During the 15 years of our marriage, our sex life has been okay. My wife never seems that interested, and I sometimes struggle with my self-worth when she turns me down. Our conversations about sex are short and not too detailed, because my wife feels uncomfortable with the subject. How can I help her open up more about her sexual side?
Louis: It's natural and good to desire more enjoyment and excitement—and a little more frequency—in your physical intimacy. Lots of husbands have that same desire and the same self-doubts that you describe. Sometimes I wonder if women really understand how intense the male sex drive is or how intrinsic a man's sexual fulfillment is to his self-acceptance. I recall a time when our children were all still at home, I was convinced Melissa would have been satisfied to give up sex altogether. As it turned out, that wasn't true. But it felt that way. Fortunately, sex got better (and keeps getting better).
Over the years, we've had a few insights that could help you. First, remember men and women are different. If our wives had our testosterone levels, they'd be a lot more interested in sex. Of course they'd also have beards and hair on their chests. It could also cause liver damage—so don't slip testosterone into your wife's coffee. But you can slip a book about maleness onto her pillow. We'd recommend What Men Want by Norm Wright (Regal) or The Sexual Man by Arch Hart (Word). Ask her to read and discuss the book with you. Helping her understand "normal" male sexuality will take you farther than accusing her of frigidity. At the same time, you can learn more about female sexuality. Your letter indicates that your wife may have some fears regarding sex. Perhaps a session or two with a competent counselor would draw out her feelings in this regard.
Second, learn how to touch your wife's "buttons." The most effective way to enhance a woman's sexual responsiveness is not "sexual" at all (especially not genital). For her, sexual intimacy blossoms from a sense of relational intimacy, spiritual bondedness and emotional safety. Without these as a foundation, sexual vulnerability is frightening. We've often heard a wife say that getting a glimpse into her husband's soul—his needs, fears, hurts and dreams—makes her want to get closer physically. His vulnerability allows her to become more vulnerable.
Third, don't anticipate a sudden, miraculous transformation, but look for gradual growth. Reading a book together is a good, nonthreatening first step. You might also try writing to each other. For many people, talking about the specifics of sex face to face is too intense or embarrassing.
As you work through this process, use affirmation to stimulate closeness and focus on the positive. Bring to mind your intense, "wow" sexual experiences of the past. Remembering them together can help renew the passion. You won your wife's heart once. I bet you can do it again!
Since my husband had major surgery about five years ago, he has gained nearly 100 pounds. It doesn't bother him, but I'm petite; and at 270 pounds, he's too big for me. I don't find him sexually appealing any longer. I want to deal with this so I can show him more love, but he doesn't want help. What should I do?
Louis: There could be some hidden issues behind your husband's weight gain. Facing major surgery—with the fears, changes in body image and exposure to one's mortality—can activate inner conflicts a person never had to acknowledge before. Anyone who has experienced such a significant alteration in size or metabolism should seek medical help, but perhaps your husband's traumatic experience with the surgery makes him hesitant to investigate another physical problem.
Even if he is unwilling to lose weight for the sake of his own health, you can take the initiative. Paint an "emotional word picture" for him by using an analogy related to his life experience.
To describe how you feel as a petite woman faced with the prospect of sexual play with a 270-pound man, you might say: "Darling, I want to feel turned on like I did those nights we parked at the lake, remember? Now I feel so different. It's like getting into a dream car for a thrilling run in Monte Carlo and finding that it has suddenly changed. I can't see out the windows and feel dwarfed by the steering wheel. I can't reach the accelerator or gearshift. Then the car speeds off on its own. The whole experience makes me want to get out of there and never get in it again!" Of course, your word picture will be more effective with your own personal touch and his vocabulary, but you get the point.
Melissa: Another communication method is to express your concern in terms of your own needs. I do this with Louis. I'll say, "Louis, I have a problem I need your help with." Then I express my feelings using "I" statements, being careful not to assign blame. You might tell your husband, "I've been having some strong frustrations. I have real sexual needs and a deep desire to have the sort of satisfying, exciting sex we used to have. But I'm struggling with a lack of motivation, and I need your help. How can I regain the attraction I once felt?" Such a statement does not blame him or tell him what to do.
If you haven't already suggested using a position for sexual intercourse that allows you to be on top, make it clear that the more traditional male-above position does not work for you. No doubt you feel smothered.
Also, discuss this problem with his doctor. A 100-pound weight gain is not healthy, and his physician should be made aware of what is going on. Perhaps he'll offer advice as well.
I've been married eight years, and I love my husband dearly. But sometimes when we make love, it seems like he has no feelings for me, only for himself. He is a little rough at times. Afterward, I can't help feeling I've been taken advantage of. I want to enjoy sex, but I feel degraded because of his approach. What can I do to resolve this problem?
Melissa: To use one of those emotional word pictures mentioned earlier, it's as if you're preparing a scrumptious, elaborate feast of your husband's favorite foods, but there's no plate set for you. You're left out of your own sexual relationship, which must be lonesome and frustrating. Not much can happen to change this until your husband really hears your hurt. Pray that he will begin to listen and understand the problem.
Your letter doesn't indicate that you've tried to talk with him about this. Don't expect him to read your mind or somehow automatically know how to change. Be prepared to verbalize your needs, feelings and desires. Think about how you are expressing them now. Feelings have a way of coming out, often nonverbally. Maybe your husband will catch on if you try a different technique for expressing your feelings. It often helps to use first-person statements or emotional word pictures. As you express your feelings, find out about your husband's feelings, too. Don't assume that he intends to be unfeeling or unkind. Sometimes what comes across as sexual selfishness may be something else, such as fears or frustration, in disguise.
Perhaps your husband will begin to see that an unselfish approach will bring personal benefits for him, too. Maybe he has even been wishing all along that you wouldn't hold back, not realizing that his own behaviors are keeping you from becoming vulnerable. He may actually welcome your suggestions and some solutions.
Real Sex columnists Melissa and Louis McBurney, M.D., were marriage therapists and co-founders of Marble Retreat in Marble, Colorado, where they counselled clergy couples.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.