Complicated married life sex question
January 20, 2023 11:18 PM   Subscribe

Ok maybe it's not really that complicated. My sex drive tanked recently. I can't tell if it's stress, chemical/hormonal changes or the development of sexual aversion. How do I fix it?

My husband and I have always had a good to great sex life with good communication, compromise where needed, openness to each other etc. The relationship has been rocky in the past but settled into a comfortable space that feels like home. Except it also feels like that stereotypical roommate marriage. It is lacking emotional intimacy. Husband has alexithymia. We are both autistic but I definitely don't have alexithymia. I need emotional connection to feel desire. He tries, but doesn't really understand and it often feels very scripted/rote. He is in therapy at my request partly to address his avoidance of emotional engagement within himself so he can better engage with me on that level. I often know what he is feeling before he is aware of having an emotion of any kind. He is also generally conflict avoidant. I've learned to accept this about him. But, it also means conversation is usually surface level, or about objective information rather than personal or having some depth. He knows that I would prefer deeper and more meaningful, intimate communication. I even got an intimacy deck for our anniversary so he could have something structured to use. He's used it twice in almost a year. I don't want to beg for emotion talk and then also have to beg for him to use the tools I got for him to use. So I just go in with the status quo until the next time I realize how hungry I am.

(I don't have tons of friends but I do have depth in the friendships I have. I have regular spaces where I can speak on a feelings level and receive that energy back. I've read the stuff for neurotypical women married to men with what used to be called Asperger's because a lot of it fits our situation. I know I cannot hang my hat in the marriage as my main source of emotional nourishment. But I also don't know how to make myself have sex without that connection. I worry that trying to make myself has caused a bigger problem than the one I was already dealing with.

I have had years of therapy, taking a break right now but might get back into it soon. Right now I could really use a vacation, a good night's sleep, and for someone else to handle all the responsibilities of my family life for about a month much more than I need another weekly appointment. But I will get back into therapy soon.

I think that I've started to see sex as a duty, while also seeing it as a gift to meet my partner's needs. He never pressures me. He never harasses me. He's respectful, even if my consent shifts in the middle of it he checks in to see if we need to stop. I have had many instances of participating in sex even when I didn't want to, because I wanted to do it for my partner. Not because he made me. Sometimes I thought I had a responsive desire and would get turned on and sometimes that has happened. I was coming from a place of love.

I've started taking DIM at the suggestion of a PCP due to labs suggesting estrogen dominance. I thought getting estrogen levels lower would raise libido, so I don't think that's the issue but I mention it because I know hormones are weird. The PCP also noted high cortisol and suggested more yoga.

Unfortunately my stress is higher than it was when I got the labs. My 6yo has been engaging in very stressful stand downs the last few months. We are talking an hour of him yelling, refusing to obey some instruction, threatening to hit me or actually hitting/kicking me because I won't do what he wants, usually while I'm also trying to finish my WFH job for the day.

I have tried so hard to find alternative solutions but currently he often has to be locked in his room to burn out his circuits over something he's stuck on before we can move forward. It's fucking exhausting. He's had these outbursts an average of 2-3 times per week since September (or earlier; I happened to see a message I wrote in September asking for help with this earlier today).

We are trying to find a therapist for him, and will be getting psychological testing next month. We are also on a wait list for an Autism Center developmental pediatrician eval in the summer. I'm reading Ross Greene and telling myself he's a good kid having a hard time but my lizard brain ain't buying it. We have adjusted a lot of things, lowered expectations and increased flexibility around limitations, in case he has the pathological demand avoidance version of autism. I suspect I might have that myself. (That might actually be part of the sex problem. He wants it so I don't want it.)

I've tried to support my husband in getting his needs met by basically offering participation that feels doable rather than one more role I have to fulfill for someone else, so I've offered one sided participation and other more creative forms of sex. But I feel sad for him that I am not more interested. He's a good guy, he's treating me well, he's fully supportive of my self care needs. I get to sleep in both weekend days. He cooks. I get to take trips whenever I want, with or without my family. If I am drained and unmasking by necessity and talk kind of bitchy to him he's always understanding.

But we don't have regular date nights. He rarely notices he has emotions much less share them. I don't want to force him to mask his autism but I don't think his alexithymia is neurologically based, according to what I know of his upbringing I don't really know, though.

I'm doing everything I can to reduce my stressors and "find what is keeping the brake stuck on" in that dual model of arousal. Trying to get aroused even alone is often uncomfortable or painful. I'm also having a lot of sensory issues where things are too soft or fast or slow or sticky or confusing or changing too often or too quickly and I can't process that AND keep my inattentive mind focused on the mental highway that I have to stay on to achieve an orgasm. My orgasms take a lot of mental work and I find it often not worth the trouble. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) my husband's enjoyment is very much tied to mine. So if I am doing it for him not myself, he tends to not enjoy it as much. Which sucks because I'm trying to hurry and get his needs met so I can do other things. I know that sounds awful but I can't fix this if I'm not honest about what is happening.

We have done couples therapy but never for sexual issues because overall our sex life has been pretty good. And other areas were a higher priority. I don't have unhelpful sexual beliefs. No emotional scars from early life sex stuff. This is all very recently hitting a point where my body is like frozen against any form of arousal. I'm sad. I want to enjoy this part of my marriage.

So I am going to talk to my PCP, continue to reduce my stress where I can, and totally stop trying to make myself have desire that isn't there until I feel some space around things. I welcome other suggestions please. I don't like the idea of taking a prescription for libido as to me that places all the blame on the woman. I think if the body is reacting to environmental things, then you use that to address environmental things. This is a system problem not a me problem. But I sure would like to enjoy sex with the person I love again.
posted by crunchy potato to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

Sent a MeMail. Thinking of you with a lot of care and empathy.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 1:12 AM on January 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hi! I 100% do not have answers for you, but I wanted to write so you have at least one story of someone who went through something similar and came out the other side.

First: The stuff with your son sounds INCREDIBLY STRESSFUL. Not just the actual behavior but the stress and worry of trying to figure out what to do about it. That’s all the reason you “need” to not feel into sex right now. It’s kind of like if a room of your home were constantly on fire, but some sort of fire that couldn’t be put out, but just had to be constantly fought. If, during the intermittent times when it was just smoldering, someone said “let’s do it” it would be odd if you could feel like it.

Second: The part where you explained why you don’t want therapy right now and wrote: “Right now I could really use a vacation, a good night's sleep, and for someone else to handle all the responsibilities of my family life for about a month” That’s it. That’s what you need. Can you get it? Maybe not, but it’s also why you’re not into sex. Could you get your husband to take on more of the family responsibilities? Could you go on a vacation by yourself?

That said, I wanted to tell you that in the middle of three small children, housekeeping and general adulting I too came to see sex as a duty, a gift to my husband, one more set of needs I was responsible for.

I actually never set out to address it as a problem head on, though occasionally it would come up between me and my husband. Here are several things that mostly just sort of happened that turned out to have a positive effect on my sex drive:

-him finally convincing me that he really really was fine with just physical contact and it didn’t have to lead to sex. I had been avoiding a lot of snuggling, hugging, closeness because I didn’t have the energy to go all the way, though just naked snuggle time would have been nice. I really didn’t believe him, but when I finally did it created a lovely space where I could be in my body and feel sensual without the stress of the energy outlay of full-on sex.

-finding a place to go dance once a week, more yoga studio than dance club, where I could again just really be in my body FOR ME.

- in the above place feeling the interest of other men…..ok, I’m not necessarily proud of this one and it’s also maybe playing with fire, but once I was getting male attention for the first time since starting to have babies, oh wow, what a dopamine hit.

-reading erotic romance novels, again this just happened, I don’t think it would have worked if I had “prescribed” them for myself. Also not just any one would do, I really needed good writing and good heroes to get engaged.

Nowadays I am really into sex with my husband. Probably a lot of it was also just my kids getting older and having more time and less stress.

If there’s a common theme in the above it looks like focusing more on myself, and my own pleasure, not specifically just sexual pleasure, but just my pleasure, what I like, what is fun for me. Which is obviously the opposite of sex as duty.

So much love to you, things sound hard right now.
posted by Jenny'sCricket at 3:56 AM on January 21, 2023 [24 favorites]

It sounds like you think the primary reason for your disinterest in sex is the lack of emotional connection, but it doesn't sound like that's a new problem in this relationship. What made it work for you before? Why is it more of an issue now?

Also, pulling back from sex now (during a very stressful period in your life) doesn't mean pulling back from it forever. Stop feeling guilty about not "providing" sex to your spouse. That can be their problem to worry about (and maybe address in ways that end up being helpful to you).

If you have the resources to increase the amount of child care you're getting, that might both give you some breathing room and help your child by increasing the amount of time and adult can focus on them.
posted by metasarah at 5:09 AM on January 21, 2023 [2 favorites]

I'm so sorry you're going through this. I don't have any informed advice, but I have experienced similar situations from the other side of the relationship and it is really unpleasant for everyone.
Trying to get aroused even alone is often uncomfortable or painful.
That's a place that's easy to focus on and hopefully solve on your own. In my very anecdotal experience with romantic partners as a cis het dude, both psych meds and birth control have been unexpectedly significant in contributing to that, which is worth considering in case you haven't. Exercise has helped. Changing medication has helped much more.

Do take a vacation. Perhaps alone. (And also spend a few minutes considering whether non-magnanimous options might be useful; but, if it sounds overwhelming, skip it.) Empathy and best wishes.
posted by eotvos at 5:12 AM on January 21, 2023 [2 favorites]

Best answer: > I've started taking DIM at the suggestion of a PCP due to labs suggesting estrogen dominance. I thought getting estrogen levels lower would raise libido, so I don't think that's the issue but I mention it because I know hormones are weird.

I'd ask yourself - what aspect of your life is truly holding you back? Feeling desired and appreciated? Your own self-image? The stress and pressure of life? Wanting and thinking about sex on the day to day? That internal drive to want someone to make love to you?

You could take T / lift heavy weights to see if it's biology. High estrogen probably means low T and that's a huge factor in sex drive.

You could try to obsess over sex for a week and read romance novels/porn and wear sexy underwear/toys in public to see if it's thinking about sex more.

You could go dancing with strangers and go to bars and flirt with people to see if it's the desires of others.

You could pay for a babysitter for a full week and try to do half the household duties and spend the other half reading books at coffee shops, going for walks, getting nails done, to see if it's stress.

Just some ideas to practically try.
posted by bbqturtle at 6:45 AM on January 21, 2023 [3 favorites]

I’m on T for menopause and it def increased my libido so hormones are something to look at … for yourself and your wants, but!

It sounds like you are working hard to provide for everyone in the way THEY need. Your son, your spouse, and even yourself.

But it sounds like your spouse isn’t working hard to provide for you in a way YOU need. Yes, he’s doing things. But you’ve discussed time and time again what YOU need and he isn’t doing it. Yet you’re twisting yourself into pretzels to accommodate him even down to sex when you aren’t into it. This doesn’t feel like a YOU thing that YOU have to fix.

I was in a bad relationship (not saying you are!) and after a breakup and it lead to a quote from a friend that I found to be a useful metric for imbalance. “You weren’t just holding that relationship together, you WERE that relationship.”

So combine all you’re doing for others, things that sound really stressful, and things that maybe you need for yourself in terms of medical support - and yea, sex sounds less than fun.

I’m a firm believer that sex needs to be enjoyable for all parties. Not another responsibility.

I think it’s important to bring up in therapy and with your spouse in order of what I see as important as an outside observer:
1) how your spouse can work to meet YOUR needs emotionally and physically and sexually and prioritize you first in some areas, the same as you have for them.
2) how you can better approach these big life stressors as a team to reduce the load on each of you and clear space for intimacy and calm - it can’t work without the first point.
3) if there are any hormonal tweaks you want, for YOURSELF to feel well, not to sexually provide for your spouse.
posted by Crystalinne at 9:02 AM on January 21, 2023 [7 favorites]

On the kid part: PCIT-like therapy was *amazing* for our 6 year old. We had a therapist willing to be flexible - eg did not do time outs or anything physical.
posted by haptic_avenger at 11:07 AM on January 21, 2023 [2 favorites]

"High estrogen probably means low T and that's a huge factor in sex drive"

While it's been thought for a long time that testosterone is the main sex-drive producing hormone in humans, more recent studies (ie studies that have bothered to actually consider women) suggest that estradiol (estrogen) is just as, if not more, important. Both estradiol and testosterone have been implicated as the steroid critical for modulating women’s sexual desire. By contrast, in all other female mammals only estradiol has been shown to be critical for female sexual motivation and behavior. Which is not to say this is your problem or that people who find that T increases their sex drive (such as Crystalinne above) are wrong, only that hormones, as you say, are weird, and not to discount hormonal changes as a salient factor in a very complicated situation.

More generally, you've talked about trying to help your husband get his needs met, and obviously you're trying to help your child get his needs met--who is helping you get your needs met? It's great that your husband is supportive of self-care, but how is he on being the carer? (And not for your kid, since that is equally his responsibility.) Maybe both of your sexual needs should be "self-care" for a while, until you, your family, and your kiddo are having an easier time.
posted by radiogreentea at 1:23 PM on January 21, 2023 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There is a good chance that something biological is going on, where you are having secret doubts about the long term viability of your current relationship and investment in your child and that has completely zapped your libido in order to prevent you from producing another similarly behaved child with the same partner. This would be a bad time to get pregnant, so your hormones are doing whatever they can to discourage you doing that. A second one just like the first would be a trifle difficult to manage right now.

Every unthinkable thought about your child is also, in some way, a thought about the child's other bio-parent. You were stumbling along okay, if not hot, horny and exultant in your relationship with the bio-dad, and it could be that as the kid got harder to cope with your bond with the guy weakened.

The situation with your kid is a really bad one. If he were an adult, you'd break up with him, and boot him out of your house. Everyone here would be telling you that when a guy kicks you, yells, won't wait and refuses to cooperate with you to DTMFA. But this is a six year old boy who is expected to grow out of the issues you are having. And yet he might not. That's the unthinkable part. What if it just keeps getting worse? He significantly lacks empathy for you, and when you have a relationship with someone who lacks empathy for you, it's a relationship that is one sided. At the same time this is just a little kid who doesn't know how to manage his emotions, and needs love and deserves love and is struggling with monumental difficulties that are out of his control and making him very, very unhappy too.

I'm going to say that the issues with your partner are not the issue. If you can get a good resolution to the situation with the poor kid, then I suspect they will resolve. And I think getting a good resolution to the situation with your child is probably the fastest way to repair the situation and restore the relationship. Couples counseling or intimacy exercises, or going to an open relationship, or fighting is not likely to fix things. The lack of intimacy you may be feeling may be because your partner is suffering from the same pain you are, and this is making him seal off his feelings so they don't overwhelm him. He may be just going through the motions of the relationship to some degree while he worries and frets and is depressed and ashamed, and is ashamed of being ashamed over his child.

All I can say is make working on the issue with the child your priority, second only to what it takes to remain functional yourself. What to do, I don't know. I can only think of two things.

One is to try to set it up so that you, your child and your partner have good times together periodically. If you can figure out a pattern as to when your son is attacking you and what might be some of the triggers, you can schedule good times when that won't happen. But it won't work if the good times are you obeying and indulging him, because placating him is the worst possible thing you can do. Any time he wins a power struggle with your, or he upsets you, it encourages him to do it again, and will potentially escalate the situation.

The second one is to look for a support group of parents with kids that are violent, such as for the parents of kids with oppositional defiant disorder. I'm not saying he has oppositional defiant disorder. There could be anything going on, such as panic attacks, or significant pain that he can't localize and is making him lash out. But you might get some of the intimacy you need from other parents with similar kids who can validate your feelings and won't minimize your situation, and equally importantly they might be able to give you some leads on what you can do, and what resources might be available to help you.

I'm also going to suggest that you start documenting everything that happens in your relationship with your son, and even record some of his tantrums and attempts to assault you. This may become a useful tool going forward, both a reality test and a diagnostic history. When you are stressed your memory goes, when you are traumatized your memory goes, so making a history of what is happening will keep uncertainty from creeping in. You want to be able to say how often the screaming and hitting happens, to prevent yourself from either exaggerating or minimizing or having any future disagreements with your child, your partner and any authorities on if something happened or not.

I wish you the best. It's so, so hard. You want to love the kid, you want to be strong and look after him and see him being happy - and it's not working. Often when things go this way the only reaction people will give you is to blame your parenting, or be appalled and disbelieve you. So no wonder you feel like you lack intimacy. You're in a wretched situation, you don't know what to do and no one has been able to say anything that provides any help.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:58 PM on January 21, 2023 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Often when things go this way the only reaction people will give you is to blame your parenting, or be appalled and disbelieve you.

That's why we wonder about Pathological Demand Avoidance. In other situations my son is kind, naturally empathetic. The other day he was very distressed about knocking over the dog food bowl and said he was going to get his Melissa and Doug broom to gather the food up and return it. I reassured him it's ok and it's just an accident and he said "but animals have feelings too and she might be sad I messed up her food."

But yes what you said, I can't even get the school to lean into a "school skills group" because my son masks all day. Teacher says he's her best student. Nobody sees this behavior but the parents and I get the worst of it (which is more consistent with PDA autism than ODD).

According to the Ross Greene philosophy of "kids do well when they can," my son is lacking skills in frustration tolerance, accepting consequences, impulse control etc. But he refuses to learn any of these skills from me. As a person that people choose to pay to help them learn skills to cope with their feelings, his rejection of my support has been painful.

Thanks for the suggestion to document incidents. That might help in noticing any patterns that I may have missed as well.

Hubby does take care of me too. He also took over most of these parenting situations because I wasn't able to digest my negative feelings anymore and worried it would come out at my son (not physically just carrying resentment and worried I'd be overly honest about things). He does anything I ask for the most part, even to his own detriment. His executive functioning problems limit some of the traditional ways of showing care but he does make that effort. I would argue that I'm actually centered much more often than he is. It's me that keeps trying to center his sexual needs.

Yes, my husband isn't providing the emotional connection I keep asking for - but he's autistic with alexithymia. At a certain point it would be ableist of me to expect a drastically different position on that. He's in therapy to strengthen these skills. He makes an effort but it's often subtle and my form of autism misses that kind of nuance. I do think he's doing as much as he can for the person he is. He's moved that needle way away from the heavily stoic and disconnected position he started with.

I'm also wondering if the sensory issues are related to all the extra stress. Son just started occupational therapy so I'll ask his OT if that is possible.
posted by crunchy potato at 2:25 PM on January 21, 2023 [1 favorite]

Once upon a time I had a five year old who was shy but compliant and trying very, very hard in school, which was kindergarten at that point. The teacher said she was a very good little girl. And she would lose it on the way home and be uncontrollable and cry and yell at her siblings and at me. We would have a crap evening full of meltdowns every day after school.

One day I picked her up at school and she barely melted down at all. It was finally a good evening. The next day was the same, just a bit of snuggling time to recover from the day and she was at her best. Fantastic! And the third day.... the teacher called me at home to ask, "What in the world is going on with little J??!! Raging, running away, shutting down and refusing, throwing things!!!"

It turned out that she had finally gotten comfortable enough with school and trusted her teacher enough to have the melt downs there. And finally I had teachers who understood me when I said that I was having problems with her behaviour. Ooh, it was SO much easier.

Something like this might happen for you too. Maybe all the masking he does at school is stressing him out so that he explodes after school where it is safe? I dunno if there is anything the same about mine and yours, but I will say that the one I had is now all grown up, extremely avoidant about things - but a very nice and safe person, not always good with empathy, quite unsociable - but one who wouldn't wound or distress another person willingly or deliberately and who would always try to make it better if she does.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:35 PM on January 21, 2023 [3 favorites]

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