Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Case of the Sexless Marriage

It doesn’t happen every day, and it rarely happens with the advice columnists we most often discuss, but it does happen. Lori Gottlieb is a practicing therapist, so she offers in experience what other advice columnists lack: an appreciation of the complexity of issues. Any columnist who tells you that feeling your feelings will solve your problems should be ignored.

Gottlieb addresses the following letter, from Ruby, who lives in Chicago:

My husband and I have been married for 30 years and have a mostly happy, friendly, and supportive relationship. His interest in sexual relations declined after our children were born and came to a full stop five years ago.

I have asked him to go to therapy with me on multiple occasions over the past five years. He considered it several times but always declined, stating he just had no interest in a physical relationship. I have encouraged him to discuss our situation with a friend or his physician, but if he has, he hasn’t shared the outcome with me. After several attempts at negotiation and suggestions to attend therapy, I have resigned myself to the fact that he has zero interest in sex, and even less interest in talking about it. Our life is much more peaceful if I don’t bring it up.

Celibacy is not my choice and I miss that portion of our relationship, along with the intimacy, greatly. So I am at a crossroads: End my celibate marriage even though we are very good friends, parents, and partners? Seek a supplemental relationship? Or sacrifice my own sexuality?

To be fair, Gottlieb cannot raise all of the salient issues. As in, what took you so long. The problem has been there for decades and now you are concerned. She has had no sex for five years and now she misses the intimacy. Huh?

And also, we can ask about the relationship between sex drive and age.These people are not young. Why does it happen that this woman, now probably in her 50s, suddenly finds herself suffering from a problem that she did not address earlier?

Gottlieb begins by noting that Ruby should focus less on sex and more on the dynamic that exists or does not exist between her and her husband. About that we know very little:

First, because sex is such a sensitive topic for most people, it will help—at least initially—to focus on the broader dynamic between you and your husband. You say that you have a “happy” and “supportive” marriage, but imagine for a second that the impasse was about something else significant in a relationship—tensions arising from, say, money, health, boundaries, addiction, or children. The topic is less important than the fact that you’re saying that you’re suffering greatly, and that your husband won’t discuss your concerns. Sex or no sex, that’s a significant problem.

Evidently, she is trying to explain that hassling a man about sex, and thus, making feel inadequate, does not enhance libido. In other words, stop talking about sex. Stop demanding sex. Stop whining about sex.

Good advice:

Given this broader issue, you can shift your approach from trying to change his behavior (whether he’ll have sex) to trying to strengthen your marriage. My hunch is that despite the positive aspects of your marriage that you describe in your letter, you’re both suffering deeply in different ways. You, of course, are feeling grossly neglected. Your husband, meanwhile, is probably struggling with something so painful or humiliating that he can’t bring himself to deal with it.

She ought simply to stop complaining. It is a desire killer all by itself. If it describes the marriage dynamic, we have some sympathy with her husband.

From there, Gottlieb correctly notes that there are many, many reasons for diminished sex drive… though, she alludes to the fact that we only know that he does not want to have sex with his wife.This does not mean that he does not want to have sex.

Again, appreciate the complexity of the problem:

There are many factors that might be affecting his sex drive—an undiagnosed medical condition, a side effect of a medication, a hormonal imbalance, stress, depression, low self-esteem, trauma, or even problems in your marriage that he hasn’t brought up. Sometimes, too, a specific change lessens desire—like an emotional issue related to pregnancy or parenthood. (If, for instance, your sex life was good before having kids, perhaps he’s had trouble seeing you as both a mother and a romantic partner.) There are also causes of sexless marriages that have nothing to do with sex drive (having a porn addiction, secretly preferring a partner of another gender, having an affair but not wanting to leave the marriage)....

It’s less likely that your husband has no interest in sex (at least, in theory), and more likely that he has no interest in opening what to him might feel like a Pandora’s box.

One appreciates Gottlieb's expression, but the man might be gay. Or he might be a repressed pedophile.

The important point is that there are multiple possible causes for a lack of sexual interest. But, this means that a physical checkup is in order… in order to eliminate the physiological possibilities.

As for opening the conversation, Gottlieb understands that nagging is not the solution. If it were, it would already have produced the desired response. She offers a different rhetorical approach, one that,however, feels less than optimal:

So back to the broader issue, which is something you can talk to him about. When doing so, try approaching him from a place of curiosity rather than blame. Instead of saying, “I need us to have sex again”—a demand that makes it seem as if he’s the problem—you can say something like, “I don’t want us to have so much conflict around sex, and I certainly don’t want to feel like I’m nagging you. I just want you to know that I miss feeling close to you, and not just physically. On the one hand, we’re such good friends, and on the other, I feel like there’s a lot we don’t know about each other. Can we talk about what’s going on between us?”

She adds, sensibly, that Ruby should present it as their problem, not as his problem. She should recommend that they work on it together, perhaps with a third party. It makes some sense, and it is certainly better than complaining. I suspect that he will reject the offer.

But then, Gottlieb suggests, unfortunately, that if he refuses to take his wife's concerns seriously and submit to therapy, Ruby should leave her marriage:

However, if he’s not willing to take them seriously, you may need to give some thought to leaving the marriage. If you do end up leaving, it won’t be because your husband shut you out sexually. It will be because he shut you out emotionally. You’ll have done everything you can to save the marriage—but sadly, you can’t save it alone.

I find it generally wrong to recommend that anyone leave a marriage. At the risk of offending your delicate moral sensibilities, Ruby could also go out and have a discreet affair. She might even hire a gigolo. Women have done it before. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Or else, she might try some reverse psychology and stop talking about it at all. If we knew how this couple interacted on a daily basis we could recommend ways for her to change her behavior. But, she might also take the position that she does not want sex, anyway, and that she can live without it. It’s the easiest way to reduce the tension and to eliminate her direct and indirect accusations against her husband. If her overbearing personality is the problem, the solution might be to dial it down and to recover some of her feminine mystique.


Anonymous said...

I'm suffering with something similar.

Awhile back I had low-t. Turns out, it was a vestige of cancer. At that point, my wife tells me she's tired of initialing sex, and if I wanted it I'd have to work for it. This led me to all sorts of misery - Testosterone therapy, cialis, whatnot.

Now that I'm past cancer, my body chemistry sprung back and I'm reasonably healthy.

But she's still in the mode, like this woman, that it's somehow my job to discern when she wants sex, and go for it. To make matters worse, she's on medication that knocks her out quick when we go to bed. Ever pop a cialis, an have the old lady csonk out?

What's happened is she's in her 50s, and forgot how to flirt. Next time she brings it up, I'll point out that in order to get me in the mood, she has to at least act like she likes me, and send a few signals that she's in the mood.

Not a magician here.

Anonymous said...

Reasons why she waited so long -- concern about the welfare of the kids Also, all the hubbub and busyness of shepherding children to adulthood takes your mind off other problems. And you have the love of your children to keep you warm and fuzzed. Then the younglings leave the nest and ...

Other reasons -- the woman may have let herself go; some men find the Menopause period and post menopause stage to be a total sexual buzz kill. Still in all, not being willing to give your life partner and mother of your children any physical attention at all seems to be extremely self-centered, or a sign of some serious underlying problem.

And you should not point to the wife's demands, because these demands are completely reasonable. We all stood at an altar and promised to "love and cherish" unto death do us part

Phil Layshow said...

If a wife surprises her husband with a good hummer, that can work wonders.

Anonymous said...

She should just bring in a Bull, a virile black male and force her husband into cuckoldry. Nothing like a young black buck to spice up a white woman's sex life. The boomer elite promoted it to the white working class, so it must be a good lifestyle.

Anonymous said...

If internet porn has taught me anything, black on white cuckolding is a GOOD thing. All the white gals in the videos seem to enjoy the hell out of it .. and the white men dont seem to mind at all!!!

First Anonymous guy

Anonymous said...

Exactly.. Just because your fiddle is flaccid doesn't mean you can't be involved in your wife's sex life even if only as a passive observer, if you care about your wife's sexual pleasure and feelings perhaps she will appreciate you lubing up Leroy's tubesteak with the KY.

Anonymous said...

The one thing not mentioned was weight. Considering that we are no longer allowed to criticize weight without dire PC condemnation, the man may very well decide on the safer path of silence.

Anonymous said...

I actually tried to read it, got halfway through and began to turn gay so had to stop.

Dan Patterson said...

It IS hard to discuss sex, more so when your partner is not appealing. Gay? Pedophile? WTF?
Ok, maybe but only a fraction of a decimal of a percent of maybe.
Could also be she's a tank, has bad breath, and doesn't shave her legs. And he'd rather NOT get into a discussion with a therapist about what HE'S doing wrong.
He might be very interested in sex, just with someone else. Like she seems to be.
Who knows, really. Without knowledge of the couple and their backgrounds we can only speculate, but "love and cherish" is a heart/mind centered exercise; can't put anything over on Mr. Pinky and if HE isn't interested there isn't much to do about it.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: I find it generally wrong to recommend that anyone leave a marriage. At the risk of offending your delicate moral sensibilities, Ruby could also go out and have a discreet affair.

I'd agree recommending divorce is too easy. In regards to a discreet affair, I'm less sure, or at least it depends on whether or how you feel guilty about it, and how you plan to answer if caught or tattled upon.

A better choice might be to ask for an "open marriage", EVEN if she doesn't plan to exercise, even if she has no interest in any other man. It is good because it is symmetric, allowing him to consider it. And he gets to both experience the possibility of jealousy, and the option of his own desires elsewhere. If he feels jealousy, then he may consider he's been selfish and become curious what he needs to do to keep her. And if he doesn't feel jealousy, but expresses feelings of hurt, then at least they'll be in mutual understanding, that his withdrawal hurts her as well, and perhaps other things will also come out at that point that otherwise have been taboo to say.

Anonymous said...

Just stick her in a Burqa, chain her in a room and tell her to shut up.