Friday, August 27, 2010

Can a marriage be happy without sex?

Dear East Side Bride

This is kind of weird because I don't know you and reaching out to someone I've never met IRL for advice is just plain crazy talk. But I am kind of desperate and you seem like someone who could give it to me straight... I need someone to give it to me straight right now.

I'm married. We hit the 3 year mark last week. The problem is that I am constantly disappointed by my husband. When I fell in love with my husband back in 2001 (!) he was energetic, idealistic, and passionate about many things. He had confidence like no other. I fell in love hard. The sex was good. We did it in cars, in the dorm, once in the bathroom of a hostel (horny twenty-year-olds don't really care about germs).

Over time he became reserved, socially awkward, and seemed to absorb my likes, dislikes etc. He seemed to lose his personality. Slowly, the sex disappeared. We had sex maybe 10 times a year during our mid-twenties. I always initiated and he always rejected.

When we got married things seemed to be good for the first year when his libido seemed to spike, but now, 3 years later, we have sex only once or twice a year. Sometimes he doesn't even finish. He always has excuses and blames his not wanting it on me. I always do something wrong; I pissed him off last week or this week; I said something mean yesterday; we have a "bad" relationship therefore how can I expect to have sex under such conditions. I feel like am being punished and worse I feel like I am begging my husband to make love to me. I don't want to come off as obnoxious but I think I am attractive and I take of myself. I think other men would love to have sex with me. Just not my husband.

On top of that I feel like a married a boy. He doesn't help in the housework, errands, cooking etc. I do all of the work around here. And he is inconsiderate.  For his thirtieth I took him to a Yankees game and set up a romantic BBQ on our roof garden. I even considered giving him a birthday BJ - but didn't even bother because he would say no. For my thirtieth birthday (2 weeks a go)  I got a coat from the gap... which he bought that day. I turned 30! for christs sake.

I know his behavior is largely due to his depression (he has been seeing someone for over a year and we have been in counseling for a year too). But it's been two years of this, When is enough enough? He always promises to have sex with me and then doesn't. I said he had to man-up and start pitching in on the housework etc. and he said fine but he wasn't going to be forced in to sex and he just didn't want to do it at this time. Maybe in the future. I love him and I see him as my soul mate. I want to spend my life with him but I wonder how important is sex in a marriage? I feel shallow for considering leaving him over not having sex. Its just I feel like a failed as a: wife, woman, and partner. Can a marriage be happy without sex? Have you seen eat pray love? I am as desperate as Julia Roberts is in the opening seen where she is praying to God. But I need real answers, ESB. What do you think?

I hope to hear from you soon- or hear from your readers- with love,

- Desperately seeking something


Dear Desperately,

Enough is enough RIGHT NOW.

Obviously, sex is important to you. There's nothing wrong with that. (Sex is important to me!) But you're not leaving your husband because he won't fuck you. You're leaving him because he's an asshole. He doesn't do housework, he doesn't give a shit about your birthday, he is punishing you for his own unhappiness.

You're 30 now. When you wake up tomorrow you'll be 37... You only get one life. You know what I'm saying?

Love love love

(Photo by Tom Beard for Vice Fashion via Vain and Vapid)


  1. Holy wow yeah, talk about burying the lede on this one. The sex is so not the problem in this relationship! He's inconsiderate, he blames his problems on you, he's lazy. Your relationship isn't not working because of sex, it's not working because _he's_ not working. You have every right to want more, and not just in the bedroom. You need someone to treat you with respect.

  2. Yup, sex is totally the symptom, rather than the cause. You cannot sustain a marriage with someone who has no interest in holding up his end of the bargain on anything.

  3. Totally agree! Sex is not the problem here. As ESB says, you only have ONE LIFE. Use it! Take care of you. No one else will.

  4. Mhh, are you married to my ex-husband? Because it feels I was once you. Yes it's tough and everything, but here it is. It's NOT going to get better. Do you want this for the rest of your life? I'm sorry about his depression and all, but this is not normal behavior. Something's wrong and if he's not even willing to discuss the issue, and worse, puts it back on you (I'm so familiar with that), what choice does he leave you?

    My divorce was really hard (I was 27), I'm not going to lie. It was about two years of hell (and yes, I can also draw a parallel with Eat.Pray.Love regarding this). But it never occurred to me that it wasn't for the greater good, that once I set my mind on the fact that I wanted a better life than that, it was anything but the right decision.

    It may have seemed like a regression at the time, wearing that horrible divorce tag at such a young age, going back to a tiny studio, living on a much less comfortable budget, dating, while my friends were all settling down and having babies. But in my gut I knew I one day it would pay off.

    I'm 35 now. I met the love of my life around the time I turned 30. And then I KNEW it all made sense. We're married now, have a 3 year-old boy, with a little girl on the way. Life is sometimes hectic and our relationship is not perfect, but boy is it strong and compatible and solid. I never ask myself *the questions* anymore. I am not miserable and wondering is this OK? Do I want this? Why doesn't he want to open up to me? I'm living.

    It really seems to me you know the anwser to your question already. I wish you good luck!

  5. If he's on SSRI antidepressants, they kill libido. Depression really steals away years of people's lives - not just his but obviously yours too.

  6. enough is enough.
    give him an ultimatum. i'll give this N amount of time, and if there is no change. well, there's the answer. or you already know the answer.
    divorce can suck, especially when people are in the midst of getting married and procreating. but, it's your one life and this isn't the marriage you signed up for.

    it's okay. it's okay. marriage needs two people fighting and clawing to repair it, and you can't carry his burden.

  7. Yeah, ESB, what you said. This has nothing to do with being happy with no sex in the relationship and everything to do with the fact her husband has turned into a self-centered asshole. Time to look for greener pastures indeed.

  8. I think you're spot on here, ESB. This isn't about sex.

    Listen to Marie-Eve, DSS. She's a wise woman who's been there.

  9. It's probably as others have said, the sex is a symptom. But he is depressed. As cerebral said, if he's on SSRI antidepressants, they kill libido.

    I'm pretty disappointed that on a blog about marriage, so many commenters are advising to give up and get divorced. HELLO?! For better or worse?!

    This is why the divorce rate in our country is over 50%.

    He's not abusing you, he's not addicted to drugs, he hasn't cheated on you. You're upset because you don't have sex as much as you want, he doesn't help with housework, and he gave you a gift you didn't think was good enough?

    Seriously, grow up. And if you love him, or he is your soul mate as you say, you would be more worried that he is depressed and getting him better than not getting sex as much as you want.

  10. Yowzers! I'd say you've put in enough time and effort. This relationship is totally one sided. I'm not one to think people should just give up on their marriage but I don't see this working out in the end. I see you being miserable and feeling shitty about yourself for years to come if you don't leave.

    Stay strong sista! You'll come out on top!

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  12. sometimes, marriage can be bloody hard work. And if I were in your shoes, I definitely would be wanting to throw in the towel. not because of the lack of sex, but because of the lack of mutual respect and recognition.

    That said, vows usually go along the lines of 'for better or for worse, in sickness and in health..' etc. I think it's easy to mean those on such a happy joyous day, but if you can mean them day in day out, even when your husband is acting like a shit / 5yrold boy, that's where it counts.

    I definitely would not say just stick it out and see how he goes. But I wouldn't say leave him. Someone mentioned the ultimatum - that's what I would do. Sit him down and say, 'Our marriage isn't working. You aren't trying. I know you're sick, but I'm here to support you, not to be your proverbial punching bag. You need to start trying, or there isn't going to be anything even remotely like a marriage left to try and salvage anyway.'

    Loving someone selflessly really hurts in a situation like this, but remember, a marriage isn't over until everyone has stopped trying.

    I really hope you manage to find the answers, and the peace, you are looking for

  13. DTMFA. Read/listen to Savage Love, Dan will help. I'm sorry for what you are going through =(

  14. @Anon Divorce is a tough and big thing, and for sure no one should take it lightly. But it's really not always a bad thing, either. No one would want a divorce rate of 0%, because that would only mean there are a shitload of miserable, desperate, untrue, unequal, terrible marriages out there. People are human. They mess up, they get married to the wrong people or for the wrong reasons, they change up to the point of being unrecognizable or becoming completely incompatible. You can stick to it, you can fight for it, to a certain point. And only if the other person is willing to as well. "For better or for worse" does not have to mean living a lie, giving up everything about your life, your dreams, your longing for closeness and intimacy. Divorce should not be prevented at all costs. Especially if there are no kids involved!

    It's not about the damn coat, you know? Of course she knows that. And I'm sorry, but that's not "not having sex as much as she wants". The most insidious part is not even that they're not having sex, it's that he's making her feel shitty for wanting or initiating it.

  15. @Marie-Eve @Anon staying together "for the sake of the kids" is actually never a good idea either.

  16. I'm sorry for what you're going through, but I have to agree with Anonymous. Marriage is for better or for worse and the focus should be on getting him help (which will eventually help you.) It concerns me that your whole focus is on your unhappiness in the bedroom and your husband's depression is an afterthought that doesn't come up until the last paragraph. How would you feel if that were you?

    Depression kills libido and depression treatments kill libido. If you are going through counseling together you can suggest alternative treatments or he could probably benefit from switching medications. Seeing someone for over a year may seem like a long time, but some people take much longer to get on the correct dosage (everyone's chemical make-up is different.) I know it seems like a long time to wait for life to get better, but if he's your soul mate, it should be worth the time.

    As someone who's been on the oppisite side of this, I suggest taking the pressure to perform off of him while he's getting treatment. You'd be surprised what could happen when suddenly the option to have sex is in his hands, alone. If he sees you willing to forego sex until his needs are met, he may be more apt to be the initiator (which, I'm guessing, would be a welcoming surprise for you.) And really, how turned on would you be if someone asked you to perform... "OR ELSE!"?

    Like others have said, the sex is a side effect of the real problem. I hope for the best for you both.

  17. For sure not, gosh, that's not what I meant to say. Just that they would at least give me an extra motivation to try and work things out. Whereas right now, it's only her life she's responsible for, and she doesn't even have to weigh that in there. And OK, my point is made and I think everyone can see why this story hits a nerve with me. :-) I'll let other people debate and give their opinion, now.

  18. Oh, I'm sure you didn't mean it that way, but from the looks of it I would bet it would be taken that way by her husband. That's how an ultimatum would make me feel in this circumstance and it seems as though I've been in his shoes. And here's the good news... things do change! They did for me! There's hope.

  19. I feel for you - you're in a really tough position here and I agree with everyone else that the sex is a secondary issue. I'm more concerned that he blames not wanting sex on you, isn't collaborative, and has a mean streak. I assume since you've been in couples therapy that there is desire on both sides to make this work if changes can be made. Is he seeking therapy on his own? It sounds like he needs it. Do you get the sense that he really wants the relationship to change for the better? I guess I would agree with Marigold in being explicit about how close you are to considering throwing in the towel - not as an ultimatum, necessarily, but as a way to make him understand that you are under extreme duress here, and bent double by the load of his unhappiness and your own.

    Hang in there, babes. Let us know how it turns out. xo

  20. i was also going to suggest dan savage. he has tackled this issue a number of times, if not in his column then in his podcast.

    if things don't change, you deserve better. deciding how long to give that possibility for change is hard. :/

  21. my advice and opinions are a mishmash of various comments above. just wanted to let you know a random stranger in NYC is thinking good thoughts for you, DSS.

  22. "He's not abusing you, he's not addicted to drugs, he hasn't cheated on you..." ummmm - when did these become barometers for whether or not to save a marriage? aren't those terrible things that people are not supposed to do to each other no matter what?

    i was engaged to man for 7 years who sounded just like the one described (esp when it came to sex - he didn't want it and made me feel like it was my fault). and i would tell myself "well at least he doesn't cheat on me, at least he cooks and cleans, at least he takes care of our pets", and on and on. eff the "at least". you deserve to be happy and be with someone who makes you feel shiny, beautiful and desirable.

    relationships are work no matter if you're married or not. but after a certain amount of trying and getting nowhere, you have to say enough is enough.

    there is no shame in divorce. as a child of divorce i know i ended up far better off than if my parents had stayed married. and i am my husband's second wife. had he stayed married to the miserable woman before me, i would never have met one of the most wonderful people i have ever known and be expecting our first baby in a couple months.

    every situation is different. and you need to think deep and hard about ending a relationship because generally there's no going back. but now that you've sent that SOS out for help - that will hopefully bring you more answers.

    it's a rough journey - but it can have a brilliant end - hang in there! sending you lots of hope!

  23. This sounds very, very familiar.
    First: His depression. This is a medical condition and counseling alone isn't going to help. If he's on antidepressants yes, they can kill the libido, but that doesn't excuse his not seeming to care about *your* feelings about this. He should see a doctor and they should test his testorone levels. The symptoms of very low testorone can mimic those of depression (and exacerbate depression) and taking testorone shots can make a huge difference. If he's feeling better physically, he can better address the issues in your relationship through continued counseling and a great deal of effort on his part. Note: Testerone affects male fertility, but it sounds like considering bringing a kid into your current relationship would not be a good idea.
    Second: If this, indeed, is the problem (or if he has another medically-related issue that can be addressed) then only you can decide if your relationship is still worth continuing. If he's willing to put in the work and address your concerns (ALL of them), then go for it if you want to. If he's not willing, there's your answer.
    It's not going to get better on its own. My ex-husband had this exact same problem. He felt like Superman once his testerone issue was addressed. Turns out that Superman wanted something different out of life all along and just could never tell me about it (despite extensive counseling) because he was in his own fog. We split and, while it was so hard for several months and I thought my life would be over, it turned out to be the best thing I've ever done. Good luck and please keep your own best interests in mind throughout whatever route you choose -- ultimately, no one is going to look out for you but you!

  24. Please listen to Marie-Eve's wisdom, and those that have suggested Dan Savage. The person who posted above me with advice about testosterone levels had some good points, too. Yes, depression hurts, and the treatments for it aren't much better, but there are limits to that. Civility is always expected, and more than that is necessary within the home.

    The suggestion to convey how hard this is as communication rather than an ultimatum is a good way, but be prepared that no matter how wonderfully you mean and say it, he may interpret it incorrectly. That's not your fault.

    Hugs, hugs, hugs. I'm praying for all of your pain, and for your decisions to come.

  25. what about you? have you tried therapy on your own (NOT couples, your very own therapist)? maybe a support group like al-anon (i know he's not doing drugs or alcohol, but mental issues such as depression affect us a lot in the same way)...could be helpful.

    i would focus on YOU. get yourself some help & support. then, make the decision that is right for YOU, whether it's marriage or not.

  26. I generally agree with ESB, but I have to say, as a child of multiple divorces and as a women about to wed: Too many people take marriage vows lightly.

    If he is your soul mate as you claim, then I feel you have a duty to work through this together. You would expect the same from him.

    Depression is a sex-destroyer for sure. It can be an attitude destroyer too. Obv. we don't know your or his whole story, but I can't agree with the people calling him an asshole. He might be ACTING like an asshole now, but I think if he really WERE an asshole, you wouldn't have A)married him or B) called him your soul mate.

    Flip the tables: I really think that if you were a woman writing in talking about how you never want to have sex, do housework or celebrate because you're depressed, nobody would condone your husband leaving you.

    However, in your defense, you deserve to be happy and not to be blamed for his unhappiness. Work with your therapist on coaching him to aim the blame where it belongs - the depression/meds.

  27. I think the key is in this sentence: "I am constantly disappointed by my husband" - it suggests that part of the issue is your expectations and your reactions, which are in your power to change.

    Disappointment arises when our expectations and our reality are different. But can you change your expectations? You have every right to expect your husband to contribute to maintaining your home, celebrating important days, and being respectful and affectionate. How do those expectations interact with the current reality of his depression?

    I agree with those who say that you deserve better, and those who say that you made a commitment 'for better or worse.' While facing a serious illness would seem to be the time your husband needs you most. It also seems like the time you need to take care of *yourself* the most. Maybe a therapist or support group could help you find ways to take care of yourself AND moderate your expectations so that you are not constantly disappointed.

  28. wow... definitely torn between the two sides. here. i want to tell you to be head strong and make yourself happy. yes, you love your husband, but you can't wait around for someone else so that your life can be as good as it should be.

    i was just married two weeks ago, so maybe my advice is a little bias, but not every day, week, year of a marriage will be perfect. this may be a bump in the road. or shit, one big ass pothole that just fucks up your front axle and throws off the alignment so you can never drive straight again... um, anyways.

    you really need to listen to what you want. you've stuck around long enough to put up with the bullshit, so it's either he needs to get better or you need to GTFO.

    sure being married means that we tie our happiness to another person, but that doesn't mean we have to suffer.

    much luck girl. i'm rooting for you... and him too.

  29. @Anonymous He's not abusing her? Emotional manipulation is abuse and controlling your partner by withdrawing and blaming them is emotional manipulation / abuse. This kind of treatment will twist anyone and its easy to still believe you love someone when things are much worse than you are willing to admit (even to yourself). Mostly because you love who they were in the beginning and cling to the hope that that is coming back. It's probably not.
    DSS has written a condensed and probably relatively flattering account of what is going on more than likely because she doesn't feel strong enough to admit what is going on in her life.
    Noone deserves to have the person who should have their back constantly treat them like crap.

  30. Okay, I get "for better or for worse." But they both made vows, and she's the only one keeping them. I don't think that's how it's supposed to work.

  31. I agree, amysee -- "for better or for worse" doesn't translate to "i'll hold up our marriage while you check out for years." I have every sympathy for the husband being depressed -- my husband has had to deal with my own depression and I know it's not easy. But the whole time I was dealing with my problems, i was communicating with my husband about it, and I certainly wasn't blaming him for my problems. Depression is awful, but it's no excuse for being an asshole.

  32. Depression actually is an 'excuse' for acting like an arsehole. Pervasive, clinical depression causes cognitive biases towards negativity and in men, presents as irritability and hostility. As a spouse of someone who has had clinical depression - it really is an awful, gut wrenching experience where there does not seem to be light at the end of the tunnel. I also know that when I tried to speak to friends, they adopted that 'Oh no honey, he is ABUSING you, blah blah' which was not helpful, and only creates defensiveness. He was in a dark hole and needed unlimited love and support from me to get through it. I am a social worker and had to use may of my professional skills to get through it but in the end I sent him back to his parents to live there while he had treatment as I needed space to also get through that awful experience. I also had to make the decision, based on our love, partnerships, all our years together and hopes for the future, that I would stay with him, and he also made that decision to stay with me, even though in his depression I seemed to be the enemy.

    Humans are complex beings and relationships are not full of black and white 'good vs bad' experiences. I also understand that this woman is distressed, so much so that she has canvassed opinions from people that she doesn't even know. My message probably doesn't help her but as someone who has gone through a similar experience I thought I would quickly share. Good luck to her.

  33. Anonymous, I see your point and I don't disagree with it in theory, however not everyone can handle that. And, as much as many of us like to put stock in the "for better or for worse" (and we should), if we've never dealt with the "for worse" in our relationships, we really don't know how we'll react once we're married. If you've been to hell and back together pre-marriage and made it through stronger, then you know you can do it. If you haven't, then you just THINK you can. And if you're going through a dark period and it's not getting better and you decide to get married thinking it will fix it, oh, God help you both.

    I think both of you need to go to couple's counseling, stat. As one person said, it only works if both people hold up their marriage vows, and while I realize he is very, very sick, it is, at a certain point, his responsibility to get better, not drag his wife down with him. By this, I mean if he's not willing to take steps to make it better (such as counseling), then that's a problem.

    As for the original question, people danced around it but no one actually answered it. Uneven libidos are a big problem. BIG problem. I'm not talking about the couple who one wants it 4 times a week and the other only wants it once a week - that's not the same thing. But if one wants it and one doesn't, it doesn't matter what the reason is (and, yes, he does have a good reason that is Not Her Fault, and not his fault, either), it is going to cause a major strain on the relationship. We are sexual creatures by nature, and if we're not getting what we need physically, it is going to put a strain on us emotionally.

    So, to answer your question - I think a sexless marriage can only be happy if both people are asexual or marry for other reasons (such as companionship) and are OK with this.

    I don't think she should ask for a divorce (yet), but she needs to ask for counseling. For him, for her, and together.

  34. I think the ESB has nailed this issue perfectly. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to deal with this situation but I think at some point you need to start putting your happiness first...its hard but true.

  35. Ooh boy, do I ever feel for you. ESB is right again.

    Dan Savage, of course, would say that this extreme degree of sexual incompatibility is perfectly good grounds for dumping, asshole behaviour aside. Especially as there's no kids involved.(Actually, he'd scold you for going ahead with the marriage in the first place. Then he'd tell you to at least get your sexual needs met elsewhere, if you really want to stick it out with this guy.)

    Re. the asshole behaviour: Depression is an awful thing and it's not your husband's fault. However, how he handles his mental illness is 100% his responsibility, not yours. (And I say that as a survivor of severe, scary depression.) You can support him as a loving wife -- or as a loving ex-wife -- but you are not his parent or his servant. Right now, it sounds like that's how he's treating you.

    I don't know what I'd do in your situation, honestly. I hope I'd be strong enough to GTFO. Not sure if I could.

    But sweet jesus, let me just echo the chorus of, "Go to couple's counselling already!" Like, x1,000,000.

  36. READ THE WHOLE POST BEFORE YOU COMMENT, PEOPLE: "he has been seeing someone for over a year and we have been in counseling for a year too."


  37. The problem isn't sex, IMHO. Your husband, for some reason (that he hasn't shared), has a personal problem with you. You frame it as being about sex, and that's where you are going wrong. I don't and I can't know if the problem he has with you has grounds. However, your framing it as being "about sex" contributes to the problem.

  38. Maybe it's time to find a new therapist? Sure, therapy takes time but it seems like there should be some inkling of hope after one year, no? There is a reason you married this man. I think you need to figure out if, deep down inside, that man still exists before you give up. He is obviously deeply troubled and depressed and needs more help than he is getting right now. I agree with some other commentors about you finding someone to talk to as well because he obviously can't or won't hear you right now. This is scary territory, for sure, and my heart goes out to you.

  39. Wow, not sure how I missed that they were in couple's counseling. I thought it was just him.

    Reader, I wonder if perhaps he would be OK if you came with him to see his therapist (if you haven't already done so)? It might give a different perspective on things.

    Aside from that ... you're doing everything you should be doing, and it is still not working. All I can think of as a next step is, to say to him, "I can't do this anymore." Not as a threat or an ultimatum, but as an honest statement. It may wake him up. Or it may not. But you need to be prepared to follow through for your own happiness. As someone said above, you're not his parent or his servant.

  40. I agree with everyone a bit- but particularly Marigold. Your situation sounds terrible and I can't imagine how horrible it is. I feel you need to tell him how you feel how you feel (maybe a long letter) and ask him what he is going to do about it; see if he has any sort of response. If he won't do anything or if he says he will but doesn't, then I'd say you need to leave him, at least for a while, and see if anything changes. You can't be expected to stay (unliving) with someone who is not living. Also, think about what you have done to learn about depression. Have you tried to learn about it? Do you know how you can help? Can you live with someone with depression? Would your husband be better off dealing with it by himself for a while? Do you need a break? Answering those sorts of questions might help you a little. Good luck:)

  41. You should probably find a new therapist. Yours sucks...

  42. Dear Poor Honey Buns...
    Please listen: The symptoms/behaviors/personality changes sound eerily familiar to my husband's adult ADD, which was misdiagnosed as depression for EVER!
    We went to therapy together, separately, put him on meds for depression, and it was all wasted b/c none of it dealt with the real issue.
    Please Google a list of symptoms, but most importantly leaf through the book "Is it You, Me or Adult ADD" and see if any lightbulbs go off when you read the experiences of other spouses. I'm not diagnosing here...but if this is his problem I'd like to save you some time and grief and at least put you on the right path.
    By the way, ADD in adults has nothing to do with hyperactivity, so don't let that throw you off!
    You're welcome to contact me if you have any questions ;)

  43. And Rosanna, your blame game is appalling and way off base. "Your husband...has a personal problem WITH YOU"??
    "I don't...know if the problem he has with you has grounds"??
    So, you're telling this desperate girl who is married to a mentally ill, emotionally-abusive person that she's more than likely done something to CAUSE or DESERVE his behavior?
    Please, return to the 50s from whence you came.

  44. we never heard back from her... but I was thinking, maybe her husband is gay and he feels shame or something.

  45. I think my husband is perfectly happy without sex, intimacy, conversation, or anything that has to do with a marriage. We've been married 45+ years had sex one time my first and last. He hated it told me it was disgusting, smelly, messy, not worth the effort. And why any one would do something so horrible to another human. So to fix the problem he moved to the basement and volunteered to work the midnight shift. That way would be home alone and he wouldn't have to sleep with me. We haven't talked in years, let alone being seen together.