"The more Jim pressures me to have sex, the more turned off I get," said Melissa, 31, who's been married for 7 years and is the mother of Heather, 3, and Zoe, 5 months. "To be honest, I've never enjoyed sex all that much, but things went from bad to worse after Zoe was born. We tried to make love once, about two months ago, but it hurt too much. That freaked me out. Plus, I got the baby blues really badly this time and to make matters worse, Zoe is colicky. Everyone told me she'd calm down after three months, but she's still crying night and day unless I'm holding her. Meanwhile, I feel like I'm totally ignoring Heather because I'm spending every minute trying to calm the baby. And on top of everything else, I'm exhausted trying to fulfill orders for my jewelry business. I make metal bracelets, earrings, and necklaces and sell them through consignment shops here in the Minneapolis area. I've built my business from the ground up and I'm terrified I'll lose everything if I don't keep up the pace.
"I've tried to explain to Jim how overwhelmed I feel, but he doesn't get it. About a month ago, I told him point-blank that I'm just not interested in sex while I'm under all this pressure. He said, 'You can't be serious,' and gave me a leering grin. This was right after dinner; the kids weren't in bed yet and the dishes weren't done!"
"Not that Jim would notice, since he never lifts a finger around the house. He's a high-school guidance counselor, so he gets home around 3:30 p.m. You'd think that having hours like that would mean he'd pitch in with the chores. But instead, he tosses his stuff on a chair, changes clothes, and goes for a run. After dinner (which I've cooked, naturally), when Heather still needs a bath and a bedtime story and Zoe is shrieking her lungs out, he decides that's the perfect time to start complaining about how we never have sex anymore. We end up in a fight, which almost always escalates to the point where we're screaming at each other about anything and everything.
"Sometimes the issues aren't all that huge, but we manage to jump down each other's throat anyway. A couple of weeks ago we had an argument about how Jim never picks up after himself, and it lasted three days. Eventually we got so mad we started throwing lamps and dishes, and finally Jim kicked the wall and broke his toe. Later I found Heather upstairs huddled in her bedroom closet crying.
"The next day I called my sister, Gail, and told her everything. She invited me and the kids to get away for a 'girls' weekend' at the lake cabin she and her husband own. Her daughter is about Heather's age and the two cousins love each other. Gail said she'd watch the kids while I relaxed. It sounded like heaven! But when I told Jim, he said he wanted to come, thinking that the change of scene and the chance to relax might make me feel sexier. I tried to explain that I need him to back off.
"Sex was never something I looked forward to, but I could always put up with it before. I'd just let Jim do his thing and kind of float above it. Evidently he was satisfied because he keeps talking about the 'good years' when our sex life was so great. All I can think is that it wasn't great for me. I do love my husband — he's a great guy and a good father and until this sex issue became so huge, we got along. But I really want him to stop pressuring me."
"Melissa is very intelligent and creative, whether she's designing her jewelry or playing with our children. And she's beautiful, too. I love all those qualities, but I have to admit that one of the things that attracted me to her in the first place was that she bragged about all the sex she was having in college," said Jim, 34. "She was a wild woman and proud of it. She was 22 and a senior in college and I was 25. I'd just been dumped by my high school sweetheart — someone I'd been with since I was 15 years old. My friends encouraged me to go to a party to get back into circulation, and Melissa was there. I gravitated to her right away, attracted by both her beauty and her bubbliness. Before long she was telling me about all the guys she'd slept with, who seemed to number in the dozens. I was frankly intrigued by this — it was such an exciting contrast to my own long-term, monogamous relationship — and I got her phone number and called the next day.
"I kissed her on our second date. I was nervous because she was so much more experienced than I was, but she seemed fine with what I was doing. About a month later, we had sex for the first time and, again, she seemed satisfied. She was kind of passive, actually. I was surprised because I thought that with all her experience she'd take more initiative. But after that first time, she was always ready. That was so great! We had a good time out of bed, too. We're both into backpacking and camping and we love to read. We'd get into these intense, terrific discussions about books. After a year of dating, I proposed and we got married a year after that.
"The first three years of our marriage were great. Melissa never said no and we actually had sex five or six times a week. And we had lots of time for each other. She started her own jewelry business after a year of working for another designer, which meant she could make her own hours. I got home early from my job as a guidance counselor and had school vacations and summers off."
"We'd been married about four years when Heather was born. Melissa had a tough delivery and was really sore afterward. It took about two months for her to be comfortable having sex again, but eventually she was all right. The doctor said a lot of women go through that. Heather was an easy baby so Melissa and I managed to have sex fairly often. But it's been a whole different story since Zoe was born, five months ago. Again, Melissa had a hard delivery and said it hurt when we made love the first time after the birth even though we waited three months this time.
"Then she shut down completely. I would try to initiate something and she would say she was scared — that she couldn't get the pain out of her mind. I tried to reason with her, pointing out how enough time had passed for her to have healed completely, but she wouldn't listen. The other problem is that Zoe is a real handful. She has had colic from day one. We've talked to doctors and researched it on the Internet, but we haven't been able to get her to stop crying. Even so, I know that eventually Zoe will get over her colic and life will settle down. What concerns me, though, is that I can't foresee our sex life getting back to what it should be.
"Melissa actually told me that she wants a break from sex. Is it me? I'm in pretty good shape, if I do say so myself, and she certainly had no complaints during the early years. I have been totally faithful, unlike my own father, who was always fooling around. And I'm a good breadwinner, too. Why is she totally turned off ? I can't do anything right. If I make an overture — in spite of being pretty sure I'll be rejected — she starts in on all the things I do wrong. The last time this happened, she ranted about how I leave my clothes on the chair instead of hanging them up. This is not a federal offense in my opinion, but she wouldn't let up. I ended up kicking the wall and breaking my toe.
"A day later she told me she needed to get away with her sister. I was crushed. First Melissa rejects all my sexual advances, then she says she has to get away from me? I have to wonder if she's thinking about leaving me. After all, my first girlfriend bailed after almost 10 years. I don't want a repeat of that scenario. I want the old Melissa back. It's not just the sex, either. I miss the way we used to do stuff together, talk about books we'd read, even just watch Comedy Central and crack up laughing. I think about the good years and I can't believe we've ended up like this."
The Counselor's Turn
"After listening to both Melissa and Jim, I strongly suspected that there was more to the story than they had told me, or for that matter, than they had told each other," said the counselor. "One clue was that Melissa said she had never enjoyed sex and that she would 'kind of float above it.' Sexual trauma can trigger a psychological defense mechanism called dissociation. The sensation of leaving one's body is the brain's attempt to distance one's self from a traumatic experience or memory.
"Another fairly common reaction to sexual trauma is promiscuity. Survivors who behave this way often feel degraded and can't equate sex with love and respect. What Jim said about Melissa's college sexual experiences and the fact that Melissa had shut down sexually made me almost certain there was sexual trauma in her past.
"I was also interested in Jim's having been in a relationship from age 15 to 25. As he admitted, the fact that he'd had only one sexual partner during his entire coming of age contributed to his fascination with Melissa's being a 'wild woman.' Moreover, the failure of his first relationship had made him especially fearful of being dumped again."
"I decided to see Melissa and Jim separately for a while in order to elicit key information from each of them. With Melissa, I began by asking about her sexual experiences before meeting Jim. I did not, of course, let her know that Jim had told me in confidence about her promiscuity in college. I simply said that in order to help her with her current aversion to sex, I needed to understand her sexual history. She did not hesitate to tell me that she had slept with a lot of men before she met Jim. When I asked her about her first sexual experience, however, she was quiet for a long time. Finally, through a flood of tears, she told me what I was not at all surprised to hear. At 15, she had been date-raped behind a woodshed in the rural area where she grew up. 'I never told my parents, I never told my sister, I never told Jim, I never told anyone,' she sobbed. 'I just made myself forget about it. But then when I was in labor with Zoe, they gave me some kind of anesthetic that made me have a flashback. I could feel the guy on top of me. Then it was time to push and I came back to reality. But I can't get that vision out of my mind.'
"This was a powerful disclosure that helped explain why she found herself pulling away sexually and emotionally from Jim. Every time he got close, it reactivated painful memories and sensations from the past. I waited until her tears had subsided and then I reassured her that we could begin a healing process, even though 16 years had passed.
"In subsequent sessions, I also learned that when Melissa was 16, she had come home from school early one day and found her father having sex on the living room couch with her mother's best friend. Her parents eventually got divorced. Following closely on the heels of her rape, this episode added to Melissa's confusion about what healthy sexuality could be.
"With Jim, we talked about his philandering father. 'He had a lot of mistresses,' he told me. 'Once he took my brother and me to a woman's house and introduced us to her son. I'm not sure to this day whether he's my half brother, but I would bet that he is.' Because of his father's behavior, Jim wanted to do better and in fact stayed with his high school sweetheart for nearly a decade. He was deeply hurt when she left him but almost immediately made a firm commitment to the second woman he slept with, Melissa.
"Everything was fine as long as they had frequent sex because, as Jim put it, 'That was proof that I was loved.' When Melissa started rejecting Jim's overtures, however, he became frantic with worry that she would leave him. Yet the more he pursued her, the more she withdrew. The fights the two of them had about issues like Jim's habit of leaving clothes on a chair were side effects of the tension they both felt about their vanished intimacy. It didn't help that Melissa was suffering from postpartum depression and that she was sleep deprived because of a colicky baby."
"An important first step in helping them heal was to get them to share these new revelations with each other while I acted as mediator and facilitator. There were moments of great tenderness, particularly when Jim heard about Melissa's first sexual experience. He got teary-eyed and reached out to embrace her. She did not resist and they cried together.
"After that, I encouraged Melissa and Jim to start over when it came to sex. I needed to help Melissa reclaim the innocence that had been abruptly seized from her as a young teenager. To that end, I asked them to start with the childlike simplicity of holding hands in order to feel warmth and connection. Only by going back to that very basic level of trust could she begin to literally grow up again sexually — this time in a healthier way. I also asked them to spend time every day kissing and hugging without the goal of intercourse.
"These fairly common steps toward reclaiming intimacy helped. But the breakthrough came when I gave them a book of beautiful photographs of lovers kissing in the rain or nuzzling one another's cheeks or standing arm-in-arm gazing into a sunset. There were more erotic yet tasteful photographs as well. I asked Melissa and Jim to indicate what they liked and didn't like. At the next session, the couple could barely contain their elation over the fact that they had made love and had both enjoyed it. 'Having Melissa point to something erotic that she felt she would enjoy was the most amazing turn-on for us,' Jim said. 'Just knowing that she actually does have desires was incredibly good news.'"
"Melissa, in turn, was pleased that Jim was so pleased. She also took the exercise one step further by keeping a journal of her reactions to the photographs. She kept the writing to herself for a long time, but on Valentine's Day just over two years after Melissa and Jim first came to see me, she presented him with a booklet of original prose and poetry about her journey toward sexual healing. Jim was deeply moved, and during their next session he brought the book and opened it to a photograph that had inspired one of Melissa's most passionate poems. He pointed to it, and Melissa's eyes misted over as she looked at a photograph of a woman with her head resting peacefully on a man's shoulder while he tousled her hair. 'She looks so safe,' Melissa finally whispered. Jim tapped his shoulder and Melissa put her head on it. He began to run his fingers tenderly through her hair. 'You are safe with me,' Jim said softly. 'I love you.' Melissa snuggled in closer and said, 'I trust you. And I love you, too.'
"During the year that followed, I worked on communications skills such as allowing each partner to speak his or her mind without interruption and repeating what the other person said to make sure there are no misunderstandings. Jim became more involved in household chores and began cooking dinner several nights a week and handling Heather's bedtime. Not surprisingly, the bitter fighting over minor issues subsided on its own — and happily, the formerly fussy Zoe turned into a delightful, curious toddler who adores her older sister. Slowly, Melissa and Jim achieved a level of intimacy far greater than they ever had during their early years together.
"At this point, after three years of weekly counseling, Melissa and Jim see me only for an occasional relationship tune-up. The work we did has allowed them to maintain a satisfying sex life. Melissa has begun having orgasms for the first time in her life; that, in turn, has understandably made her far more interested in Jim's advances. Recently he was thrilled to report that she has begun making overtures herself. 'Not only is she not rejecting me, she's actually coming on to me,' he said. 'This is more than I ever hoped for.'
"'Jim always used to say that the first years of our relationship were the good years because we had sex,' added Melissa. 'But in fact these are the good years because now we make love.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?(r)" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews and information from the files of Betsy Sansby, MS, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Minnetonka, Minnesota. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?(r)" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2007.