Let’s face it. We like to blame sexual problems on our relationships.
How do I know this? I’m a sex therapist. And maybe more important, I’m a woman. Of the hundreds of women I see in our practice, nearly everyone blames any issues that come up on her relationship.
Janie’s husband is not interested in sex with her? I’ll watch her sobbing that “maybe he is having an affair, addicted to porn, or disgusted by the five pounds she has gained.” Okay, Janie. Maybe. But here’s another thought. Perhaps he is just temporarily tired, distracted, or perhaps his hormones are low, and none of this has anything to do with you?
Maria has pain with intercourse? She decides that she must not trust her partner or is not sufficiently turned on by said partner, or maybe has abuse in her history that she has blocked out. Well, okay, maybe, Maria. But maybe, just maybe, you just have tight muscles, or need external lubrication or more facts?
This is such a crazy trap, and if you want to know how alluring this trap is, you can look no further than me. I know this better than anyone. I fell into the same trap. Twice. And it took services at synagogue to climb out.
So let’s talk about the first time I misplaced my orgasm. It was 30 years ago; I’m in my early 30’s and struggling with anxiety, which would come and go at different points in my life. Suddenly I find myself unable to orgasm when I’m having sex with my husband or when I’m by myself, for that matter. What the hell was going on? My sex life, like most people’s, had its ups and downs, but having an orgasm was always a sure thing. And now, it was suddenly gone; disappeared like a bowl of jellybeans at a 5-year-old’s birthday party.
Thirty years ago, I was not yet a sex therapist. So I did what any normal woman would do. I panicked. What the hell was going on? I went into what I now term the classic “blame the relationship” game. I assumed that something incredibly problematic was going on in my relationship with my husband, that I was harboring some deep-seated anger, developed trust issues in the relationship, or was so depressed that I couldn’t orgasm.
And once I decided that something “must” be wrong in the relationship, I looked for a hook in the relationship to hang it on. Let’s be honest, folks. Who can’t find a hook that’s a bit wobbly in a long-term relationship? I was often tired and irritated at my husband. We were two busy professionals with two little kids and a crazy life. I was always “mistrusting” him, if you count mistrust that the groceries would be picked up, playdates organized, and birthdays remembered. Whatever.
Objectively, I was no more irritated, angry, depressed, or distrustful than I had been a month earlier when I was still having lovely orgasms. And, ironically, those orgasms were often the one thing that made me less irritated, angry, and distrustful. Sex as a great escape from the craziness of our day-to-day life and a glue for the relationship.
To understand this story, we need to travel back just a few months before the disappearance of the orgasm. I had been talking to a friend in synagogue, let’s call her Sharon, about my anxiety and depression. Here’s what you should understand: as an Orthodox Jew, our Saturday morning services are long. They can easily run for three hours. Sometimes (okay, more than sometimes), I am guilty of talking to friends in between the prayer services. Anyhow, Sharon is a psychiatrist and a couples therapist. She and I often grab a minute during “downtime” in the service to consult on difficult cases. Once, another friend, overhearing us talking about a couple in conflict over his erection issues, leaned over from the next row and said to us: “no one, and I mean no one, would ever believe the conversations I overhear during these services!” But I digress.
Anyhow, on this particular Sabbath morning, a few months before the great disappearing orgasm, Sharon is listening to me go on and on about how my anxiety seemed to be getting worse. (In self-defense, I do get some prayer in between all these fascinating conversations). She told me about a new drug called Prozac that seemed to be getting terrific results. I eagerly bought and read “Listening to Prozac,” and it spoke to me. She prescribed me some to try. I know. Having your friends give you curbside consult in synagogue? Not the best idea. But I was a busy working mom of little kids, and the idea of seeing a psychiatrist on top of my weekly therapist appointments was overwhelming. So, this worked well for me.
About two weeks after I started the Prozac, I remember feeling, “Oh my God. This must be how ‘normal’ people feel.” The continuing cycle of anxiety in my head that would repeat over and over again had finally quieted down. For the first time in my life, when I had issues that were bothering me, I could think about them rationally and calm them down in a way that psychotherapy, much as I felt it helped, did not do. As delighted as I was on the Prozac, it never occurred to me that the Prozac could have been the reason I wasn’t having orgasms. Before you roll your eyes at me, this was in the early days of Prozac, and that information was not widespread.
A few months after starting the Prozac, I’m at synagogue telling Sharon how delighted I was with the Prozac. Then, on a whim, I said to her, “There’s no way that the Prozac could be affecting my orgasm. Right?” She looked at me and laughed. “Well, yeah,” she said, “That is the most common side effect of Prozac.”
So, here I am, 30-year-old Bat Sheva. After months of analyzing my relationship, never-ending late-night discussions with my husband to figure out all of the “issues” that weren’t even there, and after months of wasted therapy sessions focusing on The Problems That Must Exist In My Relationship, it was the Prozac.
Now let’s fast forward. I was in my early 50s and had worked as a sex therapist for 20 years. It was eight years ago, and I was clumsily wending my way into menopause. Once again, the orgasms seemed to be going on a hiatus. Whereas the last time, they had disappeared overnight, this time, they gradually faded away, and the progression wasn’t linear. Sometimes they were fine. Sometimes weak. I’m writing all this by way of excusing myself for once again falling into a similar trap. I can’t be that thick, can I? I started going through a similar relationship issues rabbit hole. You know that adage: fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Except for this time, my husband and I had fewer outside pressures, and our relationship was humming along quite smoothly, thank you very much. And this time, I was a sex therapist and a seasoned one at that. This one hit me over the head faster, but embarrassingly, a second time at synagogue.
Esty cornered me to complain about her diminished libido. As a sex therapist, you get cornered at large gatherings. I’ve had informal consults at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and, I kid you not, once at a funeral. And synagogue? Well, that, pre-Covid, almost functioned as an offsite office.
Anyhow, as I’m talking about her diminished libido, I hear myself talking about possibly having her testosterone checked. And I stop in my tracks. Well, there you go, Bat Sheva. Physician, heal thyself.
What was so striking to me is that I have dedicated my life to debunking the preconceived notions that sexual problems are always a result of relationship issues. And here I was, falling into the same rabbit hole. Maybe it’s good. It keeps me humble.
We women are prone to doing this, aren’t we? Blaming ourselves for so many things: our “mishandling” of relationships and communication, our “over-sensitivity,” our assumption that any problem that arises is a result of something we’ve done wrong. Maybe it’s time for us to acknowledge that many problems may be a result of someone else’s decisions, or actions. Or, as in this case, they may be a result of a medical issue.
Anyhow, this loss of orgasm turned out to be, once again, chemical, and not the result of some unidentified relationship issue. And I think there are three lessons to be had from my crazy stories: not all sexual problems result from issues in the relationship, sex therapists struggle just like everyone else, and God answers prayers in all kinds of interesting ways.
Bat Sheva Marcus is the founder and director of Maze Women’s Sexual Health, where she has developed and overseen the treatment of thousands of women ages 18–81. Her several degrees include a Ph.D. in Human Sexuality.