“I don’t want to live this way,” he said.
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.
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.
Making the Choice
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
“Well, I hate them,” I replied, suddenly adamant. “Why should I be the one doing all the compromising?”
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.
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.
The Price of Monogamy?
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.
With my new knowledge, I finally was able to lose almost all the guilt while also being honest with him.
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.
Ugh! Scheduled Sex
As long as I’m not indisposed or incapacitated, I tell myself I’m doing it because he loves it, and I love him.
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.
Always the Two of Us
I try to appreciate that it’s actually a privilege, a luxury, to be able to do it now.
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.
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.)