A good friend of mine recently confided that her husband had lost all of his desire for physical affection, from holding hands in public to lovemaking. I knew he was distant and brooding and I had my suspicions about their love life because of hints she’d dropped over the years. But I didn’t know it was this bad. It’s been a dark and lonely road for her; a road she is convinced she travels alone. It was her sense that no one else had a marriage like hers that kept her from sharing sooner.
After a good deal of research I’ve found that while she isn’t completely alone, she’s not in ample company. To be more specific, little has been written and few studies have been done that address or explain the failing male libido beyond the wonders of sildenafil. There may be many more others like my friend, but they are thus quiet.
Having come to share this overshadowing part of her life, she’s surprisingly energetic. She says the energy came with the exhausting realization that her husband simply wasn’t going to change. During one morning round of coffee, we went over the papers she would need in preparation to eventually leave him. She looked up and said she had a quiet but constant nagging feeling that there was something else she could’ve done. I told her that was normal, reminded her of all the things she’d done through the years, and asked her “What else could you possibly do?” Her answer took me aback. “Go public. It’s not my secret.”
On behalf of a friend who has gone through so much and tried so hard, I have agreed to put her story into words in the last ditch hope that there’s an answer she may have missed. She doesn’t want to name names. She wants to name the condition. She wants to shine a light on it in hopes of freeing herself and possibly others from a shameful and lonely darkness. She may only get responses from woman who have come to the same conclusion as she has. While this doesn’t compare to the kind of hope she’s looking for, their stories might affirm what she already knows and fuel her stamina for the upcoming divorce and single hood.
Olencia* took a deep breath and sighed.
“I haven’t had sex with my husband in over a year. Even then it wasn’t intercourse. Before that it had been a year. He’s been to the doctor a few times for a full physical. He’s taken the little blue pill. It worked a few times, by default I guess. We’ve had the heart-to-hearts. He’s been prescribed anxiety medication and depression medication. He had a sleep study done on him as well as MRI’s, CAT scans, you name it. He’s currently seeing a psychologist who told me to just accept the way my husband is. He also expressed surprise that I hadn’t cheated on my husband. This guy is not the first to say that as we’ve had marriage counselors and individual counselors here and there for some time now. This guy is the first man, though. My husband was headstrong about not seeing a male mental health professional. When it came up again, there were only guys on the list of available providers so he had to pick from the list or not go. He conceded and we went together for a while.
It’s not just the sex I’m without. It’s everything. For as wild and wonderful as things were in the beginning (of the marriage, not just the relationship) he’s since cooled to the point that if he was a woman I’d refer to him as a frigid bitch. He’s not just without desire; he’s hostile about it. At one point a little over a year ago I hugged him knowing he wouldn’t hug back and just told him that I loved him. He hadn’t said, “I love you too” in several months and he hadn’t said, “I love you” in years. I pulled away and asked, ‘Does it matter that I say I love you?’ He misunderstood the question and replied, ‘No, it doesn’t matter that you love me.” When I spoke about this in counseling, the psychologist pointed to him having misunderstood the question. I pointed to him having expressed a truth.
He started off pulling away from my holding his hand, progressed to hugging with one arm and then no arms at all. Finally he said one day that he’d had sex when he didn’t feel like it and that he thought he should have stronger boundaries. That’s when our physical life together ended completely. All the while we’d been seeing professionals, medical and mental health, together and individually. All I’ve gotten out of it is a litany of people telling me there’s really nothing wrong with him and that I just have to accept that. ‘Accept what?’ I have often asked. Is he gay? Is he lying? ‘No,’ I’m told by him and the professionals, ‘just different.’ I think it’s interesting that he’s never been called upon to accept who I am.
He moved out in July and we had a few more sessions after that. I ended my participation because of a counseling incident in August. I told him that I felt like we were divorced, save the piece of paper. He agreed. (To interject briefly, he’s in the military and we are stationed overseas. While we can be separated and have a separation agreement, we can’t get a divorce here. To move back to the states before his tour is up would cost us thousands of dollars we simply don’t have. We don’t live together and have no involvement except where it concerns the kids, much like a divorced couple.)
The psychologist asked him if he would agree to leave me be if he saw me out with someone else, as a courtesy. He did not agree. In fact he angrily disagreed. I wasn’t shocked, but I felt disgusted with the nerve it took him to say anything about it at all. It made no sense for me to save myself for a man who had no romantic feelings at all, much less for me, that my chasteness was only for his benefit and was only aggravating me. The psychologist agreed that he had no right to attempt to restrict my behavior, especially in light of the separation agreement. He also reminded my husband of the great lengths he’d gone to when talking about having no drive, feeling there was nothing wrong with that, and how I should leave him alone once and for all. Still he felt it would be horribly wrong for me to step outside the ‘marriage.’ He would often point out how I thought sex was all there was to it and refused to address the fact that he wouldn’t even hold hands. I said it wasn’t all about sex; it was about any physical regard at all. I finally realized the depth of his confusion and anger, and decided to quit going to marriage counseling.
I don’t know where the man went that I married, but I know he’s nowhere around. I would love to know what’s going on with him but I’ve given up hope of ever finding out and I’m not sure how much difference it would make now if I knew. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I can’t afford to do what a caring person would do anymore. I still have kids at home and a job and a household to run. The kids and I have so many family meetings I’m about to call a sabbatical but I know it’s good the lines are open between us. They’re old enough to know some of what’s going on, that this is about physical neglect. They understand what I’m talking about as they too have been on the receiving end of one-armed hugs and a cool silence when they’ve said ‘Good night Dad, I love you.’ They don’t have to know more than that although I’ve been told more than once that anyone over the age of 16 could understand sexual frigidity. I’m all for talking with my kids about their sex lives, but I’m not going to talk with them about mine. I can’t think of how that would ever be appropriate unless my husband actually died from it somehow and the kids wanted to know what caused his death. This arrangement is not what I would prefer but it’s the best for now, financially and for the kids. They want to see him and he does make the effort to see them. He just doesn’t hug them hello or say ‘I love you too’ when they say ‘Goodbye Dad, I love you.’
It’s been heartbreaking for the kids and me. It isn’t the quick ‘I gotta get outa here’ announcement my last husband made. He was out the door the next day and gone from our lives forever. It’s almost twenty years later and I feel like I’m going through it all over again as if it were just yesterday. Different men, different issues, almost the same feelings. I’m not as hopeless and dependent as I was last time when I had no income, but what I’ve done for myself financially doesn’t make up for what mattered so much.
My sister and I have discussed this. She’s recently divorced from her first husband and is going through a major custody battle. Someone told her divorce was like a death. She responded that it most certainly was not, that death is an end and the dead don’t come back to haunt you in full view of your kids and friends. Divorce, she said, is worse than death; it’s like Alzheimers. I agree. The drawn-out, agonizing way in which my husband has come to leave me is nothing short of brain damaged and damaging in terms of the craziness and inconsistency.
The irony of him not wanting me to cheat is that his slow but sure drain on our love life has created a pain in me that doesn’t want physical affection right now. I know I want it eventually. I’m not dead; it’s just on hold while I get myself better together. I need time to myself, time not spent trying to ‘help’ him. I exhausted myself trying to understand him, make changes I thought I could make, going to doctors and therapists, reading books, doing this and that and any other thing. It was so tiring. Now I focus on my health, which I let slide some during that time. I work out, I keep up on my job, and I focus on my kids and our home.
I can’t stand seeing him anymore. The interesting thing is that, of late, he’s been trying to engage me in conversations about his childhood and his issues. It wasn’t that long ago when I would’ve given anything for discussions like that, but it’s just too late. It’s not like he’s asking to come back or trying to work on the marriage or anything like that. He just wants to extend his therapy time as far as I’m concerned and that’s not a use of my time and effort I’m willing to give him anymore.
Any woman in this position will eventually come to a point where she has to redefine her life, her expectations, and herself. I fought long and hard this time because I didn’t want to go through another divorce and I especially didn’t want to drag the kids through one. The older kids were very little when my ex and I divorced. They’ve never known him. My husband now is the only father they’ve ever known.
If there is an answer I’ve missed, I hope whoever has it will share it with me. If not, I hope the best for myself, and I wish the very best for any woman going through this.”
*Olencia’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
UPDATE: April 08, 2008
Saving A Loveless, Sexless Marriage: The Miracle of Retrouvaille