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‘My Husband Won’t Have Sex With Me!’

Photo: Kevin Schafer/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

My husband of a decade has not initiated sex once in at least seven years. We are both in our early 50s. The few times we’ve had sex (and I can count those on one hand), I’ve had to beg for it. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the sex issues.

He claimed that, after a heart scare (thankfully no heart attack) that “it stopped working,” and then he shrugged it off as just being what happens when men get older. But I know that’s not true. First, because I found a half-empty bottle of lube on his nightstand one day. Second, he confessed to “almost” cheating two years ago. The confession was all about him and his guilt and his issues. When I tried to tell him how and why this had really upset and hurt me, he cut me off saying he was too worked up to talk anymore. He is a major depressive, so I tend to back off in situations like that out of worry that I’ll make things difficult for him.

He also has some attitudes about sex and women, thanks to his messed-up Catholic family. He praises himself for not marrying a woman just like his mother but then judges women and their sexuality just like she and her family would (the words “slut” and “whore” have been used).

I had weight-loss surgery and he admitted afterwards that my weight had been an issue for him (I was already fat when we met, so my weight was not some major, new change after we married). But now that I weigh dramatically less, he’s still disinterested. I have tried to make love with him multiple times this year. He repeatedly insists that it’s just an erectile issue. The first time, I pushed back, mentioning the lube and the “almost” infidelity. I added that I was sick of begging, sick of feeling unwanted and unworthy, and that I would never attempt sex with him again while things stayed as they are. The next move was up to him. He got snappish and said, “Fine! I’ll see a doctor!” like I was bugging him to take out the trash. He was given a prescription for six Viagra. There are four in the bottle. Either he is using them on his hand or on someone else. I won’t ask because I’m tired of being the initiator in these things.

Another big issue is his lack of interest in me in other ways. He can monologue for hours about politics, culture, social issues, and he rants like a combination of Grandpa Simpson and Archie Bunker about anyone under age 40, but when it comes to anything I’m up to, or how he or I are feeling? Crickets. I’m actually keeping a list of things he’d rather do than, well, me. The list is pretty depressing. I am less desirable than playing Windows Solitaire or watching BBC detective shows and The Seventh Seal (I’m less desirable to my husband than an overwrought, depressing Swedish movie, FML).

I read advice columns where I’m supposed to talk about it with him. I did and there’s nothing. I’m supposed to make myself attractive for him. Did that, and nothing. I’m isolated, bored, frustrated, lonely, rejected, unwanted, hurt, and angry. I’m sick of feeling like I’m selfish for wanting sex with my husband. Then I feel guilty and ungrateful, because he does love me in his own way. He will do nice things like make the coffee in the mornings. He takes care of the bills. But I’m not sure if I can live the rest of my life with no sex and constant rejection.


Dear Unwanted,

Sex is no longer about sex for you two. It’s about your husband’s failings as a human being, about his self-hatred, about his ineptitude and his decline. It’s about your lasting undesirability, about your rage, about how this marriage demeans you and turns you into a beggar. When you and your husband discuss sex, there’s no sex in the room at all. There’s a heart problem and a flaccid dick and a former weight problem and a ranking system that places you beneath Windows Solitaire and The Seventh Seal.

No wonder you don’t want to talk about it. When you try to discuss it, confusion and bewilderment set in immediately, because you’re talking about fucking but he’s talking about whores and his mother and hearts that will give out some day, without warning. Or he’s talking about guilt and fear and self-loathing but you’re talking about feeling rejected, over and over again, in spite of big desires and hopes for the future, in spite of love for this broken man and his twisted mess of deeply rooted problems.

So you can’t talk about sex. In fact, you don’t want to talk to him at all. You’re tired of trying. I don’t blame you for that.

But what’s the one path forward for your marriage? Talking.

If you want this marriage to survive, you have to get your husband to talk vulnerably about death and how he imagines his heart and how he feels about his dick and how he thinks couples in their 50s should behave together. You have to ask him about his fantasies, and you have to want to know what they are, and you have to not take them as a rejection of you. That’s hard, but if you want to get back into a world of feeling with him, you have to move into a space where he’s actually feeling things.

He also needs to learn that the only way he’ll feel lighter, and better, and less angry, is if he starts to let all of his darkness tumble out onto the floor. This man is plagued by insecurities and fears that are gigantic and they’re everywhere, because he’s never grappled with them before. His fears creep around at the edges of everything he sees and experiences. They dance with every word he says about politics, culture, social issues. If you start listening closely, I think you’ll find projections of his anxieties in everything he says. This man is sad and lonely, and he’s pretty sure he’s losing everything.

What your husband really needs is a therapist. He needs to let down his defenses just enough to get all of these demons flowing out into the air, leaving some room for him to just be a flawed human being with feelings he can’t always control. He’s fixated on control and rules and morals for a reason: His interior world feels chaotic and threatening.

He needs to learn how to cultivate compassion for himself. When you accept yourself without fear and self-hatred, you welcome your wild emotions and weird thoughts and you give yourself space to rediscover old passions and new ones. You enjoy your mind and your body again. You welcome the world as it is, full of light and darkness, full of love and terror, packed with pleasures and disappointments.

You also need a therapist. Just as your husband has an excuse about his heart that explains away his lack of passion and desire and joy, you have a view of your husband as an enormous blockade in your life, without which you would feel secure and happy. If you want to understand yourself, you have to stop using him as an escape from developing your own rich, compassionate inner life.

That doesn’t mean you should never ask yourself whether or not you’d be better off putting this marriage behind you. That’s a big question that you’ll definitely need to explore, particularly if your husband absolutely refuses to talk, refuses to feel, refuses therapy, refuses all softness and kindness and warmth, and continues to hold forth about his favorite subjects like a robot, without seeing you at all. There’s a lot of mutual contempt in your marriage, and that’s a very hard thing to chip away at. It takes patient work and a lot of forgiveness on both sides.

I know a few men as shut down and depressed as your husband, around the same age as him, so I know how intensely resistant to vulnerability and change they can be. Is it likely that your husband will change significantly? Many men refuse to change until you walk out the door. Then they change for their next partner, or they change after their relationship with their next partner fails spectacularly in the same ways that their previous relationship failed.

Even though your husband has a lot of work to do to make things better in your marriage, I want to recommend that you work patiently on your side of the yard for a while. Examine how you continue to go back to him and feel newly hurt and rejected each time. Look closely at the stories you tell about what he’s capable of. I’m not implying any moral judgment here. Everything you’re doing is adaptive, self-protective, and understandable. There are probably threads that link your current predicament back to some early childhood experiences. Common wisdom (and an actual therapist!) might tell you that you’ve married one of your parents, and now you’re reenacting that relationship and it’s making you just as miserable as you were as a child.

Even if this is the case, it doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed. None of us know all of the wild and twisted forces that are at work in our attractions and our relationships, and plenty of us marry some echo of our parents but we end up finding happiness anyway. Attraction is a mysterious thing, rooted in even more mysterious stuff that we don’t always want (or even need!) to understand. I just want you to be patient for a while, with yourself and your husband. Let your desires and needs into the picture, and don’t move toward anger or shame whenever you land there. Separate your body’s needs from your rage at your husband. Try to experience yourself as a complex being filled with exciting impulses and ideas and feelings. Remove your husband as a mental and emotional blockade, and try to cultivate compassion for your own needs regardless of what he says or does.

Then try to experience him as a separate entity through a lens of compassion. Recognize the fears and struggles behind his eyes, and notice how, when you ask for something, he moves into a rigid place. Notice how your desires make him feel like a failure. The second you approach him, you and he are both overpowered by shame and anger. You both feel like you’re failing. This is your crucible. Be gentle and feel that. It’s time to try a different way forward.

But you can’t move through this without talking about it. He needs to know that, and so do you. You must find a way to discuss your deepest needs and desires without turning it into an argument that looks like it’s about sex, but it’s really about longing and guilt and death and loss.

Your first attempts at mutual vulnerability will be very challenging. Many married couples quit when they hit this kind of a wall. Then they hit the same wall with the next person. Withdrawing and giving up is so tempting when the stakes are this high. Maybe your marriage is too broken to be fixed. But the first step to figuring that out, somewhat paradoxically, lies in untangling your separate struggles and demons and examining what’s here with an open heart.

No matter what happens next, you definitely deserve more than this. You deserve to feel loved and desired and heard and appreciated. Your husband deserves more, too. He deserves to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and honest with his wife without being punished for telling the truth. He deserves not to feel like sex is just a reminder of his physical decline and failure as a man. You’re both in a truly terrifying place, in other words. Proceed with love and compassion. Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll both learn a lot.

The first step is to try to love what’s here. For you, that means loving your body and your desires no matter how your husband feels about them. It means loving your husband in spite of his many flaws. And it means loving yourself enough to imagine that you deserve a life that feels good and happy to you. Paradoxically, loving what’s here is a path to loving whatever comes next – darkness, decline, rejection, fear, and death included in that. Sharing a deep sexual connection with someone can start with fantasy, but it’s always rooted in two people who are capable of making themselves vulnerable to reality. Reality — good and bad, ecstatic and anxious, frightening and delicious — is what makes it hot. You will not be here forever. You have to feel as much as you can while you’re still alive.

Right now you’re both resisting the full scope of being alive, which includes brilliant light, joy, and also terrifying darkness. You’re resisting the full potential of your bodies, which are capable of falling apart but are also capable of feeling turned on and electric. Your bodies are waiting patiently to find each other again. Trust in that for now. Take what’s here — all of it — and feel it. But keep your eyes wide open for whatever comes next, and try not to be afraid. When you honor what you have, your choices become clearer and clearer. Stop fighting this battle and surrender to reality.


Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here

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‘My Husband Won’t Have Sex With Me!’