Dear Ms. Shrink,
My husband and I have two kids, 7 and 4. We both work full time at demanding jobs. We never, ever have sex. I feel guilty about this even though I have no libido and it sounds like the last thing on earth I want to do. I can tell that my husband is hurt that we don’t have sex, but he has completely stopped initiating. While I can’t seem to get myself interested, I feel worried that this is going to lead to a divorce eventually and I don’t want that to happen. He is a good guy and I love him. What should I do? Help!
Livin' Libido Loca
You are not alone: this is a very common issue in marriages with young kids. I want to start by saying how great it is that you are smart and caring enough to think about it.
Taking some time to talk about this with your partner would let him know that you see this as an issue and you take it seriously. I’ll bet that would mean something to him. You are not just blowing him off and thinking it’s a great situation. But it would probably help the conversation if you have thought about some of these issues before you plunge in, so let’s look at some of the common dynamics.
You are exhausted, over-worked and under-supported, like a lot of working parents in the U.S., so sex probably feels uninspiring, like one more thing to add to your endless to-do list. At times it probably even feels irritating that your husband has this sexual desire for you. You are not in the mood for so many reasons, and you might wish that he were more understanding of that. Why is sex such a big deal to him? Ask him, kindly, and try to listen undefensively to what he says. You may hear more about his feelings than normal, but you have to be non-defensive and calm when you approach him. Tone matters.
You say you think he is probably disappointed and hurt and I’m guessing you are right. But to put it another, deeper way—your husband is probably feeling unloved. Rejection hurts. Whether he has withdrawn, or is irritable or hostile about it, it starts with hurt. And at the most basic level of friendship and marriage, you do not want to hurt your husband.
The complicated fact is that when one partner decides they are not interested in sex, commonly there is still an expectation of monogamy in the relationship. This puts the higher-desire partner in an extremely difficult position. They may put up with it, but it does not foster closeness.
The fact that you don’t feel desire for sex these days does not necessarily mean that you are “not a sexual person,” or that you are no longer attracted to your husband. You are tired and probably have kids crawling on you all day. It’s a big output of energy to show up and be present for adult time with your partner after long crazy days.
But if you are open to re-connecting with your sexuality again, it’s important to know this: research has shown that for many people the customary “stages” of desire and arousal (having a sexual thought or feeling, and them becoming physically aroused) are actually reversed. For these folks, there has to be physical arousal before there is awareness of desire. This might be part of what is going on for you. In this case, it would take a little bit of fooling around before you would feel into sex, but you would end up having a good time and being glad you did it. Does this sound familiar? I hear it a lot from lower-desire partners who decide to make sex a priority.
In another reversal, it can be a boost to the ego to feel sexual and desirous—you don’t have to wait till you feel skinny. For many of us it makes life a little more exciting to have sex. So even if you are not feeling it initially—you may feel good about yourself if you act like a more sexual person and allow some playfulness about it to come into your life.
Taking a few minutes now to think about or remember what stirs up desire in you; a story, an image, and giving that a little attention, may make your day a little more fun, too. For many of us, feeling desire in your body is a wonderful thing. And sex is a powerful way of bonding and connecting with yourself as well as the person you care about.
P.S. I love the work of Esther Perel, author of “Mating in Captivity”on these issues and highly recommend her book about sustaining desire in long term relationships. She also writes a lot about the aftermath of affairs and is extremely cogent on that as well.
Elizabeth Sullivan is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in downtown San Francisco. She specializes in working with all of the pieces of a family: adults, kids, couples and family groups to help people feel closer, happier, stronger and more alive. She is a frequent writer on psychological topics of interest to everyone, and a contributor to Psych Central blog, Psyched magazine, and Your Teen magazine. She trained at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Pierce Street Integral Counseling Center, and at the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis. She is a mom to two boys and thus has learned to love the Warriors. Visit her online at www.elizabethsullivansfmft.com
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