Originally created 03/03/98

Can this marriage be saved?



"Steve and I fight about sex just about every day," says Helen, 40, a substitute teacher and mother of two children, 9 and 12.

"He doesn't understand me at all," she says. "All he thinks about is sex. With him, there's no such thing as just a kiss, just a hug. Everything has to lead to intercourse, or he gets furious."

Helen is turned off by his pushiness. "Steve constantly pushes for a quickie. I feel I have absolutely no room to breathe. There's no such thing," she says, "as simply lying in bed and watching television together or holding each other and talking."

Even when they do make love, Steve still complains.

"What right does he have to tell me what I'm thinking and feeling?" she says. "He's never available to do any of the things he promises to do -- like driving the kids to the orthodontist, putting the screens in the windows or helping with grocery shopping. Just once, I'd like him to take the initiative in something other than sex."

Steve, 40, can barely wait to talk. "Helen is not affectionate," he says. "If I walk into the kitchen to give her a hug when I get home from the office, she pushes me away and says, `Not now, the kids may come in.' So what? Can't they see their parents kissing? God forbid she should ever reach over to kiss me," he says.

Steve doesn't know what he's doing wrong. "I'm always telling her how great she looks. She doesn't believe me. She says I'm just trying to get her into bed."

As for helping around the house, Steve says, he does much more than Helen credits him with. "No matter what I do, it's never enough or good enough. Like my mother, she's always yelling about what I don't do, instead of what I do."

Ending the stalemate

"Helen and Steve are actually voicing very similar complaints, though they don't realize it," says Jane Greer, a marriage and sex therapist in New York and co-author of How Could You Do This to Me? (Doubleday, 1997). "Both are angry because they aren't getting their needs met and view their partner as unconcerned."

The key to breaking a sexual stalemate is to uncover the expectations that each has brought to the marriage. Because they haven't done that, Helen feels bullied -- and her frustration often causes her to lash out harshly. What's more, she's unable to see that beneath the surface of her husband's sexual bullying lie feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. Steve is so angry at his wife's rejection that he criticizes her and makes himself unavailable to Helen in ways important to her.

If you and your spouse are at a similar impasse, the following tips, which helped Helen and Steve understand their problem, may help you:

Recognize that, although your expectations and perceptions may not be the same, they are neither wrong nor abnormal. Each of us has different needs and preferences. Steve has to understand that Helen's unwillingness to make love doesn't mean she finds him unattractive: She may be upset, exhausted or simply not programmed for sex in the same way he is.

Back off a bit. Sex shouldn't be a power struggle. If you've been initiating sex and meeting with rejection, cool it for a while and give your partner some space. Talk about what may be bothering you, and try to be more responsive to each other's requests and comments.

If you don't want to make love just now, make a date to do so later -- and follow through lovingly. When Helen began to do this, she felt she finally had a choice in the matter. Indeed, as Steve stopped pushing for sex, Helen became more responsive. Once she began to view having sex as a choice, she felt less guilty saying no and was more willing to say yes.

From Ladies' Home Journal