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"I Forgot What It's Like to Want Sex"

Can they reignite their sex life after years of neglect? Can this marriage be saved?
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Her Turn

"Jim and I used to have a great sex life," said Cassie, a stunning redhead who has a grown daughter from a previous marriage. "We've been married six years — it's a second marriage for both of us — and until three years ago we felt, and acted, like newlyweds.

"Now, I have absolutely no sexual desire. The juices never flow, the heat never happens. I want to be more interested in sex, but I'm just not. I've gained twenty pounds over the last few years; it's hard to feel sexy when I feel so frumpy. Still, I'm convinced that the hysterectomy I had three years ago is the real cause of my problems. Since then, I've seen two gynecologists and tried everything from hormone replacement therapy to herbal and homeopathic remedies to improve my libido. Nothing helps. 

"Jim and I haven't made love in months and months. On the rare occasion that we do, it's nothing like it used to be. I feel put upon — almost as if it's a chore — and Jim feels that I'm doing him a big favor. I've tried to explain that I love him and still find him attractive; I'm just not in the mood. For instance, the other night I came home from work, and while I was hanging up my coat, he walked up behind me and started kissing my neck. I knew where that was heading — but I was exhausted and the last thing I wanted was sex. I told him to stop it. Whenever I rebuff him like this, he either pouts or, worse, explodes. Jim has a short fuse and can blow up in a heartbeat. He acts the same way if he thinks I'm ignoring his family, criticizing him about some unpaid bill, or asking for time by myself.

"But he doesn't understand that sometimes I need my space. My job is stressful. I'm program director for my city's community centers. The hours are long and we're short-staffed. Jim is an economics professor, but for the last six months he's been on sabbatical researching a book, which means that he's always hanging around the house. Besides his work, and his two boys, 17 and 19, who live nearby with their mother, there's not a whole lot in his life. He rarely sees his old university friends, dropped his lifelong hobby of woodworking, and stopped playing basketball. His whole world centers on me — and it's suffocating. 

"Jim has also convinced himself that I don't like his sons and accuses me of not trying hard enough to be a 'family.' I've always been reluctant to push myself on them. But Jim expects us to be this instant close-knit family. Now that they can drive, his sons drop by at all hours. I feel that coming over without calling is an intrusion on our privacy. Inevitably, we slide into an argument and soon, neither of us can stand to be in the same room. 

"Until I met Jim and his family, I didn't know what it meant to be nurtured and loved. I grew up the oldest of three. My mother is incredibly self-centered, and my father, who has since passed away, didn't take interest in my life, either. Mother moved nearby 10 years ago when Dad died, but I rarely see her. My brother and sister both live out of town. 

"I met Jim at a friend's party. I'd been a single mom for a long time and Jim was the first man I was seriously interested in. We shared a love of books, politics, gardening, and the outdoors. Jim courted me with flowers, home-cooked meals, and tickets to jazz concerts. I never felt so much love — or passion — and I miss the way we were. I want to be my old self again, so when Jim suggested counseling, I said I'd go. Still, I'm not convinced that I can change; it's as if, sexually, a switch has been flipped. And while my husband has the patience of Job, I know that he's not going to stay in a sexless marriage forever. I can't blame him; who wants a wife who has absolutely no desire?"

His Turn

"When Cassie pushes me away, I feel so hurt and frustrated, I've practically given up," said Jim, 43, who, at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, still looks like the college basketball player he once was. "She's been uninterested in sex for at least three years, which is a real change from the sexually alive woman I fell in love with. She's always telling me she doesn't feel sexy because she's gained weight. Well, who hasn't? I still think she's beautiful! But trying to convince her of that is like talking to a brick wall. When we do have sex, she's so obviously not into it that I can't help thinking that weight isn't her issue, it's me. I feel like she's not sexually attracted to me anymore. 

"Cassie's aloof in other parts of our life, too. She'll storm in the door, announce that she has a million messages to return and needs to be alone. Instead of laughing easily as she used to, she's prickly and snappish. She treats me like a fool who can't do anything right. If I fail to pay a bill on time, I'm irresponsible. If I want her to join me and my kids for a movie, I'm not respectful of her privacy. I love that my boys are comfortable coming and going between our house and their mother's. I know Cassie sees it as intrusive, but I'm grateful for any time they want to spend with their old man! I wish I had a nickel for every time Cassie begged off, saying she wasn't feeling well, when we were due at my parents' house for dinner. It means a lot to my parents for us to spend time with them.

"I grew up not far from here. Dad worked for the electric company, Mother was a bookkeeper. As kids, we always came first. I'm thankful that we still live close enough to visit regularly. My folks often worked two jobs so they'd have enough money to put me and my two brothers through college. I've never seen my father happier than the day I received my PhD.

"In the beginning I loved teaching, but the politics of academia wore me down. I needed to jump off the treadmill for a while, to finish a book I've been planning for twenty years. I thought I'd make a lot of progress, but Cassie's right: I've lost my zest for it — and everything else, it seems. I waste a lot of time staring at a blank computer screen. You'd think now that I'm home so much, Cassie and I'd spend more time together. But it's just the opposite. 

"The way we've grown apart is so disheartening because we used to be so good together. When Cassie and I met, we clicked right away. We'd both been divorced, both had kids, so we understood and respected each other's issues. I don't know what happened. Our arguments are interminable. I know I have a bad temper, but many times, I try to table things until we both cool down, and she won't let me. I'll even walk out of the room, but she always has to have the last word, and she draws me right back in. 

"Right now I know I need to make a lot of changes in my life. I miss the interaction with students and colleagues, and I need to find the confidence to finish my book. But most of all, I want to reconnect with my wife, which is why I suggested we see a counselor in the first place. I'm not sure how much longer I can go on like this. It's more than not making love. Yes, I miss the sex, but I also miss the intimacy and the passion we used to have for each other. Where did it all go? Is it lost forever?"

The Counselor's Turn

"Low sexual desire can occur at any age, and for a variety of reasons," said the counselor. "It could be lifelong or situational, triggered by physical conditions such as illness, medication, menopause, or just the stress of life. Cassie told me that since her hysterectomy three years ago she'd experienced changes in her body — vaginal dryness, occasional night sweats, and hot flashes. While it's normal for a diminished sex drive to accompany these symptoms, I suspected there was more than a physical cause at work here.

"I told Cassie that in order to restore her sex drive, she needed to improve her relationship with her husband outside of the bedroom. Their families, children, and careers all became fuel for fights and the animosity severed their communication. Cassie's accusations that Jim didn't understand her need for privacy and suffocated her with demands for closeness made him feel sad and angry. After repeated rejections, he became defensive and stopped investing energy in the marriage.

"We hammered out strategies to short-circuit arguments and improve their communication. They agreed that as soon as either sensed that a discussion was becoming heated, they'd call a time-out. Since both blamed the other for escalating anger, I gave them each an assignment: If Jim called a time-out, Cassie must respect it, instead of pushing for the last word. This allowed Jim to control his temper so he could return later, calmer, to the conversation. I also told Jim to keep a log of when Cassie spoke critically. When he started keeping track, he realized her remarks occurred less often than he had thought. This awareness enabled Jim to drop his guard and focus on the good moments they shared.

"Jim also had to learn to find happiness in his life that didn't revolve around Cassie. It was clear that he was stuck in a midlife career rut. We discussed what he could do for himself to find pleasure. 'My book should be done by the end of the summer,' he told me after several sessions. 'And I've decided to resume teaching in the fall.' Upon my suggestion, he reconnected with colleagues and took up new projects, such as enrolling in a furniture-making class and working for a candidate in their district's Congressional race. 'He's so busy now I have to ask him when he can squeeze me in,' said Cassie, pleased to finally have some time to herself.

"To this end, I suggested the couple make nonbreakable dates with each other once a week. Some dates were to be reserved for taking care of 'business' (such as paying bills and discussing the kids); some were for cuddling only; and some were for practicing the structured exercise called 'sensate focus' that helps couples gradually phase in sexual activity — undressing each other, touching and kissing — without the pressure to have intercourse. They set the mood with music, soft lighting, and scented candles. I told them to just enjoy the moment and each other. After a few weeks of these dates, both rediscovered how much they anticipated and enjoyed their time together.

"Meanwhile, I helped Cassie improve her body image. I gave her a couple of sentences to think to herself whenever she felt critical about herself: 'I don't have to look like a model to feel sensuous,' and 'Parts of my body can bring me great pleasure, and if I share them, it will make my partner feel privileged.' As she learned to appreciate who she is now, her bedrock of negativity began to crumble. I also told her that she had to do things that physically aroused her before she would feel a surge of desire. I suggested she pamper her body and tap into her sensual side through regular exercise, massage with fragrant creams, as well as the occasional facial or pedicure. Making time to listen to her favorite jazz CDs, to enjoy a bike ride through the country or the beauty of a sunset would also awaken her senses and add pleasure to her life.

"After about five months, Cassie and Jim felt ready to put lovemaking back into their lives. To break the pattern of rejection that Jim felt, I insisted that Cassie be the initiator. They decided to spend a long weekend in Florida, and while there, they renewed the intimacy that had long eluded them. When they returned, I reminded them that they had to set the stage for romance by scheduling sex just like any other activity. Jim has also asked his children and siblings to call before dropping over. 'They were fine with it,' he said. At the same time, he has made separate plans with his children to attend a football game or have lunch, instead of waiting for them to drop by. With more time alone, Cassie is more open to family get-togethers. 

"Cassie and Jim ended therapy after a year, with greater patience and empathy for each other. 'Because sex is supposed to be fun, I didn't realize I had to work at it,' Cassie said. 'But now that I understand that, I feel so much freer to make it even better.'"

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Sallie Foley, M.S.W., couples counselor in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and co-author of Sex Matters for Women: A Complete Guide to Taking Care of Your Sexual Self. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2004.

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