Unhappy in Bed

Before I got married, I assumed sex would be great. Most people do. My parents were very affectionate with one another and did a good job of explaining the gift of married sex. Now that I'm married, however, I hear from friends that not all couples feel that way.

When he's not in the mood

Lisa, a friend from college, got married in her 30s. Though sexually active in her late teens, she spent the better part of a decade abstaining from sex and presumed her "secondary virginity" would pay off in a healthy sex life with her husband. Marrying a virgin made it seem even more likely.

But to hear her talk, it's far from ideal. "I have so much more of a sex drive than he does, and it's really tough. He's reluctant to talk about it, and I'm just frustrated and lonely." Married for three years, things haven't improved and their challenges have grown.

By their first anniversary, Lisa and Brad were expecting. Once the baby arrived, Lisa could honestly say, "Brad's a very loving husband and wonderful father." But their sexual disconnect continued. Despite their overall struggles with intimacy, Lisa got pregnant again when their newborn was just two months old. After his arrival and two back-to-back pregnancies she was eager to express herself physically. "Though my body's not back to what it was, I'm so ready to be intimate with Brad," she admitted. "But he's just not interested. I don't know what to do."

Though doing her best to find help, the dearth of information about low libido in men simply adds to her frustration. "Everything I read points to the woman as the sexual non-aggressor, the one with the headache, the one who's too tired. What's wrong with us?"

The past gets in the way

Another friend has the opposite problem. Meg's dissatisfaction is more typical: Her husband wants a lot of sex and she wants little. "I really love my husband," she says, "but sometimes I hate it when he kisses me; sometimes I actually hate it when he touches me."

Part of her struggle is hormonal. "Just three months after we were married, I got pregnant and my hormones started raging." After 4 years of marriage, she and Justin have two toddlers and are expecting number three. Add to that one miscarriage, and there have been only four months since their wedding when she was neither pregnant nor nursing.

Now that the kids are here, Meg gives the bulk of her affection to them. "I give so much to the kids physically and emotionally that a lot of times I don't have anything left for Justin at the end of the day. Often, I can't see sex as a need because I don't need it, or not that much. I'll think to myself, I don't believe you. How can you need it so much?"

The hardest thing for Meg to overcome, however, is her past. She grew up in a conservative Catholic home, but that didn't stop her brothers from displaying pornographic pictures on their walls and "reading" Playboy magazines. Worse, her parents knew and didn't stop it. When Meg started dating, her mom encouraged her to come on to guys "or they won't like you." "That got me into trouble," says Meg. Not the least of which was being raped by a guy she dated a police officer.

Like Lisa, Meg would like to fix her problem. "I feel like I'm a failure as a wife; it affects Justin's mood. When it's been too long since our last encounter, he gets grumpy and irritable, almost like having PMS. But when we have sex, he's a different person, he's content.

"I'm tempted to believe sex is all guys care about and I think it's way too important to them. I don't like to see that it makes Justin go from grumpy to elated. But I know his needs aren't just physical. When I'm sexually available to him, he feels accepted. It fills up his love bank. I really have to keep in mind that my love for him needs to be expressed this way because this is important to him."

Thankfully, sexual dissatisfaction does not necessarily mean a relationship is doomed. Meg says, "This issue can be so divisive in marriage and I am blessed that it is not in mine. Justin and I rarely get angry at each other, but sex has probably been the one issue that has caused the most tension. I think we cope with it well because, despite my own insecurities about sexual image issues, I can always trust that Justin will take me seriously, respect me and place my best interests before his own."

The courage to face it

My friend Kathryn didn't realize she needed help till her husband brought it up. He mentioned that her idea of what was permissible in the marriage bed seemed to be shrinking. He was right. "It had gotten to the point that what I thought was OK was little more than the missionary position," she recalls.

He suggested counseling. "I didn't want to go," she admits. "I dreaded it because I knew I would have to deal with issues in my past. But we both knew we were struggling. Neither one of us was happy with our sex life."

She agreed to go, but it wasn't easy. Not only did they address painful issues, but their counselor suggested an unconventional course of treatment: sexual abstinence. "At the time, I thought Tim would be horrified. But he wasn't, he simply said, OK, we'll do what we've got to do.'

"Our counselor explained that the purpose of abstinence is to remove the possibility of sex and therefore the tension so you can focus on other issues in the relationship. I was able to stop thinking, He's just after sex. It removed the suspicion of why he acted a certain way. It also helped me realize that suspicion only exists in an unhealthy relationship.

"In a healthy relationship, having sex is just as natural as reaching out and holding hands when you're in the mall. It's an extension of your love. It flows out of you naturally. That flow for us was blocked by a lot of issues we both needed to deal with."

Kathryn also discovered a physical hurdle to sexual freedom. "After reading about low libido, I decided to get a doctor's opinion. It turns out I had a testosterone deficiency." This may come as a surprise to many women who don't realize they have testosterone, too. "So many women think testosterone is a man's hormone," Kathryn says, "but men and women both have it and my body wasn't producing enough."

After analyzing the results of a blood test, the doctor diagnosed a daily application of testosterone gel. "It's a simple process. I just rub a measured amount of the gel into my skin as part of my morning routine. And it doesn't cause any weird side effects. I don't have a mustache or huge biceps. I'm still feminine.

"Our healing came through both treating my testosterone deficiency and being willing to look at deeper causes." After eight months of weekly sessions, Kathryn can say, "Counseling gave me freedom. We still have to work through occasional struggles like every couple, but now I'm free.

"I just want other women to know, you don't have to settle. If your sex life isn't good, don't be satisfied. Get help."

A secret problem

By now, you may have guessed that the names in this story are pseudonyms even mine because none of my friends wanted to be identified. Sexual dissatisfaction is too painful and too personal. It's not something you want others to know about. But it's also a very common problem and one that can improve, as Kathryn's story shows. My friends have learned and are learning that through counseling, and in some cases, medical intervention, healing is possible. Because sex is a vital part of a healthy marriage, it's worth doing the work to get well.

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