"Sex with a man who won't otherwise acknowledge my existence makes me feel like a prostitute, not a wife," says Alexandra, 28, a slim, graceful woman who gave up a promising dance career to marry Bob, who runs a lawn-maintenance business. Though she adores her two school-age daughters, Alexandra feels cheated. "I gave up a career I loved, and for what?" she snaps angrily. "My life begins and ends at the kitchen stove. Bob never helps with the kids or the housework. All he wants from me is meals and sex."
Bob, 30, wanted to be a preacher, she recalls, and she was enthralled with this handsome, idealistic young man. "But now, instead of working with people -- for which he has a real talent -- he's laying sod from dawn to dusk, coming home exhausted." They eat in silence and never do any of the activities they used to enjoy so much together -- community service projects with their church group or simply going for a bicycle ride along the beach.
"He thinks the answer to all our problems is to hop into bed. Well, I can't do that," she says firmly.
Bob doesn't see why not. "Alexandra is frustrated sexually," he says with quiet certainty. "I'm sure that if we can work through her sexual difficulties, she'll be a lot happier and we'll be back the way we used to be."
Bob's had all he can take of his wife's complaining. "When she starts yammering at me, I tune her out," he says. "Every kid harbors unrealistic dreams, but we all grow up. Why can't she?"
Bob admits he's not happy with his current work -- "I'm exhausted at the end of the day,and I don't feel like talking" -- but he doesn't know what else he can do. "I have a family to think about. I can't run around with my head in the clouds," he says.
Bedroom as battleground
"A couple's sexual life is a barometer of their relationship. Over the years, it will naturally wax and wane, depending on a host of situations," says Jane Greer, a New York marriage counselor. For Alexandra, the lack of real communication with her husband is inhibiting her ability to be sexually close. And refusing to look past the bedroom and deal with the other issues in a relationship, as Bob is doing, can be a time bomb ticking toward disaster.
Could lack of sexual desire in your marriage be a signal that something else is missing? Are daily hassles piling up the stress? Are you taking time for personal pleasure and fun, or do you put yourselves at the bottom of your list? Once you realize that sexual problems may be a symptom rather than a cause of difficulties, you'll be able to begin to bridge the closeness gap.
This exercise helped Alexandra and Bob:
Because intimacy is built in small ways and gestures, think about what you would like your partner to do for you outside the bedroom to show that he loves and cares about you. Write down as many ways you can think of -- large and small, silly and serious. Ask your partner to do the same. Then exchange lists.
Since Alexandra felt Bob cared very little about her feelings and needs, she was thrilled to see him start to take care of the girls and help with the housework -- Nos. 1 and 2 on her list. She felt even closer to him when he began to seriously listen when she spoke about teaching part-time at a local dance school -- No. 3 on her list. It wasn't long before her resentment melted and she became more responsive to Bob emotionally and physically.
For his part, Bob was thrilled when Alexandra suggested a nightly back rub. He also felt renewed when she arranged for the girls to spend some time at their grandmother's house while the two of them went for a weekly bike ride along the beach.