What to do about a sexless, but not loveless, marriage?
August 31, 2014 10:58 PM   Subscribe

I have been dreading asking this question because it’s so painful, but I feel like I really need to get this sorted out so I can move on with my life. So here it is: My husband and I haven’t had sex in over a year, probably inching closer to two years by now and I wonder if I’m just fooling myself/prolonging the inevitable in staying married to him.

The thing is though, I love him very much. I have a very deep love for him that goes way beyond what I’ve felt for any boyfriend I ever had before. Like sometimes I’ll be at work and something will make me think of him and I’ll just be overwhelmed by feelings of love for him. And taking sex out of the equation, our marriage is a happy, healthy one. He is a great person, we are the best of friends, we see eye to eye on most things and when we don’t we are quick to forgive and forget. It would be very, very difficult for me to leave him, if it came down to that.

We’re not even that old. I’m 37(female, btw) and he’s 43. We’ve been married for a few years (no kids) but together over a decade. When we first met things were very hot and heavy. A few years in, when things started to calm down, I would end up initiating more often and it seemed like my sex drive was higher than his, which caused a lot of self-doubt for me because of the societal messages that the man should always be the one who wants it more so what was wrong with me? I must be unattractive, gross, whatever.

Things went on like that for a while and then at some point took a turn where my libido dropped even lower than his. Maybe a subconscious giving up? The last few times we tried to have sex went the same. We’d get going, he’d ostensibly slow down or stop himself from coming too fast, I’d think “he’s losing his erection because he’s not into me” and totally lose interest, he’d ask “what’s wrong?” and we’d get into a fight and fall asleep, with me hurt and him humiliated. It sucked so bad, I think we both kind of just decided, independent of each other it wasn’t worth the pain of trying any more.

This definitely isn’t about him becoming unattractive or anything. My husband always was and continues to be a very attractive man. It’s also not about a general lack of libido on my part. Believe me, I have plenty of sexual feelings, unfortunately they’re just not directed at him.

It has something to do with being too familiar with each other (I’m sure he would probably agree with this) and knowing how familiar he is with me in all my less than sexy aspects. There’s also an element of body issues and self doubt on my side.

In addition, there are some practical barriers. We work different hours and only have one day off a week together which doesn’t help matters at all.

I’m almost 100% certain he isn’t cheating on me and though I nursed a very serious crush on someone for a while, I never allowed it to develop into an affair, because I knew that would be a horrible idea, and now that person is gone for my life for good, so other sexual/emotional attachments are not an issue.

Sex is not something it’s easy to talk to my husband about. He grew up Catholic and can be surprisingly conservative about this kind of thing. It’s gotten to the point I’m embarrassed to watch a movie sex scene with him anymore. It’s like we’re brother and sister, instead of husband and wife.

Sometimes I think I’m almost okay with the way things are but the thought of never having sex again is deeply depressing. Then again, so is leaving the person I love for an uncertain future.

I’ve also thought about seeing a counselor and would be willing to do so on my own but I know there’s no way he would go along with me.

I started reading a book about the topic and it started off with a couple in their 50s who were unhappy with having sex “only” once or twice a week which made me feel even worse.

Something like an open marriage would be completely off the table for him and honestly for me as well.

I met up with an old high school friend of mine recently who was divorced. In the process of catching up she talked about why she and her husband had divorced and it was haunting how much it sounded like my marriage. They were married for a few years, had no kids, he was a wonderful man but their sex life was dead. She said at the end she wished he had been having an affair so at least one of them would be getting some. She said it was a very painful process but she was now happily single.

So I guess my question is: is this normal and it’s just something people don’t talk about much or are we an outlier? Have you been there? What did you do? Is there hope of any kind or should I start getting used to the idea of divorce? Any resources you could share would be much appreciated, too.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

Marriages don't end because of lack of sex, they end because of lack of communication. The bigger problem than not having sex for two years is not talking about the lack of sex for two years.

Start getting counseling yourself. Your counselor can walk you through bringing your husband into it or just getting the much needed conversation started.
posted by fatbird at 11:29 PM on August 31, 2014 [73 favorites]

I'm so sorry you're going through this.

I've only known one other couple (who confided to me, anyway) in your situation and it did end in divorce. They are both doing better now, though it was hard on them.

If your question is "Do we have to divorce?" the answer is no. You can stay together forever in this state, if you prefer.

If your question is "Does this happen to everyone who's been together a while?" well we've been together about the same length of time and this has not happened to us. It is not an inevitable thing, or something you "have" to accept. If it happened to us, I would be miserable, and I think he would be too. Sex is an important part of our marriage. I don't need another brother, I need a romantic and life partner. I can't speak to what you need, but you don't sound happy in your post. But that really is something you need to determine for yourself. It's not about whether it's "normal"; it's about whether you can deal with it if nothing changes. No one can answer that but you.

You should take fatbird's advice and go to therapy for your own sake; if your husband refuses to go to counseling or take any action to resolve this issue, that is a failure on his part, as a partner, regardless of the quality of your sex life. In other words, whether you ever have sex again, if he wants to be married to you, he needs to care about your feelings and needs, even if he can't meet them.

But that is assuming he won't go; you should ask him and give him the chance to say yes.
posted by emjaybee at 11:37 PM on August 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

@fatbird nailed it, totally agree.

Also, listen to your own intuition. As much as you want to come clean, you say that it would be a very difficult conversation. So try being subtle, such as suggesting setting aside that one day a week for something special like going on a quick getaway.

But what do you think your husband is thinking? Does he seem to be as unhappy as you are?
posted by jshare at 11:38 PM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

There is a community on reddit called Dead Bedrooms which you might want to check out. Certainly you will find many people there who have shared or are sharing this experience.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:42 PM on August 31, 2014 [6 favorites]

Yep. Time to see a counselor and start a conversation with your husband.

FWIW, it sounds like your work schedules are a grind (heh) and the intimacy fell by the wayside. I mean, it's really hard to be sexually intimate when the emotional intimacy from practical day-to-day sharing drops off.

I think you can successfully frame this as working on your relationship, communication, and sharing, rather than focusing on the sex. The other stuff comes first.

- Hey. Any chance this has to do, on his side, with avoiding getting you pregnant? What's the deal with that? If you agreed not to have children, is he afraid you might change your mind?

I dunno know why that popped into my head. Mostly because the media wants to stick their fat noses into folk's reproductive choices. People get worried about weird things.

Still. Strengthening your overall relationship is the way through this, no matter the cause.
posted by jbenben at 11:54 PM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Honestly, what most stuck out to me was you saying he stops himself from coming or slows down. Tell him not to do that, it seems you're taking it as a sign he's no longer interested which may not be the case, then it's a domino effect where he thinks *your* not into it anymore. Just tell him to come when he's ready and hopefully you'll be there too or vice-versa. For now, work on date nights and stuff like that that the others posted above. But once you get to sexytime, have fun. It's been built up so much (pun intended) that it's not fun anymore. Get to the point where you're just going to get to the finish line so you can both enjoy the act rather than worrying about if the other person is gonna make it. It's like you're rowing in opposite directions and going nowhere fast. This is definitely more of a communication thing though. Also, try the Gott Sex series, I read it might be worth a try if you're out of options. Good luck!
posted by lunastellasol at 12:30 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Your recent attempts to get it on led to arguments? No wonder you both took a break from that!

Don't let a book or your recently-divorced friend's story get to you. :) The issues you explain all sound like ones that you could figure out, especially with therapy or with more loving communication.

If you said "we've talked about it and he believes XYZ / he wants XYZ / I want XYZ... so we're just not compatible," then I'd say "yeah, this may not work." Instead, it sounds like you guys started out hot and heavy, but that you have fears and beliefs and feelings getting in the way, and for all we know, so does he. These things seem to have built up over time. So, the bad news is that you guys have a lot of work to do, but the good news is that it may well be possible to work this all through.

The only thing that really concerns me is that you don't have an approach for working on this, and you fear that he'll refuse therapy entirely. A lot of your post seems to be asking for couples therapy to me. Still, I agree with others suggesting you go alone. Find a therapist you really like. I think you could make some real progress that way, and then your therapist could coach you on either having conversations with him at home or asking him to see a couples therapist with you.

I understand being scared that this situation means that your relationship needs to end (and your post shows other signs that you might occasionally veer towards anxious / worst-case-scenario thinking, if you don't mind my saying so). But that deep love you describe is really important and valuable, so therapy is well worth a try. It might take some time -- or honestly, it might not.

P.S. I think Passionate Marriage is the book that comes up on AskMe fairly frequently on this topic. I haven't read it, but if that wasn't the book you mention, it might be one worth checking out. That said, I think a therapist will help a lot more than any book.
posted by salvia at 12:39 AM on September 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'd say, express some longing. Tell him you'd like to have sex with him. If it's something you guys just don't talk about anymore, he's probably gotten used to it but he also probably figures you're just not interested. If he knew you were interested, I'd bet he'd be willing to try again. It doesn't have to be a big, dramatic announcement. Just tell him, "You know, I've missed having sex with you. I'd really like to have sex." I'd be very surprised if he rejects the idea.

Mind you, I'm not saying he'll jump on you that very instant. Maybe you both need time to work your way back into this. But if you express the longing to have sex, I really doubt he'll tell you he just stopped wanting sex years ago and you don't attract him at all anymore and you should just have a sexless marriage until you die.

(Here's where I get a little salty. Hey, it's a sex question!)

When you describe the problems you had in bed, a couple of problems on your side of things jumped out at me. Maybe he shares these problems, but they're definitely things you need to work on.

You need to let go of two misconceptions you have about the male dingus.

First, the hardness of a guy's erection is not always directly related to how attractive he finds you. A guy can go limp with a woman he is strongly attracted to, or he can get an erection for no good reason at all. You're not doing either of you any favors if you get all upset just because he's not always as erect as you'd both like him to be. (Also, remember this is a man in his 40s!) That's just going to put pressure on him to perform, which increases the odds he can't perform, which will only make you more upset!

Second, an erect dingus is not always necessary for hot sex. Just ask a lesbian! Seriously, a guy going limp doesn't have to ruin an evening, nor does it guarantee he'll stay limp all night.

Try to see sex as fun, and a way of being intimate and close. It sounds like you both felt like you were failing at sex, but the only way to really fail at sex is to decide you have.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:55 AM on September 1, 2014 [18 favorites]

Damn. I really wish you were not anonymous.

I lived with my first husband for 5 years before we married. Sex was... not really happening for us by the time we wed. Almost immediately, I realized that relationship had gone on too long.

I married my For Real Husband (it's so different!) when I was 38. I'm 44, now. Our son is 3 years old.

We were super close and sex was fabulous for many years. Then we became parents. First I was sick for the first few months. We have zero family near-by, and we did not (wisely) impose on friends, and parenting is hard.

We're finally, 3 years after The Big Change, getting back to being friends, and also, genuinely able and wanting to be emotionally and physically intimate - not just catching quick moments, and not watching small stuff turn into arguments for lack of time with each other.


From my perspective, you guys lack quantity and quality of time together - but mostly quantity.

You can only successfully short-hand an intimate relationship to accomodate outside pressures for so long, yo.

Change your work schedules, or just acknowledge that has been tearing you apart. Set goals. Make changes as possible. Get a plan together to get back together.
posted by jbenben at 1:13 AM on September 1, 2014 [14 favorites]

And this is totally TMI, but fuck it... (heh, again...)

What you described with your husband being aroused, then trying not to orgasm too quickly is EXACTLY our experience sometimes when it's been months+ in between having sexy times. Wow.

That really screws with your perceptions, and throws everything further out of whack. You're both normal, IMHE.
posted by jbenben at 1:28 AM on September 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

We’d get going, he’d ostensibly slow down or stop himself from coming too fast, I’d think “he’s losing his erection because he’s not into me” and totally lose interest, he’d ask “what’s wrong?” and we’d get into a fight and fall asleep, with me hurt and him humiliated. It sucked so bad, I think we both kind of just decided, independent of each other it wasn’t worth the pain of trying any more.

This sounds pretty awkward and I'm not sure there's much to add because the first comment upthread nailed it, but not being able to talk about it is the real lack of intimacy. This happening itself is no big deal, but that you can't say, "You're not into it?" and he can't reply "No, I'm totally into it" or "Yeah, I'm not really up for sex right now" or "Can we start over?" etc. is much more a problem than not having sex. It's not the actual physical stuff, it's the inability to talk about it and take it in stride.

I know there’s no way he would go along with me.

"Ted, I'm thirty-seven years old, and one way or another, I'm not going to spend the rest of my life not having sex. You need to help figure out why this is going on and why we're so bad at talking about it. We have an appointment Tuesday at 4."

Seriously, if he won't contribute here, it's a bigger problem than anything else--if he won't go, he's not 'the best of friends'. The best of friends wouldn't leave you hanging like that.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:59 AM on September 1, 2014 [23 favorites]

Also, take the body image issues you reference and self-esteem issues really seriously also -- you needn't feel shitty about your body or yourself. You have a right to feel good about yourself and positive about your body, so take whatever steps you need to take to resolve that if it is a major issue -- separate counseling, for yourself, might be helpful sorting through it.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:03 AM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

First and foremost, don't let this issue end your marriage without giving everything you've got towards more open sexual communication. If you have married such a good friend then your future self needs you to be a good friend to him and yourself now by going to the edges of yourselves to make this work. It could be amazing and you could find out deeper things about each other and yourselves than you ever thought possible. It could also show you both that, despite your friendship, you are not long-term compatible. But at least you will have tried and that's what counts. You cannot have an intimate and passionate marriage without exploring the very unspoken and vulnerable parts of yourselves, together.

Ah, that last part was me projecting on what I could have had then if I knew what I know now.

My sis gave me the book Passionate Marriage after my marriage ended. It was a fine but sad coda and a good reference for what not to let slip by next time. If I had my time over I would have discovered that book before my marriage ended. At least then I would have felt that it ended completely, without what-ifs.

TL;DR: Go for all out intimacy and exposure through all means possible. Try everything besides celibacy to keep this marriage going. Speaking from experience you have nothing to lose and a whole to keep and gain.
posted by Kerasia at 3:37 AM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't have sex often in my marriage. We as far as I know are both ok with that. By not often it can be as little as 1 every six months. I think the most had been like 5 times in one year. I don't really keep count though.

However we are intimate almost every day. We hug. We greet eachother at the door with a kiss. We climb on top of each other for no reason. I sit in her lap. Sometimes we flash eachother. Take showers together. Occasionally sleep naked. Snuggles.

Is any of that happening? If it leads to sex yay but if it doesn't it is still an enjoyable time with your spouse.

How do you feel about masterbation? It isn't a replacement for intimacy but it can help with some feelings.

Try and get out of your head. You don't know what he is thinking. Ask. If he stops is ok to say I want more will you hold me while I pleasure myself? There is no reason you can't.

Sex is important. But it isn't everything. Communication is key and allow yourself to change it up. Many of the things we think about sex are constructions. The rules can be changed and nothing bad will automatically happen.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:17 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

There’s also an element of body issues and self doubt on my side.

This is very important and may be a top reason why your sex life is dismal right now. Individual therapy can help with this.

I'm almost 42. I've been married for 16 years, together for 21, and the thing about body image, for me at least, is that it gets better with time and practice -- and therapy. Once your mental health is in order regarding self-esteem and self-worth, every aspect of your life, including sex, improves.

Catholic or not, strive to communicate with your husband. Talk about it. Open up and express your thoughts. Sex is a powerful connector and bonds a couple. Think of connecting, bonding, loving, and releasing stress instead of body parts. Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 5:19 AM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like the problems that you are having are not marriage specific. These are problems that you would have no matter who you were married to. Marriage takes effort and it sounds like you need to make more of an effort. Ask your husband to go for walks with you or something else physical. Hold hands more. Walk around the house in something that makes you feel sexy. Do something, do anything, but don't throw away a perfectly good marriage because of this.

Look at things from his perspective- you were in the middle of having sex, you got insecure, you yelled at him. Think about how that makes him feel and apologize.
posted by myselfasme at 5:45 AM on September 1, 2014

What is happening with your marriage is very common.

Your husband is in his 40's and is beginning to experience some very typical issues with his performance (difficulty keeping an erection, not fully erect, finishing quickly, etc.) These changes, while perfectly normal for men of his age, can really mess with a man's head and his self-esteem. Rather than keep trying, it's far easier to start avoiding sex, since it's now become a source of great anxiety and humiliation...And few things negatively affect a man psychologically more than being humiliated or chastised over his sexual performance. That you take his poor performance personally only exacerbates his anxiousness and desire to avoid the act altogether.

You two probably do need some couples counseling, if for no other reason than to clear the air in a (hopefully) neutral setting. Your husband should also think about talking to his GP about trying-out some of those wonderful little pills made for his erection problem. He may be hesitant at first (viewing the pills as a sign that he's old), but the first time he takes one and experiences an erection as if he were 18 again, he'll be sold.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:04 AM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

In terms of physical arousal/endurance issues, cialis (tadalafil) or viagra (sildenafil) or similar may help solve it. It's often relatively easy to get generics cheap online if you know where to look, or his doctor might prescribe it and/or offer some kind of trial if asked.

They're not just for folks who straight-up can't get an erection; I'm 29 and have been keeping a few in the bedside drawer for a few years for when I'm feeling tired/lazy or just anticipate an active weekend.
posted by Drexen at 9:05 AM on September 1, 2014

This obviously wouldn't at all address the more important issues around communication and shared expectations, and it's far from a panacea (as might be suggested given how often it's recommended, for pretty much everything), but a lot of people find their libido bumped up a few notches after getting into fitness, and it can help with body confidence.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:22 AM on September 1, 2014

I'm sorry this is going on. I think it's more common than people realize for the woman to be the higher-desire partner in a marriage. As you allude to, this is it's own special kind of mindfuck because there this notion that Guys Want It All The Time, and because women tend to internalize it when their husbands turn them down. Guys are also kind of boxed in by that notion, reluctant to deal with the issue because it's so bound up with notions of masculinity. Michelle Weiner-Davis writes about this, that women are often the higher desire partner and that it can be a particularly difficult rut to get out of, due to the gender dynamics. Not impossible, though, not by a long shot.

I agree with the folks above who say that, however awkward and painful it is, the subject needs to be put on the table. The individual counseling idea as a way to prepare yourself to launch the conversation is a really good one, particularly if as your post suggests you have blamed yourself to some degree for his lack of libido. It is not your fault, and though you may not know what's going on underneath his pulling away, it's really his job to figure that out. But the push-pull involved in hashing out those issues can be very intense and hurtful, hard to figure out. Get a good counselor to help you, I think it will be worth it.

Last, a few books. Michelle Wiener Davis wrote The Sex Starved Marriage, which is supposed to be good. Someone up thread recommended David Schnarch--his newer book is Intimacy and Desire, which I think is a lot more readable than Passionate Marriage. Strongly recommend.

Good luck. I know from experience how tough this is. Worth wading in to get it fixed, though.
posted by Sublimity at 11:21 AM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm still married but I've been separated from my husband for 7 years. We had a brother-sister relationship by the end and it was frustrating beyond belief not to get to jump my hottie husband.

The lack of sex wasn't the only reason I left him, but it was a big one. I remember sitting in the kitchen thinking WTF? Nobody would expect me to give up ice cream if my husband didn't like ice cream or happened to be allergic to it. But when it came to sex (which I love and is way more important to my well-being than ice cream), somehow I was just supposed to just suck it up and skip sex for the rest of my life.

Um, no. Hell no. And not just no to skipping sex but also skipping cuddling and hugging and smooching and foot rubs and all that other affectionate stuff that often diminishes over the years. (Every night in bed he rolled over to get a little back rub from me, after having stopped giving me foot rubs literally years before. Resentful still? Moi?)

Eventually I moved out and told my husband, 6 months later, that I was going to start dating. And I did. I've been in a steady relationship with a wonderful man for 2 years now. My husband, who lives alone and elsewhere, just went home after a wonderful, 3-week platonic visit. We get along better now than when we lived together.

Your path is your path. As others have said before me, a relationship is kind of like a bank account. You have to keep putting in deposits (of loving acts, kindness, cuddling, laughing, fun times as well as sexy fun times) or eventually you get overdrawn.

We tried to get help but the lack of sex was only one of many problems. You are in a better place. Consider seeing someone who specialises in sex issues rather than an all-purpose couples counsellor. Best of luck in working things out and getting your needs met.
posted by Bella Donna at 11:43 AM on September 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry you're going through this. It hurts a lot.

I married my best friend and realised too late that we were not also lovers. You need to be both for a marriage to work. In hindsight its not just the sex that you need but the intimacy. My husband is also reserved and when I tried to bring up my frustration he couldn't hear it and I was afraid and awkward about how to talk about it. (Embarrassed watching a sex scene with him? I totally know what you mean.) I had resigned myself, mid 30s, to not being able to live the sexual side of my life and while I was sad about it I had an amazing husband in every other way so I thought I could make my peace with it. Sadly I met someone else and I realised that I didn't want to keep that side of me quiet and so (eventually, belatedly) I left.

Here is what I'd say:

- you need to make your husband understand that your marriage is in big trouble. This is not a phase, this will not fix itself. I didn't think my husband would agree to counselling but he did (too late and that was my fault). Give yours the chance to make the decision, he might surprise you. You need to be totally honest with how you're feeling. If he loves you enough he will make efforts to overcome his reserve and be there for you. Your sexual pleasure should be important to him (and vice versa). I'm sure you wouldn't let each other go cold or hungry. Why is it ok to be starved sexually? This needs to be dealt with together, this is a joint project. This has to matter as much to him as you to make it work.

- Your sexual needs are important. You are not living as your full self and neither is he. If he can't or won't meet your needs then you may be compatible in every way but not sexually. Sex is a key part of a relationship even though women aren't brought up to think so (at least I wasn't.) If your husband was great in bed but an asshole to you would you be happy to stay? Why is it ok to stay if he's great outside the bedroom but not in it?

- Here's something I wish I had realised: you can find someone attractive, loveable, interesting, funny etc... and not be sexually attracted to them. You need to figure this out for yourself. Does he turn you on? If not, then I'm not sure any amount of quality time and date nights will help. That's pretty soul-searching stuff and a solo therapist might be a good idea.

- Ending your marriage will hurt like hell if you do it. I miss my husband every single day because I miss my best friend. It's nearly a year and I'm still not over it. But when I think about going back I think about locking that part of me back up again and I can't do it. That is to say: just because its awful doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do and you will get through it.

- Do everything to try and address this and if it can't be then don't blame yourself. Advice I have read here which was helpful includes: just because someone is wonderful doesn't mean they're the right person for you; you know when you're a grown-up not when you leave a bad relationship but when you leave a good relationship that isn't working; and you can leave a relationship for any reason. Wanting sex is no less important than anything else you may want.

- It is possible for sex to be better than you imagine now and the unknown might be scary but it can also be more fulfilling than you know. I'm still with the man I fell for. He's in his 50s so I have to say take all the "after all he's in his 40s" stuff with a pinch of salt. I had literally no idea that sex could be so intimate, passionate and damn well fun. There are no inhibitions and I think that's what I yearned for the most. And as someone who also had body image issues, let me tell you that they completely disappear (ok, mostly) when someone makes you feel like the sexiest person on earth. Not in spite of your "flaws", but because those things are part of you.

I'm sorry this is so long, I'd have me mailed you if I could. I wish so much I had realised what you have realised earlier. Its great that you have a chance to work on this in a totally open way with your husband. Ill always regret that I messed things up. But I just wanted you to know you're not alone, and if you aren't able to fix things it doesn't mean you or your husband have failed. I believe you love him and he loves you, it's just that sometimes that's not enough and it's so sad. But there is life and passion out there, don't be afraid. And I recommend Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay. Memail me if you'd like. Good luck.
posted by outoftime at 12:36 PM on September 1, 2014 [10 favorites]

We’d get going, he’d ostensibly slow down or stop himself from coming too fast, I’d think “he’s losing his erection because he’s not into me” and totally lose interest, he’d ask “what’s wrong?” and we’d get into a fight and fall asleep, with me hurt and him humiliated.

I am still having trouble parsing this:

(1) When you say 'ostensibly', do you mean this is what he claimed to be doing, but you aren't sure whether to believe him?

(2) What are the steps in between asking "what's wrong?" and winding up in a fight? Or does his question itself make you angry? If so, why?

(3) Why can't the fight be resolved before falling asleep? I mean, there y'all are, actually talking about sex. What are the problems that emerge when you do so?

Nthing talking to a sex-positive counselor, either together or on your own. The questions above might provide good places to start getting into the nitty-gritty of how you interact, and what you're each assuming about the other.
posted by feral_goldfish at 12:42 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

This sounds pretty awkward and I'm not sure there's much to add because the first comment upthread nailed it, but not being able to talk about it is the real lack of intimacy.

This is really well put and what I was trying to get at.
posted by salvia at 3:09 PM on September 1, 2014

Find a way to spend more time in bed together relatively unclothed, even if not much happens at first. Also, see what you can do to get him to look into possible health problems. Even if he's told he's normal for his age, he might not actually be as healthy as he could be in regards to testosterone levels and other things that affect sexual desire.
posted by michaelh at 5:27 PM on September 1, 2014

You definitely need to work on the communication in your marriage - you need to be able to express the love, intimacy and trust you share, and to be able to talk about this issue - if you can't manage that, a couples therapist can help.

If you both still want to engage sexually, then you need to be able to talk to each other about your willingness to work on this in a happy , mutually-supportive, no-pressure way, so that when you do get to the bedroom, you can put aside any doubts concerns and anxieties and live in the moment.

The last few times we tried to have sex went the same. We’d get going, he’d ostensibly slow down or stop himself from coming too fast, I’d think “he’s losing his erection because he’s not into me” and totally lose interest

There are a few things that stand out to me here:

Firstly, as others have said - stop thinking like that. His performance issues most likely relate to age or his perception of pressure from you than his other feelings towards you - this is something you need to resolve in the communication you work on before you get into the bedroom.

The other thing you both need to be aware of while having sex is Responsibility and Permission. By this I mean that both of you have to take Responsibility for your own pleasure - by which I mean that of course one needs to be considerate, and be willing to do stuff that gives your partner pleasure, but ultimately it is not his job to take sole responsibility for your pleasure, it's yours, and many guys have problems with performance anxiety because they feel they're expected to run the whole show. You both need to give your partner Permission to look after their own needs. Particularly in a situation where you're trying to end a drought, he shouldn't be trying to "slow down or stop himself" - you should both be more focused on "doing what feels good" rather than "doing it right".

As has been mentioned before, if he can't 'keep it up', move onto other types of fun rather than quitting in frustration - quitting and arguing will just pile on more pressure for next time.

This situation can be fixed. Good Luck.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:35 PM on September 1, 2014

I believe that one more common and much more fun approach to the specific problem you described is to tell him not to slow himself down at all and expect a possible early end to the activities on that occasion, with the expectation that you will be repaid soon (either a few minutes or a day later, depending on necessary recovery time) with a more lengthy session that's more tailored to what you would enjoy. This could work particularly well if you enjoy seeing him enjoy himself.

One of the toughest things about being in a sexual drought is that there can be so much expectation placed on the first time you try to end the drought, it can make people feel like they have to give an epic performance at a time when, especially for men, it's least likely that they're going to be physically easily able to do so. This is the reason why I recommend explicitly telling him beforehand that you just want him to have fun and do whatever feels good, and then that you'd like to get some kind of sexy payback later on. You score bonus points when you tell him how hot it will be when he comes and how excited you are about it. No guilt for him, and should put him in a position where he'll be more than happy to return the favor in whatever way you request, when he'll likely have more stamina. This can backfire in the sense that if you haven't been doing anything sexy whatsoever for a very long time, and suddenly you start really turning him on about the idea and he realizes you're not going to be getting out the guilt trips or yelling at him mid-act, he might come really quickly on several occasions before he's able to hold out more easily. For those occasions a vibrator could be really useful if you are into that sort of thing. Tell him what you want. Tell him if you want him to talk dirty to you while you masturbate, or him to use the vibrator on you, oral sex, or whatever you think would work best.

I would recommend trying your best never to make him feel bad about coming too soon - the point is that he's so turned on by you that he can't help himself, really, that's pretty sexy, as long as he's willing to do whatever you need afterwards. I would suggest trying to keep the lines of communication as open as possible before, during, and after sex so that you never end up in the type of situation that would lead to one person asking "what's wrong?" during sex - which would usually be because the other person is not communicating and is instead demonstrating that something is wrong through facial expressions and/or body language. If there is something wrong, make sure that you say something about it as soon as it happens rather than act like you don't want to be having sex anymore - if someone's slowing down and you don't want them to, there's nothing wrong with saying "don't stop! I'm enjoying this so much!" or the classic "harder! faster!" If they then come quickly and seem sheepish or apologetic, your response could be "don't apologize, that was so hot - now can we do XYZ for me? I'm so turned on!" As a rule, I try to always have an enthusiastic or positive response to anything in bed, unless I just injured myself or something else quite unusual happened (like a family member walked in on me), because I believe that to most people, enthusiasm and confidence/knowing what you want and enjoy are some of the things that make the sex the sexiest - far more important than whether you have cellulite or varicose veins or whatever. Remembering this can help you keep in mind why dwelling on body image issues during sex will completely undermine your ability to have hot sex. Because it's a hundred times more about how you act than about how you look, and if your partner knows that you're really into it, that will be a hundred times hotter to them than your makeup or your hair looking pretty or any of that stuff.

I don't usually give such explicit sex advice on AskMe, but your situation seems so sad and so worth fixing, and you're anonymous with no sock puppet email, so I figured it was worth saying anything I thought might help. The only thing that gave me pause was your assertion that he would never go to therapy with you, even to save your marriage, which seems to fly in the face of everything good you described about him and your relationship. I'm going to assume that may not actually be the case. I hope it's not. I really think therapy would be great for you.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:04 PM on September 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Dan Savage often talks about the benefits of being Monogam-ish.
It's certainly not for everyone but it might be something to consider.
I know you say an "open relationship" is not on the cards for you, but I would also suggest that if there is a hell of a lot of love left in the marriage, maybe you're husband would be willing for you to explore this option first, rather than lose you completely.... which is what will end up happening!
posted by JenThePro at 10:25 AM on September 2, 2014

When I read anonymous's description of her marriage, I immediately came to the conclusion that her husband was dealing with the fact that he is gay. I have nothing to base this on, of course, except my own experiences as a lesbian who knows many gay men who have gone through similar events. The way she describes her husband sounds exactly like them. I certainly hope this is not the case for her, but it might be something for her to consider.
posted by terp at 5:59 PM on September 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had asked above, basically: "When y'all fail at sex and then talk about it, how does the talking go awry?"

But the question isn't WHY the conversation goes badly in those circumstances. treehorn+bunny's splendid bedroom dialogue coaching reminds me to add. Talking about sex fail, right after sex fail, can catch people at their crankiest, most vulnerable, most defensive, and most prone to lash out. If the sex fail is beyond saving, it makes more sense to at least take a break for, I dunno, ice cream beer floats and trashy TV, or some other pleasant and failsafe distraction you can share as a couple.

It's a question of HOW the argument unfolds: what is the specific content? What are you two each assuming or valuing, and how do these assumptions or values clash?
posted by feral_goldfish at 12:02 PM on September 3, 2014

And yeah, I had had the same thought as terp. If that does happen to be what's going on, that would sure explain the communication trouble.

Sometimes I think I’m almost okay with the way things are but the thought of never having sex again is deeply depressing. Then again, so is leaving the person I love for an uncertain future.

Permanent sexlessness is, by definition, not going to change. An uncertain future is, by definition, going to change. You seem like you want change.
posted by feral_goldfish at 12:09 PM on September 3, 2014

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