Question #134: How do my husband and I end this Sexican Standoff?

Dear Captain,

As many who read and write to your blog, I was definitely not one of the popular kids growing up. Unfortunately, many previous encounters in my younger days left an unlikable impression of myself that I still can’t seem to shake. One encounter I remember with particular clarity was in high school where I was told by a popular jock that I was “hella ugly.” That is, he walked up to me out of the blue and said “your blah blah, correct?” I said “yes”, he said “you’re hella ugly” and walked away. Ok ok, I did have a mouth full of braces and a particularly bad haircut at the time, and I have heard through the grape vine that he feels really terrible about the encounter (he was dared to do it by another jock that had taken a disliking to me for some reason), but still. It is an example of an event that  affects my view of myself even today way more than it should.

Through out my 20s, I spent a lot of time on self-reflection. I realized that a lot of my problems stem from the fact that I have no self-confidence. I never stood up for myself, I never made an attempt to expand my friend zone, etc. etc., and I realize that many reasons why I was so unpopular is that I placed myself in that position. I also spent my 20s developing social skills, learning to take a stand for myself, and participating in activities that make me like me. For instance, I now have a Ph.D. because I found a field I enjoy and pursued a goal. That feels pretty good, and I like what I have accomplished.

But I am still finding myself a self-confident mess in one very important aspect of my life.  My sex life. With my husband.

I love sex. I enjoy sex as much as the next person. But I am terrified of initiating. I am terrified that he will turn me away. I am afraid that he will find something undesirable about me. So I don’t initiate. My fear is so bad that even when people discuss sex, I am uncomfortable. I find it difficult to discuss the problem with friends because I am embarrassed that its even a problem.

We’ve been married for several years and have had many conversations about our sex life. He thinks I am crazy for thinking he will turn me away or find me undesirable. He tells me often how beautiful I am. But he has stopped initiating in hopes that he can “force” me into initiating. Well, it hasn’t worked. He’s been trying that strategy for a couple of years. Now, he’s of the belief that I simply don’t like sex. As a result, our sex life is diminished.

We’ve tried several other solutions, such as scheduling a time or buying toys.  We’ve purchased lots of lingerie, which I wear very occasionally. Sometimes things get really good for a few weeks, but then I seem to fall back into the same pattern of being afraid.

The topper is that we’ve been talking about starting a family, and I know he is thinking that if I have a baby, things will get even worse. I don’t want that. I don’t want things to continue the way they are, but I’m not sure how to fix it. He is very supportive, and I know he will jump on any proposed solution. I know the problem is in my head. Sometimes I can override my fear drive and just “do it”, but I want to override my fear reaction permanently.  I want to have crazy, uninhibited sex all the time. Do you have any advice?

Thanks,

Lacking Confidence

I’m sorry that the crappy messages playing over and over in your head have turned your sex life into the end of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Let’s throw a little sympathy your husband’s way. You’re going to have to get over that childhood insecurity stuff. It’s not your husband’s fault that happened to you, and it’s obvious that nothing he can say or do can help you get over it, so the hard work of getting those messages out of your head (or at least turning them down the point that they don’t affect your most important relationship) is on you. When you tell him that you’re convinced that he will find you unloveable or undesirable, you’re insulting him.  You’re saying “You’re stupid to want me, and you’re so stupid that you don’t even know that you’re stupid.”  This gets right at the question of what we owe our partners in terms of taking care of our own mental health to the degree that we can.

Your husband obviously underestimated how deep this particular river ran in you, and his “I won’t initiate sex until you do” stance has backfired on both of you.  I’m not saying that he’s been handling everything well!  But I can see why he feels backed into a corner.

I have two suggestions:

1. Back to therapy for you, to work on body image and telling yourself a different story, like maybe how you had the same gawky teen years that everyone did and some kids were mean about it like kids always are, but then you grew up and into yourself.  Maybe some therapy for both of you, together, but definitely for you. There’s a lot of helpful stuff in this post (and in the comments) about how a terrible self-image sabotages relationships.  At the very least it will let you know you are not alone!  You might also find some helpful stuff about taking care of your libido in this old thread.

2. Could you and your husband re-define what it means to initiate sex, and maybe look into some ways to make the process less fraught and scary?  This is where being a geek can help you:  Use your words in emails or what the kids and elected officials are calling “sexting.”

For example, rather than trying to psych yourself up for a moment where you say “I would like some sex now” and then you have sex, see if you could email or text your husband earlier in the day to say “I would like to have sex tonight” and have that “count” as initiating? It doesn’t even have to be earlier in the day.  If sending an IM or email to someone who is in the same room as me is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

While I cringe to write this out loud where everyone can see it, wasn’t that the premise behind that “40 Rapey Beads of Wifely Submission That Saved Marriage” book that was out a while ago?  The wife had a bowl and when the husband put a bead in the bowl she had to do it with him or else?   It was roundly mocked among blogs I read, with someone suggesting that what the authors had set up was a kinky D/s game without realizing it, but let’s say that in the most generous possible interpretation, leaving gendered discussions of who gets the beads and who gets the bowl aside and not wandering into awkward scenarios where you forget to hide your patriarchal bead-bowls when guests come over: It gave people who were not comfortable discussing sex a way to initiate it with each other.

That’s you and your husband right now. You’re not comfortable discussing sex (too much weirdness and resentment), you’re not comfortable initiating it (too much weirdness and resentment), so you need to find a way to skip over that to the doing it part, and it sounds like you’re in “whatever it takes” territory. A pirate flag flown at half-mast in the front yard? Making a list of stuff to pick up at the store and hiding “Make sweet love to your boo” as one of the list items? It can be whatever you want as long as you both agree, and a long as you both agree to be really gentle with and forgiving of each other while you figure this out.

30 comments
  1. monica said:

    I survived a lot of the same kind of bullying as Lacking Confidence describes, and I can totally empathize with her plight. If she doesn’t have the time/money to find a therapist, or doesn’t have a decent therapist in her area, or is too embarrassed to go to a therapist and say “I want to have sex with my husband but I’m too insecure,” or whatever, I cannot recommend The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns strongly enough. Although the tone is kind of patronizing and horrible, it basically teaches you how to do cognitive therapy to yourself, which is super helpful. Cognitive therapy has helped me to un-believe, or start un-believing, a lot of the horrible things I believed as a result of bullying, and I really think it can help LC, too.

    • JenniferP said:

      Thanks for the rec! It’s gotta be better than that 40 beads thing.

    • K-with-a-capital said:

      Anyone looking for cognitive behavioral therapy help for whatever might also want to try http://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome which is a self-paced online CBT program run by ANU. The front page says it’s for depression, but having been through the whole program myself, I know that it has a lot specifically focusing on self-image and self-esteem.

      You create an account and go through the bits you want to go through at your own pace. There are exercises and good feedback and examples to show how it all works in your brain and in social situations.

      • JenniferP said:

        Yes! So oft recommended here that she’s going to owe me royalties (which can be paid in beer) pretty soon.

  2. Jenna said:

    It is really hard to change internal patterns, especially when they have worn such deep ruts, but, you have to convince yourself that you deserve love and sex, AND that your husband finds you sexy. You have to find a way to convince yourself of this first, and then work on the communication problem.

    You deserve to be loved and have wonderful sex. There is no reason why other people should have this, and not you. None. So, how do you convince yourself of this? A therapist might have a bunch of useful ideas. One idea that I have run across and seems to work fairly well is a little mental redirect. Find a thought that is causing you problems, and pick a response to tell yourself when it pops up. I would start with one easier one to begin with and see if it works for you. I might write both the thought that I wanted to redirect, and my planned response down a few times to set the response.

    When your husband gives you a compliment, say thank you and maybe find something to compliment him on, instead of rebutting the compliment or cutting it down. Just trust him that he knows what he likes.

    For talking bout sex, the only solution that I know of is practice. Maybe find a sex blog that you are comfortable with and read it regularly, and practice asking for things that you like, or would like to try. My New Year’s resolution this year was to be more verbal in bed, and although it has taken some work on my part, and some blushing, I have improved. So has my sex life. I highly recommend learning to ask. For non verbal initiation, touching and kissing are wonderful. Holding hands is a perfectly good place to start.

    Good luck.

  3. Yan said:

    To me, this almost sounds like a great problem to have because, while it may take you a while to get there, you and your husband want the same thing in the end: more sex.

    I read something about a couple who decided to have sex every day for a year. I think Cosmo or one of those girlie magazines did a similar mini-experiment (I’m sure I read that at a laundromat). Here, from Google: http://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/features/365-nights-of-sex-can-it-strengthen-a-marriage

    And why I’m bringing the whole thing up, even in such a vague way is that maybe instead of a schedule or toy or outfit, maybe get that book — I’m sure you could order it online. See if it sounds like something worth trying — not even for a year, maybe for a week or a month — and maybe it would take the pressure off you AND your husband if no one was asking or telling, but you were just both doing. It. Every night. At which point, maybe you’ll both be so relaxed about sex that you could talk about it.

    Basically, skip the “how” if you can and get to the part you both agree on.

    • bellacoker said:

      ^ The 365 days of sex is a good thing, not because you have to have sex every day (cause you don’t) but because currently your default is set to “No” and you have to find a reason to say “Yes.” Potentially your default could be set to “Yes” where you have the ability to say “No” if there’s a time conflict or your not feeling it.

      In fact, your husband’s default is probably set to “Yes,” especially since he knows you’re uncomfortable and wants to make you feel better.

      In other words, this could be a scenario where the best solution is fake it until you make it.

  4. commanderlogic said:

    That’s rough, and I have engaged in a Sexican Standoff or two in my days. I solved it by just being totally upfront. “I’m really horny right now. I’m gonna go get off, and you are welcome to join me.” Usually, this will work a treat, but sometimes, your partner is gonna be tired or sick or otherwise disinclined for sexytimes. Contrary to popular expectation, dudes aren’t always ready all the time. But at this stage, perhaps that is too forward for you.

    Okay, here’s a thing you can do: Talk to your husband and see if you can schedule a check-in about ALL of BOTH your urges at a given time each day. Let us say, 7:30PM. Set a phone alarm. Whatever. But then talk about what’s going on with both of you physically – all possible physical ways – right then.

    “Are you hungry?” Kinda.
    “Are you thirsty?” Actually, yeah.
    “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Nah.
    “How’s the temperature?” Pretty good.
    “Feeling like sex?” Eh, a bit. Maybe later.
    “Sleepy?” Nah.
    “I’m kinda feeling like a beer.” Me too!
    “Wanna watch Breaking Bad or Mad Men?” More sitcomy tonight. Do we have any How I Met Your Mother on DVR?

    See how I slipped that in there? How you feel about having sex at a given time isn’t necessarily tied to how you feel about your partner and vice versa. Just like feeling sleepy isn’t about how comfy your bed is (though it can be very tempting). You wouldn’t feel bad telling your partner that you were hungry, and he said he wasn’t, so try to tie your need to have sex to that sort of asking energy. “I’m feeling like [thing]. Do you feel like [thing]?” Then it’s about how each of you feels in general, not how you feel about each other, which is not in doubt here. You love each other.

    So maybe the first thing when you check in is “Hey, I love you.” “I love you, too.” That’s always a great place to start.

  5. Esti said:

    Maybe it’s worth spending the next little while projecting your insecure thoughts on your husband? That’s a terrible way of describing what I mean, but I would guess that having a wife who never, ever initiates sex could probably make a guy feel like maybe he’s not particularly desireable or that his wife might not be all that into him — and that those kinds of feelings could be the reason for his sex standoff. Maybe instead of focusing on your panic about how he might not want you, you could work on recognizing when those thoughts start to surface and then use them as a reminder to yourself to let your husband know how much you want him? Like this:

    Original thought: I want to have sex tonight, but what if he says no? Maybe he would only be doing it out of obligation. Maybe he isn’t really attracted to me.
    Redirected thought: Maybe he’s thinking the same thing right now. What can I do to let him know how desireable he is?

    That’s definitely not a forever solution, because your motivation in initiating sex should not always be about making your husband feel sexy and awesome, but I think focusing on him in the short term could help get you out of your head a little bit. And it’s a lot harder to expect rejection if your goal is “I want to make my husband feel like a sex rockstar” — because really, who’s going to say no to that?

  6. Ace said:

    I agree with the suggestions of some therapy for just you or both of you, but if you can it might help if you can find one thing about yourself that you do like. Great hair? A cute nose? Anything that you can point out to yourself when you’re feeling like your husband is wrong for wanting you. Like when your brain is telling you you’re ugly and horrible, you can say ‘oh yeah? Well I’ve got nice nails so shut up.’ Just something you can use to shut yourself down and if you can find one thing, maybe later you can find a few more.

  7. kate said:

    I think theses comments are great, but I do think the husband is getting a little too much of a free pass for what is, in effect, an chop-nose-to-spite-face ultimatum: if you don’t initiate sex you’re not getting any, no matter horny I am!

    I do understand that having his wife never initiate can be damaging to his self esteem, but come on! How bad is it if when he asks, she says yes? Or better yet, ‘ooh baby’? It sounds like there is a little bit of power struggle going on, in which the question of who initiates sex has come to be about more than who initiates sex. Which surely makes the whole issue even more stressful and vulnerable-feeling for her. Now it’s not just about initiating, it’s also about his insistence that she do it his way… which only makes her feel worse about herself and her debilitating awkwardness about sex. When she really needs to REDUCE the emotional baggage and stress associated with sex he has, however inadvertently, increased it. And really, at this point, he’s just as bad as she is now — she has issues with initiating, so he’s decided he’s going to have issues with initiating, too! Very sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, but not very productive.

    We all have our quirks that spouses need to work around… and if hers is that she has trouble initiating, but not rising to the occasion when he initiates, a little more flexibility seems to be in order.

    So yes, she needs to think about his self esteem and try to make him feel hot, and they should work on some less fraught ways she can communicate her desire, like texts or notes or little coded messages.

    But he also needs to work on meeting her halfway, realize that a wife who in fact wants to have lots of sex with him is more than a lot of guys get, and who asks should not the be-all-end-all. He needs to realize that being willing to initiate is an act of generosity to the wife he loves. And he should look into the future: is this really what he wants for the rest of his marriage? Or can he maybe yield on this thing, so they can get on with getting it on?

    • Zweisatz said:

      Yes. I found his reaction a bit weird, too. After several months, it should be obvious it isn’t working and -what’s worse- increasing the pressure.

    • JenniferP said:

      I agree that the husband is not handling this well.

      However, I’m approaching this from the standpoint that the LW cannot control his behavior, she can only control her own, so what concrete things can she do to start the thaw? Focusing on all the ways he’s fucking it up and getting more angry and feeling more rejected doesn’t help her take ownership of what she can do to manage her own emotions around desirability. If he’d written to me, I would have said “Really? So you’ll never initiate again? How’s that working out for you?”

      • kate said:

        True. However, (1) I was concerned that the LW has enough angst and self-blame to deal with, and I wanted to dispel the sense that this problem is all her fault. I don’t think it’s healthy for her to be thinking the problem is that her saint of a husband has to put up with such a defective wife. Instead, she’s got her issues (difficulty initiating sex) and he’s got his (need for his wife to take the initiative, plus a stubborn streak that made him issue the ultimatum in the first place and stick with it even when it clearly was not working).

        (2) Her issues are not a matter of choice, the way his are. His ultimatum strikes me as being a little like telling an agoraphobic person that unless they’ll come over to your house, instead of you going to their house you won’t be seeing them, and acting like you’re just being “fair.” Just because her issue is not pathological enough to get a label (and for all I know there is a label for people afraid to initiate sex) does not mean it is not real and visceral and just as hard for her to overcome as an official phobia. She needs to be empowered to say “this is just part of the package that’s me, I’m as sorry as you are that it is, and I’m workin’ on it, but meanwhile, instead of being hurt or angry about it, I need you to be generous and be willing to ask, and know that I am grateful to you for that and so so glad to be having lots of sex with you again.”

        • kate said:

          Or maybe “While I’m working on my issue I need you to work on your issue, which is your determination to stick with a ‘solution’ that definitely is not helping the situation. The more we can have joyous sex with you asking, the better I’m going to feel about myself and about sex, and the better the prospects are of me making it to the other shore.”

          • JenniferP said:

            Very good points all! Thanks.

          • Sheelzebub said:

            Yes! Everything you said, Kate!

  8. maggie said:

    Hm, a lot of times my approach is pulling my shirt up and saying “HEY LOOK, BOOBS!” He can pay attention to them, or not.

    I am an odd person, but it’s true that you don’t have to do some kind of rigid mating dance like an exotic bird. It can be less pressure if you just say you’re horny. Nothing fancy.

    More amusing than sexy, sometimes, but that’s not a bad thing either!

    • I can attest to this being a good solution in general.

  9. Lacking Confidence said:

    Thank you all for your great comments and recommendations. I wasn’t sure if counseling was necessary at this point. I tend to be the type that thinks “with the right tools, I can do this myself!!”, but I realize after reading your responses that maybe I do need a professional to give me some solid strategies. Luckily, I work as a University so I am going to call and make an appointment today. I also plan to discuss some of the strategies above with my husband tonight.

    The “not initiating” strategy that my husband used did not work, and he realizes that. Unfortunately, as someone stated, we got into a pattern of behavior and he learned to not expect sex, and the problem perpetuated. I’m not saying he did everything right, and both of us share in the responsibility for this problem, but if I can fix my end of it, it will be much easier to discuss, and his end will follow.

    • JenniferP said:

      Glad you found some useful stuff here – whatever helps you make that first step. (Hopefully not that gross 40 beads book).

    • I’m glad to hear that you are feeling more optimistic now! Going to therapy is not a sign of weakness or that you will never be a red-blooded self-made American or what have you. My friend described it as having a personal coach for your psyche, which rings very true for me.

      My partner and I have mismatched libidos most of the time, and it led to some (mostly unspoken) hurt feelings early on. What helped me get past my own doubts about initiating and being turned down was realizing that I planned to stay with him for a long time, and we’d no doubt have sex thousands of times over the years, so any *specific* instance of “Not tonight” really didn’t change anything. Shifting my thinking in that way helped me realize that getting turned down isn’t about my level of desirability–that was confirmed by how much fun it was when we did have sex–but about what he was feeling at the moment when I asked. Years later, we still have mismatched libidos, but I don’t take it personally–instead, it’s more like “You are half a foot taller than me so you can always reach the top cupboard, but I would have to climb on the counter to do the same thing and I don’t feel like getting messy right now.” I don’t know if that helps, but I really sympathize with you, especially since you *both* actually want more sex but don’t know how to communicate about it.

      • also lacking confidence said:

        This comment is somewhat nice to hear. I feel like I have a very similar problem to lacking confidence (i.e. left feeling rather bad about myself post-high school and unable to shake that negative self image).

        The difference, however, is that it’s my partner who lacks interest in sex. Therefore it’s a pairing of “I don’t feel that desirable” with “He often doesn’t desire me.” I know I need to take a lesson from your books and find a new way to view that situation, it’s just hard not to interpret his lack of interest in sex as a lack of interest in me. Throw in the I-also-often-have-to-hang-around-other-ladies-hes-had-sex-with-in-the-past and you’ve got a real clusterfuck of self loathing and negative relfection.

        Were you always so level-headed about having mismatched libidos? How do you not worry that your libidos are not just going to get more and more mismatched over time? Do you openly speak with your partner about this? Does your partner ever get upset because he feels “inadequate”? I’m sort of at a loss and feel as though I’m not far off from my own Sexican Standoff. We’ve talked and talked but it rarely seems to make the issue better – usually it just makes things more weird. I also know the benefits of therapy/cbt (I’ve been there for other, related, issues) but no longer have access to free counselling at a University, so I’m hoping I can solve this one on my own.

        I apologize for writing my own plea for help in these comments, I’m just a little too shy to write in for a whole post of my own.

        • SM said:

          My partner and I have had mismatched libidos for a lot of our more-than-a-decade marriage, for a variety of reasons, some medical and some to do with energy levels.

          We’re pretty happy, though. We’ve developed a couple of informal agreements over the years that really work for us.

          1. If one of us wants help getting off, the other will give it, unless there’s a really good reason not to. This doesn’t mean we both have to be being turned on, but it does mean we’re both really there, focused, and participating happily in an activity we both enjoy. (Not feeling pressure to be aroused when I’m tired or just not in the mood also means I get in the mood much more often. There’s quite a lot of oral and manual stimulation involved here, with very occasional intercourse.)

          2. If one of us turns down being given help or support getting off, the other won’t try to do so. This is crucial. My partner’s welcome to touch me if I’ve said I’m not in the mood, but I’m happy to help out, but not welcome to try to turn me on — no grabbing at bits that are too sensitive unless I’m actually aroused, but plenty of stroking areas that are less personal. I don’t think this has ever been said this simply between us, but it’s very clear, and it lets me feel safe and comfortable in responding to a come-on even if I’m completely uninterested in getting off, or getting aroused, myself.

          This does rather mean a lot of our sex life centres around my partner’s body and getting my partner off, not on my body, but it also means my partner gets a warm, happy response as the usual reaction to a come-on, gets the happy experience of finding that helping with my partner’s arousal quite often turns me on, and gets lots of touching, love, and sexual activity with me.

          I get to feel desirable and loving without feeling pressure to perform. I find it a lot easier to respond positively to a request for sex when it’s the person I love asking for help getting off than when it’s the person I love asking me to feel a way I don’t feel at the time: aroused.

  10. JetGirl said:

    I’m still haunted by certain random insults I’ve gotten over the years, while just existing in public, minding my own business. Mostly, I just wonder what kind of person thinks it’s okay to go up to a classmate or random stranger and insult them? In my experience, a lot of it has come from boys and young men. Is it some bs dominance thing?

  11. robiewankenobie said:

    2¢ i gots your 2¢ here…

    first of all – there will be times in a long term marriage that sexytimes just aren’t happening and there needs to be a restart. last night? i may have been told that there needs to be some lovin’ or the plants are going to die – think of the plants! i may have answered that i really thought he was hawtstuff zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. faceplant asleep. i heard the message, though, and will be tcob as soon as i can keep my eyes open for 20 seconds. he was straight up not pressuring me – just wanted me to know that my milkshake is bringin’ him to the yard. this happens from time to time, so figuring out what works to thaw the iceburg? it’s a handy tool to have in your arsenal.

    sooooo….right after i had a baby, i had an infection in the wound. it was gross. like. really gross. and i was more than batshit crazy. we went to the doctor, and my husband sat in the corner reading a magazine. calm as all get out. i looked at my midwife and said, “if he finds me attractive after this, it’s going to be a miracle.” she looked surprised, and responded, “why? he’s clearly entranced by you.” entranced. by me. gross crazy me.

    the boys? they don’t care about the looks as much as we think they do. if they like you? they want to have the sexyfuntimes with you. go to therapy. get yourself some tools. ’cause this sex stuff? it can be so. damn. fun. and if you’re in it for the long haul? it makes a real difference.

    • JenniferP said:

      That was more like $10. You are my favorite.

      • robiewankenobie said:

  12. merlinfg said:

    Have you talked to him about why he is so uncomfortable initiating and about whether he would like to start having sex again? Just expecting to unilaterally fix things might be a bit much but perhaps he’d be willing to start initiating again.

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