I am 43 and have been with my husband since I was 18. We have two primary-age children. Since the birth of our youngest, we’ve had sex maybe three times per year – intimacy was/is a very rare occurrence and not enough for me, so I raised this (finally!) five years ago.
My husband agreed to go to the GP to rule out any physiological problems, but said he did not raise the problem of his libido. After yet another talk about the situation, he said he has been depressed, and after gentle nagging, he went to the GP again. He was given mild antidepressants and, although this seems to have made him realise he has a problem, he has not taken the tablets. He is in better form these days, but there still is no intimacy.
Bottom line: My husband’s libido is down because he’s been depressed and I’m getting depressed/sad/angry because my libido’s flat-lining. I don’t feel any sensual/warm feelings towards him any more. And the clincher: Although you can’t currently tell, I have multiple sclerosis. I enjoy sex, and don’t want to find one day that I am immobile because of MS and have missed my chance to enjoy a full sex life. I don’t want to break up my family with a divorce (although this isn’t a deal breaker, my parents divorced, the consequences of which I am still feeling some 20 years later), but I don’t feel desirable any more.
I feel that we will get through this, but in the meantime – in case my MS gets worse – should I take a lover? Pay for sex (I did enjoy a few tantric massages, but this is not a long-term solution so I stopped)? Divorce? Have an open relationship? Two or three times a year just isn’t enough.
I get it that I’ve been talking about me, but I will not take responsibility for my husband’s depression. I do support him and wish he wasn’t so hard on himself, but his depression is not my responsibility – my sense of self-preservation is quite strong.
Some people are married and have affairs (secret or otherwise), some people have open marriages, some have great partnerships but no or little sex, and others have great sex and not much else. So you have choices – it’s up to you to work out what will and won’t work in your relationship.
It is perfectly possible (although perhaps not fashionable) to see sex for the self-contained act it can be, but, paradoxically, it can also take a lot of work to keep it self-contained and I’m not sure if it will give you what you’re really looking for.
I consulted the psychotherapist Chris Mills (ukcp.org.uk). He thinks that “Intimacy has always been a problem for both of you. So focusing on sex and intimacy as if they are the same could be a bit of a red herring. You’ve never learned to be intimate.”
This brought me on to asking what he meant by intimacy – because it can mean different things to different people. Mills told me about a definition he heard some years ago with which he disagreed at first but now thinks is spot on. “Intimacy means constantly keeping the other person informed about where you are in relation to them.”
So it’s not about sex or even, necessarily, being physically close all the time, it’s about something else entirely. Mills says that sex can just as easily be used to avoid intimacy as it can to create it. He also recommends Googling Esther Perel, who has a lot of interesting things to say about intimacy, sex and desire for your partner in long-term relationships.
Whatever you decide to do, the one thing you and your husband need to learn to do is talk to each other – I know it won’t be easy and that it’s not the answer you were looking for. I don’t think therapy is always the answer, but I think it could help you two and that you may be surprised where it leads you.
I know you’re not in the UK but your GP is a good place to start for a therapist. (I will also send you a link to help you find a reputable private therapist in your country.) But, as Mills points out, “You have two children together and you have MS – there’s a lot you two are going to need to talk about in the coming years.”
Your husband may be depressed because he has a low libido, or he may have a low libido because he’s depressed. He may also be having sex elsewhere (how would that change what you do/how you think, I wonder?) Also, says Mills, “Your husband may not have brought it up with the doctor because libido itself may not be the problem.”
I note that you and your husband have been together since you, at least, were a teenager. You must have done a lot of growing in that time and perhaps who you were and what you wanted at the beginning of the relationship isn’t the same as now.
Either way, you need to find a place and a way to talk to your husband because something isn’t going to magically happen to make this OK. I wonder, also, if you are getting emotional support for your MS (mssociety.org.uk has good information).
“The preoccupation with sex,” says Mills “is important, but maybe it’s just one rather obvious symptom of a bigger problem left unexplored for all these years: a difficulty in communicating about what’s really going on. The idea that good sex always equates with good intimacy is mistaken.”
I’d be interested to hear what others have done in similar situations.
This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 3 July 2015.