"My husband can't get enough in bed. You'd think that after nearly 15 years of marriage, Sean's libido would have cooled, but no — he still wants sex every single day. Sometimes, I'm too exhausted from working and taking care of the kids to be romantic. But the few times I've told him I'm not in the mood, he's pestered me and pouted until I gave in. Even in the middle of the night, if Sean gets the urge, he'll press himself against me or fidget until I wake up.
"It upsets me that I can't say no to my husband. But I'm also angry at his pressure tactics. Why can't Sean ever wait for me to make the first move? It's not that I don't enjoy sex — he's a caring and generous lover — but I just want to do it on my terms sometimes. I'm so angry that I don't feel emotionally connected to him anymore.
"I was 18 when I was introduced to Sean by a friend. I felt instant sparks: At 20, Sean was kind and more sophisticated than the other guys I'd dated, and we came from very similar backgrounds. I fell in love with him fast.
"Four months after we met, Sean talked me into having sex. I was a good wait-for-the-wedding-night Catholic girl who wasn't emotionally ready, but I was afraid I'd lose him if I refused. Afterward, I felt guilty and mad at Sean for being so pushy. From then on, he expected us to do it on every date. I didn't like that, either, but I never complained to him, because everything else in our relationship was going great. A year later, we got married.
"The early years were rocky, in large part because we were just so young. Sean worked long hours in his family's wholesale plumbing supply business, and I was finishing my degree, so we didn't spend much time together. Two years into our marriage, I'm ashamed to say that I had a one-night stand with a guy I met on a trip to New York. I'm the one who initiated it out of loneliness and boredom, but I felt dirty afterward.
"I immediately broke off contact with the guy, but over the next few months he sent me cards — one of which Sean found by accident. When he confronted me, I cried and promised that I'd never cheat again. Sean was so heartbroken that he threatened divorce, and I didn't blame him. However, while we were weighing our options, I became pregnant. We hadn't stopped having sex during this rough patch in our marriage — and we decided to stay together for the sake of our baby.
"Sean and I put all of our energies into raising Michael, who's now 13. As our relationship improved, we expanded our family and had three more children: Steven is 11; Joseph, 8; and Emily, 3. I loved being a stay-at-home mother, and Sean was happy to be the sole breadwinner.
"Then, before Emily was born, we suddenly fell on hard times. Sean was fired from his family's business and went to work for a pharmaceutical company, which meant taking a drastic pay cut. I got my job with the telecommunications company to bring in more money. At one point, our financial situation was so tight that the kids didn't attend birthday parties because we couldn't afford to buy gifts. The financial pressure put plenty of stress on our relationship, but it didn't do anything to slow down Sean's sex drive.
"If anything, Sean has become more sexually adventurous, always wanting to try new positions. I give in, because even after all these years, I still feel guilty about my fling and don't feel comfortable rejecting Sean. Not to mention the fact that he has a terrible temper, and I'm afraid that he'll get really mad at me if I say no. If I make so much as a parenting decision that he doesn't support, he goes ballistic. So I try to keep the peace.
"For instance, sometimes I buy the kids new clothes or shoes even though we don't have enough money in our account. I don't always tell Sean, but he finds out anyway when he balances the checkbook, and he explodes. Then after his tirades, he wants 'make-up sex'!
"Sean's demands and his anger are making me miserable. I'm putting on a brave face for the kids' sake, but I feel so empty in this marriage. I wish Sean and I could start our relationship over."
"In all our years together, my wife has never once complained about my sex drive. In fact, Patty always seems more than willing. If she doesn't want it, why doesn't she just say 'no'? Frankly, I think she should be flattered that I still find her just as sexy and beautiful as she was the day we met. I can't help wanting to make love with her all the time.
"But I'm not surprised that Patty is concealing her feelings. She has a sneaky streak that drives me crazy. For example, she hides credit-card bills, hoping I won't find out how much she's spending on stuff for the kids and house. And she has a terrible habit of bouncing checks; in the past five years, Patty has cost us $1,000 in overdraft fees. Once, she even borrowed $500 from her sister to cover some bills, and never paid her back. When I found out, I was so appalled that I repaid the debt immediately. Patty has other annoying habits, too. She's chronically late and forgetful. She doesn't set limits with our kids, yet she refuses to enforce the ones I set.
"I love my wife — I've always been drawn to her upbeat personality and humor — but apart from our sex life, I'm not happy in this marriage, either. I'll admit that I've never completely forgiven Patty for the fling she had years ago. We haven't spoken about it since our first child was born, and I believe we were right to stay together, but it still hurts.
"It's true that I was the one who initiated sex when we were dating. But let's make this perfectly clear: I did not physically force Patty into anything. Sure, I wanted her to say yes, but if she had refused, it would have been okay with me. That goes for all the other times, too. I may come from a strong-willed family, but I'm not a monster.
"When Patty and I got married, I was a clerk at our corporate headquarters, putting in grueling 12-hour days and learning the business from the ground up so that I could move into management. I knew it wouldn't be easy, because my parents' policy was to promote the older children first. Patty was upset that I didn't spend much time at home, but I was trying to make a life for us. I told her I'd make it up to her.
"When my father passed away, my lunatic older brother Peter took over and promptly fired me because I disagreed with his management philosophies. I found a job in pharmaceutical sales, but it meant losing nearly half of my former income. It was one of the darkest periods of my life. After working my way up, I'm finally earning a decent salary again. But some of my staffers aren't pulling their weight, and it's stressful staying on top of them.
"Things are just as frustrating at home. It's bad enough that I can't trust Patty with the checkbook, but now Steven, our second son, is just as dishonest as his mother. He begged to go to an expensive ice-hockey camp, but he's been skipping sessions, and Patty has been covering for him. I screamed and hurled my cell phone across the room when I found out.
"I know I have a bad temper, and I recently started seeing a therapist to find out how to control it. His advice is helping a lot, and when he suggested Patty and I go to marriage counseling, I was all for it. Maybe we can figure out what's gone so wrong in our marriage and set things right."
The Counselor's Turn
"Power struggles are very common in marriages. Sean and Patty's problem may have appeared to be purely sexual, but in fact, they were locked in a battle between his aggressive personality and her passive-aggressive one.
"Sean was direct about what he wanted from Patty — and insistent on getting it. She accommodated him, but unconsciously got her revenge by having a one-night stand, bouncing checks and being chronically late. It was a vicious circle: The more demanding Sean became, the more Patty quietly fought back. Still, I believed they could work it out if they each accepted their own part in their problems and changed their negative behavior.
"First, the couple had to come to grips with their sexual past: Sean's eagerness to have sex too early, as well as Patty's infidelity. If they didn't find closure or see how one problem had led to the other, their lingering bitterness and resentment would keep undermining their relationship.
"I encouraged Sean to acknowledge that he pressured Patty for sex when they were first dating. He apologized and said, 'Until now, it never occurred to me that I might have contributed to your acting in a passive-aggressive way and your infidelity.' In turn, Patty had to realize that by not speaking up for what she wanted, she had allowed Sean to take advantage of her. 'You were victimized,' I said. 'But your lack of assertiveness created the very situation that you hate.'
"Next, we explored how the couple's families had shaped their personalities. The son of highly successful and controlling parents, Sean grew up feeling that he had to live up to their expectations and follow the career path they had chosen for him. To compensate for his frustration at work, he developed his bullying and aggressive personality at home, and he didn't realize he was being too demanding about sex because he was used to getting his way. Realizing this, Sean felt ashamed and vowed that he would try to be more sensitive to his wife's feelings.
"Patty was submissive like her father, but, like her mother, she developed devious ways of getting even with her husband when she felt overpowered by him. Initially, Patty rejected my suggestion that she was passive-aggressive, but once she accepted this, she realized how wrong she had been to use their family finances as a weapon. Once she determined to have sex on her own terms, she would no longer need to take out her anger by mismanaging money. 'You complain that Sean treats you like a sex object, but you've allowed yourself to be treated that way,' I said.
"Sean also needed to curb his temper and improve his communication skills. Instead of resenting Patty for all the bounced checks, I recommended that he say something like, 'Money is going to be tight this month. If you can't pay a bill, tell me, and we'll figure something out together.'
"Because the couple's power struggle extended to their parenting, I stressed the importance of presenting a united front to their children. It was essential that they agree on discipline methods and really stick to them. Patty began by acknowledging that she should not have let their son get away with skipping hockey camp. To solve the problem, I suggested to Sean, 'Explain to Steven that lessons are quite expensive and that you expect him to attend. Tell him that for every day he cuts camp, he'll owe you $20.' Sean used those very words -- and Steven never played hooky again.
"As Sean gradually toned down his temper, Patty became more comfortable speaking her mind. After a few months, she was able to report, 'I don't say yes to sex unless I'm really in the mood. Now, we make love a few times a week — and I'm often the one who initiates it!' Another good sign — Patty has stopped bouncing checks. Sean even suggested that she pay her own credit-card bill for groceries and drugstore items. 'I still pay the mortgage and the other bills,' he said, 'but the new system has forced me to give up some control, which has been good for me."'
"Finally, Patty and Sean needed to fall in love again. Marrying young and starting a family right away hadn't given them much time for romancing. 'Go out on regular dates,' I advised them. 'That way, you'll find out whether you still enjoy each other's company.' Now, Patty and Sean go out twice a month, which has helped them reconnect emotionally.
"Patty and Sean were ready to end counseling after two years, though I still see Sean individually to help him deal with work-related conflicts. Both have made tremendous progress, and their marriage is stronger than ever. Next year, they're planning to take a Caribbean cruise to celebrate their 15th anniversary. 'I love the changes in Sean, and I like myself a lot better now that I'm standing up for what I want,' Patty said. 'I'm excited about our future, because I know we're on the right track.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Stephen Betchen, D.S.W., a marital and sex therapist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. 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 magazine, October 2002.