February 2, 2010

UK: "I'm 62 and trapped in a sexless marriage"

. LONDON, England / The Times / Life & Style / Health / Expert Advice / February 2, 2010 The emotional and physical needs of you and your wife are completely mismatched. You have some difficult decisions to take Professor Tanya Byron Dear Tanya I am 62 and have been married for 39 years. After the birth of our second daughter, my wife’s interest in sex began to diminish. I put this down to the pressure of being a mother and housewife. But over the years the frequency reduced to never. Before we had children our sex was fantastic, so I thought I had done something wrong, but my wife avoided any discussions. Then about eight years ago, my wife, under the influence of drink, declared that she found sex “dirty”. (We never engaged in any devious type of sexual acts.) We have since had two long periods of counselling but she has been unable to explain why she feels this way. I need the love and closeness of a woman beside me in bed. I do not want to look elsewhere, but once, during an argument, I suggested to my wife that she could not blame me if I did. Her response was that she could not. That was not the response that I was looking for. She says she loves me, does not want to separate and that there has never been anybody else. But I need love, affection and closeness, and a soul mate. Jonathan I find your story very sad. Despite many years of marriage and having brought up two children together, the emotional and physical needs of you and your wife are completely mismatched. Sex is important in relationships and, even if it changes in frequency and intensity at times, it is the glue that binds a couple. Many older couples have a regular and enjoyable sex life, but the sexuality and sexual needs of this age group are rarely discussed and can appear taboo. In addition, I suspect that having grown up in the Fifties and early Sixties, your wife’s sexual identity was built around more repressed notions of female sexuality so she is of a generation that does not feel able to discuss such issues openly. After all the counselling you describe, it seems that the situation is fairly hopeless and I sense that you have almost given up on the marriage. However I wonder what the “counselling” entailed — what was the focus, how was it delivered? As a clinician I would want to support you both to think about your relationship in its entirety, not just focus on the sex (or lack of it). The sex, intimacy and affection problems may represent bigger issues — they might be the “symptoms” of longer term and deep-seated unhappiness. Withholding sex could be a powerful way for your wife to punish you for long-standing grievances. How has the dynamic of your relationship played out over the years — has she felt loved, understood and supported by you? If your wife does not feel that you have met her needs, she may have responded by not catering to your sexual needs. Another hypothesis is that your wife felt physically changed after giving birth and found her levels of arousal reduced during the years of being a busy wife and mother. The physical changes experienced by some women after birth can make sex uncomfortable or even painful. Certainly as women age there are changes in their physiology, such as thinning of the vaginal walls and vaginal dryness, which can make sex problematic. However, I am struck by the word “dirty” used by your wife. Does this reflect an historical dislike of the act that grew with time? Maybe it reflects experiences that pre-date you that were abusive. There are also women who report good sexual experiences when conceiving a family, but who then begin to view sex as an additional demand on them and a pointless act. Certainly nothing will change unless your wife’s blanket refusal is understood and the root causes tackled. However, if this is not possible then you really do have some difficult decisions to make. You have the physical and emotional need for sex, and clearly see it as part of a loving and intimate relationship. There is nothing abnormal about this. It is clear that the complete lack of intimacy in your marriage leaves you feeling that you don’t have a close other, a “soul mate”. For you, sex is what binds a relationship and without it you feel lost and lonely. You may have many years of life left — can you repress your needs to remain with a woman who is unwilling or unable to address them? How will your growing frustrations and resentments affect your lives, both as individuals and as a couple? Maybe you should find an alternative sexual partner — your wife seems to have given you permission — and there are couples who manage to stay together in this way. Often there is a tacit understanding about the boundaries of such extra-marital sexual behaviour. However, these situations are often risky as the new intimacies can lead to “soul mates” being discovered elsewhere and people getting badly hurt. Couples do separate after many years together and this is often because they grow apart and find that their interests and, more importantly, their needs become divergent. I certainly do not believe that staying together for the sake of many years of marriage is right, and I believe that many couples sacrifice the latter years of their lives for convention at the expense of their own happiness. If there is no way forward, it may be that you need to consider how you could possibly live alongside a partner who will not give or receive intimacy, and leaves you feeling shameful and guilty for wanting it. If you are friends, then you could remain so even if no longer together. However, if you cannot become lovers, in whatever way feels comfortable for you both, I suspect that there are many years of unhappiness ahead. [rc] If you have a family problem, e-mail proftanyabyron@thetimes.co.uk Copyright 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd