Updated: Jan 7, 2021
Trigger warning: this may be difficult to read for survivors of trauma. Proceed with caution:
Gittel and Shuey have been married for almost 10 years. They get along fairly well, and are kept busy with their three little ones and their demanding jobs. They’ve come to discuss the ostensible problem of Gittel’s low libido.
“I don’t know what we’re doing wrong,” Shuey began. “I try different ways to give her pleasure, but she just doesn’t seem to be able to enjoy. Her body doesn’t respond.”
Gittel continues their story:
“It’s definitely better than it used to be, though.”
I ask in what way.
They go on to describe how at the beginning, Gittel was so stiff and scared that it was as if she was frozen. She could barely tolerate any sexual activity at all. They’d married young, and neither of them had received very much in the way of premarital education, especially about sex. But while Gittel was reserved and inhibited, Shuey was excited to experiment. Gittel fidgeted in her chair as Shuey described how difficult it was for them to consummate the marriage.
“My body seemed to know what to do, hers didn’t. So I needed to ‘break her in.’”
In moments like that, I’ve learned to stay calm and tread carefully. The amount of accidental sexual assault I encounter in my work is alarming. Shuey wasn’t what one pictures as an aggressor. He probably would be shocked by the idea of it. But the history that unfolded was a tragically common story of how noneducation can lead to trauma.
Gittel wasn’t ready for physical intimacy when they got married. She didn’t understand her body or his, and hadn’t had the time or information to prepare. She told him that it hurt and wasn’t working for her. From his end, Shuey had been instructed: “You should take the lead because new wives don’t usually know what to do. It takes some time, but keep going and she’ll learn to enjoy it.” She would often protest physically and verbally, and Shuey felt bad, but he was literally following orders. And for the first year or two, that amounted to a regular schedule of marital rape, which they both believed was par for the course.
Since there was no overt hostility or clear violence, and their rapport outside the bedroom was amicable, the couple thought they were doing mostly fine; just assumed this was normative gender differences in sexual experience. Over time, Gittel’s body adjusted to the invasions, and her mind learned to dissociate, which decreased both the acute physical and emotional distress.
But eventually they realized that her complete disinterest in sex was something that should be addressed.
The challenge with treating couples like Gittel and Shuey is that they walk in thinking they have a low libido problem. But in fact they are dealing with a protracted history of sexual trauma. They are asking me to not only help a rape survivor heal and develop a desire for sex and pleasure, but to cultivate it with her own abuser. It essentially amounts to: “I used to rape my wife because she wasn’t good at sex, and I thought that was the protocol, but now she cooperates better, or I’m willing to stop that, so can you make her desire me?”
In cases of overt abuse and conscious cruelty, this would be nearly impossible, and probably unethical. But in cases like theirs, where the use of force seemed to be benign in the eyes of the couple, there is an assumption that as long as the husband is “no longer forcing her” she should now feel safe and amorous and ready to roll. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. This work is painstaking for all of us.
It begins with the task of carefully disclosing to a sincere couple that the marriage they were trying to develop and maintain for years, was actually riddled with damaging pathology. That before we can even think about trying to build desire and pleasure, we need to create repair, healing, and safety. The therapy is long and emotionally exhausting all around, and while it can be effective, there are no outcome guarantees.
I’ve been wanting to write this story for several years because Gittel and Shuey’s story is so disturbingly common. (This couple is fictitious but reflects the clinical reality of more couples than I can count.) For the culturally ignorant, one might presume Shuey is the villain of this case. But he is also a victim, of a system that deliberately and systemically deprives young people of the psychosexual education that could prevent this suffering. Couples like this often suffer in silence for years, believing either that this is normal, or that it’s not, but they are the only ones. Neither is true. Some problems are inevitable; this one is absolutely preventable.
Please consider being part of the solution, by educating, advocating, and providing the next generation with the knowledge they deserve to build healthy intimate relationships.
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