Pete Beisner’s lack of a sex drive almost cost him his marriage, but he couldn’t let his wife go without doing everything he could to win her back.
My wife and I are in a sexual time-out. That is my polite way of saying that right now I would rather do the dishes than make love to her. This isn’t about my wife, as much as she sometimes wants to make it about her so that she can fix it. The most beautiful woman in the world could show up right now ready to fulfill my wildest sexual fantasy, and I would say, “Eh, there is some leftover pasta in the fridge. I am going to heat some up. Want some?”
Why am I telling you this? I believe that our ideas about marriage are distorted by how little we hear about the true inner workings of functioning marriages. Normally, you would only hear about something like this after the marriage has imploded. It is my hope that by talking about these things as what they are – a normal part of marriage – that we will not panic or despair when we encounter them.
This isn’t the first time that we have gone through something like this. However, it is the first time that we have been able to communicate about it clearly. And it is the first time that a dry spell has not left my wife feeling unattractive and deeply insecure.
It started not long after we fell in love with each other. There was a few heady weeks of pleasure, but quickly we sank into the routine that I had with my ex-wife: I avoided and she got frustrated and confused. The major difference between my current wife, Lynn, and my ex is that Lynn does not abide avoidance. She insisted that we talk about the issue.
I have to say that I didn’t see that one coming. I thought that she would be relieved that I was not going to impose on her by asking to have sexual needs met. But I was wrong. My wife loves sex and withers without it.
And so we talked about it for years. We tried marriage enrichment workshops and the exercises found in sex advice manuals. When that didn’t work, I talked with a therapist. Lynn’s pet theory was that some of the sexually traumatic things that I had experienced when young had led me to cut off my sexuality.
I would like to say that I was fully cooperative with all of this. But in truth, I found it a bit annoying. I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. The idea of sex didn’t particularly fill me with joy any more than exercise does. But like exercise, I was glad to have done it when I was through.
In retrospect, I can see where my responses must have been very painful to my wife. I didn’t just want to avoid sex; I also wanted to avoid being asked for sex. So if I thought that she was even moving that direction, I got anxious. And that anxiety came out as hostility or even shaming.
About six years into our marriage, my wife did something utterly unexpected. She told me simply and clearly that barring a major change in our relationship, she would never again initiate sex. It was too painful, she said, to keep putting herself out there and being rejected. It was breaking something deep inside of her to have something so core to who she is, her sexuality, routinely rejected with seemed to her to be a hint scorn. She had gained a lot of weight and felt worse than merely unattractive. She felt like she must be grotesque.
She had not made the decision lightly. She had considered the fact that in the three years since she had been keeping track, I had not once initiated sex. Given that, she assumed that we would now be entering a sexless marriage. After a few months of consideration, and a period of mourning, she had decided that for now, she was willing to put aside her sexuality and live as a married celibate.
I expected her pledge to last a few weeks, and then things would go back to normal. But I had clearly underestimated just how hurt she was and how determined she was not to make herself vulnerable to me again. There was not the slightest hint of sexuality between us. She was my friend and seemed happier and more relaxed than I had seen her in a long time.
Lynn said something that really stuck with me: “The person with the ‘no’ has all the power in the relationship.” She had taken back her own power by taking the question off the table. Her sexual needs were no longer any of my concern.
That was a wake-up call for me. I was not okay with a sexless marriage, not even in theory and not even when I didn’t particularly want sex. It sounded like a recipe for eventual divorce. And I love this woman more than life. There was no way I was going to let her go when I could do something to win her back.
As I mulled it over, I came face-to-face with what I had been asking of my wife. Without thinking about it, I had been asking her to stay in a vow of fidelity that was truly a vow of celibacy. She was in her sexual prime, and I was asking her to amputate a part of herself as casually as I might ask her to do the dishes.
I was requiring of my wife what religious organizations were asking gay people to do: Have all the feelings and desires of sexuality but never act on them. It was not acceptable when they asked for it and it was not acceptable for me to ask this from my wife.
I tried just being a good sport and going along with sex. It worked about as well as you would imagine it. That is when I decided that I was going to find an answer. I would either find a way of becoming a full partner in our marriage, or I would release my wife from her duties of fidelity.
My first step proved to be the most important one. I went back to our family doctor and demanded a testosterone blood test. On previous visits, when I had asked for one, they had told me that I obviously had plenty of testosterone. After all, I have enough hair on my body to pass for a Sasquatch, and I had classic male pattern baldness. This time, I insisted.
Later that week, we found out that my testosterone levels were those of a pre-adolescent boy. No wonder I was uninterested in sex. My body was still in grade school where girls are icky.
I won’t tell you that our life was all wine and roses after I started taking testosterone supplements. Lynn still had a lot of years of hurt to overcome. But it helped a lot that I suddenly turned into a horny teenage boy. I discovered the wonders of the female body and what the fuss about sex was really all about. As the months went by and our sex life became something that bonded us, that was fun and that fostered rather than destroyed intimacy, I watched my wife blossom. The weight peeled off of her, and she practically radiated happiness.
So why are we back in sexual time-out? A few months ago, my insurance company required that I switch to a generic form of testosterone. It didn’t occur to me to be on the look-out for changes in my sexuality. But as my levels slipped so did my interest in sex.
Last week, Lynn calmly told me that she was aware that I was no longer interested in sex. And I was beginning to exhibit the same subtle shaming behaviors that I had years before. She pointed them out to me, and for the first time I realized just how far I slid into scorn of sex when I had too little testosterone. I supported her decision not to bring her sexual needs to me until something changed. I didn’t want to hurt her anymore than she had already been.
I now have the correct dose of testosterone in a form that my body can absorb. I expect to be chasing Lynn around the kitchen by the end of next week. I look forward to watching her re-emerge from her shell and blossom again.
Lynn says she is sort of glad that this happened. It proves to her that my lack of desire had never been about her. She said, “I know now that there was nothing that I could have done to save our marriage if you hadn’t gotten testosterone treatment.”
I am somewhat grateful as well. It gives me mercy on people who are overtly prudish, and it makes me less scornful of men I know who cheat. I can see how someone in Lynn’s position, who knows that sex would obviously be an imposition on her spouse, could try to save her marriage by breaking her marital vows.
For the record, Lynn never cheated on me, although I would have forgiven her if she did. And, I am not in any way condoning cheating. I believe that spouses have the responsibility to do as my wife did for so many years: Keep talking about it and insisting that you work on it together as a couple.
I think I should also be clear in stating that of course no spouse has the right to demand sex from his or her partner. But marriage is a contract that covers sex, among other things. And if you cannot meet your obligations under the agreement, you need to at least be addressing it as a problem. You don’t get to just say “no” for months on end. You are obligated to at least say, “No, and I will do x to address this problem.”
I love Lynn, and I am truly sad about all the years of great sex that I missed out on. But I hope to make up for lost time now that the kids have left home and I have a good testosterone supplement.
Also read On Withholding Sex by Joanna Schroeder
More by Pete Beisner: 23 Tips for Men on Supporting a Partner in Pain
Lead image: Flickr/Denise Krebs