’re missing something big.
And if he’s shut off intimacy, then even if you’ve changed, it’s hard for him to compute or adjust to the new reality. He likely has some resentment built up, and he may have transferred a lot of his needs somewhere else. Maybe he gets his self-worth from work, or sports, or something else. Obviously if your husband looks at porn that’s a big problem, but not all men who shut down use porn at all. I know my husband didn’t. But it’s still hard for them to come to a point where they can have sex without feeling guilty. No matter how much you try to convince them that it honestly is okay, deep inside they feel shame for wanting something that has caused you pain.
I tell you all this to try to help you see it from his point of view. You, albeit unwittingly, without meaning to, pulled the rug out from under him when sex didn’t work for you. And that was likely really devastating to him. Now you need him to forget all that and meet you where you’re at.
But it’s not impossible. Here are just a few quick thoughts:
1. Acknowledge That Your Husband was Hurt
When sex was hard for me, the focus was mostly on the pain I was enduring–both physical and emotional. Keith’s pain was shoved aside. And that’s really how it needed to be in order for me to get better.
But at this point, if you have emerged on the other side, it’s worth letting him air how he did feel, and reassuring him that he does not need to feel guilty for his sexual feelings. Apologize where you can, and let him know that the fact that he was hurt hurts you, too–even if you don’t see how you could have done anything differently at the time.
2. Be His Friend
I know I say this all the time, no matter what the problem is in marriage, but it is so much easier to communicate about the hard things in our marriage if we’re also communicating about the little things. So work on laughing together and doing things together, and it’s easier to truly reset.
3. Do a Sexual Reset
You need to reset your sex life–so do it! I’ve got a post here that takes you through the steps:
4. Schedule Sex
When sex is difficult, and fraught with emotion, then it’s easy for each night to feel stressful: are we going to tonight? Is it going to turn into a fight? Will he turn me down? Do I dare mention it?
If you’ve got it scheduled on your calendar–say twice a week, to start with–then it takes a lot of the anxiety out of it. During these periods of adjustment, when you need to find a new normal, I highly recommend scheduling sex, even if it’s only a temporary thing.
5. Be Patient
I want to reassure you today that couples can come through to the other side. If sex has been a major source of stress in your marriage, you really can make it through and redefine sex and become spontaneous and fun! But it doesn’t happen overnight, and you need to be patient.
If you’re the one who has received healing, chances are you have been working at this for months, if not years. You’ve seen the progress. You know what’s occurred. You can feel the difference. But he hasn’t. He doesn’t know what’s going on inside your brain, and it’s quite likely he’s shut himself off so that he doesn’t get his hopes up. He’s afraid to see that it could be better.
Just remember that you are further along in this process than he is, and you need to give him time to catch up. You need to give him time to trust you again–to trust that you do actually enjoy sex. And so give him that time!
6. Be Honest
Okay, here’s the hardest one for me to do–and the one I still struggle with. To Keith, it was so traumatic if I ever made love “just for him”, because it was initially hurting me. He is so afraid of ever doing anything that would hurt me again that if he senses that I’m uncomfortable it’s hard for him to want to keep going.
I needed to learn that when I was having triggers, or things were uncomfortable, I needed to tell him, and we’d stop. If he knew that I would tell him if I didn’t want to, then he knew that if I WASN’T telling him, I really did want to. If he wasn’t sure I’d tell him if I was uncomfortable, he was always, always doubting himself. So if you are getting over sexual abuse, and 80% of the time things work fine, then the 20% that they don’t–tell him. Even if it would disrupt the night. If he knows you’re honest when things aren’t working, it makes it much easier for him to let go when they are. So NEVER fake. That would kill any trust you’ve built up. Be totally honest, and then he’s more inclined to believe that you’re enjoying it when things are working well.
I hope those tips help. I know how hard it is emotionally to walk through something like this, but believe me–healing is possible, and you can both come to a beautiful place in your marriage. I pray that you will!
Now, let me know: have you ever struggled with rebuilding your sex life? What did you do? How did you heal? Let me know in the comments!