The drapes are pulled against the midday sun, the room clean and peaceful. Some days I’m naked between the white sheets, other days tarted up with a satin bra and thong I’d never wear otherwise. If he’s in bed first, I might throw on high heels and saunter over to his side, like the cheap whore we both wish I could be. The thought is laughable when you know our history.
Right now, though, our history isn’t the point. And the costumes might work in the screenplay I’m writing in my head, the one where it’s all new and a little bit nasty, like when we first met almost four decades ago—me not long into college, he older, much more experienced. I counted on him to show me the ways of my body, and for a long time he did. But then something stopped working for me. And that’s when our problems started.
This essay is excerpted from The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, edited by Cathi Hanauer, just released in paperback from William Morrow/HarperCollins.
Enter the Fantasy World
But let me get back to the moment we’re having in the room. Ignore the mole on his chest that suddenly looks irregular, the twitch in my elbow from too much tennis, and focus on the good sensations, the man in bed . . . and then flip it and pretend he’s a stranger, and I am too, and rewrite the screenplay: sometimes familiar, sometimes new. Close my eyes and just make up the scene while my body acts it out. It’s not automatic, but it’s a skill I’ve learned, a meditative trance that allows me to relax and to ultimately connect . . . to make everybody happy.
Sex with my husband wasn’t always this complicated.
Do I need to say it? Okay, I’ll say it. Sex with my husband wasn’t always this complicated.
I grew up Irish Catholic in the 1960s and ’70s, went to parochial schools, and somehow never got the sex talk from my parents—or anyone else. Shyness and inertia kept me a virgin until nineteen, and then, although my first time was with a sweet, tender boy, I was so busy holding in my stomach and trying to look transported that I don’t remember much of it.
Shortly thereafter, I met my husband. And this time, in the throes of love at first sight, I offered myself without a thought of my imperfections. I loved the way he smelled, loved his beautiful strong body, loved his wicked handsomeness. I wanted to eat him, in that ravenous way one loves one’s children. From the first slow wink, the sex was exciting, unpredictable, and frequent.
Coping With a Sexless Marriage: Performance Anxiety
But around our fifth year as a couple (not yet married, but long since monogamous and living together), I found myself losing my desire to touch and be touched by him. I thought it might be the painful urinary tract infections I kept getting, or the mild betrayals, fights, and disappointments causing anger to creep into my head and my bed. Or simply that, no longer new, sex wasn’t as riveting. I didn’t know. I still loved him. I still found him strikingly handsome. Nevertheless, I stopped wanting to have sex as often as he did (pretty much every night), and when we did, I wasn’t having an orgasm as reliably as I had.
This made me question my ability to perform, which made it harder for me to perform, which made him slow down and take more time with me—which was not at all what I wanted. Despite the common belief that women want men to go on and on, that was never true for me. I wanted him to finish so we could talk or read or just go to bed.
Normally outspoken, I found myself not confessing my increasing lack of interest: I worried I would hurt him, or that telling him would mean we were in trouble. Instead, I said I was tired or stressed. While I never actually faked orgasm—a strange boundary for a woman hiding so much else—I did often fake willingness as I lay in bed, game face on, brain either neurotically going through all the things that could be wrong with me, my life, our lives . . . or off a million miles away, thinking about my deadlines or our upcoming vacation. Soon I began going to bed early or pretending to be asleep when I wasn’t. It was as if the door to the wellspring of my sexuality had slammed shut.
This, I’m embarrassed to say, went on for many years. We got married anyway; we loved each other, after all, and we wanted to be together, wanted kids. Then the kids came along. Again, do I need to say it? I’ll say it. I was a new mother, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, angry about shouldering more of the child care burden while also working. Add to that the constantly suckling infant to whom I was a human pacifier, and, for me at least, any residual erotic impulse vanished. My formerly sexy boobs were now a cross between udders and a security blanket for this astonishing—and astonishingly needy—new member of the family.
Kid Complications Arrive
Weeks turned to months. My C-section scar still ached, my stomach sagged, and I hadn’t slept more than three hours straight or had a good shower in what seemed like a year. What’s more, while I’d never been calm, in the period of early motherhood my brain became a teeming automat of fears and horror stories about raising a baby. There were choking hazards, SIDS, honey-induced botulism, suffocation, drownings galore. I became hyper-vigilant, hyper-absorbed. Sex with my husband? Let’s just say it wasn’t a priority.
I found myself losing my desire to touch and be touched by him.
He was a good sport at first, having been caught up in his own adoration of the infant. Eventually, however, he’d coax me into halfheartedly doing something. We limped along for a couple of years with him hoping this would get better, and me making excuses or faking sleep, unable to imagine ever feeling horny again.
By the time I turned forty, with two still-little kids, I was so starved for solitude and rest that even when my husband and I went away for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday, I shuddered at his expectations of a love fest. I wanted to read, take baths, and simply think. But I also couldn’t demolish our last hopes for a rekindled sex life—plus, wasn’t the whole point of a weekend away without kids to make love? And in fact, once I finally relaxed, I actually enjoyed myself—not only the sex, complete with a long-awaited orgasm, but also the relief at feeling so much better about what I had considered my “broken” sex equipment.
But the next night, my husband wanted to do it again. I almost couldn’t believe it. I shook my head, climbed under the covers (in sweats), and told him I thought I was coming down with something.
The Birthday Gift
Shortly afterward, I was out with friends who asked about the trip. My expression must have given things away, because one of them said, “So, happy birthday. He takes you away to a fancy hotel to fuck your brains out. Same gift I got!” Laughter erupted, followed by sighs.
We might joke about it, but despite our jobs, houses, kids, dogs, we felt pathetic, unloving . . . selfish. We were failures at the marriage contract, depriving our imperfect but nonetheless faithful and loving husbands of sex.
It was around this time that I spotted a book in the library: Not Tonight, Dear. I plucked it off the shelf like contraband. Written by a psychiatrist and based on interviews with top sex therapists, the book proposed a new take on sexual desire, including case studies of couples with differences in how much sex they wanted and tips on raising one’s libido.
Most happily, it repeated a new premise: Desire is one thing, love another. The authors called mismatched libidos “desire discrepancy,” which, if not discussed and dealt with, could cause enormous misunderstandings between partners. Amazingly, this was the first time I had seen anyone with scientific credibility suggest an alternative to my theory of there being something incurably wrong with me—or my marriage.
Before then, talking to my husband about sex, I’d always framed the issue as more of a logistical problem—the kids were in our bed, someone needed me—or my own temporary state—exhaustion, stress, cramps. Now, carefully, I told him I’d read a book that enlightened me to the fact that I might just have “low desire.”
He shook his head, looking hurt. “You used to love sex!” he said. “You can’t just have ‘low desire’ now. Something else is up.”
I dropped it for the moment. I had planted the seed, at least. And now I had the strategies from Not Tonight, Dear to try. Maybe those would do the trick.
In the meantime, life got in the way. The kids and jobs were a handful; money was tight. As usual, reprogramming my sexual self fell to the back burner.
In the battle between divorce and making love—even when I didn’t want to—I chose the latter.
One day, a decade or more into child-rearing and when sex had dwindled to once every three weeks or so, he took me aside. “I don’t want to live this way,” he said.
My immediate reaction was to assume this was a preface to leaving me. Tears rising, I gulped, “I understand,” then added reluctantly, “I want better for you.”
“Then . . . do you think we could have more sex?” he asked.
I looked at his eager, hopeful face, the face of a man who loved me and who I loved too. And I reached deep into my psyche and asked myself: What do I want and what can I give? I thought about living alone, or alone with my kids, and never being bothered for sex, and how nice that would be—until a kid got sick, or injured, or wanted to do something risky that terrified me but didn’t bother my husband. I didn’t want to lose him—as a father, a husband, my best friend, my financial and domestic partner. Put another way, in the battle between divorce and making love—even when I didn’t want to—I chose the latter. Call me a doormat, an idiot, but don’t leave me heartbroken, broke, and raising two kids by myself.
“Yes,” I answered.
Back I went to the doctor, this time for anxiety medication—a long-overdue fix. I also went back to dutifully journaling and trying desire-rousing strategies. Most of all, I agreed to have sex on “a regular basis.”
“Four times a week,” my husband pitched.
“Two,” I countered.
“But I’d really like six,” he returned.
“And I’d really like once,” I said (holding back from adding “a year”). “So I’m compromising.”
I entered this new bargain with trepidation, if also high hopes. But I was the early-riser/early-bedtime person in our marriage, and we had to wait until the kids—no longer babies—were asleep. I was just too tired at night to want sex, and soon our goal of two nights a week faltered. At first I hoped he wouldn’t notice. (Ha.) Then I apologized and tried harder. We still weren’t back to twice a week, but we usually did manage once. The problem was, even when we did, he could see that I, well, just wasn’t that into it.
Off to the Sex Therapist
Finally we saw a sex therapist. She suggested we both stop drinking (um—I don’t think so), reduce stress (good luck with that), and maybe I should quit my anti-anxiety meds, which could be worsening my libido. I almost laughed out loud. It’s not like my libido had been different before I’d gone on drugs (except, of course, for those heavenly few years after we’d met), and I didn’t see how becoming even more anxious would help anything. Even my blue-balled husband wasn’t buying that idea.
On the way home, though—feeling desperate—I pitched an idea: What about having sex during the day, when the kids were at school and I wasn’t tired yet? He would have to come home for lunch or go in to work late. Still, I pitched it hopefully.
He sighed. It was inconvenient, he said. He liked nights better. He—
“Well, I hate them,” I replied, suddenly adamant. “Why should I be the one doing all the compromising?”
“I’ve compromised plenty,” he said. “I’ve been one hundred percent faithful despite being basically starved of sex.”
I laughed in spite of myself. But I held my ground, and so we tried my plan. And guess what? He didn’t hate leaving work as much as he’d thought, and I didn’t hate sex when I wasn’t tired and the kids weren’t home. I still had to psych myself up for it, but it seemed like the best answer yet. Indeed, by the time his crankiness disappeared (it’s amazing how regular sex can calm a man’s soul), he accepted the predictable devolution into once a week.
Scheduled sex had other advantages too. He didn’t have to worry about being rejected, and I didn’t have to brace myself for advances that I’d have to reject, then feel guilty for rejecting. I could read a book at night without needing to decode (and deflect) the subtle signals of an incoming seduction. I’d long since stopped cuddling with him—since that might signal readiness for sex—and now I could once again indulge my affection toward him, something he liked too.
The weekly sex thing worked about 90 percent of the time. There were days when one of us had a meeting or was sick or traveling for work. And sometimes, scheduled or not, I still said no, which wasn’t easy. I continued to feel guilty. And I continued to worry, despite knowing better, that I was unfair, unloving . . . an aberration. At the same time, I started to wonder. Just how much of an aberration was I, really? I decided to do more research. Real research. I wanted answers, finally.
I continued to worry, despite knowing better, that I was unfair, unloving . . . an aberration.
Over the next few weeks, and then well beyond, varying my searches from mainstream to academic, I learned a ton. For one, the bulk of evidence concluded that, notwithstanding the ‘70s sexual revolution’s misbegotten fruit, from slutty, come-hither magazine ads to porn teeming with hot girls who apparently love nothing more than a huge, throbbing cock down their throat, up their ass, or anywhere else on or inside their person, most men still have a higher sex drive than most women.
Then there was what happened in long-term monogamous relationships, particularly ones that included cohabitation: Many women—a much higher number than men—simply lost their desire for sex with their steady partners, typically after between one and four years. One author later noted: “For many women, the cause of their sexual malaise appears to be monogamy itself.”
Research in one scholarly journal confirmed that, for the majority of sexually healthy women in long-term relationships, spontaneous sexual thinking is “infrequent.” So not only was I far from alone in not wanting to constantly jump my husband’s bones, but I was right there with most women.
In the early infatuation stage, or “limerence,” I read—the phase where most marriages begin, at least in this country—even low-desire partners will experience a surge in wanting to touch and be touched by their beloved. For an average of two years after falling in love, one study found, a couple’s desires likely are as high as they’ll ever be. In fact, during this time, the genders tend to be fairly equal—which “may lead couples to overestimate their sexual compatibility.” But then passion dies down, and “men and women return to their baselines of sexual desire, which is on average much lower for women than for men.” Wow. Finally, I was fully liberated from the worry that something had gone horribly wrong.
Sometimes I shared what I’d learned with my husband; other times I spared him. But with my new knowledge, I finally was able to lose almost all the guilt while also being honest with him at those times when I really just didn’t want to have sex—while also doing my best to stick to our weekly schedule. And that was enough to get us to a good-enough place with all this.
Our weekly sex dates have lasted for many years now. Once a week, we schedule sex like the clichéd couple we never thought we’d be, and when the time comes, we close the curtains and I strip down, or dress up, and try to make him happy. I still often feel resistant, at least at first, but as long as I’m not indisposed or incapacitated, I tell myself I’m doing it because he loves it, and I love him.
And once I’ve gotten over the hump of tearing myself out of ordinary life and into this oddly choreographed moment, I pretty much always come around, and usually even have a good time. In fact, and much to my surprise, I now believe that these scheduled appointments actually have improved my well-being. There’s something about being skin to skin with my life’s companion that makes me feel better. I find a certain pleasure in making myself vulnerable, and in seeing him vulnerable, and that carries us forward.
Recently, I read that being capable of decent sex is as much about learning to disregard the things overpowering one’s ability to be turned on—from the to-do list to not wanting to get pregnant—as it is about turning on the thoughts and sensations that make a woman want or be willing to have sex. Obvious, maybe, but still, always helpful to me.
So I try to be mindful of the quiet and the sensations of physical intimacy. When I need to, I use fantasy: the costumes, the screenplay. It’s all good. It’s all right. For all of it, I am grateful. Relieved. I remember those years of not having much sex and feeling angry and distant. I’m not sure which was the chicken and which the egg, but having regular sex with him seems to bridge some sort of divide.
Sometimes I think about the future, when maybe we’re too old to have sex at all. I try to appreciate that it’s actually a privilege, a luxury, to be able to do it now. And while perhaps it will be a relief in some ways when he’s too old to want it anymore—and we can sit together on the porch drinking tea and yelling into each other’s hearing aids about the good old days—more often I wonder how it might feel to not be desired by this stalwart lover, this man of mine who’s always there, always ready.
Will I feel uncertain? Unattractive? Will I have the power to tell myself—as I hope he is able to now when I tell him it’s not him, it’s me—that it’s not personal? And in that moment, will I know—as I do writing this—that there’s ever so much more to it than that? That there’s never just me and never just him, but always the two of us as well? I hope so. Because therein lies the problem, but also the beauty and solace, of marriage. Long-term, lovely, till death do us part.
A version of this story was originally published in September 2017.
Grace O’Malley is a pseudonym.
(This essay is excerpted from The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, edited by Cathi Hanauer, just released in paperback from William Morrow/HarperCollins.)