My wife and I are no longer having sex, even though when we married four years ago we were very passionate. Believe it or not, she claims her aversion to sex stems from my not doing a fair share of the housework. How can I find out what's really wrong?
Louis: Your refusal to share with the housework is probably exactly what's "really wrong." Most relationships glide along smoothly on the oil of tradeoffs, as in "You scratch my back; I'll scratch yours." Marriage enrichment pioneers David and Vera Mace once said that the most sensitive barometer of marital health is how much each spouse feels there is mutual need-meeting. It's hard to stay in a relationship joyfully when there are areas of life you feel fall totally on you.
Your wife's excuse may seem strange to you because you wouldn't think of sex as one of the "tasks" of living that need to be negotiated between you. But sex is often seen by women as a task. In some cases, a woman's mother or grandmother taught her, "sex is your duty and you have to keep your husband happy. So just endure it." Fortunately, this kind of teaching is becoming obsolete. Another reason women might categorize sex as a task is that a substantial percentage of women are not orgasmic. For them, sexual intercourse is at best enjoyed for the closeness and at worst is a frustrating experience leading to disappointment and even resentment.
Sometimes one partner begins to feel an imbalance of mutuality, especially as he or she remembers the good times of courtship and senses a change. When a wife feels that imbalance, it gets hard for her to give herself passionately. This works both ways. Many husbands complain that they don't think their wives appreciate the hard work they do to support the family so they don't have much enthusiasm about helping around the house.
For you, the desire for sex is a compelling inner physiological drive. For most women, giving themselves sexually is a response growing out of an emotional awareness of being treasured and pursued relationally. When that sense of being "cherished" dies (or never existed), the desire to connect sexually dies with it.
Another possibility to consider is that sharing in tasks may be part of your wife's "love language"—probably more than physical affection. She needs you to deposit more "love" (by sharing housework) to build up her depleted emotional bank account.
Maybe you ought to see a counselor together, but I'd try helping out at home first. Do the dishes, pick up dirty clothes, clean the toilets once in a while. See what happens.
Melissa: Maybe your dad never helped out around the house, modeling for you that men don't do that sort of thing. If that's true for you, you may have a hard time overcoming that prejudice. Consider how your father's actions (or inactions) affected your mom and their relationship. Be as objective as possible; that'll make it easier for you to change.
Deal with your emotions about this housework challenge first. Then get practical. Ask your wife what she has in mind. You might be surprised that her expectations are manageable—and worth the boost to your sex life.
In the years before I got saved and got married, I slept with numerous women—some of them nearly strangers. Now I love my wife very much, and sex with her is okay, but it's nothing like the intensity of sex before I was married. I still have strong desires to have sex with other women. It's a constant temptation I don't want to give in to. What can I do?
Louis: Your dilemma highlights one of the most powerful reasons for premarital abstinence and marital fidelity. The intensity of "forbidden" sex creates an imprint in the mind that's unfair to the enjoyment of long-term sex. Marital sex is constrained by the realities of life—like crying kids, bills and last night's disagreement. These mundane demands often erode the passion of marriage, and there is not the same energy investment in having an exciting tumble in the hay.
Dealing with the past memories of hot sex is part of managing your entire thought life. Your brain has pathways for memory retrieval of millions of stored images. The more you choose to replay those tapes, the easier and more intensely they come to life. You have a choice not to replay those tapes, but to plug into a different thought. With each temptation you can exercise your will to say "no." Identify those old memories as destructive, and keep in mind that the God who has forgiven you wants to shield you from that danger. Focus instead on his grace.
When I'm struggling with fantasies or sexual images, I turn mentally to a different channel. I try to tune into a great memory—an X-rated one!—of the super sex Melissa and I have ignited.
Now is a good time to infuse your marital sex with intrigue, romance, variety and surprise—to keep that passion on the front burner.
Melissa: In a way, you're like a person who uses pornography, allowing outside images to interfere with your marital intimacy. A good book for people wanting to break free from porn addiction is False Intimacy, by Harry Schaumburg (NavPress). It might help you overcome your addictive thought life.
When you step off the path God's put you on, you're on your own. When you turn back to his path, you'll be amazed how he provides the incentive, energy and know-how you'll need to focus on loving your wife.
My husband says he loves me, and I do believe him. But he can't seem to stop checking out other women—even when I'm right there with him! When I confront him, he says it's just a habit that doesn't mean anything. But it makes me feel insecure—and miserable about being about 15 pounds overweight. How can I get him to stop?
Melissa: Girl-watching is natural and habitual for men. Louis used to do it. He'd even joke about it, saying, "Just because I'm on a diet doesn't mean I can't read the menu."
Ha, ha. It wasn't so funny to me. Finally I said something like, "I don't think you really want another woman and I trust you to be faithful, but when you look at other women I feel like I'm not good enough for you. I want to feel that I'm the only woman who lights up your life."
Louis: When Melissa put it to me in terms of her feelings, she got right through my defenses. I began to sense her hurt and understand that what I saw as a harmless habit was eroding her self-confidence. I knew that whatever thrill I was getting out of checking out one more female form wasn't worth causing my sweetheart pain.
Sometimes there are deeper problems, and a man is looking around because his wife is cold, unaffirming and unconcerned about his needs. Those are problems that would need to be addressed. But in our case—and I think in yours—it was just a habit, an expression of my lustfulness and fantasy life that had nothing to do with my feelings about Melissa. So put it to your husband in the terms I put it to myself. Can he make a conscious choice to forgo enjoying a brief snack for his lustful eyes so he can hang onto a gourmet feast for a lifetime? That's a no-brainer.
Melissa: I'd go ahead and diet and exercise and lose those 15 pounds. You'll feel better about yourself—and sexier toward your husband.
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. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.