What do you do when your husband thinks you have a bad sex life?
Every Monday I like to put up a Reader Question and take a stab at answering it. Here’s a really messy one from a woman whose husband has decided to withhold sex since their sex life was so bad:
I’m in my early 30s with two children. My marriage has not been great but not bad either, until last year September when things took a bad turn and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. My husband woke me up and asked that we talk, he told me that he is not happy, that our sex life sucks and he has not really enjoyed sex with me since marriage, never feels the emotional or spiritual connection when making love and that he can not pretend any longer and even though we still remained intimate, we haven’t had sex in 3 months now. I usually get rejected when I initiate it and now I’m too afraid to try. We were celibate throughout our courtship and I did struggle the first year of marriage to be comfortable with sex, he would complain that I was tense and not enjoying him. I did seek advice and was told to masturbate and I did and thought it improved things but to my surprise, it wasn’t good enough. I have been raped when I was young by my two cousins and it does bother me now and then. I was born again at 12 and had been celibate till marriage and now I’m so frustrated to say the least. My husband has had multiple sexual relationships before he met me and I do feel compared to the women in his past. My marriage is in shambles and each day I pray for restoration. I do sometimes turn to masturbation and feel guilty thereafter and so now try just to cross my legs and be strong.
Wow, that’s really, really sad. Let’s take a look at some big picture issues here.
Sexual baggage takes a real toll on a marriage.
There’s major sexual baggage on both sides. She has sexual abuse in her past, and he has multiple sexual partners.
That’s really, really tough. And the problem is that both sets of baggage tend to make it hard to feel intimate when you’re making love. Sexual abuse can make sex seem like a weapon, rather than a beautiful experience that makes you feel like one. Multiple sexual partners can make sex seem solely physical, and not really about emotional or spiritual intimacy.
Then you’re together, and you’re both approaching sex with different issues. Add to the mix that sex can be difficult to get used to for some women, and it can seem like a HUGE disappointment. For many couples sex takes a huge learning curve. I tell my audiences when I give my Girl Talk about sex & marriage that, as I found in the research for The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, the best years for sex in marriage are years 16-24. It’s after you’ve been together for over a decade, you’ve worked through all these issues, and you’re able to be truly vulnerable. It isn’t uncommon to have some difficulties early on.
It’s quite common to make sex about his needs
We grow up in a culture that is always talking about how much men need sex and how high a sex drive men have (which is quite a hard message to hear for those women who end up marrying men with no sex drives!). We believe that a man can’t be happy until he has regular and frequent sex.
And so this couple gets married, and she has problems. She writes, “he would complain that I was tense and not enjoying him. I did seek advice…” So sex isn’t working that great for her. But how do they react to that? He complains and she seeks outside advice.
She’s denying her legitimate need to feel comfortable with sex and get used to sex because of his supposed greater need to get sexual fulfillment and release.
Their needs are at odds with each other–because they’re seeing sex as an individual thing, where “I need to get my needs met” and “it needs to match my expectations”. Even she is–the difference is that she’s seeing it as about his needs rather than her own. Sex is supposed to be easy and frequent, and when it’s not, it’s now her problem to deal with, rather than their problem to deal with.
If people saw sex as being primarily about intimacy, then this wouldn’t happen
If we could stop talking about sex as primarily being about getting needs met, and start talking about sex as primarily being a vehicle through which you feel like one, then perhaps these problems could stop. You see, if sex were primarily about intimacy and that feeling like you’re totally and utterly connected to one another, then if someone is having a hard time with sex, it becomes your problem together, not just their problem that they need to go get fixed and then come back when you have it all together.
I understand that young men tend to have very high sex drives. I understand that there are a lot of expectations around sex when you first get married. But if people were taught that sex was about both of us together, not just me getting release, then perhaps we could learn to treat each other well rather than seeing sex as one big area of entitlement.
When things get rough, it’s easy to want to give up on sex.
One other point: it may not be in good taste to share this video in a post with such a heavy and difficult email, but it encapsulates the problem from the wife’s side, too: When sex becomes a tension in a marriage, it’s easy to think that the problem lies with sex. Get rid of sex, and our issues would go away.
That’s the approach he seems to be taking, and as far as I can see there are only two motivations: Either he is unhappy that sex is not better and is trying to punish her; or he is really frustrated and has decided that the only way to save himself further pain is to shut himself off.
It’s quite common to adopt that second approach when sex just hasn’t met your expectations:
I hope we can all admit that this is a really, really bad idea. But then how do we move forward and get past this?
Most people do not understand sex well.
Most people do not understand that sex doesn’t tend to start out well. They don’t know there’s a learning curve. They certainly don’t know that women require a ton of foreplay, and that the goal is not to get her to not need foreplay anymore so that she just enjoys intercourse, like he does. The goal is to enjoy each other and help both of you feel good, in the way that you need. His experience is not the standard so that she can “catch up” and like sex as much as he does; your bodies were made differently so that both of us would learn to be giving.
This does take time, and that’s okay.
Keep talking about the real goal.
So what would I say to this couple? I did email this woman back, and I told her something like this:
Both of you had really good intentions and expectations coming into marriage. You wanted to wait and save this for marriage. And you wanted sex to be awesome.
It didn’t turn out that way–and it usually doesn’t. We all have baggage that we bring into marriage to some extent, and you guys brought a ton in. That made sex difficult.
So you now have a choice. Can you let go of your dreams and expectations of what your sex life was going to look like, and just decide to love each other well now and start a huge research project together? Can you stop seeing sex as about what you both deserve, and instead see it as a way to love each other? You married each other for a reason; you cherished each other. This is your opportunity to prove it. Cherish each other. Be giving to each other. Be gracious to each other. And be excited to start this new journey where you learn together. And together is the operative word there. You both are going to have to work to figure this whole thing out.
But maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Sex isn’t just about him and it isn’t just about her; it’s about both of you together. And when you do figure it out, it’s really quite amazing!
I then suggested to her that she do the 31 Days to Great Sex challenge with her husband.
In fact, I designed 31 Days a lot for couples just like this: Couples who want to have great sex, but who have given up or gotten discouraged. The first few challenges are basic but fun; they help you look at your goals for sex, the lies you’ve been believing about sex, and do some super fun preliminary exercises that can show that you both honestly can give each other pleasure!
Then in the next week we focus on building emotional intimacy and having fun together–how to flirt again, be affectionate, laugh together. After that, we move on to physical fireworks–how to actually have an orgasm; how to make sex feel great for both of you; how to figure out which body parts you each really like! Then we move on to spiritual intimacy and how to feel like one. We address some of the big elephants in the room and the sexual baggage you both have. We talk about how to figure out boundaries and how to make sure that porn or other things don’t wreck our marriage. And we make a plan to carry these lessons forward so we don’t lose them.
The biggest thing that people have told me after working through 31 days is that they finally were able to talk about a lot of these things and they had such breakthroughs. This is quite typical of the emails I get:
My husband and I read 31 days to great sex and started talking about sex. (we honestly read the whole book in just a few nights) We started talking and a wall was lifted in our marriage. I could literally cry typing this out.….So much has changed in 2 short months. We have sex A LOT which has healed our marriage. (we have been catching up for lost time!)
I keep the price really low–just $4.99 for the ebook, and it’s honestly a full sized book–just so that it’s accessible for people.
And I’ve divided the book up into emotional intimacy, physical intimacy and spiritual intimacy so that people learn that “this is more than physical.” It isn’t only about needs. It’s about something far deeper.
Whether you get the book or not, I hope that you can start that conversation about how to make sex about intimacy, not needs and expectations. But if you think the book can help, pick it up here!
Now I’d really love to talk about this question in the comments: Do we come into marriage thinking about sex too much as all about entitlement and needs? How can we change that conversation?