"Why isn't Lane turned on by me? It's been 8 months since we last made love — successfully, that is. We've tried a few times, but he loses his erection. Then he goes to sleep, while I lie there confused and frustrated. Also, I'm the only one who initiates sex these days; if I didn't, nothing would happen. Lane never makes a move. He just sits in front of the TV all night.
"It didn't used to be this way. From the moment Lane and I met, we had amazing chemistry. Up until this problem started, we had a fantastic sex life, making love three or four times a week. Lane used to surprise me by whisking me off to a hotel for romantic weekends.
"When I found Lane, I thought I'd hit the jackpot. He was a sensual, caring lover who took pleasure in making sure I was satisfied. I think his artistic nature is part of the reason he's so good in bed. He works for his father's import-export business, but his real passion is music. On weekends, he plays drums with a band, and he's quite good.
"I don't have a clue as to how this problem started. Everything seemed to fall apart one night when we were having sex and Lane couldn't finish. Insisting nothing was the matter, he turned on the TV, and that has been the story of our lives ever since. He just has no interest anymore. I've told him more than once that I don't want to be celibate the rest of my life.
"I get so jealous when we're out with our couple friends. The way they giggle and cuddle, you can just tell they have no problems in the bedroom. We're supposed to be going on a cruise with some of them in a few months, but I don't want to watch them dance, hold hands, and stroll on the deck when Lane and I barely even touch each other anymore.
"I get especially upset when I see my friend Marnie, who's pregnant. Her husband, Ted, looks at her adoringly and touches her belly, and they look so intimate and loving that I want to cry. Now that I'm turning 30, I really want to start our family soon. But the way things are going, that may not be biologically possible. I even said that to Lane the other night, and he just stormed out to the garage and played his drums for hours. The next morning, I told him that if he doesn't find me attractive anymore, maybe we should split up. His response, as always, was silence.
"But I guess it's a good sign that Lane agreed to counseling. When I told him I was taking us to see a marriage counselor, he said he wanted a session alone before our joint session. If he doesn't show up for his appointment, I want a divorce."
"I can't make love anymore. Frankly, I'm scared to initiate sex because I know I'll just fail again — and Angela doesn't hesitate to let me know how upset she is. She'll say things like, 'I guess I don't turn you on anymore' and 'I don't know if I want to stay in a celibate marriage.' That makes me feel even worse.
"I wish I knew why I can't respond to Angela. She's the most beautiful woman I've ever met. We were always compatible in every way, especially in bed. Angela's sex drive was as strong as mine, and it was great for both of us. Feeling desired by her made everything in my life better, even my music. I finally had the confidence to start composing, which I'd never tried before.
"I'd always wanted to be a musician, but my parents urged me to go into my dad's import-export business because it offered security. I'm not saying they weren't supportive of my dream; after all, they gave me my first drum set and paid for my lessons. Dad even offered to cover my expenses for a year after college so I could try becoming a professional musician, with the implication that I could come back and work for him if things didn't pan out.
"But if I wasn't a success, it would have given my older brother, Kyle, yet another reason to gloat. He was always the favorite son, better in school and at sports than I was. He got married first and gave our parents their first grandkids. I could never compete with him. So rather than risking failure as a musician, I went into the family business right out of college. The trouble is that Kyle works there, too, and he loves it. He's a natural at making deals, unlike me. Once again, he wins.
"I know I'm getting off the subject, but it's hard for me to talk about my sex problem. I think I can pinpoint the day it began: After a string of bad days at work, I lost a big contract. That same day, Kyle closed a really lucrative deal, and my dad took him out to celebrate. I felt like a loser and a rotten son.
"Then when I came home, Angela told me Marnie and Ted were expecting. Ted was the first of my friends to become a father, so the news hit me hard. Suddenly, I had images of Angela quitting work to raise a house full of kids while I worked overtime to support us. Just thinking about all that responsibility was overwhelming, so I was hardly in the mood when Angela started kissing me. Still, I went along with it — and lost my erection halfway through.
"I haven't been able to perform since. I've tried to go along when Angela comes on to me, but it's hopeless. Even when I feel a little aroused, I don't want to go through with it because I know I won't last. Maybe there's something medically wrong with me. It can't be normal for a guy in his thirties to lose his libido overnight, can it?
"Now Angela is talking about wanting a baby, but I'm not sure I'll ever be ready to be a father. When I look at Kyle and his wife, I see that their lives revolve completely around babysitters, parent-teacher meetings, and saving for college. That doesn't appeal to me. My idea of a good time is the cruise we're about to take, not dragging kids around an amusement park.
"Not that it matters whether I want to be a father. If I can't have sex, it's a moot point. And unless we can resolve this, Angela is going to leave me and look for a guy who can satisfy her. I don't understand how therapy will help, but I'm willing to try anything to keep our marriage alive."
The Counselor's Turn
"I suspected that the cause of Lane's erectile dysfunction, or ED, was purely emotional. Medical reasons for ED in young men are not unheard of, but for Lane, the evidence strongly pointed to a clear-cut case of performance anxiety.
"My goal was to address four key issues that I thought might be linked to Lane's dysfunction: his feelings about his job, his regret over not having pursued his music dream, his ambivalence about fatherhood, and Angela's tendency to pressure him about issues such as sex and children.
"First, we examined Lane's job situation. He rarely discussed his work with his wife, so she had assumed things were fine. But in my office, Lane blurted out his feelings. 'I'm in this job only to pay the bills,' he said. 'Music is what really makes my life worthwhile. I just know I'm going to make some huge, costly mistake at work someday, and I can't stand the idea of letting my dad down — especially since my brother always does everything right.' Angela was stunned to realize how much pain her husband was in.
"Lane went on to mention his fear of becoming the sole supporter of the family once they had children. Again, Angela was taken by surprise. 'I wouldn't want to quit work if we had a baby!' she said. 'I thought you knew that. Staying at home is fine for your sister-in-law, but I'd be bored.'
"I encouraged the couple to keep talking about these issues and try to come to some kind of agreement. Angela suggested Lane become an at-home dad, which would also give him the chance to pursue a music career. Lane was moved by her support, but admitted that this scenario didn't appeal to him, either. 'I wouldn't want to turn my music into work,' he said. 'I guess, down deep, I don't hate my job that much.'
"It sounded like what was really bothering Lane was the sense that he had to please his dad and compete with his brother. I suggested that we put his actual performance on paper: which deals he had closed and how his work had affected the company's bottom line. For the first time, Lane realized that he really wasn't as inadequate as he'd feared. In fact, he'd made almost as many significant deals as Kyle had.
"We talked again about parenthood next. Apart from the financial issue, Lane was reluctant to sacrifice his freedom to do things he liked. His parents and brother had centered their lives around their children, so he assumed that all parents did. 'Kids do change things,' replied Angela, 'but I'd never want to give up our couple time. My parents had dates every Friday night, and they sent us kids to our grandparents for two weeks every summer so they could travel.' Lane was delighted to learn that she felt the same way he did.
"On further discussion, Angela realized that she didn't really want to start a family right away — it was just that seeing her friends getting pregnant had made her feel that she ought to. Lane agreed that he would be more prepared for parenthood in a year or two.
"Next we moved on to Angela's habit of pressuring Lane for sex and threatening to leave him if he couldn't overcome his lack of desire. The more she pushed, the less he felt capable of performing. 'It's a vicious circle,' said Lane. 'You tell me you're disappointed, and then I'm afraid to let you down again.'
"Angela, who hadn't realized how demanding she had been, burst into tears. 'I thought you weren't attracted to me anymore,' she said. Assuring her that he still found her beautiful, Lane slipped his arm around Angela as she put her head on his shoulder. This tender moment was exactly what they needed to start reestablishing intimacy.
"I saw the couple again the week after Angela's birthday. Lane had thrown a big surprise party for her, and she thanked him later that night with a soothing backrub. The next day, they woke up relaxed — and in the mood. 'Let's just say we had a very good morning,' Lane said.
"From there, I explained that it was also important not to pressure each other to perform if they weren't in the mood. Nonsexual forms of intimacy, such as massages, showering together, and simply hugging and holding hands, would go a long way toward keeping their sex life active and loving.
"The last time I saw Angela and Lane, they were enjoying a richer love life. 'Once in a while, we get started in bed and it doesn't happen,' said Lane. 'We don't make a big deal out of it. We snuggle and say "I love you," and then the next time, we're fine again.' Angela agreed: 'I used to feel rejected and even ugly when Lane couldn't perform. Now I just chalk it up to his being tired or stressed.'
"Things were much better on the job, too; Lane had just closed a particularly profitable deal. Both he and Angela enjoy spending time with their friends again now that she doesn't envy anyone's love life or family plans. And Lane couldn't be happier that he no longer feels like a failure in and out of the bedroom."
"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 Flo Rosof, Ph.D., director of the Life Development Center, in Huntington, New York. 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, September 2002.