ask polly

‘I Want to Be Single, But I’m Miserable Without Sex!’

Photo: Ania Tuzel/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I’m the classic Married Guy — met my first wife on literally the second day of college, started dating a week later, and married a few months after graduation. When that marriage began to unravel after almost a decade, the disruption it caused to my framework of personal value sent me into a downward spiral. I left my grad program, went AWOL on an internship I had worked years to get, and wound up unemployed and alone in a shitty studio apartment in my hometown. My plan was to play video games and smoke weed until my credit cards were maxed out and I’d have to kill myself.

Then I met a woman, and you can guess what happened next — two years later, I was married again. To our credit, this time around has been more emotionally healthy and better overall. My first wife was the bubbly optimistic type, and her relentless positivity helped me suppress my darkest thoughts. My current wife is dark and moody, and we bonded over our deeply pessimistic worldviews. At first I thought I was breaking my old patterns — I could finally express the “bad” feelings I didn’t want to acknowledge and started going to therapy to deal with my traumatic childhood.

During the course of therapy I began to realize that my Big Pattern wasn’t avoiding my past per se, it was using my wives’ validation to avoid past feelings that would have destroyed me. My stepdad was primarily an emotional abuser and would insult and demean me daily, mostly about my failings as a man. This was punctuated by weekly-ish physical abuse in the form of surprise wrestling matches, with the stated goal of teaching me to defend myself and “man up,” and random yearly-ish sexual abuse — wordless, confusing, and terrifying. The main fantasy I used to escape this reality was maintaining faith that I would eventually meet The One — a transcendent, luminous woman who would love and accept me as a Man.

Six years of therapy have helped me understand my patterns better — I realize I choose women who are happy with me, rather than women who make me happy; solving my wives’ relatively easy problems gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and allows me to ignore the vast tangled expanse of my own issues; I can’t feel good about myself in isolation, and need my wives’ validation to feel worthy of love. In short, I’ve been close to drowning in a pool of my own shame for nearly my entire life, and having a wife is the only strategy I know to barely keep afloat. But now I want to swim.

In some ways I’m making big strides — I moved into my own apartment two years ago while still committed to my marriage. I told everyone it was so I could get better sleep and alleviate my PTSD symptoms, which was true but only half the truth. Since then I’ve been able to fall asleep alone at night (huge accomplishment for me), completed a group therapy for male survivors of child sexual abuse, and told my story at an art exhibit for survivors. And then early this year I finally separated from my wife — it lasted less than two months.

In those two months I was profoundly miserable. I thought I had gently eased myself into living alone, but to be honest, the lack of sex was the hardest thing to deal with. I developed a form of eczema on my penis from a combination of stress and self-abuse, according to my doctor. I feel like a creep for admitting how much I feel I need sex, but it’s so much more than “just sex” to me. My therapist tries to encourage me to seek satisfaction in nonsexual relationships, but they feel empty to me. Nothing comes close to replacing the complete emotional/physical/spiritual validation of sex with a woman I love and trust deeply. While I can fantasize all day about casual sex with random people, I know from experience that casual relationships make me feel unsafe and insecure.

The way I think about it is: Friendships are satisfying when you can share your deepest insecurities with another person and feel seen and accepted for who you are. That’s hard enough as it is. But what if your deepest insecurity is sex, and only having loving, committed sex can make you feel truly seen and accepted? I don’t know how to break this cycle.
Married Guy
Dear Married Guy,

Okay, your letter is really a tough one, but I’m going to do my best because I feel like you need a big perspective shift right now, and I know you’re working very hard already. Just keep in mind that I’m not a therapist. It goes without saying that you need to keep seeing a therapist. You should continue to trust the guidance of experts. If anything here doesn’t feel helpful, cast it off immediately. Trust your own instincts. Use anything that works, and reject anything that doesn’t feel accurate or useful.

One of the worst aspects about the kind of sexual abuse you experienced is that it teaches you that words are meaningless. Everything your stepfather told you was either untrustworthy, inaccurate, warped, or an outright lie. He told you that he was focused on you for purely charitable reasons: He wanted to help you become a man. That wasn’t true. He told you that he was teaching you to fight. That was only partially true; he was also maybe getting off on wrestling with you. And when he wasn’t wrestling with you or teaching you a lesson, he was insulting you. His emotional intimacy amounted to emotional abuse. So most of his words were lies.

And then out of the blue, every year or so, he would sexually abuse you, without words. Finally, the horrible truth of who he was and what he wanted was revealed. The wordless truth.

The truth is important to a child, always. Even when it’s abusive and scary, the truth sometimes feels like a relief when everything else you hear, around the clock, are lies.

But when the sexual abuse ended, you’d go back to his words, words, words: “Pretend to be a real man by fighting,” he’d tell you. Pretend to serve others, even when you’re only serving yourself. Derive your value from these acts of make believe. But know that the real magic lies in actions you can’t talk about. The real magic is a secret. The real magic lies in sex, which you steal from someone who trusts you. Sex is the only way to feel what’s real.  

Your stepdad’s abuse was scary. But because all of his words were obviously false, his sexual actions felt like the only truth you had to cling onto. My guess (from a great distance, mind you) is that you decided that his sexual abuse was a manifestation of his love for you. His sexual abuse meant that you mattered. His sexual abuse revealed the truth of who he was: a liar who needed you. His sexual abuse meant you weren’t powerless after all. You had something he wanted, you had value, you were loved underneath it all.

This is how you learned that sex was the only way to feel loved. This is how you learned that all emotional intimacy was role-playing and bullshit, and only sex had meaning and value. Now you want sex (from someone who loves you, someone you can trust), but sex only makes you feel loved while you’re having it. Sex is an empty fix now. The second it’s done, you don’t feel loved anymore. Without it, you’re miserable. You abuse yourself as a shoddy replacement for sex. Even when it hurts, at least it feels like love — almost, kind of, sort of. At least you aren’t miserable in that moment.

Words don’t feel like love to you. Words feel like a lie. You might not recognize this consciously, but when people talk about how they really feel, you might suspect that they’re lying. You might also suspect that if they could tell the truth, they’d only insult and demean you. Intimacy itself feels untrustworthy to you. People tell you they care and they want things for you, but you’re sure that they only want things from you. You suspect that you’re being used by the people you care for, so you don’t want to show up and listen to them and know them better.

Your stepdad was untrustworthy, and he told you, repeatedly, to trust him, to be more like him. He told you that you wouldn’t be a man until you were more like him. Being a man meant solving other people’s problems for them (the way you did for your wives) without understanding them at all. Being a man meant “helping” with “easy” things like teaching a boy to fight, or helping your wives with their simple problems. Being a man meant pretending to care. Being a man meant playing a role, and also doing battle.

In other words, your entire life is an act when you’re a man. You can’t be real or soft or vulnerable if you’re a man, according to your stepdad. You can’t ask for what you want, or have needs at all. You can’t show up and just speak words out loud about how you feel. It seems like you’ve overturned and rejected this philosophy, to some extent. You wrote down your feelings very clearly to me. You managed to go to group therapy and participate in an art exhibit. That’s dramatic progress.

Nonetheless, you haven’t figured out how to move that emotional progress into your day-to-day life. Some part of you believes that you’ll be miserable unless you find your fantasy woman. What do you picture when you imagine her? I’m guessing that she’s still luminous and transcendent, yet she’ll also demand more from you than your wives did. She will tell you how to be a man. She will love you for who you are, but she won’t show this with words. She’ll show you through sex that you’re the answer to her dreams. That’s the only way anyone shows anything real to anyone else.

My feeling is that you want a fantasy more than you want real life, for reasons that are completely understandable and forgivable. You don’t want real emotional intimacy with other human beings because emotional intimacy means being insulted and demeaned. You don’t want to know other people’s needs, either, because what they say they need is never accurate. You can feel useful by helping to solve their “easy” problems, but you don’t want to know what their more complicated problems might be. Maybe you even prefer to see your wife as simple, as inferior, as never even coming close to your fantasy of what a woman could be, because that way you’re safe. You don’t want to know more about your second wife’s feelings because you believe, in your heart, that knowing more would mean discovering that she doesn’t care at all. Knowing more would reveal her to be insulting and demeaning and untrustworthy. Knowing more would reveal her as another liar. You don’t want to know. You have kept your wife at arm’s length because to do otherwise would be too scary.

You want to play a role instead. Words can’t be trusted, and emotional intimacy isn’t just unimportant, it’s invisible, to the point where we have to assume that it scares the living hell out of you. Notice that you don’t discuss your wife’s feelings at all. How did she feel when you moved out? How did she feel when you came back for more sex, even though you didn’t really want to get back together? If you mentioned her feelings just once, I wouldn’t assume that you block her out. But she is a complete blur, and her feelings don’t enter the picture at all, to such an extent that I can’t tell if you’re back together with her, living alone but just having sex with her, or something else. You wrote of your separation, “It lasted less than two months.” You make getting separated and getting back together sound like turning a faucet on or off.

Meanwhile, you say that sex is the only thing that keeps you from feeling miserable. Even though you were living alone before and doing just fine, it’s the lack of sex that destroys the whole picture. Now you realize that sex is love to you. There is no love outside of sex according to your story, and according to your experience with your stepdad. The kind of compulsive hypersexuality you describe is common among male adult survivors of sexual abuse. You probably already know that. But these behaviors also link back to your beliefs about yourself and your value as a person.

I think sex is also survival to you. You thought your stepdad would kill you, if not for the fact that he used you sexually. Sex was your only real value. You could serve others — fight the way he wanted you to fight, play along — but that wasn’t enough. The only thing that made you feel like you were safe was the sexual abuse. Even though you were afraid of it, it was also proof that you had value.

Now you feel unsafe and miserable when you’re not having sex with someone you trust. But you also don’t have an honest, emotionally intimate, two-way relationship with the person you trust the most, your second wife. You’re afraid that she doesn’t TRULY love you. You say having sex with someone you trust keeps you from feeling miserable, but I don’t believe that you trust her completely. You devalue her in order to keep her feelings from mattering to you. If you had sex with her AND you had real intimacy, that would be too much. That would matter too much. You would feel too afraid of losing that. You have to believe in a fantasy instead, because it keeps you safe from disappointment and also safe from annihilation.

So this is your story: Your wife is not enough. Having a wife is merely “a strategy” in your words. She can’t make you happy. Only some new fantasy woman can do that. But you’ll be too miserable to find her, if you’re alone. So you’re stuck.

I know things feel very bleak for you at the moment. You need to work very hard to continue to feel proud of how far you’ve come, in spite of these setbacks. I relate to your confusion. So many of us take our childhood trauma and translate it into a lifetime of running away from real connection and intimacy. Obviously you already know a lot about what sexual abuse does to a kid and to a grown adult. You have an open heart now and you’re trying to break through this unexpected wall, in spite of feeling completely alarmed and upset by it.

And the truth is, many people have a huge problem with intimacy. So many people out there have no idea how to show up and allow other human beings to be who they are, to make sounds, to want things. Our culture is one big echo of this problem. It doesn’t take abuse to land there. It’s the default for most of us. You’re trying to solve problems and open your heart. You’ve come a long way.

But sex is a symbolic solution that won’t bring you real satisfaction and growth until you work on the deeper causes of your emotional confusion. What will bring you satisfaction is learning to show up and have a real relationship with another imperfect, real human being, whether it’s platonic or romantic. You don’t know how to do that yet, and even though love without sex sounds boring or beside the point to you, IT IS AT THE WHITE-HOT CENTER OF WHAT YOU NEED. Your therapist told you this, too, remember? Your therapist wasn’t just saying “Try making some friends instead! Hey, why not?” Your therapist was saying: Sex is not the cure here. You’re confused about that. Emotional intimacy and connection and listening and loving another person for who they are WITHOUT PRETENDING is the cure. You don’t have to play a role. You don’t have to fight. You don’t have to serve. You can show up and want things and need things. You can come empty-handed, and offer nothing.
The cure is knowing this in your heart: You deserve love just the way you are.

Take some of the magic that’s been infused into sex and move it over into the realm of WORDS: Two people, showing up, telling each other the truth. It can be transformative. But you’re too afraid of words and honesty to know that yet! Jesus, have I been there! When I was younger, I was always too anxious to be present and hear people when they told me things. It was too frightening to show up and care. But once you understand and FEEL WORDS in the moment — which is the hardest thing for a child of abuse to do — you will feel alive and good and electric in a way that doesn’t just evaporate once it’s over.

It’s just as delicious as a fantasy. But it’s better, because it’s real. To look at someone and understand what they mean? To feel that your pain and your suffering matter, and so do theirs? It’s like the art exhibit you did, or the therapy, combined with the best sex you’ve ever had. You don’t need the sex part to feel that. Trust me. You just need to be open, skinless, alive, and really, truly ready to feel what this world has to give you.

Maybe you aren’t there yet. You’re still anxious and afraid. That’s okay! I’ve been through a quarter of what you have, and it took me years to FEEL WORDS and FEEL FEELINGS and SAVOR THEM and MAKE THEM LAST. In the meantime, take this to heart: You don’t have to serve a purpose for other people to love you. You don’t have to be a man. You can just be a person. You can feel shitty and pathetic and unworthy, and you will still deserve love.

You will not disappear without sex. Sex will not save you. Love and words and showing up and listening will save you. Feeling connected to others will save you. Believing that you matter and loving who you are and what you’ve been through will save you.

I know you can get here because you’re already more brave than I am. I don’t know how it feels to sit in a circle and share your stories of abuse with strangers. I don’t know how it feels to stand up and tell the truth of my experiences to others, without knowing why they should listen. I don’t know what it would mean to say to your second wife, “I have not let you in yet, and I think now that I might be too scared to try.” I don’t know what it would mean to walk away from that marriage without believing that you’ll evaporate into thin air without the sex. I don’t know how it would feel to say, “I want to try. I’m scared beyond belief, but I want to.”

Maybe you still believe that words can’t be trusted. The first step is to notice that. Sometimes just understanding — “Oh, I don’t believe that anyone cares about me at all!” — is a kind of a breakthrough. That vulnerability will be terrifying, too. But it’s a way of trusting another person again. Or maybe even trusting another person for the very first time.

I know this is beyond difficult. All I ask is that you open your eyes and see all of the people around you who care. They aren’t using you. They love you. They will love you even if you change your mind about who you are and what you want. They will love you even if you don’t serve them anymore, or you turn out to be something other than this strange, inflexible idea of a “man” that your broken, sick, selfish stepdad fed to you. You start your letter with the words “I’m the classic Married Guy.” Is that the one thing you want to be? Is that the one thing you fear that you’re not? What would it mean to be something else? Sometimes your greatest fears live very close to your greatest desires. Who might understand that? Who will love you no matter what you are? Dare to trust someone with the truth. Reach out. That’s your path forward: Trusting.

Because you are loved. You say that you know that. But now it’s time to feel it. Feeling it changes everything.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

All letters to become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

Ask Polly: ‘I’m Single, But I’m Miserable Without Sex!’