I’ve had a lot of emails in the last week that are all essentially asking the same question with minor variations. It goes something like this;
“I’ve been married for [years] and for the last [awfully long time] I’ve had a problem with my [husband or wife] and the [huge intolerable relationship breaking problem] and they refuse to do anything about it. I’ve tried [all manner of things] to try and get them to change [the huge intolerable relationship breaking problem] but they still refuse to do anything about it. How do I fix this?”
Usually the huge intolerable relationship breaking problem that people write to me about is a lack of sex. I’m getting emails from both men and women as many as five years into a sexless marriage and they are heartbreaking to read. My view point on sexless marriages is that this is just as serious as having a full blown affair in terms of its insult to the partner wanting sex but not getting it. I’ve had two recent emails where women have said it’s to the point where they just want to hear that their husband is gay because that would explain things better and soften the blow to their ego.
Marriage is at its heart a sexual relationship. Without the sex it’s just a legal friendship, which is to say a needlessly complicated way of having a friend. The basic agreement of being married is to meet each others sexual needs and not to run about getting them met anywhere else. Both affairs and no sex marriages break that agreement.
The main difference between discovering that your partner is having an affair and the sex just being turned off on you is how the injured party reacts. If you discover you’re being cheated on the shit typically hits the fan, there’s yelling and shouting, crying, threats, angry squealing of tires in the driveway as people “take space”. Threats of divorce and other drama. It all comes to a head very quickly. But most times when a spouse cuts the other off sexually, the other spouse just takes it quietly and suffers, save for the pleading for sex or requests to visit a doctor to see if anything medical is going on. Then they wait and hope that magically the sex returns, and when it doesn’t years can pass by.
I think that when you are cut off from sex by your spouse, the marriage is in critical condition as one spouse has started actively working against the marriage. (You DO need to rule out medical issues first asap.)
There are only three possible outcomes to the sexless marriage story. First option is that the ignored spouse just continues on and suffers for the rest of the marriage. This is the default ending that most people live though for a while. The second option is that the spouse leaves the marriage seeking new love. The third is that the spouse stays in the marriage, but pursues other relationships for sex.
I don’t advance any of these options as being superior to the other, I’m just saying that these are the natural consequences of one spouse cutting the other off sexually.
Now you may feel like you’ve been banging you head against the wall for months or years in asking for them to change. Pleading, begging, asking, telling them how intolerable the intolerable problem is. The trouble is that all these are just words. Just words. The problem is that by sticking around and staying totally engaged with your partner by focusing on the problem, your actions and behavior are making it clear that the problem is in fact NOT intolerable… you’re sticking around and tolerating it. The louder you squeal about the issue the deeper commitment to option one (sticking around and suffering) you make to your partner.
The solution is to make it clear by your actions that the problem is in fact intolerable, and that while you don’t know whether you will make a move towards option two or three, option one just isn’t going to happen anymore. This is where you just stop pursuing the dead end of sex with your partner and start preparing yourself to pursue things with other people in general. So you work out, upgrade the clothes a little, open up a dating profile, go out a little… just “out”, smile, be happy, friendly, carefree, text some new friends, socialize… play.
The goal is to stop chasing and pursuing your partner, and generally make it clear by your actions that you are no longer held emotional hostage by them and you will be capable of making a movement towards a life without them, and that you genuinely have the will to do so. Once you have that attitude down, there is a reasonable chance that your partner will have a significant change in their level of interest in you. You don’t actually have to cheat on them, just make it clear you have the potential to move on without them. This sounds like a dangerous anti-marriage ploy, but I figure after a marriage has been sexually dead for no good reason for a year or more, it’s essentially over and you’re justified in taking such bold steps.
So maybe they respond to you, maybe they won’t. I can’t promise that they will. Either way though you win in that they either respond to you and you have a proper marriage, or they don’t and you’re positioned to move on and find new love with someone else. This is a deeply pragmatic perspective, but there we go.
Unless of course when push comes to shove, when whatever good in the relationship outweighs the bad, the lack of sex and love your partner has for you is ultimately… tolerable, you will stay locked in option one.