When the spark sputters

Sexless marriage: sounds like an oymoron, isn't. The estimate: 15-20% of couples. Highest in the 45-50 crowd. Defined as sex ten times per year or less.

I met Dee, whose husband lost interest six years ago, when a group of women gathered for drinks after a day of business process improvement (BPI) presentations. The subject came up when someone joked, "I would rather go without sex for the rest of my life than sit through another day like this."

Dee said, "No, you wouldn't."

She deeply missed intimacy with her husband, and was considering various options. She thought it unlikely that he'd recover his mojo. She said he was healthy, but sex was "like a job he'd quit and never looked back at."

One of us asked if there was any affection; Dee said, "I can get a quick kiss sometimes" and admitted she no longer touched him, to avoid the inevitable sense of rejection.

I wondered about the root cause. (Eight hours of BPI does that.) Maybe he's depressed; maybe they both are. Perhaps there are issues that Dee did not discuss. I looked at her baggy shirt, baggier khakis, clogs and no-style hair, and wondered, Chicken or egg?

Dee's current strategy was distraction: she taught computer skills to elders, rowed with a club and was writing a mystery novel. She asked if anyone had other ideas.

She received the suggestion that she take a lover (substitution) with an I've-thought-of-that sigh. Anyone else must be a secret from her husband, difficult in her small town. Someone mentioned the 'open marriage' route, but Dee was certain that he would not tolerate it.

She could try sublimation, diverting her sensuality to other activities: tango dancing (pretty much the same thing if you ask me) chocolate-tasting parties or massages. (A friend who is a registered massage therapist told me, "I can tell within one minute whether a person is here for treatment or just needs to be touched.")

She could forget about sex–rather like I've forgotten about distance running–by invoking a similar mantra: I did it, it was great, it's over.

For some couples, acceptance is the chosen road, one that gets far less respect than it deserves. Due to health issues or aging, many of us will eventually deal with unequal desire between partners.

Acceptance frees couples to tend and treasure the elements that remain: companionship, shared purpose and mutual support.

But given her longing (and their apparent good health), I hope they search for a more mutually satisfying modus vivendi. As we parted, we hugged; her loneliness flowed over me.

I don't know what happened to Dee, but I often think of the last thing she said: "I miss touch, but even more, I miss the connection. It's called 'making love' for a reason."


materfamilias said…
Brave post to open a topic that deserves discussion, Duchesse. I'll be interested to check out the ensuing conversation. I'm very lucky in my partner and our sex life so far, and can't help wondering about communication otherwise in Dee's marriage. It's hard to see how any intimacy could persist when one partner so determinedly ignores another's needs (or, alternatively, one hides hers for years). I think that the risk of rejection is key, here. Oddly enough, I think it's taking that risk that keeps marriages vital, and I think in some ways it should be present even in the "best" marriages. Otherwise, it seems to me, one trades off oneself for the security of a marriage.

Of course, I'm blathering away at 6:45 in the a.m., and might be caught up by one of your other commenters later. And I want to be clear that there can obviously be "different strokes for different folks" -- seniors who find a sex-free marriage mutually agreeable. But dishonouring one's own's needs -- especially the need for physical touch and intimacy -- because one doesn't trust a partner to honour them is a rather large betrayal. It's hard for me to see how this can simply be put aside without some really dangerous festering.

I'd be very curious to hear if any of your commenters have any experience, either personal or second-hand, with the value of marriage counsellors in this very specific area. We're still so uncomfortable as a society with the ideas of seniors and sex . . . so as I said, bravo for posting about it and opening the discussion.
Anonymous said…
A while back I was involved with a man with whom sex was not a part of the relationship -- he was very physically affectionate, up to a point, with lots of hugs and kisses and hand-holding, but nothing beyond that. We talked about it quite a bit, and it became clear to me that he was likely asexual. (Not a common orientation, but a real one.)

It never bothered me, I think because I felt so fully loved and accepted by him that it didn't feel like anything was missing from our relationship. We didn't last as a couple for other reasons, but we're still very good friends. That love and acceptance has never wavered.
Anonymous said…
regularly scheduled massages. Not a perfect substitute, obviously, but touch is important for health.

Also consider changing DH's diet so that it is less inflammatory. The Paleo diet is especially worth a look (it restored my spouse's libido and improved his mood. He seems to be very sensitive to gluten.) You can read similar tales from others on the various forums, Marks Daily Apple or Panu's Get Started Page are good intros)

His docs (yes, he consulted several) all though he was "healthy" too.
Demi-pointe said…
I agree, intimacy is about communication. Communication makes the connection. The connection can create or renew and fuel the deeper feelings-whatever the results. At the end of your time with her Dee seems so thankful for the connection with you. What is really missing in her marriage?
Pearl said…
As a single woman who hasn't dated a man I've been interested in "that way" in too long, I can say that I miss it, too. But for me, hormone replacement therapy has helped my moods (making me feel better about being out there looking) and, my doctor says, my drive. We'll see. But that might be something your 45-50 friend needs to reboot her drive and energy.
Anonymous said…
I don't know. I'm female, married, and my libido went off a cliff when I was around 30 (12 years ago). Health or pressures of work and graduate school? I don't know.

I love my husband dearly, and we still "do it" (largely because I think it would be unfair to him not to) but I can't summon any sexual interest in any man - or any woman. Or any thing. It's the same feeling that I have for baseball, decorating, most TV and elf/dragon fantasy movies - zero interest.
Susan said…
sThis is such an important and complex topic. I totally agree with others who see communication as key within a relationship. Sex, for many, is another way of communicating on a very intimate level.

Aside from health/hormonal issues which can certainly affect libido, I would be willing to say that the lack of sex usually points to the lack of other things in the relationship.

No one has commented yet on Duchess"s description of her acquaintance. Her lack of interest in her own appearance could be at least one small piece of the puzzle.
Duchesse said…
materfamilias: My sense from a sole, 1.5 hr conversation is that he is aware of her needs, just not willing (or able? don't know) to meet them. My take is that it is a fraught situation as she is so bereft.

Anonymous @10:23: As the t-shirt says, "Asexuality; Not Just for Amoebas Anymore". But Dee's spouse was definitely and enthusiastically sexual for years. The key is your phrase "it never bothered me", which to me indicates acceptance. She isn't there.

Anon@10:24: none of us thought of diet- great suggestion. Maybe I can contact her, she doesn't know about the blog.

Demi-pointe: Her loneliness was palpable. I wonder if he knows that.

Pearl: Certainly being less susceptible to mood swings would help one navigate single/available life. I loved HRT when my doc allowed it.

Anon@11:36: Seems as if you are enduring a wider-spread lack of interest. You mention health, and certainly health issues leach the joy and juice out of many aspects of life. Work pressures eventually show up as health issues, in my experience.

Susan: I am not proud of this: When Dee revealed the situation, my internal voice said, "Well, who would want to have sex with you, looking that way?" I did not say that (I have a modicum of tact) and the more I listened to Dee, the more I saw her lovely essence.

My guess is that she was not making an an effort because she thought no one will notice, and along the way lost touch with her womanliness.
Anonymous said…
I'll "weigh" in on Dee's lack of interest in her appearance, as I have some standing in this area. My husband pretty much lost interest after we had kids. He was never extremely "frisky" before, but it wasn't bad. When our youngest was about three, I made a concerted effort to lose the remaining baby weight and also started working out a lot.

I looked great, in my opinion (and others'), but it registered zero with him. Several years later I have gained back all the weight and more, and stopped exercising. I have given a lot of thought to why I can't get motivated to lose the weight again: I think it is partly because I figure it won't matter to him at all, and I don't really want to attract interest from other men, because I don't want to cheat. It's entirely possible Dee is using this same protective approach.

So. I realize this is a screwed up situation, and I have some resentment stored up. On the other hand, he is a kind person and a good father. So I just deal with it as best I can.
Duchesse said…
Anon@1:53: That's a tough situation and I thank you sincerely for commenting.

That could be Dee's strategy too. I kept fantasizing about taking her into the department store in the mall (the hotel where we met is attached to it) and putting her into other clothes. But as you pointed out, maybe she would not want to draw attention. (I did not assume this would be the "solution", but she just looked so drab and sexless.)

She was like a flower without water.

Looking good, getting fitter- could that not be something we could do for ourselves?
Anonymous said…

I don't generally reply to posts, but this one hit home. I am in a relationship very similar to Dee's. (Nice to know I'm not alone - misery loving company and all that...)

When I first broached the subject with my common law husband, I was told that because he'd put on a bit of weight, he didn't feel sexy. The next time, I was informed that sex "wasn't important" to him and that it was "just a small part of a relationship." Case closed. He didn't ask how I felt or consider that, since I was bringing it up (again), it was probably something that bothered me. I haven't pursued it because I want a man to seduce me because he can't help himself, not because I've nagged him.

Hand holding, quick, dry pecks and hugs (the back patting kind) are pretty much the extent of our physical contact. (He will sometimes pinch me when he walks past. Despite not really enjoying it (what is it with guys and pinching?!), I tolerate it because it's attention... How pathetic is that?!)

For the record, almost four years later, I still do my best to look attractive. It does something to one's psyche, however, to be told "not to bother" buying sexy lingerie or that one might as well throw out the unused condoms because "we won't use them before they expire." There are days, therefore, when I confess that I wonder why I bother. I can totally understand Dee wearing "frumpier" clothes. It is a constant battle to not let the lack of intimacy in my life influence how I feel about myself.

For me, it is a trade off for security. My surviving parent has Alzheimer's. I have no children. Siblings and friends, yes, all busy with their spouses, children and jobs - as they should be. None live in my city. When he talks of the future, I am in it. Right now, the trade off is worth it to me. In six months, it might not be.

I find comfort that there are other women... that I'm not a pariah. That is a wonderful gift. Thank you, Duchess.
I could say much on this post but I choose to read and listen instead.

How lovely to come across your blog.
Susan said…
Trying to look my best everyday is something I mostly do for myself. Perhaps a tiny bit of it is for my husband, but it is certainly not primarily for him.

I think it's sad that a woman ceases to look her best because her partner is not interested. To me, that speaks of depression--perhaps brought on by the lack of interest of her partner.

Does Dee know if her husband has become impotent? And doesn't want to discuss it out of embarrassment?
frugalscholar said…
I think it says something about you, Duchesse, that this woman felt safe in talking to you. Such a taboo subject.
Tiffany said…
It seems to me the key here is that any level of intimacy (or not) is acceptable if both parties are content with the situation. 'Desire discrepancy' is incredibly common but is not insurmountable. Unfortunately, it requires communication and compromise from both partners and it sounds like your friend's husband is simply not prepared to offer either. I imagine the feeling of rejection is even more crushing that the lack of physical intimacy, and I can also really imagine how that feeling of being physically rejected might extend to caring less about (or 'rejecting') one's own appearance. It's very sad. It's hard to see how a relationship can endure like that - again, not because of the lack of sex, but the lack of communication and reciprocity.
Duchesse said…
Anon@2:20: Your situation is very, very similar, and I'm moved by your account. If it is he who told you "not to bother" buying sexy lingerie, I feel my Irish up. It's one thing to have health issues (mental or physical) that effect libido and another to tell a woman not to bother looking attractive. (I find it hard to remain neutral here, I am sorry.)

After four years, if I were in this situation, I'd be looking for what is the cause of the situation which might be painful but at least it opens the possibility of change. I'm not saying "cause of the problem", as Tiffany wisely pointed out it is only a problem if there is a discrepancy b/t partners.

Sandy aka Doris: Welcome, and thank you!

Susan: The equipment works, we asked. I think I make an effort as much for Le Duc as for myself. I find him devastatingly handsome so I would like to return the favour ;)

Frugal: We were in fact a table of 5-6 women, and talk about bonding! Once Dee said that, we talked of nothing else. These women, most of whom had never met before, were terrific: caring, straightforward, and even funny when they described their own, um, ups and downs with partners.

You are most definitely not alone.

Tiffany: You identify a critical distinction that I would call, colloquially, "the deal". I asked Dee what was the agreement (explicit or implicit) going into the relationship, and what does each party want now.

Some faiths (and secular belief systems) regard mutual,consensual sexual relations as a foundational condition of marriage, and condone divorce if one partner is no longer willing to participate. But other individuals or social groups hold different viewpoints.

Dee said she had expected mutual sex to endure as one of the important elements of her marriage and was unhappy about life without it.
Duchesse said…
Frugal: Mistake! That "You are most definitely not alone" was meant for an Anonymous commenter, not you!
Mardel said…
Brave topic and one I have been rather reluctant to enter into as I could get all wrapped up and go on and on, so it is better for me to sit back on this one.

I can say though that I have been there although every situation is different. We had a very active sex/snuggle life and then it stopped for years. This was before my husband had health issues, although perhaps these things were beginning to take their toll. He was not interested. He knew how I felt, even knew I was miserable, and in retrospect now I think knowing that made it even more difficult for him to make the overture to go back. Our problem started out as a powerful lack of communication, and also a control issue, but I won't go into that.

The woman in question may have been trying to fend off attention. She may have just been feeling unloved and despairing. I gained weight, and my stress levels went up enormously and I can honestly say that having someone say they love you and give you a sterile little peck does not make up for the profound loneliness that comes from feeling shunned.

But we did eventually talk about what started it all and how we got to where we found ourselves as well as what we both needed to do to get ourselves back into that relationship we once had. In my case the longer that chain of communication remained broken the harder it became to open it up again, and my spouse is not one who would accept outside help. Now we communicate much more openly and affectionately now but it was a lot of work to get to this point, and a lot of anger had to be set aside. Of course my husband is also older and has dementia now (although it was not necessarily in evidence then, I cannot dismiss the idea that health issues compounded the problem) so the relationship has evolved in many ways. It seems sad now that so much time was wasted.
Susan B said…
That sounds like a very sad situation. It sounds like there might be some depression issues, but diet may be a factor too.

I think that keeping the spark alive sometimes takes mental work and pure logistics too...setting aside time in busy schedules, making sure to have non-sexual "couple" time just to bond and remember that you are lovers and not just parents or roommates. We try to take a vacation with just the two of us every year, and go out on a "date" twice a month if we can. Le monsieur and I have very different circadian rhythms (he's much more a night owl than I) which means that we often have to plan so that I don't fall asleep too early or he doesn't get hooked on a movie that runs until the wee hours. Sometimes we get out of sync, and with both of us working and taking care of a special needs child evenings and weekends, it's too easy to let too much time go by without that connection. We do our best, keep a sense of humor, and get back on track as soon as we can.
Duchesse said…
Mardel: Your comments, as one who has been there, are invaluable, especially since you and your husband found a way through, despite health issues. A generous, brave comment.

"We eventually did talk about what started it all" is the key phrase for me. Without the communication, dark shadows build.

Pseu: Taking time as a couple, just to hang out, is essential to all aspects of the union. I see a number of young parents in my neighbourhood who don't do it, ("It's been two years since we got out!" and I worry a little.
Unknown said…
I have been thinking about the appearance and "letting oneself go" issues in this, and from my own experience I believe that's an obvious sign of sadness and self-denial. In my case, when I got really miserable in my work/career/whatever this is supposed to be my appearance took a huge nosedive. I was depressed, miserable, and punishing myself for all of my perceived failures ("giving up hopes and dreams for THIS" kind of thinking).

If the speaker was as sad and despairing in her marrige it could produce the same end result. In her case, care and appearance could be easier to get back with happiness and comfort. In my case, with my innocent idiot pride in my "important" degree and career gone, I don't know - it really is much safer and easier in the world to avoid all issues of sexuality and femininity at work.
Anonymous said…
I would like to add a cautionary tale to all these women who are coming out of the closet so to speak. Woman are not aware of the physical consequences that will set in if you give up a sexual relationship for too long and then hit menopause. I had the same problem with a husband who lost interest in me before I was even 40and I only found out about this side effect called "vaginal atrophy" when it was very advanced.

I suggest that any woman who runs into this, should decide at that very moment, if they wish to live the rest of their life the same as an 80+ widow and make their decision from that.

And the issue was never how I looked as I was always able to attract male attention; I am very fit and wear current styles.

Women who abstain from sex cannot just pick up where they left off after a "certain age" as men are able to do.
LPC said…
The human organism is so complicated, sexually. Often issues presumed to be emotional turn out to be physical, and vice versa. But one can never know unless the two people involved are talking.
Duchesse said…
Artful: Your last sentence interests me very much.

As a woman in corporate life (finance, tech), I've always been way outnumbered by men, and never felt that I wanted to "avoid all issues of femininity" by dressing like a man or a neutered woman.

But neither had I ANY time for the "use what you've got" justification of women who wore provocative clothes and used their sexuality to achieve what they wanted.

I aimed for the "third way", dressing like a 'lady", and was treated accordingly. Very occasionally I was patronized b/c I was female (usually only in the UK, circa 1980s) and even more rarely (when I was single) someone asked me out. (I never accepted.)

I used my size-6' in heels-intelligence and ability to use humour to smooth and disarm a few sexist dinosaurs. I'd have been deeply resistant to denying my femininity.

As for sexuality, people are always checking out the sex in which they are interested, at work and otherwise.

I received compliments on a new dress or suit; these were rendered in a respectful way. No one ever said or did anything that was overtly sexual. If he had, I would have given him a piece of my mind.
Anonymous said…
I am in a similar situation. My husband understands my needs but is painfully slow to respond. This has caused me to turn to food for comfort, however ineffective and even counterproductive, as being overweight is not a turn on...I feel like a maid, paycheck and roommate instead of a wife. My husband, of course, does not want to hear any of my feelings on the issue. I pray each day this inaction will change. I continue to hope, and try not to be bitter and angry. Infidelity is out of the question.
Unknown said…

I won't hijack the discussion, but I likely feel the way I do because of how extremely unwanted women are in my line of work (and were even more so in automotive industry jobs) and my natural tendency to prefer androgynous dress. I'll wear a scarf and sweater and look like a "lady" but a mannish suit gives me a thrill - I haven't worn a dress in over a decade because I just can't stand them - they feel like a horrible costume and I'm embarassed in them. I don't know - maybe I'm really not 100% hetero, or I'm a mostly hetero woman with a strong andro/bi side, neither of those options really trouble me much. Some women just are not very femmy.
Duchesse said…
Artful: I have a number of friends who are happily pretty (in both senses of the word) butch! All are welcome, IMO. If a woman does not wish to accentuate feminine characteristics, or wishes to obscure them, I support that. At the same time, I'd rather hear her own her choice (as you just did) rather than putting the responsibility on someone other than herself.
Duchesse said…
Anon@11:12: I learned abut vaginal atrophy from another woman who was widowed for years before having another opportunity to be sexually active. You are correct, but the condition can be addressed medically.

LPC: And maybe talking in front of a person with the skill and intention to help them. It's hard to find your way on your own.

Anon@3:19: I am not sure prayer will be an entirely adequate solution. Prayer may help you summon compassion and forbearance, but will likely not reveal your partner's current needs (not just sexual. That's needed before the two of you can move to some kind of resolution.

The termination of a formerly okay to good sex life is a powerful signal, but... of what? I am hoping you have someone who can help the two of you to discuss it without shame or blame.

You say your husband does not "want to hear your feelings". Guessing that is very painful for you. I don't think any man wants to hear us blather on about our feelings but caring how things are for the other is essential if love is to survive.
Anonymous said…
Very sad to hear of Dee's dilemma.
I remember similar loneliness the 7 years I was single after my first marriage ended 20 years ago.

Like Anonymous whose libido went off the cliff a few years ago, mine did too at 55 - due to menopause. I feel asexual, and lack desire. But my husband (15 years older) still has his mojo; we cuddle weekly and make love every couple weeks. It's wonderful he wants to; I enjoy the intimacy. He is otherwise less demonstative than me; I give him affectionate hugs and kisses regularly.

We both work out regularly, and care about our appearance. Looking after one's body promotes physical and mental health as well as self esteem.
It is self-care which will bring its own rewards as one ages.

Like Artful Lawyer, I prefer trousers & opt for modesty a la Duchesse. At nearly 6 feet, I always felt a little masculine in my clothes. But La Garçonne (blog) helped me realize lots of women prefer menswear and can look feminine wearing it. It's a matter of attitude, feminine accessories, and natural-looking makeup.
Duchesse said…
Anon@3:03: In the case where the woman loses desire, she may, if she wishes, accommodate the partner with more desire and enjoy the closeness, even if the earth does not move for her. How much accommodation she makes depends on the relationship and her attitudes toward reciprocity and sexual expression.

It's important for couples to realize that sexual interest waxes and wanes, and age affects it- and then talk and be prepared to change some behaviours.

re androgenous style: I adopted the garconne look when I was younger and slim, but now it doesn't suit me. Love it still on young adults, but after middle age it usually reads as too tough for my taste.
Duchesse said…
diverchic: Your love for your Mom is so evident and you can see where you got your beauty.

Maybe a new blouse next birthday?
Duchesse said…
Diverchic: Oops, put comment on wrong post!
Anonymous said…
Um . . . is "Dee" a pseudonym? If not, it seems to me that you've provided enough additional details for her to be identified: you've provided a physical description; she's from a small town; she recently attended a BPI conference in a large city; she teaches computer; she rows with a club; she's writing a mystery novel. It wouldn't be so surprising if a friend or neighbor or colleague of hers read your blog and said, "hey, that sounds like the Dee I know from work/church/ the neighborhood.
Anonymous said…
Re "androgenous style reading as tough past middle age" - that's an interesting comment. The key to pullling it off is softening the look with feminine touches. It also helps to have a youthful, feminine face or a youthful spirit like Lauren Hutton.
Duchesse said…
Anon@8:49: I'm a professional writer, Anonymous, well aware of the journalist's responsibilities. I'm not worried whatsoever, nor need Dee be (her name is an approximation). Hope this relieves your worry.

Anon@2:00: Agree. I had very, very short hair, one factor in why it no longer worked so well.
Anonymous said…
When I read this post, my heart ached for Dee, because I am there. I never dreamed this would happen, but here it is. We are 58 years old and our marriage has been sexless for the past two years. He won't talk about it--would never consider counseling; gives chaste hugs and kisses reserved only for morning "goodbyes" and evening "goodnights" and never comments on my appearance or tells me he loves me. I feel like a housekeeper. I recognize that I am starved for affection, attention, and sexual intimacy but know that it doesn't do any good to tell him because he clams up. If I attempt to snuggle with him before we fall asleep, he will passively and dutifully put his arm around me, making sure it doesn't fall across my breasts. I lay there, tears seeping from the corners of my eyes and onto the pillow as I mourn for the relationship we used to have. I dream of finding someone else although realistically I never would because I when I married him I took those vows seriously. It is hard to care how I look knowing that he doesn't care; consequently my weight does fluctuate, but because I am a professional, I always look presentable--easy to do when one has clothing in three sizes! As I read over this post before publishing it, I am sad for the woman I have become. I just never knew it would end like this. So I surround myself with things that I enjoy--pretty furnishings, dear girl friends, books, needlework, gardening, visits with small grandchildren--and no one would know by looking at me that underneath the facade there is a woman who still yearns for the beauty of a sexual relationship.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: I'm deeply moved by your comment and thank you for it. For me, them major frustration would be my partner clamming up talking about what's happened. (I can guess that the clamming up is related to feelings of shame or guilt, and fear of losing what he does have.) If he could be heard and accepted for whoever he now is, without blame, could he speak? (Rhetorical question.) Wish he could have someone to open up to (who might not at first be you) so that he could take the steps toward communicating again.

I too would certainly think of looking elsewhere, and have a different view of the vows. My vows were made in good faith, that "to have and to hold" includes the sexual realm, if health permits. When one party cannot, or will not participate in one of marriage's key mutual conditions (for a significant period of time), the original contract needs to be discussed and *possibly* altered.

Or maybe not altered, but certainly openly discussed.

In some faiths, unwillingness to participate sexually in a marriage is grounds for dissolution.

I'm too much of a problem-solver to advise acceptance for the rest of your life, and too much of a realist to disparage acceptance as a strategy. It's his isolation that gnaws at me as I read your words, as well as your own sadness.

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