Several years ago, I had been invited to an event that also featured a talk for kallah teachers, giving by a woman who trains them. At the end, she entertained some questions from the audience. One young Rebbetzin raised her hand:
“What should I tell a girl, who after 7-8 months of marriage is feeling no physical pleasure with her husband at all? She even finds the whole thing unpleasant..” A few other women looked up and nodded, their expressions implying that some of their students had the same problem.
The lecturer smiled and replied: “Ladies- tell ‘em to just fake it til you make it.”
My stomach turned a little. The context was not appropriate for me to speak out at the time, but I could not disagree more with her response. Since then, I’ve heard it again and again. And in fact, a big part of the way I make a living is helping people who got “advice” like that. But now, I’m speaking out:
Here’s the thing: Do you want to be in a dishonest relationship? Would you want your husband saying one thing while feeling, thinking, and experiencing something totally different, and disconnected from you? Would you want to be with someone who just pretends to agree with whatever you say and do? Would you say that makes for good love and intimacy?
I get where this well-meaning mistake is coming from: Maybe it just takes some people time to develop a taste for sexual pleasure, and why make the guy self-conscious in the meantime? We don’t want to hurt his feelings, or his fragile male ego. We don’t want him to think you’re not feminine enough to receive his gifts graciously. But I think we can give both the guys and the girls a little more credit.
To some extent there’s a fair concern: We certainly don’t want to clobber a nervous new husband with criticism and rejection or shame his fledgling love-making skills. But at the same time, sex IS a skill, and in marriage, it’s a two-person game and a two-way street. Most beginners at anything make mistakes and require practice and feedback before they find their mojo. And for most women, sexual activity that is not specifically enjoyable is generally very unpleasant. At the beginning that is often the case for many newlyweds. So I love when premarital educators encourage young couples to discuss their experiences after lovemaking, in order to gain awareness and improve along the way. It’s a very sensitive topic of discussion, but there are respectful, diplomatic ways to share one’s needs and feelings.
For example, one less constructive way might be: “OW- that hurts so much; what are you thinking? I don’t ever want you to touch me again, you filthy, bumbling Neanderthal!”
On the other hand, one could say: “How did that feel for you? For me, I could feel and appreciate you trying to give me pleasure. I love you and I really want to enjoy it, but I’m having some trouble relaxing, or maybe it’s a still little too intense for me. We’re both new at this, so we might need to experiment with different kinds of touch to see what feels good and what doesn’t. Let’s try and take it a little slower next time, and in the meantime I’ll show you what feels good, and what is uncomfortable for me, and you can do the same, so we’ll get to know each other tastes and sensitivities.” And then go on to describe what felt good or could feel good, and what did not.
As with any feedback, it’s nice to include some praise and positive, if there is any, both before and after the correction, so the recipient won’t feel so dejected. Even if the whole experience was awful, if your spouse is a good guy, you could say something like: “I know you love me and want me to feel aroused and excited with you; I very much want that too. But I think we need to revisit our sexual technique because the way we were doing it isn’t working for me yet, and I’d like to try and figure out what we can do differently, so it can feel really good for both of us.” Often, loving, clear, solution-oriented dialogue with a bit of research, can yield collaborative efforts to improve the sexual experience.
Many couples who tried to “fake it til they make it” eventually come in for therapy with a very eroded sexual and marital connection. When a wife is pretending to enjoy sex that doesn’t feel good, generally her husband can tell, and feels frustrated or confused. She too feels frustrated, and resentful, that she keeps giving over her body, putting on a show, and suppressing her feelings “for his sake.” This leaks into other areas, and often manifests somatically, as physical problems and/ or marital decay. One of both partners may avoid sex, because it has become dissociative. When they do engage, they each feel they’re “taking one for the team” rather than being intimate. A wife may lose interest in feminine self-care, become angry or depressed, or get preoccupied with the children or work, to distract herself from the bad sex and the man she associates with it. He might become irritable or disinterested or depressed. One of both of them may start avoiding even mild affection- physical or verbal, because the phony sexual communication poisons, cheapens, and calls into question any attempts at loving contact. When they are together, they roll over afterwards, both feeling empty and dissatisfied, and neither one comfortable to address the problem, because it doesn’t officially exist.
This may sound dramatic, but I know it to be widespread because I see these consequences every day. Does fake it til you make it work for anyone? Maybe for some- but it can definitely cause a lot of unnecessary suffering and is counter-productive for many others.
My advice to a partner who is having a hard time in bed, or in any other way, is to respectfully, delicately, but honestly discuss the problem. If the lack of pleasure, discomfort, or pain persist beyond a few times, it can be incredibly valuable to seek out guidance- the sooner the better. A knowledgeable premarital educator could be a good first step, but generally, if their lay advice doesn’t improve things, seek the help of a qualified and reputable professional. As is the case with most problems, when you intervene early on, it is significantly easier to address the problem, and there is less collateral damage to the marriage. These problems are generally very treatable; ignoring them can jeopardize marriages, attending to them can save them. Everyone deserves to try for authentic, mutual marital pleasure and intimacy, and learning what that can feel like and how to ask for it is where that journey begins.