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I loved my husband but hated sex. A technique I learned at marriage-counselor training changed everything.

Kim Schewitz   

I loved my husband but hated sex. A technique I learned at marriage-counselor training changed everything.
  • Andrea Lystrup thought her marriage was perfect, but she secretly hated sex.
  • She realized she had issues with desire and arousal while studying to become a therapist.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Andrea Lystrup, a marriage counselor with expertise in sex therapy from Arizona. It's been edited for length and clarity.

Many people who come to sex therapy think they hate sex. But usually, this isn’t the case.

I’ve been a marriage counselor specializing in sexual intimacy for 10 years and have worked with countless clients who feel this way. They find sex gross, dread doing it, or wish it didn’t exist — even if they are otherwise satisfied with their relationship.

Of course, in some cases, the person might be asexual or struggle with the sensory element of sex due to neurodivergence, but this is rare. Typically it’s really a sign of something deeper, like a fear of conflict leading to disconnection in the relationship or difficulty accepting oneself as a sexual being. And these things can be worked through.

Generally, I think sexual capacity and honesty go hand in hand. I know this partly because I used to hate sex, but at the time, I thought my marriage was perfect. We never argued, and things felt peaceful.

My husband and I both come from fairly religious and conservative backgrounds. We married young and waited until our wedding to have sex, which meant we both had a very limited understanding of sexual intimacy at the time.

Growing up, I was taught that sex before marriage was a sin next to murder. But before I got married in 2011 at age 20, my mom gave me the advice that my most important role was to support my husband. So it was tough for me when sex went from being something shameful to something I needed to do to keep my marriage alive overnight.

My husband and I got along amazingly and had great times together, but secretly I hated sex. I would do it enough to keep him happy, but I found it annoying and just wished that it wasn’t a thing.

I used to see sex as a service I had to perform

Two years into my marriage, I was studying for a master's in marriage and family therapy. As part of the program, I took a sex-therapy class, and after each lesson, my husband would ask me what I learned, and I’d tell him.

It was all fairly lighthearted stuff until we got to the chapter on female desire and arousal. I remember reading it and being like, "Oh crap, I have serious arousal and desire issues." I waited a few days to reveal that one to him.

The class made me realize that despite not diagnostically fitting into the asexuality category, because as a teenager, I was very interested in being aroused, I essentially felt asexual, which wasn’t normal. I had no desire to have sex, and it felt actively unappealing to me because I had shut off my sexuality. Looking back, I saw it as a kind of service I had to perform, which was a recipe for an unsatisfying sex life.

I was reading case studies about resentment building up in marriages over time, and I decided then that I needed to address this and be honest if I wanted mine to survive. So I started applying the principles I was learning in sex-therapy class to my own life.

We started by taking orgasms off the table

We started by using a technique called "sensate focus," which involves taking a break from your rigid sex scripts and taking orgasms off the table.

For a month, we didn't really have sex but played with physical touch to find what felt good. We started with non-erotic touch, such as cuddling, back-scratching, and scalp massage, and then progressed to erotic touch without penetration while undressed.

Eventually, we moved toward penetration, but the idea was to slowly build up to more sexual touching without the pressure of what it "should" be like or the expectation of orgasm, which can heighten anxiety and take you out of the moment. We worked on it for a few minutes each day during that month, or longer if we had time, like on weekends.

It was a beautiful reset for our marriage and helped me realize that arousal could feel good and that sex could actually be pleasurable for me.

I think there's a certain amount of normal maturation that people have in their teenage years that I just didn't have. It’s a time when many people develop the skill of being sexual, and I needed to go back and do some remediation work on what arousal even feels like, how to cultivate it, and how to integrate it into my life.

As I've learned more, our sex life has gotten better and better. We have a deep connection and yearning for each other, which feels out-of-this-world exciting and empowering.

As our sex life got better, we had more conflict

My marriage now feels like a fundamentally different marriage than the one I had 10 years ago, but it’s with the same person.

At the start, we both wanted to do what would make the other person happy, keep conflict low, and not rock the boat. It was probably the lowest conflict our marriage ever had. But you can only hide what you really think about your marriage for so long before it starts to erupt. We were being inauthentic, and that showed up in our sex life.

As we worked on becoming more intimate and open with each other, conflict also became more frequent.

I think this was because we weren’t hiding from ourselves anymore. We had more trust in what the relationship could handle, which often brings more honesty about how you feel about other things.

But I see that as a sign of confidence and maturity that has led to more space for us both to be ourselves.

Sex education is very fear-based

Many people don’t have an adequate understanding of their sexuality because sex education can be very fear-based. There’s this tension between abstinence-only education and focusing on STDs and pregnancy.

We’re not taught about sexuality as the vehicle it can be for self-love, self-compassion, patience, and honoring who we are.

A lot of people think when they start having issues with sex that there's something wrong with them, but I encourage my clients to see it as a sign that they’re about to progress into a deeper capacity for sexual intimacy.

Everybody's maturing over their entire lifespan, and our capacity for sexual intimacy and connection should grow as we develop. It’s healthy.