Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My husband and I have been married for 30 years and have a mostly happy, friendly, and supportive relationship. His interest in sexual relations declined after our children were born and came to a full stop five years ago.

I have asked him to go to therapy with me on multiple occasions over the past five years. He considered it several times but always declined, stating he just had no interest in a physical relationship. I have encouraged him to discuss our situation with a friend or his physician, but if he has, he hasn’t shared the outcome with me. After several attempts at negotiation and suggestions to attend therapy, I have resigned myself to the fact that he has zero interest in sex, and even less interest in talking about it. Our life is much more peaceful if I don’t bring it up.

Celibacy is not my choice and I miss that portion of our relationship, along with the intimacy, greatly. So I am at a crossroads: End my celibate marriage even though we are very good friends, parents, and partners? Seek a supplemental relationship? Or sacrifice my own sexuality?

Ruby
Chicago


Dear Ruby,

I’m sorry that you’re dealing with such a difficult issue in your marriage. Though you aren’t alone in this—sexual issues are common in marriages—you must feel extremely lonely. You may also feel rejected, angry, and helpless, especially because you seem to have no explanation for why this is going on. But you don’t have to resign yourself to an untenable sacrifice. So let’s look at what you can do.

First, because sex is such a sensitive topic for most people, it will help—at least initially—to focus on the broader dynamic between you and your husband. You say that you have a “happy” and “supportive” marriage, but imagine for a second that the impasse was about something else significant in a relationship—tensions arising from, say, money, health, boundaries, addiction, or children. The topic is less important than the fact that you’re saying that you’re suffering greatly, and that your husband won’t discuss your concerns. Sex or no sex, that’s a significant problem.

Given this broader issue, you can shift your approach from trying to change his behavior (whether he’ll have sex) to trying to strengthen your marriage. My hunch is that despite the positive aspects of your marriage that you describe in your letter, you’re both suffering deeply in different ways. You, of course, are feeling grossly neglected. Your husband, meanwhile, is probably struggling with something so painful or humiliating that he can’t bring himself to deal with it.

There are many factors that might be affecting his sex drive—an undiagnosed medical condition, a side effect of a medication, a hormonal imbalance, stress, depression, low self-esteem, trauma, or even problems in your marriage that he hasn’t brought up. Sometimes, too, a specific change lessens desire—like an emotional issue related to pregnancy or parenthood. (If, for instance, your sex life was good before having kids, perhaps he’s had trouble seeing you as both a mother and a romantic partner.) There are also causes of sexless marriages that have nothing to do with sex drive (having a porn addiction, secretly preferring a partner of another gender, having an affair but not wanting to leave the marriage).

Whatever the reason, your husband is probably carrying a heavy burden—and in his own way, he probably feels as alone in his pain as you do. It’s less likely that your husband has no interest in sex (at least, in theory), and more likely that he has no interest in opening what to him might feel like a Pandora’s box.

So back to the broader issue, which is something you can talk to him about. When doing so, try approaching him from a place of curiosity rather than blame. Instead of saying, “I need us to have sex again”—a demand that makes it seem as if he’s the problem—you can say something like, “I don’t want us to have so much conflict around sex, and I certainly don’t want to feel like I’m nagging you. I just want you to know that I miss feeling close to you, and not just physically. On the one hand, we’re such good friends, and on the other, I feel like there’s a lot we don’t know about each other. Can we talk about what’s going on between us?”

In response, he may say, “Nothing’s going on,” but rather than let that be the end of the conversation (as I imagine you’ve both done in the past), you can say, “Something is going on between us if we’re not able to talk about the ways we’re not connecting. I don’t need you to have sex with me right now, but I do need you to be my partner and talk to me.” Let him know that you’re asking for a conversation because you love him and want your marriage to work. Finally, tell him that if he doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you quite yet, you’re willing to help in any way possible to find a place where he does feel comfortable. This establishes that you two are a team, and is different from what sounds like a pattern of “negotiating” or “suggesting” to no avail. Here, you’re being vulnerable and compassionate, but direct: This is about how we relate to each other and get through difficulties as a couple. If we can’t work through tough things together—whether that’s sex or anything else—I don’t think we’re going to last.

Hopefully, he’ll be willing to share some of his emotional world with you or with a therapist. If so, you’ll need to be patient during that process and show him that you appreciate his efforts. Instead of saying, “It’s been three months—isn’t the therapy working?,” make sure he knows how much his taking your marriage issues seriously means to you.

However, if he’s not willing to take them seriously, you may need to give some thought to leaving the marriage. If you do end up leaving, it won’t be because your husband shut you out sexually. It will be because he shut you out emotionally. You’ll have done everything you can to save the marriage—but sadly, you can’t save it alone.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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