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The Limits of Fantasizing

Q. My husband and I have been married for twenty-four years. We are both Christians. We have a great sex life as well as a good relationship outside the bedroom. He enjoys talking to me during sex, and it is what he talks about that concerns me. He talks as if other people are doing things to us. He once told me he would never actually do these things, i.e., bring in other people for group sex, but he enjoys fantasizing with me about it. I don't know how to talk with him about this. What should I do?

A. Congratulations on being in your twenty-fifth year of a healthy marriage! You should celebrate your remarkable success.

Now, about your husband's sex talk. Not knowing all the details, we may not address your concerns correctly, but we'll try.

First some remarks about the "talk." Although sex play is primarily visual and tactile, for some people vocalizing can be a stimulating part of the interaction. This may relate to how sexuality was learned. Boys often hear about sex from other boys during adolescence. The language used is not very sophisticated. Consequently the vulgar vocabulary of middle school locker rooms provides the foundational building blocks of sexual arousal and enjoyment. The images and ideas that contribute to those early fantasies are often laced with all manner of un-Christian components. You may have already had conversations about this with your husband, but if not it might be helpful for you to ask what it means to him.

Our second issue is what his desires or expectations include. Does he want you to enter into his fantasy exploits verbally or just be aroused by his words? He may get his stimulation just through talking. For some individuals saying words or describing sexual activities is quite exciting and essential to sexual fulfillment. Hearing some specific verbal response may not be necessary. It sounds like you'd like to know how he wants you to talk with him about it.

Third, there's the issue of how this preference of his impacts you. We assume that since you describe a healthy relationship (sexually and otherwise) that this behavior hasn't created serious barriers for your sexual enjoyment. If that assumption is wrong, then it would be important for you to explore with your husband the feelings you get and how they affect your sexual enjoyment.

Finally, there is one spiritual concern. If these fantasies involve specific people, they may raise the issue of sexual boundaries and an adulterous thought life. Although it's probably impossible never to think sexually about someone other than your mate, neither is it healthy to nurture those images. They can contribute to lowering the resistance to infidelity. Of course, if your husband continues to show actual interest in pursuing group sex, you need to address that right away. Introducing others into the marriage bed would damage your marriage in immeasurable ways. We'd hate to see anything interfere with your quarter century of marital success!

Why Doesn't She Like Sex?

Q. It seems like my wife's libido is shut off all the time, while mine runs continuously. Even if we do not have intercourse, I find just being close to her arousing and fulfilling. However, she avoids situations like this because she thinks they will lead to sex. Sometimes I wonder if she is cheating on me because of her lack of desire. She does seem to make an effort to initiate sex when I tell her I'd like her to, but it's really discouraging when I have to bring it up or do all the initiating.

A. The basic male-female struggle about sexual drive does suggest that the libido "switch" is defective in women—stuck in the "off" position. Fortunately that's not completely true, but compared to the male switch it often seems that way. It mostly relates to testosterone. Just acknowledging the difference and learning ways to adapt seems to be the best answer. Part of that adaptation entails talking about how it feels to each of you. Accepting and understanding it as a normal fact of life can pave the way for dealing with these other issues.

One of these that can be managed is the enticing menu of arousal factors. Testosterone plays a big part, but it's not the only thing that turns that switch on or off. For women the keys seem to be primarily relational. Whether or not she feels "cherished" seems to be the master-switch. When she feels put down, devalued, or abandoned, the switch clicks off. Open communication is the only way to discover how she feels and is also the primary way to correct the deficiencies. That includes the non-verbal communication, too. A scowl or look of exasperation sends very loud messages.

Of course, you and your wife know about male arousal. That's why she resists physical touch and non-sexual intimacy. She knows you! Let's face it. It is hard for a man to cuddle without developing sexual arousal and wanting to continue to orgasm. That's the reason most women want to maintain a safe distance.

To overcome those barriers it becomes necessary to learn to express needs. We've found that many couples have a firm reluctance to do this. Not just sexual needs and desires but wants and preferences in general. The almost universal attitude is an assumption that if a mate really loves you, your needs and preferences will just be known. That is a fatal myth. Most of us are not able to operate that way. Maybe we should. It would be loving, thoughtful, and considerate. We probably have been told or at least had hints, but the fact is we're not very good at remembering what our mate wants. It seems to work much better to accept each other's limitations in mind reading and give the grace of just saying what we need. For instance, for you to tell your wife that you like when she initiates sex and are in a rare condition of vulnerability to sexual seduction right now would be better than remaining quiet and frustrated. Of course it works both ways. She may need to let you know that she finds herself with the irresistible urge to prepare herself to vamp you if she only had someone to vacuum the living room and get the kids to bed.

One other thing comes to mind. That is looking at how sexual behaviors are interpreted within a marriage. The nuances of our taste buds can create unnecessary bitterness. For instance, in your question you interpret that her switch is always off, that she interprets your attraction as lust, you wonder if her disinterest indicates infidelity, and you probably have conflicting interpretations about gender roles in initiating sexual play. More often than not these impressions or beliefs are not explored. It's remarkable how often they are mistaken. Even when the perceptions are accurate the reasons behind the behaviors may be surprising. For instance Melissa was taught that nice girls don't behave seductively. She wasn't told that the rule doesn't apply toward her own husband after marriage. Louis "learned," probably from the media, that all women are highly motivated toward sexual play and if one isn't, it probably reflects on the attractiveness of the male she's with. No one mentioned the other hundred factors.

You probably just wanted to be encouraged about "bringing it up" or "doing all the initiating." Well, that's understandable. Keep bringing it up and never stop initiating!

Confused About Vaginal Orgasm

Q. My wife and I have been married for eight months, and although we have a very good marriage, we are confused about our sexual relationship. Our "problem" is that although my wife is willing to have sex as often as our schedules allow (usually two to four times a week), she doesn't seem to get any physical enjoyment from intercourse. She is, however, often able to achieve orgasm when I manually stimulate her clitoris. We both think that some of this could be caused by her family's poor attitude about sex. I've suggested we talk to a Christian counselor about this, but she doesn't like the idea of discussing our sex life with someone else. Can you help?

A. As you have discovered, or always knew, the orgasmic response in women is primarily related to clitoral stimulation. Some researchers believe there is no such thing as a "vaginal orgasm." Even when the climax is attained during penile thrusting, the clitoris is being stimulated by the peroneal pressure or directly by the shaft of the penis.

We don't see this physiological and anatomical fact as an either/or issue. Unless penetration is painful or repulsive to your wife, you can each enjoy the maximum pleasure of your sexual intimacy. You may not have simultaneous orgasm, but that isn't usually attained and certainly not necessary for satisfaction.

We know you may not like hearing that you're still "newlyweds," but the fact is that you have only begun to discover all the wonders of marital intimacy. As you continue to enjoy each other, you may find ways to overcome whatever blocks there may be to total pleasure. Exploring the family-of-origin attitudes with a therapist could someday provide new insights, but that should come only when you're both comfortable with the idea. Meanwhile, reading some good books about sexuality and sexual techniques might contribute to your growth toward oneness. For instance, some positions of intercourse increase (or decrease) the intensity of clitoral stimulation. Meanwhile, enjoy each other!

Begging My Husband for Sex

Q. I was curious about whether or not a marriage is headed for trouble if there's only sexual intimacy within it once every month or two. My husband and I have been married for almost four years now, and he is only intimate with me, on average, every month-and-a-half. I've reached the point where I feel I can no longer talk to him about this because I feel like I'm begging to be made love to. I love my husband, but I am so afraid that if this continues that one morning I am going to wake up and have absolutely no feelings for him. Can love last in a marriage with this type of problem?

A. Can "love last" in a marriage with this type of problem? Oh, yes! Definitely! Not only can love last when sexual frequency issues remain, but it can grow and deepen to rich levels of joy and intimacy. Focusing on ways to express your love effectively in ways besides sex is crucially important. As you develop those ways to communicate love you may even adjust better sexually.

Having said that and sincerely wanting you to grasp the truth of that, we would also like to respond to the very real problem and pain you're expressing. It's hard to live with sexual frustration. Working together toward a better sexual rhythm would be ideal.

Our culture is much more inclined toward a man's having the higher drive toward sex than a woman. That makes your situation especially painful, and it probably doesn't help for your friends to say, "I wish that were my problem." You may even question your own sexual attractiveness or adequacy as a sexual partner. It's probably not that simple. Understanding your husband and accepting his individuality is an important first step. He may be struggling with his own self-image at this point. There are many possible factors for both of you to consider. Talking about them in an open, non-blaming way is essential.

There is a huge range in the level of sexual drive, even in males. It is affected by physical factors such as testosterone levels, thyroid function, diabetes, vascular and neurological systems, drug and alcohol use, side-effects of medication, or even fatigue. A thorough physical evaluation may provide an answer. Often when a man doesn't have a very high libido, his sense of inadequacy and fear of failure may become controlling factors in his willingness to do anything. Discovering some physical explanation may be a relief.

Libido is also affected by emotional and relational factors. These include depression, anxiety, guilt, and anger. The fact that you're expressing your disappointment could contribute to any of those. The male ego tends to be a bit fragile and since talking about feelings may be unknown territory he's likely to clam up. These patterns would only intensify his sense of failure, further dampening his interest in sex.

There are three things you might consider doing to try to change the picture. One is to get professional help to deal with the problem. I'm guessing that you don't think he'd go with you to a counselor, but sometimes husbands exhibit surprising behaviors. Another is to try seductive behavior. If he's fearful, he may be reluctant to take the risk of initiating sex. This would include just asking for some loving. Expressing your need in a straightforward way isn't "begging." It's just clear communication. Finally you can focus on his non-sexual needs, discover his language of love, and sublimate your sexual needs for some months to concentrate on expressing agape love to him.

Melissa and Louis McBurney, M.D., are marriage therapists and co-founders of Marble Retreat in Marble, Colorado, where they counsel clergy couples.

If you have a question you'd like addressed, send your question to:

Real Sex
Marriage Partnership
465 Gundersen Drive
Carol Stream, Illinois 60188

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Desire; Fantasies; Intimacy; Marriage; Sex
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 2001
Posted September 30, 2008

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