Desire discrepancy spells t-r-o-u-b-l-e
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 10 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.”
Making a breakthrough
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… though 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.
On the next page: Why sex is important, How’s your libido?