Dear Suze: 'Should I talk to my wife about our total lack of sex?'
On choosing between stability and satisfaction, and why it's never just about the sex.
Well hello! Welcome to the first edition of the Slightly Wicked Advice column. This poignant letter is about such a common heartbreak, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Yours, Susanna
This is very personal and hopefully not too graphic for sharing. I am 59, and my wife is 50. We are both overall healthy–just some normal aging issues going on. I am writing to ask your opinion on whether I should talk to my wife about our total lack of sexual relations.
We have been married for 25 years. When we got married, as many new couples do, we spent many evenings lying in bed together, which inevitably led to frequent sex. Once we had children, fatigue and kids being in bed with us meant sexual encounters were spread out more and more.We'd go 3 months, then eventually 6 months, then I'd lose track of how long eventually…
The last time we tried, I found out I had E.D., which was very disappointing. As I did not think she even cared one way or another. I eventually decided I wanted help, so I got a prescription for Cialis. We tried it once, and I seem to recall that she did not like it.
Since then (the prescription was in 2019), there has been no sex at all. Even though I really crave physical attention and closeness, I have never been the one to initiate hugs and kisses and other affection because of the fear of imposing myself on someone who is not receptive. …The only time we touch regularly is she occasionally puts her hand on my shoulder as she walks by.
My wife tells my son every day that she loves him and "sweet talks" the dog but only talks to me about her problems. She doesn't even say goodbye in the mornings anymore. …It doesn't seem worth the trouble of having to arrange "alone time." My pills require me to schedule sex as they take a while to work. The lack of spontaneity really messes things up for me.
I am still very physically attracted to my wife (doubt she feels the same about me, as she makes negative comments about my physique and appearance, I'm really thin and balding) and feel glad to be seen with such a beautiful woman when we go out. I am really confused as to whether she has any desire for me at all anymore, and am afraid to ask as the answer might be "no."
Do I try to discuss this with her or just continue being companions until death? I am not happy but am getting used to it. (This question has been condensed for length.)
Dear Getting Used To It,
There should be a word for the uniquely terrible loneliness that can happen within long-term couples. It is to be partnered and yet alone, to be attached and yet to feel unmoored and on your own, floating around in a closed universe of your own soupy grievances and insecurities.
I remember the day I knew my relationship was in the kind of fraught limbo you describe. My former partner and I passed each other in a narrow hallway and angled ourselves so that our bodies didn't touch as we went by. We really had to TRY not to connect—the way you do when you extricate yourself from a middle seat on an airplane.
What if one of us had just caressed the other's face briefly or chosen to look into their eyes for a few seconds rather than just sliding by? Would our trajectory have been different if one of us reached out at any point before the point of no return? I'll never know, and that's its own burden.
So let me answer your question with a yes and a no. Yes, you should talk to your wife. But not about the lack of sex. Not to start anyway. As you already know, loss of desire is usually a symptom of serious issues in the relationship.
The truth is that foreplay starts long before that scheduled alone time you mentioned, before you decide to take the little blue pill, and before you even enter the bedroom. It's the everyday gestures of affection, generosity, and trust. It's those spontaneous hugs you miss from your wife, and it's learning to give those hugs as well as receive them.
Nothing kills both affection and desire like resentment over stuff that has nothing to do with sex. Unspoken gripes are like battery acid; they corrode even innocuous interactions. And I can hear it in your letter. Not being wanted hurts like hell.
It’s like all that longing, the suppressed anger, the muffled disappointments, and sadness get stashed under the kitchen floor. Those emotions become part of the structure of the house, and we just go about our lives, have our breakfast at a table with all that beneath us. We act like it’s not there because tearing up the foundation is terrifying.
So the conversation isn’t about why she doesn't seem to want sex. It's more about what you both want from your life together in this post-kid phase you're about to enter. Is she ok with things as they are? Is she willing to take a look under the floor? In a word, does she want to try? You'll likely need a therapist to navigate this if she's game. It's really tough to disentangle yourself from habits of avoidance without help.
I know you're feeling vulnerable because of changes in your body and the E.D. But the timing of those pills doesn't matter so much as whether you like each other enough to be intimate in other ways during the time they take to kick in. And don't underestimate how intense turning 50 can be if you're a woman for about a thousand biological and cultural reasons.
Aging is the ultimate disruptor for everyone. But there's an opportunity in change. It's possible to reset and rediscover each other, to be more tender with each other's egos, to talk about what you want to change. Maybe before you broach this with your wife, ask yourself, what do I love about this woman, beyond sex? Hold tight to those glimmers of affection. You'll need them as kindling.
However, you're right; just raising these questions is a risk. You've established a kind of detente of the heart, a sexless stasis. What if your wife says she doesn't want to try with or without a therapist? What if you get into it and find the distance between you is too great? You might be opening a box of trouble you can't close again.
Of course, you can leave things as they are, stay married but no longer actively loving each other. I remember having that internal debate–how much satisfaction and intimacy was I willing to trade for stability? Plus you have children who would be affected if you split, even if they are mostly grown. And as you said, you're getting used to it.
But don't get used to it. You deserve to have a loving, reciprocal relationship, and yes, a sex life. Weeks are no less precious than years in this life. So maybe you can ask yourself how you will feel in five years if things stay as they are?
And while the consequences of inertia and emotional distance aren't immediately disruptive, subterranean resentments and silent grievances, even justified, can seep into even small interaction, increasing that distance. So don't wait too long if you want to give this a shot.
Delay long enough, and marriage therapy becomes marriage hospice.
I noticed that you were harsh about your own looks in your letter. No matter what happens with your wife, it's time to start treating yourself as someone who deserves love and sex. I would ask you, friend and fellow human, to identify those thoughts and shut them down when they appear. I spend my days in this battle; I'm awfully hard on myself. But I know it's not sexy not to like yourself. And trust me, no physical trait matters as much to a partner as how you see yourself.
Honor that body of yours so someone else can too. I have to remind myself that I'm lucky to be in one piece, to be able to walk and hike and move through the world even with all my assorted faults. So do something, anything that makes you feel whole and alive without anyone else's affirmation. Make friends with yourself again so you can properly reintroduce that guy to your wife.
Sometimes you have to get to know the person you've been married to for 25 years all over again.
Need advice? Write to Dear Suze here, or reply to this email. This first advice column is going to all subscribers, but next month they’ll be for paid subscribers only. And, as always, thanks for reading.
MORE ON RECONNECTION
•This famous article about 36 Questions that Lead to Love is an inspiring read for anyone who wants to rediscover a partner. These questions were an experiment to see if it was possible to foster emotional intimacy between strangers. The study authors said vulnerability was essential and closeness developed with "sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure." And all of that is good advice for longstanding couples too.
Note: This month’s question was trimmed slightly for length.
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