If you’ve ever thought that a couple’s sexual relationship is a barometer of other aspects of their marriage, join the club. And if, because of this belief, your work with distant and warring couples has you shoring up their emotional bond in the hopes that the rest of their marriage–their sex life–will eventually fall into place, you’re in good company as well. But there’s another, frequently more practical and expedient, way to break through marital gridlock and boost passion. Just do it. I learned this simple lesson from Debra and Tom.
When I met Debra and Tom, they’d been married for 10 years and had two sons, ages 8 and 5. They were strikingly handsome individuals, devoted parents, and were surrounded by loving friends and family. Yet their marriage was precipitously close to ending.
Debra spent much of our time together complaining about Tom. His short temper was like poison to her soul. He snapped at her over the littlest things, and she felt like she was always walking on eggshells. She also complained of his lack of involvement at home. “He never seems to want to do anything as a couple, or even as a family, anymore. He never talks to me or even asks about my day.”
Tom had no shortage of negative things to report about their marriage either. He didn’t like being around Debra because, regardless of what he was doing, he felt she always found fault with him. He also talked about a deep disappointment in her as a companion. He wistfully recalled their early years of marriage: “She used to be fun to be with. She made me feel like I was the funniest man in the world. Now everything’s 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.”
Over the next several sessions, all my proven solution-based tools–asking about goals, listening carefully to their stories of stuckness, acknowledging their feelings, focusing on exceptions, strengths, and resources–didn’t work. Six sessions into treatment, Tom and Debra (and I) were no better off than when we started. Then, not knowing what else to say, I asked them, “What’s the glue holding the two of you together?” Tom’s response offered the first real inkling of what I now know kept them so stuck. Tom’s tone softened considerably as he spoke. “I think I’ve been holding out hope that some day we’ll be able to recreate some of the feelings we had earlier in our marriage.” Tom said that when they first married, he was passionately in love with Debra and found her irresistible. 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 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. But all that changed after the birth of their first child.
Debra had become 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 she found herself craving. Tom’s need for companionship and intimacy wasn’t a priority for her. Tom recognized that the passion so characteristic of early marriage is often short lived, but felt her lack of interest in him went beyond the usual explanations for a drop in libido.
Initially, he spoke to her about his feelings. He told her he didn’t feel important anymore. He kept asking, “What’s wrong? Did I do something wrong? Do you still think I’m attractive?” Sleep-deprived, hormonally altered, and overworked, Debra found herself having little compassion for her husband’s feelings. In fact, she commented, “I couldn’t believe he was complaining. I felt like I had two babies, not one.”
As the years passed, Debra’s repeated rejections of his advances hurt and angered Tom. He refocused his energies on himself, his work, and his friends. And the more he distanced himself, the less inclined Debra felt to be close physically. Now their infrequent sexual encounters, too often tainted by feelings of resentment and hurt, left them both feeling empty. Finally, I understood the roadblocks we encountered in our sessions.
Although Tom and Debra were scheduled to attend their next session together, only Debra showed up. Tom felt that therapy wasn’t helping, and he didn’t wish to return. She was devastated, very tearful, and eager to hear my suggestions about what to do next.
I told Debra, “The last time Tom was here, he shared how his not feeling close to you sexually made him question whether you love him. My guess is that he probably hasn’t felt important to you for very a long time.” I wondered whether her being more affectionate and showing interest in sex might satisfy a longing in him and, as a result, prompt him to be kinder and more involved at home. Although Debra understood my logic, she couldn’t imagine being physically affectionate, feeling as she did.
Fearful that time was running out, I cautioned her against waiting for him to change first because by then he might be gone. “Why don’t you try an experiment?” I asked. “For the next two weeks, even if you’re not entirely in the mood, be more attentive to him. Be flirtatious. Initiate sex a few times. Make him feel sexy. Let’s see what happens.” She agreed. Little did I know at the time that this offhanded, what-do-you-have-to-lose, suggestion would change the way I practiced couples therapy forever.
Debra returned two weeks later. I didn’t need a mental health degree to sense instantly that there’d been a marked improvement in their marriage. Debra went on to tell me that although it seemed rather awkward and stilted at first, she began her assignment by giving Tom several prolonged kisses when he came home from work. He seemed surprised. Realizing that comfort rather than fashion had been ruling her life ever since the kids were born, she also made a point of getting out of her sweat suit and getting into a new angora sweater and pair of jeans. Tom commented about her sweater, which pleased her. Debra made more of an effort to be around Tom in the evening, even if it meant just watching television together. He seemed curious about her presence in the family room, but even more curious about Debra’s suggestion to head for their bedroom in unison. They proceeded to make love for the first time in months.
Debra’s reaction to being sexual with Tom caught her off guard. Feelings of resentment and anger, which had for so long colored every interaction between them, now gave way to feelings of pleasure and connectedness. At one point, Tom gently touched her cheek and looked into her eyes, and she felt closer to him than she had in a very long time.
In the days that followed, she noticed that Tom was noticeably more relaxed and lighthearted at home. He joked with the kids and joined in their activities in the evening. She also happily reported that Tom was more playful with her and seemed more interested in her life. Tom even called her from work periodically just to check in and say “Hi.” They were talking more, too. Encouraged, Debra decided to continue with her “experiment.” I was relieved to have finally discovered a way to dislodge the logjam that had become their marriage.
Arousal Fuels Desire
I learned several important lessons from Debra and Tom. I’d always assumed that in order to become sexual, one must first feel sexual desire. But this assumption is at odds with other aspects of my practice. For example, because I believe that behavior change often precedes affect or cognitive changes, I often encourage depressed clients to push themselves to become more active, even if they don’t feel like it. Getting one’s feet moving often helps to relieve depression. Yet prior to Debra and Tom, I’d overlooked this action-oriented perspective in the area of sexuality. Not anymore. Here’s why.
Once I began to downplay the importance of one’s present mood state when deciding if and when to become sexual, I was amazed at what I was observing in my practice. I wish I had a dollar for every time a person has said to me, “Michele, I wasn’t in the mood when we started having sex, but once we got into it, I really enjoyed myself.”
This reaction is very much in line with recent research suggesting that countless people don’t experience spontaneous sexual thoughts or fantasies. However, when they’re receptive to their partners’ advances or initiate sexual contact themselves from a neutral state, being physically stimulated often leads to sexual arousal and a strong desire to continue touching. Hence, for many, desire actually follows arousal, a perspective that challenges the conventional model of human sexual response.
There’s a distinct benefit to educating clients about this refreshing definition of sexual desire. When people with “low desire” realize that they can and do experience sexual pleasure once they decide to get going, they stop thinking of themselves as “nonsexual” people–a self-concept that tends to perpetuate the problem–and start feeling “sexy” again.
Debra and Tom also challenged another dearly held assumption–that emotional intimacy precedes physical intimacy. At the time, I believed that when distant spouses improve communication and feel more emotionally connected, the rest of their marriage falls into place. But for Debra and Tom, it worked the other way around. Once Debra quit blaming Tom and became more attentive physically, touching unleashed in him a desire to please her and they both felt closer emotionally. I soon figured out that for some couples, touching is the quickest and most effective road back to emotional intimacy, not the other way around.
The Lukewarm Husband
When I discuss this “Nike Solution” in seminars, I sometimes get asked whether the women in my practice object to having to seduce their partners to get their emotional needs met in relationships. This question demonstrates erroneous thinking on two counts. First of all, contrary to popular belief, there are millions of marriages in which the man is lukewarm about sex and it’s his wife who longs to be touched. And not surprisingly, the dynamics in those marriages mirror those of Debra and Tom’s. Ed and Laura were one such couple.
I clearly remember Ed, a handsome man in his late thirties who was a physical therapist in private practice. He attended sessions alone. His wife, Laura, thirty-something as well, was a top manager for a large company. They argued frequently, causing Ed great unhappiness. At the crux of their disagreements were family-management issues. Because Ed’s schedule was more flexible than Laura’s, he was the primary caretaker for their four children. Ed attended parent-teacher conferences and doctor appointments solo, made sure there were meals on the table every evening, and looked after the children’s emotional needs. He often felt overwhelmed trying to balance his parenting obligations with those of his practice.
Ed told me that Laura resented the fact that she was the primary breadwinner because she wanted to spend more time with the children. Also, she had an underlying physical condition which caused excruciating chronic pain. She thought bed rest would be therapeutic. But for financial reasons, they both agreed that Laura needed to keep working.
Ed complained that when Laura returned home at night, she was irritable and extremely critical of his handling of family matters. Instead of feeling appreciated for the sacrifice he felt he was making, Ed felt ridiculed. After several sessions without much improvement, I asked Ed about their sexual relationship. He replied, “It’s nonexistent. When Laura’s critical, I want to stay about as far away from her as I can get. I can’t even imagine touching her.” I asked whether Laura had complained about this and Ed replied, “Oh, all the time.” And when she wasn’t complaining about the lack of affection, she resorted to angry outbursts about wet towels on the floor, pop cans in the family room, or the occasional work-related call made during “family time,” all symptoms of the rawness she felt inside. My advice to Ed echoed my suggestion to Debra–in essence, “Get your feet moving.”
Three weeks later, a more relaxed Ed returned, describing how the ice between Laura and him had melted. Ed hugged her affectionately throughout the weeks, initiated lovemaking, and returned to their goodnight/goodbye kiss rituals. Laura was happier, calmer, and gentler with him. Rather than her usual criticisms, she expressed appreciation for his contribution to their family. Because Ed felt valued by Laura, he began to show appreciation for her hard work and became more compassionate about her physical challenges.
What Is Real Giving?
The question about whether women in my practice object to having to seduce their partners to get their emotional needs met is off-base for another reason, too. It reflects a lack of in-depth understanding about the mechanics of all loving marriages. Even when a person isn’t the world’s most sexual being, rather than objecting to being sexual, he or she might actually derive joy and pleasure from pleasing a more physical spouse. Good marriages are based on mutual caretaking and real giving–but what is real giving?
In most relationships, we tend to give to others in the way we, ourselves, like to receive. If we like our spouses to give us space and privacy when we’re down and out, we tend to treat our spouses similarly when they’re down in the dumps. If we’re extremely sentimental and romantic about holidays and birthdays, we tend to be extravagant gift-givers on special days.
But what if our spouses are “talkers” and prefer sharing feelings rather than being given space when they’re upset? Is it really a gift to back off and let them sulk alone? And what if our spouses are less romantic and really prefer that no fuss be made over birthdays and holidays? Is it really a gift to give flashy presents and sappy Hallmark cards? I think not.
When it comes to feeling loved in a marriage, everybody has different requirements. Some people feel loved when their spouses spend time with them. Others feel loved when they’ve had “good talks.” A spouse’s kind deeds–pouring a cup of coffee, making a favorite meal, warming up a cold car in advance–can, for some, prompt feelings of love and connection.
But for many, touch says love like nothing else. Making love is love. When you’re married to one of those people, try as you may to express love in other ways–by doing kind things, fixing the vacuum cleaner, handling the lion’s share of the childcare, paying the bills, being available for heart-to-heart talks, earning lots of money, becoming a gourmet cook, and so on–your words and actions will fall on deaf ears and “deaf hearts.” People who feel love through touch accept no substitute. And unless you speak your spouse’s language, you aren’t doing real giving.
Does this mean that people should have sex anytime their spouses so desire? Absolutely not. But if they care about their marriages, there should be a heck of a lot more yeses than noes. And saying yes doesn’t necessarily mean having intercourse (although that should certainly be on the short list of things to do in marriage). There’s a whole raft of both subtle and overt behaviors–a flirtatious note left around the house, an x-rated e-mail, regular compliments about appearance, a suggestive comment, touch, or glance–that go a long way toward keeping passion alive and egos intact. People should practice them regularly.
Is It Really That Simple?
As a 26-six-year veteran of marriage to the same man, I can safely say with authority that there’s nothing simple about marriage. I know that for many people lacking sexual desire, it’s not simply a matter of getting started. Low sexual desire has many varied and often complicated causes, not all of them relational. Hormone fluctuations, underlying physical illnesses, medications (including some antidepressants and even birth control pills), depression, poor self-esteem, prior sexual abuse, and other serious sexual dysfunctions can be, and often are, at the root of a deadening of desire. All the “Just Do-Itism” in the world won’t make a dent in cases when other interventions are required.
But having said that, regardless of the causes of low desire, there’s no reason that anyone wanting a more robust sex life can’t have one, given what we now know about biological, personal, and relationship-oriented therapies. Desire is a decision. People must believe that passion, sexual intimacy, and physical connection are important and when they’re missing, decide to do something–get a medical check-up, take testosterone, seek individual or marital therapy, attend a marriage seminar. As therapists, we must remember that while emotional closeness breeds sexual intimacy, it works the other way around, too. Sometimes, all the talking and processing feelings in the world won’t break through an impenetrable wall of resistance. Action might.
I now have a homework assignment for self-proclaimed low-desire clients (both male and female) whose spouses are irritable, cranky, or in a cave. I urge them to take “The Great American Sex Challenge,” which goes like this: “For the next two weeks, regardless of how you feel, pay more attention to your sexual relationship. Flirt, initiate sex, put energy into your appearance, touch more. And watch your spouse closely for any changes.” This works so well that it’s become standard fare on many days in my sessions with couples. If you’re curious about how this might work with couples in your practice, I say, Just Do It.
Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, director of the Divorce Busting Center, is the author of the bestsellers The Sex-Starved Marriage and Divorce Busting.