Tell Me About It

I’ve been in a sexless marriage for 30 years – I feel I will explode sometimes

I have struggled very badly with this, watching my prime slip away and not being fulfilled

PROBLEM: I am a man in my 60s married for over 30 years. We get along well but there has always been a huge gap in our relationship – there was simply no sex. We did manage to have one child and there was talk of another, but it never happened. My wife suffers from vaginismus and shuts down if the subject is broached. Even attempts at sexual engagements not involving penetration were awkward and deeply frustrating. She was not able to relax or engage in any sexual play.

I have struggled very badly with this, watching my prime slip away and not being fulfilled within the relationship. My manner has undoubtedly been bad at times as frustration spills over. This frustration and sense of being abandoned just won’t go away. We went to really good counselling where this was identified many decades ago – but my wife would simply not engage.

I probably should have made the decision to leave, but never did. I accuse myself of cowardice sometimes. The sad thing is, it all could have been as good as it gets, but for the physical barriers. This will never leave me alone, but I am unable to reconcile or have peace with it. In my own mind I threaten to leave the bedroom, or even leave completely. I stamp down the lid on this, but it won’t stay down. I feel I will explode sometimes.

There has been no attempt at physical engagement for a long time – I wouldn’t welcome it at this point – I even resent the casual hello/goodbye kisses. Talk is good, but it requires both parties to engage. If I attempt to talk, I would simply dissolve into tears of frustration and loneliness. This should simply not be. It has affected so many areas of my life adversely, the only answer I can see is leaving. Yet, I do not.

 

ADVICE: You sound in such pain as you recognise that your relationship could have been a happy one if either of you had the courage to be honest with each other. Vaginismus is a condition where the body protects the woman from intercourse and while a physical cause must always be investigated, there is often an associated psychological factor, perhaps a trauma or family conditioning.

In any case, your wife has resolved to avoid intimacy with you and I assume both of you suffered from the subsequent isolation and lack of connection in your life together. Frustration seems to have been the main emotion in the relationship and 30 years of this is a long time to suffer. Yet you both continue to share a life and have not abandoned each other in 30 years. This would seem to imply that there is enough left in the relationship to warrant risking engagement and honesty. If, following this, there continues to be no intimacy or closeness, then you both must take responsibility and chose what is best for both of you.

You say that you’ve had good counselling in the past and I wonder if it is worth having a few sessions to get the conversation going. If your wife wants to address her vaginismus, she may need the support of a gynaecologist and a charted physiotherapist as well as engaging physically with you in a slow and guided manner. All of this requires that you both risk awkwardness, embarrassment and shame but this exposure is at the heart of intimacy and is the beginning of finding pleasure together. Talking and opening up does mean that you speak about both the loneliness and the longing and there should be tears and sadness as this is the expression of what is really going on. It may well be that your wife has developed a defensive response to your need for connection and you might need to be patient as she explores her fear of opening up. If you are angry and blaming, her defences might increase and your subsequent rejection lead to further anger, etc – you can see the pattern that could emerge.

Negotiate discussions

The strength of this pattern is why you may need someone to help negotiate the initial discussions and you will need to learn (as a couple) the tried and tested means of addressing sexual difficulties in relationships. Gradual sensualisation exercises are usually prescribed for the couple and these practices (where the body is re-trained to enjoy touch, gradually moving from non-sexual to sexual touch) require commitment, trust and risk from both people.

These are acts of intimacy and can lead to fun and pleasure but a word of warning: if the couple do not fully commit, then the old pattern is always readily available to return to. If you propose a re-connection to your wife, you will need to have a long-term view plus preparing for setbacks, and this is why putting in lots of supports at an early stage is vital.

If at the end of this road, you still feel the need to separate, you should have at least increased the possibility of a joint decision and joint responsibility as the communication will have become real and honest.