My wife and I don't have the same interest in sex.
Sex often feels like something she lets me do to her, rather than something we do together.
Here’s The Thing is an advice column/newsletter where I mostly beg people to either stop dating someone or to ask their crush out. Or I talk about weird things that came to my mind that no one is paying me to write about. I can never decide if I should capitalize the “the” in Here’s The Thing or not; apologies on lack of consistency.
A PERFECT SWEETIE:
I’m a 40-something man who’s been married to his 40-something wife for well over a decade (no kids). In many ways we have a really great marriage - we both share a love culture and travel, we both have successful careers, we get along well and are blessed with great families and friends.
For as long as I can remember, our sex life has been, for me, lacking. Sex has almost always been a one-way street, with me being the one needing it and her fine without. If I don’t initiate, we don’t have sex. Over the years her lack of interest has negatively impacted my desire - so I’ve basically stopped initiating, meaning we regularly go weeks or months without sex.
What I get instead is her occasionally scheduling maintenance sex she often doesn’t seem all that into. I had self-esteem issues growing up, so for me it’s paramount that I feel the other person is attracted to me, and wants to have sex with me. Sex that’s just happening for my sake just makes me feel worse than no sex at all, which already makes me feel pretty bad. Even the way she schedules sex is hurtful - it’s never that she wants to have sex with me, it’s that it’s “important” and that we just need to “make more time for it” as though it’s vacuuming under the couch. Even after telling her that, she’ll still use that language on occasion.
We’ve had dozens of conversations over the years, with me telling her how unwanted and undesired I feel, how I need her to put effort in, show more enthusiasm and initiate more. The end result is always the same - her agreeing it’s a problem, and promising to work on it, then months going by and nothing changes. She’s promised to read books, go to individual counseling, etc and when I follow up, she’s never done any of those things. We’ve done couples counseling which she is visibly and deeply uncomfortable with, just as she is when I try to get her to talk about sex.
She says all of this makes her feel like a disappointment, which breaks my heart to hear but I just don’t know what else to do. I’m very attentive to her needs when we do have sex, and she says she enjoys it when we do, but sex often feels like something she lets me do to her, rather than something we do together.
I feel stuck and lonely and am not sure what more I can do. Do I have unrealistic expectations here?
First and foremost, I’m so sorry. This is such a difficult topic for couples to navigate because—as you spoke to—there is so much emotion tied up into when/how/why/how often we want sex. I feel truly for both you and your wife. I’m going to focus my letter on you and what options I think you have, but I want to take a really brief detour to talk about your wife for a moment.
I want to make it clear that it’s not evil or wrong to not want sex all that often. The amount any of us desires sex is neutral; it’s not good or bad. It decides nothing about our character. Again: there is nothing wrong with not wanting sex. There’s also nothing wrong with scheduling sex. I also fully understand the origins of the idea of “maintenance sex.” I also, of course, do not think that anyone owes another person sex—nor do I for a moment think that you think that your wife owes you sex. I want to express that I have a lot of sympathy for where your wife is coming from.
However, I also believe that she’s not putting in effort or opening up to you about this issue, and that’s the problem. I don’t think (mostly because I assume you would have mentioned it) that your wife wants to be hurtful with the ways that she is engaging with you on this topic. I think her intent is good—she thinks she’s doing the things that keep a marriage good enough. The problem is that her actions, despite her intentions, are not landing well; she’s being very hurtful by choosing to not care about this issue and how much you’re hurting.
It’s hard for me to know exactly from your letter—because it’s from your point of view and while you’re lovely, you have no idea what her point of view is—how clear your wife is about how much this is hurting you, how bad this situation is for you and your mental health. Sex and desire are much, much bigger than simply “I want to *** on someone’s **** right now!!!!!” [fill in blanks as you please]. It’s not just the cartoony teenage boy with AWOOGA eyes who wants to touch a titty.
Sex and desire are massively important in attraction and romance, in esteem, in making us feel loved and wanted. It’s also often an important distinction between friendship and romantic love. (Lots of crossover episodes for the two, and some people do not have sex in romantic relationships, that’s fine, of course!!).
You have a very very very very very very very very normal and reasonable and healthy want which is for your primary or only romantic partner to desire you sexually. It’s DEVASTATING to imagine and to have to cope with the fact that they don’t. That’s a rejection, and a difficult one. It’s especially difficult if you two are sexually exclusive. This is the only person you get to have a sexual relationship with and the relationship is… this? That can be depressing. That is a lot of grief you have had to carry around, and I’m fairly sure you haven’t fully treated it like grief because we don’t usually think of it that way. We have a lot of bad messages about dead bedrooms and partners who want sex more or less floating around. Unlike other parts of a relationship (emotional support, laughter, fun, etc) there aren’t usually other appropriate avenues for you seeking this out if you’re sexually exclusive.
So. The question is what do you do about it! I have a few suggestions. Take what works for you and leave the rest. Combine two or three. Try one and see if it works and then try another and then go from there! Do none of them! You will know what you can handle. This is going to take a lot of courage to deal with and it will be likely kind of excruciating at times. HOWEVER, you have to deal with this. Let me be clear: as far as we can tell, you get one wild and precious life. ONE. One time on this planet to experience the blissful ecstasy of getting hot and horny. (That’s not a priority or desire for everyone, but it is for you! I’m with you on this! Again, that’s a very normal and reasonable desire!). You do not want to spend your ONE life not being sexually fulfilled and having a partner who doesn’t seem to want to communicate about the issue. That’s fair!!!
These suggestions loosely go from least to most “extreme” based on my perception. I think you kind of have to do #1 no matter what, but otherwise, again, you do not have to do any or all of these. You certainly don’t have to do them in order. These are simply some ways forward. Please note that I do NOT think that doing nothing is an option.
This is the one that isn’t really optional. I think you’re going to have to do a lot to process the amount of loss you’ve felt and have been feeling in your marriage. It’s not that the marriage is all bad by any means, otherwise you wouldn’t still be in it. But I think you need to process (via a friend/therapist/journal/art project/etc) just how much you’ve lost. You’ve lost the sexual relationship you imagined in a marriage and feeling desirable and that level of intimacy with someone etc, etc. (REMINDER: It’s not that I think your wife specifically owes you these things!!!) This grief is about you and how you feel, not about creating or inciting resentment. It’s about acknowledging how hard this has been for you, why it has been hard, what you’ve been missing and allowing yourself to feel sadness/anger/hurt/bitterness without shame. That does not mean you need to express all those things with massive outbursts, or that you need to invite those feelings into your home to live with you. Just that you need to figure out what you feel. The fact that you asked me if it’s reasonable to feel bad about this makes me certain there’s a lot more feeling and grieving to be done.
If you are not in individual therapy yourself, I strongly recommend it. I think it will help you a lot if you haven’t already to have it affirmed that the fact that your wife doesn’t seem willing to put in effort is hurtful—again, most likely not intentionally. Also to have it affirmed that it’s normal and fair to want a healthy sexual relationship with a romantic partner that works for both of you.
TWO: Talk again. I know. I know. I know. I know.
I think you need to have a Very Serious Talk. Please trust me that I KNOW you’ve already done this many, many, many times. I think you can approach this talk as kind of a make or break moment for you two. I think that’s fair. But I want you to give it one last go simply because, as I said above, sometimes we think we’re being really clear with our partners and our partners are totally unaware of how close we are to breaking the proverbial deal.
Here is what I would say (FILL IN THE WORDS WITH TRUE STUFF FROM YOUR BRAIN!!!): “Darlene, I need us to talk again about sex. I’m sure you feel like I’ve brought this up a lot—I feel like I’ve brought it up a lot, too. But I’m feeling really, really hurt and frustrated by how our sex life has been going. It’s making me feel unloved and unwanted and depressed. I don’t know if I’ve been clear just how important this is to me, because I think if I had been clear, you would have done some of the things we talked about like gone to therapy or reading books. This is my last ditch effort to show you how much this matters to me. If you don’t take it seriously after this and show me that you’re willing to communicate with me about it and put in some effort, I’ll have to make some really hard decisions about what comes next. That is not meant to pressure you or to make you feel like you need to have sex with me now. I don’t want that. I want us both to be interested in having a physical relationship with one other, I want us to be attracted to one another, and I want us to be able to be honest about sex, and right now I don’t think that’s happening.” And then follow up (again; I know you’ve already done this!) with “I would like us to do X Y and Z by this date — would that work for you? How can I help you out so we can get there?”
It seems like you both have a lot of emotional triggers around sex (as almost every human does). I’m very very sorry that your wife isn’t willing to talk about this in couples therapy because honestly that is the biggest recommendation that I have; I think there is a lot both of you need to say about sex and you want to talk about it and she isn’t ready which is fair on a personal level, but harmful to the relationship.
I would guess—and this is a guess!!— that she has some unresolved trauma or pain around sex that she isn’t sure how to express or that she hasn’t processed. You cannot make her process that or talk about that or deal with that. She may never be ready to. She may never put in any effort. And again, not because she’s a bad person or because she doesn’t care, but simply because she can’t get there.
THREE: Become non-exclusive.
There is a chance that talking about this with your wife and trying to untangle the knots of why your sexual desires don’t line up doesn’t magically fix everything. In fact, I KNOW it won’t fix everything. Even if it gets you both on the same page emotionally, makes you feel a lot more generously towards one another, breaks some of your worst patterns, it’s very unlikely to actually make your interest in sex magically line up. (STILL VERY WORTH IT!!!)
There is nothing wrong with you both—EXTREMELY MUTUALLY!!!!!!!!!!—deciding that sex is not something that you want to have exclusively with one another. There are infinite ways that this might look for you two, which is in fact the beauty of the situation of consensual non-monogamy. You two get to decide what boundaries you’re both comfortable with. Usually couples decide rules around whom they are allowed to sleep with / when and how often they’re allowed to sleep with outside partners / where this takes place / how much information they’ll share with one other and they continue to have conversations about boundaries as they go. You might have rules like “You can’t sleep with anyone we know” or “You can only meet people when you go out of town” or “Don’t tell me any details” or “You must tell me every detail.” If you go this route, that’s up to you to decide.
This route has a lot of potential negatives, to be sure. It’s very hard/impossible to go from a relationship that has communication and honesty issues (right now you and your wife are NOT communicating well at all about a massively important issue) into a relationship that REQUIRES a lot of expert communication / honesty. So my recommendation is to only do this if you put a lot of work into the relationship first and do a lot of research and thinking about what will work for you. That said, I think this route also has a LOT of positives—if done correctly; BIG IF! You love your wife, your wife loves you, the piece that isn’t working is the sex piece, so subcontract that out. (I’m being glib, but I do think there’s a lot of upsides and it’s something that’s TOTALLY FAIR and NORMAL to consider).
This type of arrangement doesn’t come without its own potential emotional and sexual baggage, though, so I also see why it might not work for one or both of you.
FOUR: Split up.
Ok, obviously this one sucks the most ass in the short term. And I put it last because I don’t think that you need to Go Directly to Divorce. Do Not Pass GO, Do Not Collect $200.
But I do think that there’s a real (and devastating) possibility that this ends up being the right decision in this situation. There are all kinds of reasons to end a relationship with someone and not being sexually compatible is a very fair one and not just not being sexually compatible but having a partner who is unwilling to put in effort into the issue DESPITE REPEATED CONVERSATIONS is a very very very fair one.
Your wife will not go to therapy, feels uncomfortable talking about sex and has shown very little actual interest in changing this situation despite you repeatedly asking her to. I hope I’m wrong about her willingness to change, but I will say, it doesn’t seem great.
The sad truth is that you two might love each other very much but not work as spouses. You want different things. You’ve both compromised on different levels and in different ways for years and it doesn’t look like things are getting better in this department. Without a massive overhaul (probably a combo of the options above), it seems unlikely to me that you are going to be totally happy in this marriage.
Now, that’s obviously a massive massive decision. And it will come with its own excruciating grief—sorry, by the way that there is no Easy & Fun option on this list—but I also think that coming out the other side of this will eventually bring you to a place of a lot of joy. I can’t guarantee that you’re going to immediately find a new partner who wants to fuck and suck the day away. But I do think you will have an opportunity for a lot of happiness on the other side.
I guess I mostly want to affirm that if you feel like this (her not being willing or able to engage with you about your sexual desires) is a big enough issue to end the marriage over, that’s ok. You have asked and asked for what you want and need and it isn’t working. You do not have to keep staying forever to prove something. You are not evil for wanting something else. She is not evil for not being on the same page as you or not wanting sex or not being more desirous. It’s just a sad situation. There is no bad guy.
One last thing!
This isn’t really a tactic for dealing with this but I do recommend if at all possible—and again, I know your wife is very resistant to talking openly, which makes this massively hard— is getting creative about what “sex” is for you two. A lot of people think sex and think the very heteronormative penis-in-vagina scene. That’s not the only option for physical intimacy. You can masturbate together. Give each other massages. Watch porn together. Maybe your wife needs a whole lot more lead time to get turned on than you do and she’s not been very good about expressing that. It’s possible that she simply is uninterested in sex and physical intimacy entirely! I don’t know. But it might be worth trying to think outside the box. (For what it’s worth: I very much recommend Esther Perel’s writing and podcast on sex and intimacy in long term relationships).
Ok I know that one was long but this is a real HUGE issue. It’s valid and fair to be hurt by this and I’m really, really sorry that loving someone doesn’t make you guys both magically have the same sexual desires. It’s a bullshit thing! I’m also sorry that currently your wife isn’t demonstrating effort. Putting in effort is part of the action of loving someone.
There’s a lot of pain / hard stuff coming your way but there is already so much pain and hard stuff in the situation you’re in now. And if you act there also might be some really, really good stuff coming your way. You’ve got this.
You can submit your own question—or yell at me about how I’m wrong—by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org