The Sex-Starved Marriage

In the movie Far From Heaven, four young housewives discuss their sex lives over lunchtime daiquiris. The boldest of the group coaxes the others to reveal how often their husbands want to make love.

“Mike insists on once a week,” one woman finally blurts out.
“You get off easy!” the others laugh.

“Ron is more like two or three times a week!” another woman sighs.

“A girlfriend of mine,” confides the ringleader. “Her husband — ” She dissolves into tipsy giggles. “Every night of the week, and three times on the weekend! Can you imagine?”

The movie is set in the ’50s and the clothing and interior decorating reflect the era, as does the girlish modesty of the confessions. Sex is presented as a wifely duty, an activity that, while not unpleasant, is engaged in because one’s husband insists on it. Still, while the women roll their eyes at their husbands’ appetites, the tone is one of thrilled, bubbling excitement.

Half a century later, in a San Francisco kitchen, the subject is the same but the conversation is very different. Seven women are sipping wine around a long, comfortable table. These women are in their 30s and 40s; all have several children. Some work outside the home; others do not.

As in the movie, the conversation focuses on sex. But these contemporary wives do not consider the bedroom the husband’s domain, nor do they leave the timing or frequency up to him. The confessions are reluctantly given, but not out of modesty, and there is no undercurrent of naughty excitement, as there was in the 1950s scene. Instead, these women sound resigned — and exhausted.

“We’re talking once a year,” says one woman. “I think we’ve done it once in the last year. Maybe twice.”

“That makes me feel better!” says another woman. “I can barely remember the last time we had sex. I’m into it, but it seems like he’s always too tired these days.”

“We’re both too tired,” confides a third. “In the old days, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. But these days, when bedtime comes around, all I want to do is read my book and sleep.”

A seeming epidemic

These women’s experiences reflect what the press and popular icons like Oprah Winfrey identify as a growing cultural phenomenon: the sexless marriage. Self-help guru Dr. Phil ominously dubbed the sexless marriage an “undeniable epidemic.” Scores of new books and articles in women’s magazines offer advice for battling marital celibacy. Meanwhile, a recent article in Newsweek attempted to quantify the problem: “It is difficult to say exactly how many of the 113 million married Americans are too exhausted or too grumpy to get it on, but some psychologists estimate that 15 to 20 percent of couples have sex no more than 10 times a year, which is how the experts define sexless marriage.”

And the problem isn’t confined to married people: it’s an issue for many long-term couples, married or unmarried, gay or straight.

So what is going on? Contemporary society is drenched in sexual imagery, from the raunchy rap lyrics and MTV vignettes that are now an accepted part of teenage culture, to the suggestive ads that fill every glossy magazine, to the booming online porn industry. Given the Zeitgeist, it would be easy to assume that more of us are having more sex more of the time.

Not like the pictures

But that doesn’t appear to be the case for many contemporary couples. “Certainly a lot of people believe that they are having less sex than they should be having,” says marriage and family therapist Mary Ann Leff in a recent interview. “Has the problem gotten worse in recent years? Unfortunately, we have very little in the way of accurate reporting to know how much sex people were having in the past.”

Leff and other experts point out that when it comes to sex, modern couples have very different expectations than their parents and grandparents did. Baby boomers came of age in a time of unprecedented sexual openness and experimentation. “People today feel that they ought to have a satisfying sex life, and that they ought to be sexual with each other over long periods of time,” says Leff. In other words, we may not be having significantly less sex than our ancestors did; we may just be more unhappy at the dearth of it.

Still, it is a fact that many modern couples see their sex life crowded out by the relentless demands of children, work pressures, not enough time alone — and simply not enough time. Allowing your physical relationship to fall to the bottom of a frantic “to-do list,” experts say, can lead to dissatisfaction, loneliness, separation, and even divorce.

Not just how often

In her recent book, The Sex-Starved Marriage, author and therapist Michele Weiner Davis, underscores the importance sex plays in a healthy relationship: “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. In short, sex is a powerful tie that binds.”

The unraveling of that tie, she adds, poses a threat to the relationship itself. “Unsatisfying sexual relationships are the all-too-frequent causes of alienation, infidelity and divorce,” says Weiner Davis. She contends that it isn’t a matter of how often a couple has sex, but how satisfied both partners feel: “A sex-starved marriage is more about the fallout that occurs when one spouse is deeply unhappy with his/her sexual relationship and this unhappiness is ignored, minimized, or dismissed.”

In the case of New Jersey couple Robert and Melinda Williams,* a husband’s dissatisfaction turned to misery — then anger and alienation. “She just wasn’t interested anymore,” says Robert. “And even though I understood the reasons why — the kids, lack of sleep — I was still hurt every time she turned me down. At one point — this was at our absolute nadir — I decided to wait until she took the initiative in bed. Nothing happened for over six months! When I finally got fed up and asked her if she knew how long it had been since we’d last had sex, she had no idea. It just didn’t matter to her at all.”

Over time, the couples’ relationship deteriorated as Robert reacted to Melinda’s rejection with distance and sarcasm and she grew increasingly impatient with his moodiness and anger. Robert decided that he wanted a separation.

New Hampshire native Benjamin Frank* has a different approach to his wife’s lack of interest in sex: he finds satisfaction elsewhere. “If it weren’t for my kids, I’d be out the door, even though there is a lot about our marriage that I appreciate,” says Frank. “But I am a sensual, sexual person, and I refuse to cut off that side myself. We’ve talked the issue to death, we’ve gone to counseling. Now I deal with the problem by having ‘no strings attached’ relationships, and indulging in pornography whenever I get the chance. This is a part of my life that I have to keep separate from my marriage, of course, and I know it creates distance. But I don’t feel like I have any choice.”

These examples might make it seem as if men were the ones most affected by a sexless marriage, but Weiner Davis says that isn’t true. Men, she says, are just as likely as women to be the member of the couple with the low sex drive — although they are less likely to admit it. “If you’ve been thinking that low sexual desire is only ‘a woman’s thing,’ think again,” she says. “Many sex experts believe that low desire in men is America’s best-kept secret But make no mistake about it: there are millions of people, women AND men, who just don’t feel turned on.”

Try a little tenderness

Not far from therapist Mary Ann Leff’s office in Berkeley, California, students hold hands as they cross the university campus; a couple sits on a bench near the fountain, alternately kissing and exchanging whispered confidences; pierced and tattooed teens form loud, joyful clusters on Telegraph Avenue, or stop to eat and flirt at Blondie’s Pizza. Such romance and easy sexual energy is exactly what many of the couples who seek out Leff are missing.

Leff approaches each of the couples differently, depending on their individual circumstances, but she does have some general advice. “I think that people look at the amount of sex they are having rather than how deeply connected they feel,” says Leff. “For busy couples with children and jobs, sex can be hard to get to. But there are other ways you can stay connected and convey the feeling that ‘Yes, we are lovers,’ even if you are only having sex once a month.”

Leff encourages couples to find ways to develop intimacy throughout the day, not just in the bedroom at night. “Try to cultivate a sexiness with your partner, outside of the times you are having sex,” she advises. “Call each other on the phone, for example, and flirt and make suggestive comments: That builds up your juices, and it is a way of connecting. Or take the time to touch your partner, to snuggle. This will also make you feel more sexual, more attractive, more connected.”

Still, the partner who consistently refuses sex needs to examine his or her attitudes, according to both Leff and Weiner-Davis. If one member of a couple is avoiding sex because of simmering tension or unresolved differences, that person needs to communicate or risk undermining the relationship. In his book Passionate Marriage sex therapist David Schnarch argues that both partners in a relationship need to stand up for themselves and learn to ask for what they want — in the bedroom and outside it. Interestingly, separate equals exciting. Couples, Schnarch told one interviewer, “are usually locked together, emotionally fused. More attachment doesn’t make people happier, and it kills sex.”

Turning up the heat

Part of the problem may come down to a myth about sex itself. “Many people believe that they have to be overcome with desire before they have sex,” says Leff. “I think in a long-term relationship, you just have to have a willingness to be sexual. You just need to respond to your partner’s overtures. And the more frequently you have sex and it is satisfying, the more that reinforces your willingness to do it again.” In other words, simply having sex can fuel desire and turn up the heat.

Weiner Davis agrees: “Desire is really a decision. You have to decide to make having a vibrant, exciting, emotionally satisfying sexual relationship a priority. You have to continually discover and rediscover new ways to keep your sexual energy alive.” Her book offers a number of ways for couples to do just that, from buying silky lingerie to changing their approach to sex.

Above all, couples need to make time for sex, not just wait for the mood to strike. San Francisco family therapist Tato Torres says that many couples who are deeply committed to each other admit, when pressed, that they don’t take basic steps necessary for maintaining their relationship.

“If your relationship is really important to you, then you have to feed and cherish it,” says Torres. “That means being interested in each other. It means dressing up for each other. It means taking a weekend together, even if you’re convinced that you don’t have the time.” Torres says he refuses to work with couples who aren’t willing to make their relationship a priority.

Mary Ann Leff says that many people cling to the notion that to be genuine, sex has to happen spontaneously: “Somehow, scheduling sex seems unromantic. But think about it: When you were young and single, you probably weren’t entirely spontaneous. If you thought you’d be having sex that night, you brought along condoms; you didn’t wear your torn underwear. In the same way, there is nothing wrong with couples being creative about planning their sexual encounters.”

For Robert and Melinda, in the end it took the specter of divorce to get them back together. Without Melinda’s knowledge, Robert began spending all his free time searching for a new place to live. When he found an apartment and signed the lease, he went home and told Melinda that he was moving out and that they needed to sit down and tell the children. Melinda was stunned. “For the first time,” Robert recalls, “She understood how unhappy I was. By then it wasn’t just about the sex anymore: We’d gotten in the habit of sniping at each other and living separate lives in many ways.

“Then she surprised ME,” Robert recounts. “I thought she’d be relieved and readily agree to a separation, because things were so rotten between us.” Instead, Melinda’s shock gave way to a flood of tears, as she begged Robert to give their marriage one last chance. She proposed that they go to couples counseling, and for the first time in a long time she seemed to be interested in what he had to say. Overcome by her grief — and her sudden willingness to work on the relationship — Robert agreed to try a reconciliation.
“Now it’s not perfect, of course,” says Robert. “But we’ve developed a compromise that we can both live with. We’re being kinder to each other; we’re making time for each other, going away for weekends alone. We’re intimate again — on many levels.”

Deeper problems

Mary Ann Leff, who has been married for 23 years, is energetic and funny — and boundlessly optimistic about the ability of couples to resolve their sexual differences. Still, she cautions that for some couples, the problems are more complex than a change in attitude or even the threat of divorce can resolve. “It concerns me that so much of what is written on this subject simplifies the problem,” she says, adding that many couples have vulnerabilities that are reflected in their sex life. One partner may be afraid of rejection, for example, while the other is afraid of merging, which can affect the sexual connection. Therapy is often the best way for couples to work out these fears.

In addition, “sex is remarkably sensitive to what’s happening in all areas of individual and family life,” says therapist and relationships expert Judith Wallerstein. “Illness, especially surgery, as well as depression, worry, fatigue, and stress can affect a man and woman’s intimate life.” In fact, sex therapists agree that if physical or emotional issues of any type are taking a toll on your intimate life, you need to seek help. Among other things, doctors or therapists can effectively treat changes triggered by menopause and problems like impotence and premature ejaculation.

Eloisa Smith* found out the hard way that her husband had psychological problems that accounted for their dismal sex life. “I always thought that Tim had a lower libido than I did,” she says. ” It was a problem, but I thought it was something that we could work on over time.” Through a series of accidents and guilty disclosures from Tim, Eloisa learned that he was in fact spending a lot of time indulging in pornography, and that the habit had become an expensive addiction.

For Eloisa, this revelation made it hard for her to enjoy sex with her husband on the infrequent occasions when it occurred. “I would imagine the women he’d been watching and getting turned on by, and it made me feel unattractive and rejected. The fact that he would choose that over intimacy with me — that was really hurtful. It is still hurtful.”

Today, Tim is in therapy, and he and Eloisa are slowly, tentatively attempting to rebuild their sexual connection — but it isn’t easy. “I feel like we have a very long way to go,” says Eloisa.

The passionate marriage

For all the dire press reports and the widespread alarm about the phenomenon of the sexless marriage, many of people in long-term relationships interviewed for this story confessed to having sex regularly and happily.

That’s not surprising to sex therapist David Schnarch, who contends that sex between partners has the potential to become even more satisfying over time — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In his books, Passionate Marriage and Resurrecting Sex, Schnarch offers the optimistic opinion that our sex lives can become more fulfilling as we age, not less.

Relationship expert Judith Wallerstein sees the creation of a loving and enduring sexual relationship as one of the central tasks of marriage. Part of this work, she suggests, is resolving the tensions between “I” and “we.” Wallerstein says that each partner needs autonomy, but adds that “the shared identity of marriage requires a shift from the ‘I’ of the young adult to the solid and lasting ‘we.’ ”

Carla France* was at the San Francisco kitchen table on the night when her friends were making their sexual disclosures. She remained silent, almost embarrassed — because, she told me later, her experience was so different from the others. She and her husband, Paul, would seem to have the perfect prescription for a sexless marriage: three small children, shaky finances, and brutal work schedules. In fact, they have an active sex life and a strong relationship — something that Carla attributes in part to the happiness they feel in bed.

Pamela Smythe* was also at the table that night: She was the woman who nostalgically recalled the days when she and her husband couldn’t keep their hands off one another. Since that conversation, Pamela and her husband have managed to rekindle their connection, and their story may offer encouragement for others.

Pamela says that after their second child was born, their sex life plummeted until they were making love only once every six months. “We’d always had a strong connection, but I was the one with the stronger sex drive, so I usually initiated it,” she says. “But now I didn’t want it. My husband didn’t want it. We were too tired, and we had too many kids pawing at us all the time.”

After several years of this, Pamela grew depressed. “It was a kind of a mid-life crisis. I was feeling fat and dumpy, and my husband wasn’t paying any attention to me. I felt like I was over the hill. I was thinking, ‘No one will find me attractive ever again, not even my husband.’ “

Everything changed when Pamela met a man, someone with whom she worked closely every day on a short-term project. He was older than she was, and very married, and Pamela wasn’t interested in an affair. Still, she found herself eagerly looking forward to their times together. “We had an instant rapport, and we laughed a lot,” she recalls. “He was interested in me: my life, my ideas. Something about that little spark, that little flirtation, gave me the impetus to put energy into my relationship again.”

So Pamela began several conversations with her husband about how they could improve their relationship. These discussions were difficult at first: Her husband was defensive, even desperate to change the subject. Pamela persisted, and it turned out that he’d been feeling lonely in the marriage too, and discouraged by their lack of intimacy and virtually nonexistent sex life. They began having regular dates — and more sex. She told him she wanted him to compliment her more, and he told her that she needed to work on her snappishness and negativity.

As a result, their relationship blossomed. She and her husband are more affectionate; they hug and touch each other a lot, the way they used to, and seek each other out during the day for long talks. And they’re having great sex. “It’s wonderful to have my sex life back,” says Pamela happily, with a thrilled, slightly naughty laugh. “It makes me feel young again.”

*Not her real name.


Interview with Mary Ann Leff, a marriage and family therapist based in Berkeley, California

Interview with Tato Torres, a San Francisco therapist

The Sex-Starved Marriage: A Couples Guide to Boosting Their Marriage Libido. Michele Weiner Davis Simon and Schuster. 2003

The Good Marriage: How &Why Love Lasts. Judith S. Wallerstein &Sandra Blakeslee. Warner Books. 1996

Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love &Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships. David Schnarch, PhD. Henry Holt and Company. 1997

Why Zebras Dont Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. Robert M. Sapolsky. WH Freeman &Co. 1998

Newsweek: June 30, 2003 We’re Not In the Mood For married couples with kids and busy jobs, sex just isn’t what it used to be. How stress cause strife in the bedroom — and beyond.

Resurrecting Sex: Resolving Sexual Problems and Rejuvenating Your Relationship. David Schnarch and James Maddock. HarperCollins. 2002

© HealthDay

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