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Trouble in marital bed often starts elsewhere


"Lou, my second husband, hasn't made love to me in over a year," says Debra, 41, the mother of Ashley, 6, the daughter she adopted with her first husband, Peter, a wealthy corporate lawyer. "In fact, he barely pays attention to me at all." The physical and emotional coldness is reminiscent of her first marriage. "I feel like a failure again," Debra says sadly.

The oldest of three daughters, Debra was pushed to excel and got the message early on that what she achieved was more important than who she was. After her first marriage, when she discovered she was infertile, her self-esteem -- and her sex life -- crashed. "Our lovemaking simply stopped," she remembers. "Whenever I approached Peter, he turned away."

But life with Lou, whom she met when she visited a childhood friend in New Hampshire, held such promise that she willingly gave up her comfortable life and moved to Florida so they could both start over.

"The first time Lou kissed me, he lit a fire I thought had gone out years ago," Debra recalls. "Our lovemaking was so tender, I actually cried."

Lou is a garage mechanic, Debra adds, "but he's very smart. He's doing what he loves, not what others expect of him." The problems, she reports, began a year ago, just after their first anniversary, when her gynecologist told her she needed a hysterectomy. "I was fine about the surgery," Debra says, "but almost immediately, my marriage changed."

The formerly passionate Lou became distant and withdrawn. "He says he loves me, but then rolls over and keeps his back to me all night. He's totally unresponsive, in and out of bed," she says. "I'm sure he thinks I'm repulsive now that I'm less than a woman." All he does is tinker with his motorcycles and go for long rides by himself, she reports.

The only way a frustrated Debra has kept her sanity is by refocusing her energy on school and community committees.

Last week, Debra gave Lou an ultimatum: Call a marriage counselor or call a lawyer. "I gave up a lot to be with Lou," she says. "If he can't meet me halfway, I'm leaving him."

When he met Debra, admits Lou, 40, he was an emotional basket case. "My wife had left me, and I'd sworn off women," he recalls, his voice a monotone. Like Debra, he'd closed off a part of himself when his first marriage fell apart, but he wasn't one to share his feelings or dwell on his unhappiness.

Lou isn't sure why his second marriage is under such a strain, but he insists that Debra's infertility and hysterectomy are not issues for him. What he does miss -- desperately -- is his stepson Erik, who lives in New Hampshire with his first wife. "I don't make enough money now for him to visit very often. I'm afraid he hates me for moving so far away," Lou says with downcast eyes. "If Erik were here, my life would have some meaning. After all, it's not like Debra needs me for anything. She's busy running every organization in town."

Lou wants to make his wife happy but, he says, "I barely have the energy to handle my job and spend time with Ashley." Lou says he doesn't want to lose Debra, but he has no idea how to keep her, either.

Pinpointing the cause of sexual problems

"Whenever a couple reports problems in the bedroom, I immediately try to figure out what's going on outside the bedroom," says Diana Zeidwig, a therapist in Deland, Fla. "A couple's sex life is usually a microcosm of their marriage, and once communication gets better, so does the sex."

Unable to enjoy the things that mattered most to him, Lou is clearly depressed. But depression is often a sign of anger turned inward, and though Lou acts as if he doesn't care, he is numbing himself to the pain he's unable to acknowledge.

In fact, these two are both angry and resentful, though neither realizes it. Neither has mourned the end of the first marriage nor ++ accepted the fact that they pulled up roots and gave up many things to make a commitment to each other. It's not easy to get in touch with buried resentment. Anger is often a protective device that hides fear.

The following exercise worked for this couple: Take a sheet of paper and list three situations that recently made you very angry. Then write this sentence: I FEEL ANGRY WHEN I THINK (how you see a particular event or situation). Lou filled in the blanks this way: "I feel angry when I think you care more about your committee meetings than about me." Debra filled in this statement: "I feel angry when I think you go for long motorcycle rides and ignore me and Ashley."

These statements tell your mate how you interpret his or her behavior as well as how you are feeling. This way, you can let each other know whether your view is on target. If not, you can discuss it and let it go.

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