How do I approach this seemingly unsolvable marriage problem?
January 28, 2010 9:57 PM   Subscribe

How do I approach this seemingly unsolvable marriage problem?

I'm a 40 y.o. guy, married for 12 years, with children. I met my wife in college and we never had a good sexual relationship, even before we got married. So yeah, probably wasn't a great idea to marry. We fought a lot, but over the years we learned to respect each other and became very good friends. I've struggled all my life with anxiety & depression, and my wife has been a huge help in getting me through some awful times. We love our children. We are completely in sync on parenting. We communicate and help each other. But I am just not attracted to her and I don't feel romantic toward her. We've been to counseling which helped us make great strides in communicating better, but still I feel like I have a very good friend - not a lover. She's fully aware of this, we talk about it almost every day. She says she's not upset with me and just wants me to figure out what I need. But...I'm not sure. Part of me wonders if there is any way that romantic attraction can be 'built' somehow. Another part wonders if I'm just being selfish, just wanting to screw around (which I haven't done), but this feels deeper. I start crying when I see a happy couple together. My therapist says that I'm not being selfish, that these are very real concerns and not easy for anyone to deal with. Oh, and on top of it all we have a child with a chronic disease which takes a huge emotional toll on her and us.

I'm sorry this is such a scatterbrained post, it's just difficult to put all of this together. Any thoughts, perspective or advice are appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a signifigant difference in how attractive the two of you are? I know that seems shallow, but in my experience,when two people marry who are in completely different leagues.. things tend to be a tad harder to figure out.
posted by lakerk at 10:27 PM on January 28, 2010

You deserve happiness, and you seem to feel chained in aspects other than parenting. But staying together for the kids is, in most cases, not a good thing. The kids can see through it, or they will eventually. Your wife is just a friend to you, you say. Does she see you the same way?

I will say it again: you deserve happiness. And it's okay that you want that kind of fulfillment. And it can be yours. There are a lot of ways to approach this situation, from divorce, polyamory, to other possibilities. Your therapist is right that none of these will be easy, but the fact that you are in therapy is a good start.
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:34 PM on January 28, 2010

You know, enduring love can be built on all sorts of foundations. Squirmy, fucky feelings are the most prevalent ones these days. But it's also possible to build a relationship on mutual respect and shared purpose...the sort of common cause that can grow when people put their responsibilities ahead of their wants, and react to choice that with dignity rather than peevish resentment. A great many people never succeed in building eros into partnership.

Perhaps you should try harder to appreciate the singular value of what you have, and the ways that you are sustained by that, instead of escaping into some alternate past that, had you actually lived through it, wouldn't have given you half of what you presently take for granted.
posted by felix betachat at 10:47 PM on January 28, 2010 [17 favorites]

Here's what I don't understand. You've effectively stopped all comments that say "Go to a counselor", since you ARE going to a counselor.

Why have you not brought up AND come closer to RESOLVING this topic with your counselor?
posted by hal_c_on at 10:47 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Might there be any possibility that your wife's dedication to you and your marriage can somehow instigate a better physical attraction for you? I come from an Eastern culture of completely arranged marriages -- not something I had plus not something I'm defending, but one thing that makes them last is the attraction that arises from sharing a marriage together. I can be as powerful as the physical. Do you know any such couples? That and what felix said.
posted by skepticallypleased at 10:52 PM on January 28, 2010

The two times I felt like I didn't love the person I was with, it turned out that I was hiding my real self. I wasn't letting myself be loved for who I really was. I wasn't getting what I wanted, deep down -- I wasn't even really there. Being vulnerable like that is kind of scary and thrilling.
posted by salvia at 11:54 PM on January 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

Also, some other thoughts. We have very little to go on here (though your post was actually good, I thought), so I can't tell what's significant and instead want to read a lot into everything, so here goes:
- you mention how she took care of you. is it unsexy to be so taken care of? could you try being more the caretaker and protector for awhile?
- you don't mention any actual problems or things that aren't working. are you this vague and fatalistic-sounding in counseling? maybe engage more with the actual issues?
- you mention the fear of being selfish twice, and you have a child with an illness. I'm wondering how many of your own needs you ever get to have met. If you're just totally drained, or not letting yourself express what you want, those would both get in the way.

You're not selfish at all; love and sex are huge things, and you both deserve to be with someone you love. She deserves to be loved and desired, and you deserve to be in a relationship that you like.
posted by salvia at 12:03 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll go there and say that you're looking a gift horse in the mouth. Be creative, and take a second look at your wife sexually. This is not possible personally!
posted by xammerboy at 1:41 AM on January 29, 2010

Couples therapy often seems to focus on improving communication, trust, mutual compromise and what have you, with the implicit assumption that when everything else is fine, passion - and fun - will be there, too. But those areas already seem to work quite well in your marriage. Perhaps what you need is an approach that is more focused on the sexual, sensual and erotic from the get go. I'd recommend Passionate Marriage for both you and your wife to read, and if you continue to go to couples therapy, make sure it's the kind where sex, eroticism and passion are approached as key issues, not merely side effects.

I start crying when I see a happy couple together.

Then again, this just sounds like depression. Are you sure this issue hasn't become the (obsessive) focus of your general unhappiness?

During periods of depression and/or high anxiety I have a tendency to focus on the areas of my life that I (at least in that state) regard disappointing or painful, and the ensuing sense of failure and despair just reinforces the depressive symptoms. A vicious circle, in short. There is also the escapist lure of "if only" - if this one thing were better, or if I hadn't made that choice, I could be happy, I could relax, I could have my sense of self worth and the ability to have fun back, etc. Putting the cart before the horse, really, as well as setting myself up for the treacherous mirage of a quick fix.

What kind of treatment are you getting for your depression and anxiety right now? How happy, interesting and fulfilling is the rest of your life, outside your marriage? Do you genuinely like, love, respect and appreciate yourself?

At least refrain from making rash decisions regarding your marriage (and your fidelity) until you feel like you have a more stable footing.
posted by sively at 1:55 AM on January 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

It sounds like both of you have had a really hard time of it, and you're both pretty exhausted. Perhaps a good starting point would be to figure out if your lack of romantic feelings is from (1) depression and generally being drained, (2) fundamental sexual incompatibility, or (3) a case of not getting your sexual needs met often enough. My personal experience has been that even if I'm initially really attracted to someone, a lack of sexual contact for an extended period of time tends to deplete those feelings.

So, were you initially attracted to your wife? What made your sex life difficult before you got married (not often enough for you? not kinky enough? not enough passion? generally awkward?)? You should definitely explore this further with your therapist - and possible together with your wife.

On a related note, whilst it's great that you can communicate with your wife about your lack of sexual desire and that she isn't turning it into a big drama, it also seems a bit odd to me that you would be talking about this on a near daily basis with her and that she would be so seemingly passive about it ('figure out what you need'). Possibly, you're over-talking this -- the regularity of you affirming that you are not, in fact, attracted to her might be further cementing it in your mind. At the same time, your wife might feel unsexy and awkward sexually around you because of the conversations, further filling in your image of her as unsexy.

I think if there is some dormant attraction for each other, kind words, making time for each other, and focusing on bits that attract you can reignite the spark. If it means enough to both of you, I think it is possible to overcome long term sexual frustrations.

However, having said that, there does come a point when you might need to find a different relationship that will be more fulfilling for you and I'm sure there are some relationships that aren't fixable sexually. If that's your case, your best option for both of your happiness could very well be to accept that you need to find someone else. It seems like your friendship and ability to communicate with each other will help you immensely regardless.

All the usual disclaimers and I could very well be completely off base here. Hope everything gets better for you.
posted by brambory at 2:20 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I walked into psychotherapy to determine what the hell was going on in a relationship I was in. A warm woman, a loving woman, I loved her, she loved me, we knew one another and cared for one another -- all of that was there. And there in spades. I couldn't believe that there was a part of me that wanted out. And I could not give that part voice.

One afternoon my therapist suggested to me that I didn't have to leave, didn't have to change, didn't need to do anything except call this thing what it was -- a friendship.


Those words were *the* words I needed to hear. I was not able to leave for a long while, and in fact she is the one who finally pulled the plug, I just couldn't -- so much was so good. But we were friends. That was what was going on, that was what stung, that was what confused me, that was what I could not face, would not face. I was in a warm and loving friendship.

Is that a *bad* thing? Not sure. I suspect that many, many marriages end up as friendships, the spark gone, the zing gone. You've stated that your marriage never even had that.

It's up to you -- and only you -- to determine if you are willing/able to stay in this marriage, as it stands today. You've got a lot more than many others have; it's warm and safe and supportive, good in many respects.

Just don't call what you've got anything other than what it is -- name it, claim it, blah blah blah.


Only then can you determine if it's something that you've got to leave, or something that you'd never leave.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:59 AM on January 29, 2010 [10 favorites]

Long story short: Sexual Lust? Yeah, it's about 2-3 years, at most. Once you see most people for their warts and you get past the 'lust' stage, they're not as attractive as that idealized old high school sweetheart.

Ditto for that couple that 'seems' to be in love? 12 years? Yeah, if someone told me there were married for 3 years (much less 12) without having at least one really serious major fight, frustration, or struggle, they're full of shit. You're idealizing people you see.

After seeing someone in their ickiest moments (physical, emotional) - you have to realize that marriage is about attraction, but not solely such. You said you have a history of depression, anxiety...and therapy (which is great) also brings those to the surface as a very rough edges.
posted by filmgeek at 5:38 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

You need to start listening to Dan Savage's podcast. He answers some variation of this question all the time.

In short, sexual compatibility is extremely important and no, you shouldn't have married someone you were incompatible with in the bedroom. If you were never attracted to her, That being said, now you are in a marriage that sounds very solid in every other regard. And you have kids. You have great communication, and your wife has already told you that you should "figure out what you need." I think it's time to consider talking to your wife about how you can get your needs met outside of your marriage. Be respectful of her feelings and make sure to lay some ground rules. You also need to be open to the idea that she may feel the need to also get her sexual needs met elsewhere as well.

This is obviously compounding your anxiety, and you need to figure it out as soon as possible. We put long-term monogamous relationships on a pedestal, but it doesn't work in all cases and that's ok. Good luck!
posted by kookaburra at 7:32 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not that it's not true in some cases, but beware of the MeFi bias suggesting that children are better off when parents split up because they can see through it. There are many adults walking around right now, maybe including you--maybe including me, that have parents that "stuck it out for the kids" and that had immeasurable benefit when one was a sub-adult. The reason these people are not posting on MeFi and similar forums is because they don't know they are in this category.

Perhaps you can elaborate about why you are not attracted to her? and then maybe you can think about what it was that did attract you way back when.
posted by teg4rvn at 7:40 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

i don't neccesarily vouch for it, and opinions are divided, but David Deida has a book which takes on relationship issues such as yours from a "big picture/spiritual" approach.
posted by mrmarley at 7:47 AM on January 29, 2010

Even if you had been wildly attracted to one another at the start, the limerence would have worn off by now. Value the relationship you have.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:27 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

While I respect your feelings, I also can see a marriage that has evolved into something stronger as being friends a greater gift than being into it for romance and sex. I think all marriages evolve this way. What about a make over challenge, dates, etc?
posted by stormpooper at 8:31 AM on January 29, 2010

Except for your dissatisfaction, it sounds to me like you have a fine and admirable marriage. Respect, friendship, support during hard times, good communication. I think your unhappiness stems from a very modern and immature view of marriage that overemphasizes continuing sexual attraction. Haven't you ever noticed that a huge number of people who are in solid long-term relationships will tell you that sexual attraction fades, but what endures is respect, friendship, and mutual support, and that those things become richer and deeper when sustained over a long period of time, through periods of fortune and misfortune, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, precisely because it wasn't always easy, but you never gave up on one another? Are they all wrong?
posted by HotToddy at 9:27 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Except for your dissatisfaction, it sounds to me like you have a fine and admirable marriage.

With respect, isn't that a bit like saying "except for that cancer, you sound really healthy"? I mean, that kind of dissatisfaction seems to be a dagger at the heart of a good relationship just as much as a lack of respect, friendship, mutual support, etc...
posted by modernnomad at 10:02 AM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, a go at changing the dynamics is probably worth it than giving up altogether.

Another part wonders if I'm just being selfish, just wanting to screw around (which I haven't done), but this feels deeper.

Good point. Maybe the screwing around is really a deeper need coming out for space? What about creating that space for yourself in the marriage? Being away for a couple of days and seeing how you feel? Or, how about making your routines as such so that you live a separate life at some point in the week or a month - like a guy's night out or a night out for poker. Are the both of you engaging in what you call your own world, doing things that you like be it bowling or what not?

Finally, realize that you want to make the marriage work but this is not the end all of life. Yes, there are consequences of having kids - i.e. raising them. Yes, there are consequences of being around them too, you both don't want to have a crazy bad way of living and be modeling that to your kids. Life is not ended if you guys decide to end the marriage or change a few things, life still goes on just on a different route.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 10:46 AM on January 29, 2010

Just wanted to add, sometimes knowing that there are options HELPS!
posted by iNfo.Pump at 10:46 AM on January 29, 2010

With respect, isn't that a bit like saying "except for that cancer, you sound really healthy"? I mean, that kind of dissatisfaction seems to be a dagger at the heart of a good relationship just as much as a lack of respect, friendship, mutual support, etc...

Dissatisfaction is a dagger at the heart of a good relationship, but it is something totally within our control. Virtually all marriages will have at least one serious problem if they last long enough, problems that are beyond our control: physical disability, mental illness, financial crises, loss of sexual attraction, kitchen remodeling (kidding . . . sort of). We can choose to let these problems make us dissatisfied with an otherwise good relationship, or we can open ourselves to the truth that life is difficult and will be continue to be difficult even with a new partner, perhaps in different ways, perhaps in the same ways all over again with the passage of time, and that a relationship with mutual respect, friendship, support during hard times, and good communication is a rare gift.

Also, to move from the general to the specific, it's hard to see how a person with lifelong anxiety and depression and a child with a chronic disease who has a partner willing and able to help him, love him, and be his friend is going to be better off going through the agony of divorce and dating in the hope of finding someone else who will have all the qualities of his wife plus be sexually compatible, plus want to deal with an ex-wife and a chronically ill child who will continue to take a huge emotional toll on the OP.
posted by HotToddy at 12:06 PM on January 29, 2010

You're mourning. It's okay to mourn. Your best option might be to be sad and not do anything about it.

Gottman's book, the Seven Principles of Happy Marriage (I think) talks about managing unsolvable problems. I think it might be worth it to pick up a copy.

Best of luck.
posted by kathrineg at 12:12 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, I gotta say--I'm glad you're communicating but you might want to stop telling your wife you're not attracted to her. She's handling it well but it's got to take a toll on her to hear that over and over. Every time you feel like talking about it, talk about something you appreciate or admire about her. She deserves that from you.
posted by kathrineg at 12:17 PM on January 29, 2010 [7 favorites]

Your post is a little short on details in terms of the nature of your sexual mismatch, and what things you have or have not tried (other than couples counseling, which seems like it's helped in terms of communication and cooperation, but not so much with the "spark"). Another unanswered question that might provide a great deal of insight is how you're doing with your own depression--would you still describe yourself as "struggling"? Do you think your lack of attraction has more to do with the way she acts and the role she plays, or is it more about appearance and self-presentation?

On the last point--this is obviously an extremely sensitive matter, but it is not fundamentally wrong or crass to want a spouse who puts some effort into appearance. It's not so much about "lose 50 lbs or I can't be attracted to you" as it is about spouses putting some value on maintaining an attitude where sexual attractiveness matters. What that will specifically translate into is different depending on age, metabolism, etc. But sexy is as sexy does...

If you can swing it, you might undertake another round of couples counseling focusing more on sexual compatibility issues. And in the meanwhile, I think a good place to start is to side aside more time and energy for *non-sexy* funtime. See if you can shift from just "friends" to playmates in the original sense of the word. There's also a feedback cycle you can work to get going, wherein if you act like you're sexually/romantically attracted to her, she may start seeing herself as a sexually/romantically attractive creature (since you indicate she's interested in meeting your needs here, I'm assuming she's not fundamentally uninterested in sex/romance) and in turn acting in ways that will make her more attractive to you.
posted by drlith at 12:54 PM on January 29, 2010

Companionship, support, and parenting children that you both love are not the worst basis for a marriage.

Don't break up your marriage on the expectation or hope that things will somehow be different or better if and when you find a new partner.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 7:26 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Dancestoblue: only you can decide whether a marriage-friendship is something you want to remain in. The presence of children is a complicating factor, but if the dissatisfaction is present to the level that you are talking about it every day, they surely know about it as well. Do you think the two of you could split amicably and remain close parenting partners?

You are only 40. That is young. You have many years to seek a gf/wife who is closer to what you are looking for. I say this as someone who split with her husband after we realized that we were more roommates than husband and wife, and that we both wanted more from a partner. It is not an easy decision, but really, we only get one shot at life, so why not? There is nothing wrong with wanting sexual compatibility in a relationship.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:55 AM on January 30, 2010

The more I think about this question, the more I suspect the real problem lies in the depression and/or child-related stress. I think we're doing this question a disservice by considering it outside of that context. I'm not saying the relationship is perfect, but the fact that the OP felt too distraught to even write the question to their own satisfaction makes me think that there's something else going on. I'd encourage you to focus on those things, anonymous. I'm not saying your relationship concerns are trivial, irrelevant, or imagined, but I wouldn't make any major decisions without first boosting your overall well-being. Other solutions or approaches might present themselves. When life is overwhelming and difficult, things can seem "unsolvable" when they might actually be quite manageable.

I do know from personal experience that passionate love can develop even where there was none before, so I would hang in there for awhile and focus on taking care of yourself.
posted by salvia at 2:03 PM on January 30, 2010

You sound very focused on your own needs, which is creating a feedback loop with your anxiety. What you are doing right now isn't belong you so try something different for a month. Focus exclusively on your wife's needs. Do everything necssary to make her feel happy and sexy and loved. Do not express any negative thoughts or use her as your personal daily therapist/dumping ground. Honestly, you don't want to go through the hell of divorce where realisticaly, you will come out the other side with less money, less time with the children and probably the loss of your best friend and probably alone. Work on creating the marriage you want with the woman that has stuck by you through thick and thin. As a 40 year old you may be going through a mid-life crisis that may lead you to make choices you later regret.
posted by saucysault at 6:13 AM on January 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

« Older How do I go about finding a reasonably good lawyer...   |   Wait, you know her from... where?! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.