I got married in 2001. Our sex life was mostly fine, but it was always a little weird because I’m the only woman he’d ever been with — not only sexually, but in a relationship at all. I was 23, he was 30. We bought a house, had a couple of kids, etc., and our sex life settled into a great groove for a couple of years after the second kid was born. But in 2017 it hit the skids. He started having ED problems, but when I’d try to talk about it, he’d get angry and defensive. I tried to rewrite the sexual script, but that never worked. Finally in the fall of 2021, I made an appointment for marriage counseling. We were making progress at first, but then I realized that all he wanted to do was bitch about his job and his in-laws. He never came to me to initiate sex or conversations...
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...never came to me to initiate sex or conversations about sex, I had to do all the emotional labor around the issue, and it was like trying to clap with one hand.
I felt like I was watching a slow-motion train wreck with echoes of your column in the back of my mind. All the things: increasing emotional distance, my own lack of desire because I feel like I’d just get shot down again, my deteriorating sense of self-worth. In the end the thing that was the most painful wasn’t the lack of sex, it was our total inability to talk about the lack of sex. He refused to discuss it. Or he’d say he wanted sex but then do nothing about it or, even worse, sabotage my efforts. In one of our last sessions, our marriage counselor pushed him on the medications for ED. He said he would make an appointment but never did.
The lack of sex was like a cancer that metastasized and rotted out the core of my marriage. On the outside everything was great, we got along, we worked well together, and we were excellent co-parents. But inside I was dying. I couldn’t cheat, I’m too introverted for that. So, the rejections and hits to my self-esteem kept coming. My mental health deteriorated, but I couldn’t talk to him about that either.
Anyway, I ended it in February of this year. I now live with my mom about two miles down the road. And now we get along like good friends. We continue to co-parent well, we work together, all that. Once I removed “marriage expectations” from the relationship, turns out he’s great! A really good and helpful friend! I now suspect he wanted out but couldn’t do the “end it” bit, so I had to be the bad guy. I’m spending a lot of time in therapy but it’s still hard. I mean, it’s way better now because I don’t want to “un-alive” myself anymore (as the kids say these days), but I still have a lot of grief.
I’ve been reading your column since I was a teenager. I wanted to let you know that all the stuff you’ve said about a situation where in a monogamous marriage one partner stops wanting to have sex is 100% true. It was so strange to know in the back of my head exactly what was happening to me and my marriage but also not to feel like I could do anything about it. I suspect you hear this type of thing on the regular.
Tried Everything And Regret Staying
This is going to sound random, TEARS, but bear with me: there’s this meme that flies around Instagram and Twitter whenever a man does something stupid — it’s in constant circulation —that you’ve probably seen: “Men will literally [X] instead of going to therapy.”
Well, a tortured and not very funny version of that meme kept popping into my head while I was reading your very long letter: “Straight people will literally do anything to save their marriages —including going to therapy — but not fuck other people.”
I don’t blame you for leaving your husband, TEARS, and if anyone is to blame for the collapse of your marriage, it’s him. Constant sexual rejection can lay waste to a person’s self-esteem, particularly when we’re rejected by someone with whom we once enjoyed a strong sexual connection. Being left to wonder what the fuck is wrong — particularly when your spouse refuses talk about it or do something that seems as easy and obvious as getting ED meds — can leave a person feeling terrible about their normal and healthy sexual desires even years after a sexless relationship ends. Your husband owed you an explanation, at the very least, and he couldn’t even give you that. Fuck him.
But a crazy thing happened once you left him: once you accepted that you couldn’t make the sex work and stopped trying — which you only did after you tried almost everything (spicing things up, taking the initiative, finding a couples’ counselor) — you were suddenly able to appreciate everything that worked about your marriage and everything you loved about your husband. You started to get along again. You realized you still enjoyed his company. You could appreciate parenting with him. Once you removed your “marriage expectations” from the equation, once you dropped your sexual expectations, you could suddenly see — using your words here — that the man you married was still pretty great.
Once you were apart… you could see that you were still pretty good together.
Don’t get me wrong, TEARS: your sexual expectations were perfectly reasonable. But we expect a lot from marriage-as-an-institution and our own marriages these days — perhaps too much.
“Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions,” writes psychotherapist and bestselling author Esther Perel. “We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide — security, respectability, property, and children — but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.”
When our marriages fail to live up to all of our expectations — and no marriage can live up to all of those expectations — what do we then? It’s a question all married people face at some point. When our marriages fall short, when the person we married fails to meet or ceases to meet an important need, we have two options: We can adjust our expectations and make accommodations and allowances accordingly, TEARS, or we can end our marriages.
This is a long way of me saying… I think there was an accommodation you could’ve asked of your husband.
You say you’ve been reading me for a long time, TEARS, so I’m a little disappointed that it didn’t occur to at least try adjusting your “marriage expectations” before you walked out. I’m not talking about cheating — you say you’re too introverted for cheating — but getting permission from your husband to get sex elsewhere. Since everything else was working (you get along, you enjoy each other’s company, you parent well together), maybe the one thing you ruled out — the one thing you didn’t try, i.e., fucking other people — was the thing that could’ve saved your marriage.
You’re not the first person I’ve heard from over the last 30 years (you’re not the first person I’ve heard from this week) with the same story: a sexless marriage, conflict, misery, and counseling, and then someone walks out — usually the one who misses sex — and then everything that was good about the relationship, all the reasons you might want to stay in the marriage, suddenly came into focus. Once the conflict over sex was removed, the relationship began to flourish again.
Now, sexual incompatibility is a perfectly legitimate reason to end a sexual relationship, exclusive or not, but especially an exclusive one. And monogamy is important to many people, TEARS, and some people would rather start over with someone new who also wants monogamy and who also wants to fuck them — at least at the start — than give ethical non-monogamy a chance. But more people might be inclined to give ethical non-monogamy a chance, and more marriages might be saved, if couples’ counselors, sex therapists, and sex-advice columnists didn’t insist that sexless marriages are a problem that can always be solved. Date nights, scheduled sex, pot edibles and wine are great but they’re not going to turn someone who still loves you but doesn’t wanna fuck you into someone who loves you and does wanna fuck you. (I recently saw a post by a sex therapist on Instagram extolling the benefits of scheduled sex — anticipation fuels desire! — but scheduling sex with someone who doesn’t wanna fuck you isn’t gonna fill that person with desire. It’s not anticipation they’re going to feel, it’s dread — dreading the sex they don’t want to have, and dreading the disappointment and hurt they’re going to inflict.)
There may have been too much damage done to save your marriage — too much rejection over too many years, too few answers, too little effort — but more marriages become more-or-less companionate over time than anyone in the marital advice industrial complex seems willing to admit. (Well, anyone other than Amy Schumer in her new standup special on Netflix.) If we expected sexlessness in our marriages eventually — I mean, is anybody fucking on their 50th anniversary? — and set our marital expectations accordingly, TEARS, those of us who are still fucking our spouses after two or three decades would be pleasantly surprised and those of us who hadn’t fucked our spouses in years might feel less devastated.
And if we could all wrap our heads around the kinds of accommodations that could make sexless marriages less unbearable — some license, some leeway, some safe and discreet outlets — more good, loving, and decent-but-sexless marriages like yours might survive.
So, maybe — before you file — you could try the one thing you didn’t try.
Opening up your marriage would mean stepping outside your comfort zone, TEARS, and, as you’re the parents of younger kids, opening up would present logistical challenges — but can’t the same be said of divorce?
When I was seven years old, I was molested by a neighbor, who apparently was a serial pedophile. Years later, another of his victims killed him and is now doing 20 years for manslaughter. I reached out to him in prison, and we’ve been corresponding for several months. Even though I don’t approve of murder, I understand why he did what he did and part of me is glad he did it. I feel a sense of kinship with him because of our shared history. There is zero chance of a romantic relationship between us. He’s not my type. We’re just pen pals.
My issue is this: In almost every communication he asks for money. I put some money on his canteen account, but his requests have broadened to wanting money to take classes, money for hobbies, money for books, and now, money to pay off a drug debt. (I said no to that last one.) I can afford it; that’s not the issue. The issue is that I’m starting to feel like an ATM. He’s also tried to use me as a messenger to send messages to people in the outside world, mostly his ex, which I’m reluctant to do because of course I have no idea how many facts he may be leaving out. I would end the correspondence, but he literally has no one else. He has no family and no friends other than the people he’s in prison with. He needs someone to be there for him, and I hate to abandon him. I want him to be ready for release when it happens in four years, and if I can help him turn his life around, I want to do it.
So, am I a being an idiot here? Should I just cut him loose? Or should I continue to be a positive influence in his life?
Prison Pen Pals
You’ve got four years to determine if you can trust this guy, PPP, and a pretty easy way to figure it out: articulate your boundaries now, clearly, and see how he responds. How much money you can spare? Tell him you’ll drop exactly that much money in his canteen account every month and tell him not to ask for more. Additionally, tell him not to ask you to contact people on his behalf — if he has someone’s contact information, he can reach out to them directly, PPP, and doesn’t need an intermediary. (And if his ex or other friends have no-contact orders, asking you to contact them is a violation, as all no-contact orders forbid reaching out through third parties.) If he keeps asking for money and/or asking you to contact people after you’ve clearly communicated your boundaries, he’s unlikely to respect your boundaries once he’s out. And the last thing you want is an entitled murderer who has already demonstrated he can’t respect your boundaries showing up at your house — even if the guy happened to murder someone you kindasorta wanted dead.
People in prison need support from outside and you’re willingness to write him is a huge mitzvah all by itself — but don’t lose sight of your own safety here. If he shows respect for your boundaries and stops asking you for additional money (to say nothing of settling his drug debts) and stops asking you to contact his ex and others on his behalf, PPP, you can think about providing him with more help and support once he’s out. But you’ll need to figure out what kind of help you’re able to offer once he gets out of prison and create a new set of boundaries.
And remember, PPP, you don’t owe him anything.
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