During a recent argument, my wife confessed that for the whole ten years of our marriage she's been faking her orgasms. I couldn't believe it—and I feel really angry and betrayed. I thought I was doing everything possible for her during sex. Now I don't even want to have sex; her deception seems so cold to me. Is there any hope for our sex life?
Louis: A recent survey reported that more than 60 percent of women have some problems achieving orgasm and 10 percent never have had an orgasm (Secrets of Eve, by Hart, Weber and Taylor [Word]). So a wife's "faking" an orgasm is not an uncommon occurrence.
In a sense, your wife chose to give you many exciting nights of sexual pleasure as a loving gift. However, I can understand your disappointment in the way she hit you with this information—it must've been a real kick in the groin. I know my sense of being an adequate (or even super) lover has been important to my well-being. I wonder now whether your ego is so fragile that you won't be able to change your focus from your own woundedness to your wife's ten years of frustration and distress. If you can make that shift and show legitimate concern for her, there's plenty of hope for your sex life. Your physical intimacy could become explosively erotic.
Your attitude is foundational, but not the only factor. The second key issue is learning to deal with conflict more effectively. Your wife's "confession" of her sexual frustration indicates her inability to keep short accounts. It would've been much less devastating to you if the two of you had talked about this with, say, nine years less accumulated tension. If you want to work toward a positive sex life, you'll have to address other areas of your marriage—such as communicating about problems and working through them right away.
Melissa: Our third area of concern is your wife's inability to reach orgasm. I'm glad you've desired in the past to "do everything possible" for her; that indicates a willingness on your part to discover what might be holding her back. And there are plenty of reasons for inorgasmia. Very rarely, a woman's inability to achieve orgasm is tied to a physiological problem, but you could have a gynecologist evaluate that possibility. More commonly a woman doesn't reach orgasm because some aspect of the lovemaking technique needs to be changed for her—timing, lubrication, foreplay.
But most of the time the factors that hold women back from orgasm are emotional: a history of sexual abuse; unresolved guilt over premarital sexual experiences; fearfulness to release control as sexual intensity approaches climax; anger, resentment or disappointment in other areas of the marriage; a sense of sexual inadequacy reinforced by her lack of orgasm or an unrealistic expectation that a spouse won't be able to handle the truth. And as with all sexuality issues, the side effects of drugs and alcohol must be kept in mind.
There are excellent and effective approaches for dealing with this problem. I strongly recommend professional counseling since this has been a long-standing problem. Also, do some reading on sex and communication. We suggest Intended for Pleasure, by Ed Wheat, M.D., and Gaye Wheat (Revell), The Gift of Sex, by Cliff and Joyce Penner (Word) and Connecting with Self and Others, by Miller, Wackman, Nunnally and Miller (Interpersonal Communication Programs). You'll need to be patient as you both overcome well-established habits of behavior to make the needed changes. And you'll need lots of grace as you both deal with your hurts and disappointments.
Here's the good news: your new skills in communication and sexuality are self-reinforcing. That means the better you get at connecting personally and sexually, the more exciting and fulfilling your marriage will become.
A Grieving Husband
My husband's dad died last spring, and he has really grieved. I've been as supportive as I can, and I've felt pretty close to him during this time—except for one area. He seems to have shut down sexually. Is this normal for a grieving person? What can I do to help him?
Louis: Your husband must have had a very important emotional attachment to his dad, and you've been providing extremely crucial support. While some phases of the grieving process are similar, the way a person grieves is often unique to that individual. "Normal" grief ordinarily lasts six to 12 months and carries the expected effects of sadness, some withdrawal, tearfulness and various physical symptoms. Inevitably, the survivor becomes constantly aware of his own mortality. If the relationship with the person who died was conflicted, that complicates the grief process. So do feelings about the death, the funeral, the estate and the family dynamics of the heirs.
Since sexual function is intricately connected with our feelings and physical health, any and all of these factors may be coming into play in your relationship. Depression from any cause often has the effect of decreasing interest in sex, so this is common during the mourning period. It is not, however, inevitable. Some survivors, realizing life's unpredictability, may desire sex even more intensely after losing someone close to them.
But these disruptions generally disappear after the normal mourning time. If your husband's interest in sex doesn't return to his normal level after a year, it may be that certain thoughts or feelings are abnormally extending or intensifying the usual effects of grief. You might consider these possibilities.
1. Guilt that he's still alive to enjoy physical pleasure of any kind. This happens most often when there's a sense of disappointment about the relationship with the deceased. If your husband feels he didn't take care of his dad during the final illness or that he never measured up to his dad's expectations, it would make investing fully in life very difficult. It's living with a sense of unfinished business that can't be completed.
2. Fear about his own death. Sometimes this can be exaggerated by reports of the rare deaths associated with sexual exertion.
3. The effect the death has had on your relationship. From your description of your closeness as a couple, this is probably not an issue for your husband. But sometimes a bereaved person's focus on his own mortality intensifies his view of any marital regrets or disappointments. Or the grief may underscore a rift in the relationship between the spouse and the deceased in-law, amplifying feelings that the spouse didn't treat the in-law kindly or bringing to mind memories of the parent's unkind comments about the spouse.
4. Effects of chemicals used to deal with the discomfort of grief. Some-times a grieving person uses alcohol, anti-depressants or tranquilizers—with or without his spouse's knowledge. These chemicals can affect sexual function.
Melissa: You ask, "What can I do to help?" Be patient, and keep on supporting your husband emotionally. Talk about all these issues. Let him know how you feel—and express your need and desire for him. Chances are good that your husband's time of mourning will pass soon and full sexual pleasure will return.
Be sure not to withdraw physically from him. Even though he's not responding the way he usually does, he needs to feel your affection.
If your sex life doesn't get back to normal in the months after the anniversary of your father-in-law's death, consider seeking help from a professional Christian counselor.
Addicted to Lust
My husband and I have been married seven years. During that time he's been involved with pornography and voyeurism. He has been through therapy and counseling again and again, but nothing changes. It's impossible for me to feel like having sex with him, since I know how much time he spends lusting after images of other women. It's intolerable, but I'm trapped since lust doesn't constitute biblical grounds for divorce. Am I just supposed to live with my husband's addictions?
Louis: Let me start with two disclaimers. First, I maintain a hopeful attitude about recovery, even though addictive disorders do present very difficult challenges. I'm wondering how motivated your husband really is to change. A "bottoming out" seems necessary before most addicted individuals will commit themselves to change. But Melissa and I have seen significant recovery from the grip of pornography and persistent compulsive behavior in a number of men. The most crucial ingredients seem to be the motivation to change, the willingness for a spouse to be involved in the process and the man's determination to seek help from God in his healing. Recovery groups and accountability partners can also provide practical day-by-day support.
Second, I rarely recommend divorce. The long-range effects on the individuals, families, children and our culture have been devastating. I'm glad you've had the bravery and determination to hang in there for seven years.
Having said that, there are times when a spouse must show "tough love"—particularly in situations involving addictions. If you honestly feel there is no indication of your husband's desire or willingness to break his addiction, it may be necessary to draw some lines. Setting sensible boundaries and sticking with them is often the only course of action that works.
Reasonable limits in marriage are sexual fidelity, honesty, financial responsibility and mutual need-meeting. To clearly spell out the limits and the consequences of a mate's refusal to abide by a commitment is well within your rights. Such boundaries should be communicated in first-person statements. For instance, you might say, "I realize you have a serious addiction. I'd like to have a relationship with you, but recognize my inability to change your behavior or to continue to live with you as long as the addiction remains. So I want to make clear my decision. I will stay with you until I have reason to believe you're still involved in your addictive behavior. At that point I want you to move out. We can pursue a legal separation at that time (or whatever course of action seems appropriate) until I can be assured of your recovery." If a predetermined time limit seems important to you, that should be clearly defined. Whatever boundaries you set will likely be challenged, so a great deal of resolve is necessary for this kind of intervention to be effective.
This puts the ball in your husband's court, making him responsible for changing his addiction. That's important because most addictive personalities assume a passive, victim role, blaming others for their problems. If you've been carrying blame and responsibility, I encourage you to "resign" from playing the parent in a no-win scenario.
You have shown great courage and character in sticking with your husband. I pray that he'll recover and that one day you'll experience the wholeness and exclusivity in your marriage that you longed for.
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. Louis McBurney passed away January 20, 2009.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail