Q. My husband says that I am not sexually aggressive enough. He would like me to initiate sex sometimes, but I have always been shy, and I just do not feel comfortable doing that. It is beginning to affect our marriage. What can I do?
A. Years ago we heard an insightful observation about one difference between men and women. This wisdom said, "Men are soul modest and women are body modest." That idea has helped us deal with this issue because it enables men to understand their wives' reticence to initiating sex. Most men can identify with their own resistance to exposing their innermost feelings, dreams, fears, and insecurities, even to a loving wife. Realizing the depth of that resistance and the irrationality of that attitude has helped many husbands accept the "body modesty" of their mates. This encourages both partners to work together on overcoming the fear of exposure, husbands of their emotions, wives of their sexuality.
Many factors contribute to this basic difference. One is the male hormone testosterone. This normal sex hormone is potent in stimulating sexual drive and circulates at much higher levels in the bloodstream of men. The result: Men think about and anticipate sexual interaction far more often than women.
A second factor is the cultural training of boys and girls. Girls have traditionally been taught to be more sexually reserved. The innate modesty about sexual exposure and aggressiveness often extends into the marriage relationship. Often we counsel women who not only avoid initiating sexual play but are also reluctant to ever let their husbands see them naked. That is unfortunate, since men are responsive primarily to visual stimulation.
A third gender difference affecting sexual expression is the male desire to feel potent. One way this is communicated is through his need to feel sexually wanted. I've rarely talked to a male who didn't fantasize that women have an irresistible drive for sex—with him.
So there you have it: a male with surging hormones, fragile self-confidence, and emotional guardedness, and his mate with a desire for relational intimacy, sexual reserve, and resistance to being reduced to a sex object. No wonder becoming one flesh is a challenge!
To work through this, you first need to understand that these differences are natural and give each other some grace. Then, you need to commit to change. In any marriage there are countless opportunities to show love by changing behaviors.
Try to explore the origins of your shyness, discard the negative beliefs that inhibit you, and celebrate your wonderful feminine sexuality. Women are remarkable creatures capable of intensely pleasurable sexual experiences. It is truly possible for you to find that self-acceptance of your body. When you do, it will be easier for you to give yourself in an uninhibited way.
An important key to this new freedom is seeing the change as a gradual process. Make a list of all aspects of sexual play you can imagine (in private, of course). Then rank them according to the degree of difficulty each represents for you. Beginning with the simplest activity, gradually move down the list, mastering each level in turn. For instance, your first exercise might be simply to signal to your husband that you're available. The next might be to show up in a sexy nighty. The next could be to reach over and caress him in a stimulating area of his anatomy, and so on. Allow each new, more assertive behavior to become comfortable before moving on and letting your husband know that you are purposefully (even if timidly) working on that aspect of your sexuality.
I'd also like to encourage your husband to allow the changes without pressuring for more and to affirm you for the progress he sees.
He Prayed Away His Sex Drive
Q. My husband and I have been married three months. On our honeymoon, my husband got a bad chest cold, and let's just say that the honeymoon wasn't what I had been waiting for all those years. Both my husband and I were virgins when we married, and I thought that our sex life would be exciting and unstoppable once he felt better. Now, three months later, I am the one who makes the move to get intimate. It doesn't seem to bother him. He thinks that because he prayed all his life to keep the sexual thoughts away, now that he is married he is just still in that mode. How do we get my husband's sex drive back?
A. Re-read the answer to this column's first question but make one important transformation. Our levels of sexual drive are on a continuum rather than being uniform. Just as most men have a higher desire for sexual play and intercourse and most women less interest, individual differences may reverse this usual pattern.
Each of you should explore openly and honestly your deepest attitudes about sex. How did you learn about sex and what were your earliest sexual experiences? What were the constraints that helped you maintain your virginity? Are there expectations about sexual "performance" that present anxiety when you approach sexual interaction? Understanding yourselves and each other may help you find a more agreeable level of interaction.
I'd also like to emphasize the delightful journey toward marital oneness. I fully understand how long three months of newly wedded sexuality may seem, but want to encourage you to be patient. If, in fact, your husband has been praying to reduce his sexual thoughts and drive, it may take some time for those patterns of denial to diminish. Your patient acceptance of his sexuality can help him overcome those old inhibitions. Affirm and reward his interest and continue to invite him gently whenever you want. You mentioned wanting him to have his sex drive "back," so I would expect his libido to return.
My Wife's Added Pounds Turn Me Off
Q. Since I was a teenager, I have been conditioned to think that overweight women are sexually unattractive. This is causing a problem with my sexual performance because my wife is now very overweight. All the other areas of our marriage are healthy, but as you can imagine the sexual area effects everything in some way. Occasionally, I fantasize about my wife when she was slim, but this leads to thinking about other women. How can I see my wife as attractive?
A. Whenever I hear of a significant change in a person that is related to expression of sexuality I am curious to understand the possible relationships. Your wife was once slim. Naturally, I wonder if her weight gain has been somehow related to the sexual intimacy between you.
Three factors are frequently associated with weight gain in women: pregnancy and childbirth, genetic patterns, and eating associated with emotional issues. The third is where attitudes about sex exert their influence. It is not rare for weight gain to provide "protection" from sexual involvement when that is threatening to a person. The "threat" can be the fear of possible conception, discomfort during intercourse, or physical closeness in an unhappy relationship (your description of a "happy marriage" may rule out that last issue).
In any case, your wife must recognize that this is a problem she can successfully overcome. Whatever the cause of obesity, there can be effective control. We know from experience that this isn't easy or quick, but it is possible. A thorough metabolic evaluation is the starting point, followed by medical treatment for any problems discovered. Usually, however, the treatment must involve exercise and changing eating habits. Some spiritual and emotional work may be essential to deal with body image, self-concept, and relational factors. Your role as husband is to be cooperative and supportive through the tough process but not to be the food or diet policeman.
We haven't forgotten your original question, but we do think both issues need to be addressed: your wife's weight problem and your desire to change your thinking to "see your wife as attractive." Our culture makes that very difficult. Moving to Polynesia where fat is beautiful is probably not a practical option. Avoiding seductive movies and pornography is an option that makes a difference.
There may also be alternatives in your sexual play together that can decrease your problems in sexual performance. These would be approaches for your wife to "pleasure" you with various kinds of stimulation not requiring genital union. You can, of course, reciprocate with caresses not leading to vaginal penetration.
Remembering your wife's more exciting body may also contribute to your grateful appreciation of who she is as a loving partner for you. Expressing that affirmation could also be an important ingredient in strengthening the healthy aspects of your relationship.
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:
465 Gundersen Drive
Carol Stream, Illinois 60188
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.