When A “Good” Marriage Isn’t Good Enough
It’s ten o’clock at night. You're happily married to a wonderful man you love. You brush your teeth, put on your pajamas, and crawl into a cozy Queen-size bed. Your kids are asleep in the next room. Your husband closes his book, takes off his glasses, and turns off the light, then scootches down under your comforter and drops his head back onto the pillow. You allow your thoughts to wander after a busy day . . .
Life is good.
And then, suddenly, it isn’t.
The movements are subtle, but you feel every shift. The sounds, barely audible, may as well emerge full-volume from a loudspeaker. You're wide-awake. More than awake—you're vigilant. The comforter rustles. The sheet catches on something at the foot of the bed—a toenail? Deep in the mattress, springs compress. Your husband changes position, rolling onto his side. Although your eyes are closed, you know he’s facing you. You can hear him swallow—not a good sign. What will he say? “Are you awake?” He’ll sound casual but there will be nothing casual or relaxed about the moments. It will be packed with combustible emotions: longing, anger, fear, shame.
How long has it been, this time? A few days? A week? If someone asked you, you might shrug. “Last weekend.” If someone asked him, he'd respond with a wry half-frown. “Can’t say, my long-term memory doesn’t go back that far.”
Maybe it has been longer than a week, but who’s counting? Well, actually, he is. Your normally absent-minded husband knows the precise number of times he’s tried to enlist your sexual cooperation this month. You're beginning to think he uses some kind of primitive mathematical formula to calculate his chances of sexual satisfaction on any given night, a calculus of desire levels, flirtation, and foreplay added to the square root of your humdrum daily routine, multiplied by the glimpses he’s caught of your lingerie air-drying on a rack in the shower.
He reaches out and places a hand on your shoulder. Your breath stops. Think fast. What are your options? “Yes” and resent him or “No” and argue. Which will it be? Can you muster up the willingness? Can you stand the contact, the focus on touch, moans, body parts and fluids you’d rather ignore at this point of the day, of your marriage, of your life? Which is the least undesirable of these two choices? His fingers are warm and slightly rough on your upper arm, brushing against the fine hairs, cupping your elbow. How much time do you have before there’s no escape—no way of avoiding, yet again, the frightening reality of your mismatched sexual desire?
One of your children coughs in the next room.
“Let me check on them.” You bounce out of bed.
Your husband exhales, retracts his hand, and rolls onto his back.
Saved by the bell.
In The DSM-V, Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder is characterized by a lack of sexual interest and/or a lack of sexual arousal for at least six months. Whether or not a woman is upset or distressed by this lack of interest or arousal is a crucial criterion for the diagnosis. The disturbance can be moderate, mild or severe, lifelong or acquired, generalized or situational. Estimates on how many women suffer from this disorder vary widely, but according to the National Journal of Sexual Medicine, roughly 1.6 million women suffer from Female Sexual Interest/Arousal Disorder, which means roughly 1 out of 10 need help with low desire in the U.S. alone. What makes a DSM-V disorder so pervasive and systemic? According to the DSM V, “women in relationships of longer duration are more likely to report engaging in sex despite no obvious feelings of sexual desire at the outset of a sexual encounter compared with women in shorter-duration relationships.” If you’re dating and you find yourself consistently uninterested in sex, or not particularly aroused by it, you may be able to chalk up your disinterest to a variety of plausible reasons: you’re not in the mood, the guy or gal isn’t quite right for you, you’re not feeling sexy, it’s wintertime, there’s stress at work, etc. Sometimes, it’s not until you have a consistent partner that you run out of excuses and the stark truth of your low sexual desire are revealed. When your partner consistently complains about your sex life and grows increasingly irritable and withdrawn, you can’t keep pretending the problem is just situational or temporary. You’ll find yourself faced with the couples issue therapists sometimes refer to as “desire discrepancy.”
Lack of sexual interest is an issue many women wont openly admit to, even when it’s their daily reality. There’s often a lot at stake. Just as a man’s sexual identity and sense of competence can be tied up with his ability to pleasure his partner to orgasm and/or maintain an erection, a woman’s sense of sexual self-worth can be intricately connected with her ability to both stimulate and quench her partner’s sexual desire. Once she loses the capacity or the drive to engage in sex with her spouse, a woman’s sense of sexual self-confidence may waver. It can feel as if she’s failing at an essential aspect of her being: loving and being loved sexually. It can also inspire terror. Will she lose connection to her spouse? How will this affect her marriage? Is this a prelude to something worse? What changes lie around the corner as a result of her inability to match her partner’s sexual needs with authentic sexual responses and initiatives of her own?
When a situation isn’t working, acknowledging that there’s a problem is a key first step. Once you admit to a problem, you can find solutions. This isn’t as easy as it sounds for women who struggle with low sexual interest. Many of them have come to experience their own desire as beyond their control, outside their sphere of personal influence. They may fear they themselves are the problem, outliers on the graph of normative human sexual desire, doomed to disappoint and frustrate the person they love and need the most. At this point, traditional sex therapy can be helpful to many couples. Women can also make it the first order of business to locate their long-forgotten or deeply buried erotic compass. They can dust it off, do the work necessary to allow its magnetic needle to regain it's sensitivity and responsiveness, and begin to pay close attention to where their compasses direct them.