Miriam had been married for just over ten years, and was happily and busily raising their brood of five healthy children, when she and her husband, Chaim, finally came in seeking help for “her desire problem”. They describe a loving partnership, one in which there is mutual respect, generosity, kindness, and connection. Their only problem appears to be physical intimacy; more specifically, her disinterest and inability to feel pleasure during sexual activity. As I assess them as a couple, and then her individually, it appears that there is nothing in particular that causes her physical pain or discomfort, but her general sense of “not wanting” interferes with the experience almost every time. She feels attractive and can enjoy some touch, likes her husband, has no known history of trauma, and her husband seems caring, thoughtful, and gentle. Eventually, she describes a policy that opens a door for us. I noted that while she doesn’t seem to be sexually interested, they seem to keep up a very steady bedroom schedule of 3-4 times a week. I asked her about it, and she looked at me a little surprised, and responds: “Well, I’m not exactly going to say ‘no’ to my husband!” I ask her why not? She replies: “First of all, I was taught- you never say no to your husband in this area. It’s an important mitzvah, and it’s our job to save them from sin; if he doesn’t get this from me, he will want it from someplace else. And second, if I can’t be a wife who ‘gets into it’ like he wants [ie: quality], at least I can be there for him when he wants [ie: quanitity], so I don’t have to feel as guilty.”
Now, I imagine reading that dialogue elicits one of three types of reactions:
Agreement: Yes, this makes sense- I feel or would feel the same way as this woman.
Indifference: I don’t really know how I would feel, or I feel somewhat differently, but hey, everyone’s gotta do what they gotta do.
Appalled: That sounds terribly sad, wrong, and unhealthy. Someone help her!
The first time I heard it, my 21st century therapist alarm bells went off: “Oh no- this woman doesn’t feel she has a choice; this is a marriage with a power imbalance.” Yet, as I got to know Miriam and her husband, and many other lovely couples like them, I learned that this is not specifically an issue of power, as much as a cultural message. She, and many other women like her, feel compelled toward sexual activity not due to an overbearing husband, but because of a culturally acquired belief system. The problem is: this belief system has been failing many of them- the men and the women. It can be very difficult to feel desire and pleasure in a compulsory situation. When turning one's husband down is perceived as prohibited, then it’s difficult or impossible to determine consent. Or, as I told Miriam, and many other women: “If you don’t feel you can say ‘no’, then your ‘yes’ becomes pretty meaningless.”
Now, there may be some men out there who would be perfectly content, even happy, to have a submissive, obedient wife available at their beck and call, regardless of how or what she is feeling, who gives over her body, feels nothing, and checks out emotionally. But I believe that the majority of good, healthy men want more than a warm, compliant body at night. They want to feel connection. They want to feel desired. They don't want to be or feel like an obligation. They want to feel they are not just doing a physical act to someone, but that they are interacting, relating emotionally, and providing a partner with mutual pleasure and passion. It’s part of the difference between “having sex” and “making love”. While there is a crude stereotype out there than men are only after one thing, in my professional experience, most good men want more and better than that. They want mutuality and authenticity. They are much happier when there is two-way emotional involvement, when there is pleasure on both ends, and when they feel their wives are engaged in the play, emotionally, mentally, physically, and happily.
A woman who feels obligated to be there for her husband sexually no matter what, is far less likely to honor her own feelings, thoughts, and desires in the bedroom. After a while, (and sometimes even initially) she is less likely to even know what they are, or have too many, since they don’t seem to matter anyway. After all, if she is just a means to his dispensing with his biological urge, how much pleasure or connection is she likely to feel with him? Some of these women report feeling like nothing more than receptacles, despite knowing that their husbands generally love them and mean no harm. This doctrine of “never say no, they need this from you” and this rigid model of compulsory sexual protocol is demeaning to both sexes, and is at best ineffective at creating closeness. In more “mild” cases, it deprives couples of the joy of mutual desire, and in severe cases, it can be emotionally damaging, register as trauma and/or ruin marriages.
Much of this process is subconscious and automatic; couples don’t usually define or articulate the dynamic, it just evolves. But one thing seems empirically clear: once we encourage these couples to try a new sexual paradigm, where the woman is empowered and encouraged to listen to her own feelings, desires, needs and boundaries, and then to communicate about them, we start to see significant improvement. It’s both very simple and profoundly deep. And incredibly healing; one of my favorite therapeutic interventions to watch unfold.
To further illustrate the mechanics of this shift, I offer an analogy: A child who draws a picture of a horse, because that was the homework assignment, will probably try to get away with a basic, sloppy, stick figure, just to have something to hand in. But a child who sees a horse, and is excited about it, might choose to draw one for his own amusement, and will invest more time, focus, creativity and feeling to the process, even if the suggestion came from a parent or teacher. Adults in our vocations often work the same way. When we perform tasks, even tasks we generally enjoy, if we do so in a “gun to the head” kind of way, from a place of “I need to do this or else…” we are not acting from a position of volition, but from one that feels a lot more like coercion.
Desire and pleasure, almost definitionally, can't be demanded, only cultivated. [For some women (or men) the sense of coercion comes in the form of a “rule” like: never turn down your husband. For others, they may technically feel they have license to say no, but that they would pay an emotional price for it, such as a husband’s sulkiness, anger, moodiness, or unwillingness to talk or engage with her or the family. For still others, they might fear their husbands will turn to the phone or internet for gratification. But many of these marriages involve men who are safe and kind, with wives who were simply miseducated about roles.] The ability to say no clearly, lovingly, and unrejectingly is so valuable, as is the ability to accept such a reply graciously and without taking offense. Both are signs of maturity and secure attachment in a relationship. Most spouses would prefer a clear but loving “no” over a begrudging, dishonest “yes”. I know this because I've asked the question over and over again.
I’m not suggesting that spouses ever consistently, deliberately deprive one another of sexual activity in a punitive, manipulative, stonewalling, or sadistic way. A normative, healthy marriage includes physical intimacy, and if there is none, the union will generally be strained and/or require help. But a spouse who knows s/he has agency, who has the right to say yes, no, or maybe tomorrow, without repercussion, will be a lot more likely to develop a personal taste for this pleasure, than one who feels it is forbidden to ever say no. And so I repeat: You can only truly say yes, if you can also say no. Please share this concept with any couples or individuals to whom this idea might relevant. This one paradigm shift in a relationship can make all the difference for both parties- just ask Miriam and Chaim.
[Please note: This dynamic is not the only cause of sexual problems, but it is common enough that it’s worth considering, if it’s in place. A couple experiencing any serious or ongoing marital or sexual difficulty should consult with professionals for assessment.]