Woman Divorces Husband for Withholding Sex

Woman ends her marriage of seventeen years when she finds it lacks passion.

My friend Bethany kept falling in lust with men at her office, which would’ve been fine except that she was in a seventeen-year marriage with two teenaged daughters. She was never physically unfaithful to her husband Doug, but the cost in integrity was devastating.

Finally the inevitable happened. She fell in love with one of her co-workers. Again, there was no physical infidelity, but hearts were involved. She decided she’d rather end her marriage than have an affair.

This is one of the things I love about Bethany: no equivocation, but in this instance I thought she was being rash. Couldn’t she tell Doug what was happening? That the survival of their marriage was at DefCon 5? I was shocked to discover she’d been honest with Doug and he’d remained passive.

Bethany is controlling and bossy and I can say that because so am I.

When Bethany divorced Doug you’d have thought she was divorcing me. We’ve known each other since our Study of Women and Men In Society class in Bovard Auditorium at USC, circa 1986, and bonded over our shared experience of being children of divorce. How could she consider leaving a marriage to, as she fully admitted, a funny, kind, committed man?

“Doug and I don’t have sex,” she said.

“What does that mean, you and Doug don’t have sex? You mean, like, you have it once a month or so?”

“I mean, like, we haven’t had sex in two years.”

“Holy shit!  I had no idea!”

“It’s not really something people advertise. And the last time we did it we had to get drunk and watch porn.”

“But why?” I asked, “Why don’t you have sex?”

“Because I’ve become his mother. We have an Oedipal relationship. Just minus the sex.”

Bethany explained that over the years she’d taken up more and more real estate in the marriage, or Doug simply did less and less so she had to. She managed their family schedule; she had the bigger job; she planned all their vacations; she made all major decisions about their finances and their children.

“Is this because you’re controlling and bossy?” I asked. She is controlling and bossy and I can say that because so am I.

“Maybe,” she said. ”But, I don’t always want to be the boss, sometimes I really want him to take over.”

There certainly was one place where Doug was the boss, and that  was in the bedroom. He could control Bethany by withholding. My assessment, not hers.

When you’re a married person, other people’s divorces—from marriages that seemed solid and strong—can be threatening. If it happened to them, it could happen to you. I have a propensity to be the boss in my home and Bethany’s story was a wake-up call that always getting my way in my marriage could end up being a pyrrhic victory. Fortunately, my husband Henry is willing to tell me when I need to “crawl out of his ass.”

Over time I came to understand that in divorcing Doug, Bethany did something incredibly brave. She took all the hits for breaking up her family—from her parents, her siblings, her children and her friends, myself included—in order to seek a fuller, more integrated life.

In the midst of the divorce, when Bethany had lost twenty pounds, couldn’t sleep and doubted herself, she clung to one simple truth: “I can’t live the rest of my life without passion.”

A passionless life. Not just sexless, but passionless. We all need to have a passion. Whether it’s passion for our partner or spouse, our work, our children, our hobbies. The lack of sex in Bethany’s marriage had eroded the passion of her spirit. She was living a rote, predictable, stagnant life.

It took time for me to see her situation objectively—divorce is always a personal trigger for me—and to realize I didn’t have the moral right to sentence her to a passionless life.

That was two years ago. I look at Bethany’s life today. It’s not perfect. The man she fell in love with is no longer in her life and she’s not in a hurry to meet someone new. She wants to better understand herself and not bring her daughters into a situation that won’t last. She and Doug are incredibly amiable and excellent parents to their now almost grown daughters.

Funnily enough, Bethany’s life is sexless again, but this time it’s by choice. Which leaves room for passion and possibility.

This article originally appeared on The Woman Formerly Known as Beautiful.

Photo by Simon Shek.

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About Shannon Bradley-Colleary

Shannon Bradley-Colleary blogs at The Woman Formerly Known as Beautiful. She's also a contributing blogger at The Huffington Post, MomsLa and Aiming Low. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters.

Comments

  1. Fun read. Nothing intelligent to add, sadly. Thanks for sharing.

  2. John Anderson says:

    It sounds like Doug was suffering from depression. I don’t think withholding sex was a function of control. You can’t control someone with sex without letting them have it once in awhile.

    • Maybe. But if he won’t even open up to his wife about what’s wrong (my impression from the article is that the wife tried hard to figure this out, but couldn’t because he was uncommunicative), what options does she really have left?

      By the sound of things they’re co-parenting and getting along well. I’d be curious to know if he reacted badly to the divorce, or whether it was amiable. Maybe the relationship had simply run it’s course?

      • From the first two opening paragraphs in the article, it sounds to me like she lost her lust/heart for her husband long before the marriage was ended. Maybe (probably) he had a feeling for this (being a kind and committed guy), and hence didn’t want to perform sexually for her?

    • John it’s funny you should say Doug was suffering from depression. My husband had exactly the same take.

  3. Stories like these tend to annoy me, because if you reverse the genders you suddenly have a harrowing tale of abandonment after a promise to love and cherish till death do you part (because he wasn’t getting the sex he thought he was entitled to, so he found a hot new coworker and eventually got bored of her too).

    But when a woman does it, it’s “brave”, and done in the name of “passion”.

    • Agreed. Flip this around that Doug would be called every nasty name in the book for turning his back on his wife and children. But like this it sounds like a Lifetime movie of the week script.

    • As I follow this discussion, the more and more it feels like everyone is interpreting the story differently more due to their own issues and causes. And the more I think about it, the less I know about the situation.

      Marriage is meant to be a life-long thing, and the whole “for better or for worse” clause in there is kind of meant to discourage just giving up too easily. But, do we know how hard she tried to fix things before she gave up on him? We really don’t.

      To reach any kind of conclusion about this, we have to make a lot of assumptions. I was assuming that she had tried to address it, because she seemed to be someone who didn’t approve of divorce until she found herself with no other options. And if you’re the only one trying to save a marriage then you’re probably doomed to failure.

      And while, in modern society, a man might be judged differently if he did the same thing in those same circumstances, that wouldn’t make his decision any less appropriate.

  4. Hi guys — I’ve written scripts for Lifetime. Crap. But just so you know, if I wouldn’t ever have sex with my husband (who’s loving and kind) my feeling is I’m the one who torpedoed the marriage.

  5. It’s not enough information in this article to say this is the case here, but I suspect that if anyone keeps insisting that things are done their way they will end up having to do things their way themselves.

    The article hints at this with:

    “Is this because you’re controlling and bossy?” I asked. She is controlling and bossy and I can say that because so am I.

    “Maybe,” she said. ”But, I don’t always want to be the boss, sometimes I really want him to take over.”

    Let me guess, Doug should automagically know when Bethany wants him to take over?

    The author is also not telling us something or she is making an ungrounded assumption. Bethany doesn’t tell who is withholding sex – she says the marriage is sexless. For all we know it’s Bethany who whitholds the sex because she feels the relationship has become Oedipal.

    • Quite right Tamen.

      This quote makes it sound like a 2way attraction problem:
      “It’s not really something people advertise. And the last time we did it we had to get drunk and watch porn.”

      And then the author states:
      “He could control Bethany by withholding. My assessment, not hers.”

      I’m thinking if A) these women are such good friends and B) that if he had withheld sex she would have mentioned it (as a mitigating factor for her own culpability). But she did not mention that. The fact that the author presumes this seems to be trying to find any perspective in which Bethany is not responsible.

      • “But why?” I asked, “Why don’t you have sex?”
        “Because I’ve become his mother. We have an Oedipal relationship. Just minus the sex.”
        [...]
        He could control Bethany by withholding. My assessment, not hers.

        i agree john, given the convo above, if the hub had been withholding bethany would have said.
        ive seen other women write once they feel like the mother of their partner, their desire for sex dies.

        i think ‘mother’ did tell shannon, who withheld the sex.

        • Hello gentlemen — during this crisis in Bethany’s marriage she didn’t confide in her friends because she was embarrassed that her husband didn’t find her desirable. She tried to initiate sex to be met with jokes and discomfort from Doug. I am not saying she isn’t culpable. But she felt she was the sexually spurned partner. She asked Doug if they could go to counseling to try to remedy the situation and he wouldn’t do it. She made these pleas over several years until a workplace romance acted as a catalyst. Is she right? I don’t know. No one can really understand anyone else’s marriage. I’ve been married to my husband for eleven years and we’ve been exclusive for fourteen years. When our sex life feels imbalanced I tend to be the one who speaks up and tries to right it. I don’t want my husband and I to become friends, not lovers.

          • thanks for the update
            it was laziness, hence why i often dont capitalise in my comments, that prevented me from writing ‘unless shannon knows more about their relationship than has been written here’.
            my laziness often bites me on my bum.

            apologies to you shannon

          • Can I ask then why you inserted the text “My assessment, not hers”.
            That makes it sound like you were making an inference of what was going on in the absence of proof.

            Now, you seem to be stating that this *was* her assessment. Considering all that you have mentioned “my assessment, not hers” doesn’t make any sense.

            Something along the lines of “based upon factoids I don’t want to go over, it was my conclusion he withheld sex” would have been more clear.

  6. You can’t be bossy and order people around, and still expect them to be inspired by passion.
    When becoming a subordinate, passion is the first thing out the window.
    You can’t eat your cake and still have it, too.

    • Well, the exception to that is that if that person who has seized or been yielded more agency exerts that for the betterment of their significant other.

      This can of course work with dominant woman/submissive man, but this seems to work more often than with dominant men/submissive women. In this scenario women can and do get inspired because (in my opinion) the woman either correctly identifies (or falsely assumes) that the man is working his dominance for her benefit.

      I have rarely seen the dominant woman/submissive man scenario work. I think this has to do with dominant women using their dominance to besmirch, humiliate, badger and other-wise assault the self-respect of the person.

  7. A “controlling and bossy” woman who had “taken up more and more real estate in the marriage” was surprised that her husband, who no doubt had given up the will to continue to argue and fight, was no longer interested in sex with her? She expected passion from a man she no doubt had spent years diminishing? Not to mention her “falling in lust” with guys at the office probably predated the sexless marriage. The husband was also just expected to know when she needed him to take over. Yeah right, because men should always “just know” when their women want that.

    Of course one again, in an article like this, the woman who leaves the marriage is “brave”, and should be commended for (to steal a phrase from a commenter at HuffPo) “finding her authentic self” (said in the this article as “fuller more integrated life”. There’s nothing brave about divorcing when you have nothing to lose. Women don’t lose half their stuff, half their incomes, or custody of children in divorces except under very rare circumstance. A man in the same situation would be vilified for breaking up a marriage/family over “just sex”. Also we once again have another example of a woman chasing “passion” and “possibility” because her life was “rote” and “predictable”. As I said in the “bad boys” thread women seem to be under the mistaken belief that life is a never ending fantastic adventure.

    I’m not sure what I as a man am supposed to take from this article besides: don’t marry a controlling woman; divorce will always be the man’s fault; women not getting sex = devastating, man not getting sex = stop complaining and deal with it and don’t even think about having an affair; men should read women’s minds; women have nothing to lose when divorcing. Pretty much the same as any other “grrrl power” article on marriage and divorce from a woman that can be found on the web.

    • Hi Jimbo — women – in general – are dichotomous creatures. We want to feel safe, secure, loved. Alternately we want to feel desired and ravished. I don’t know how men put up with us. I have a very patient husband. I want him to allow me to organize the house the way I like it. I want him to let me organize our family schedule. Yet when it comes to sex I want him to be so overcome by desire that he has to dominate and ravish me. I’m a bit of a handful and my husband is very patience which makes me very lucky. What I love about The Good Men Project — is that it seems to be a forum for men (who were excoriated during the feminist movement), to take back their masculinity. I consider myself a Feminist. Which is to say I believe women should have equal pay for equal work. That we should be able to do any job a man can do if we can do it as well. I believe women should NOT be oppressed due to their biology. But in the personal dynamic, I believe women can and should (if it be their desire) relish their femininity. And to me adjectives that constitute my femininity (in the bedroom) are “softness” ‘yielding: (only if this is desired) and “desirability.”
      I suppose I want my cake and to eat it too.

    • Jimbo: You wrote: ” As I said in the “bad boys” thread women seem to be under the mistaken belief that life is a never ending fantastic adventure.”

      And from Amie Longmires recent GMP article “How to Date Me: A Field Guide for Men”:

      “I want the story of my life to be filled with adventure, growth, laughter, love, risk, and whimsy. I think God’s imagination for my future is immeasurably larger than anything I could come up with on my own. I’m looking to spend my life with someone, possibly you, in such a way that when our lives merge, we are a force of nature the likes of which the world has never seen. This is a tall order, not for the faint of heart. Only dynamic characters should apply.”

  8. “This can of course work with dominant woman/submissive man, but this seems to work more often than with dominant men/submissive women. In this scenario women can and do get inspired because (in my opinion) the woman either correctly identifies (or falsely assumes) that the man is working his dominance for her benefit.

    I have rarely seen the dominant woman/submissive man scenario work. I think this has to do with dominant women using their dominance to besmirch, humiliate, badger and other-wise assault the self-respect of the person.”

    Agreed. I have not once seen a case of dominant woman submissive man being anything else. I have talked to a woman online that really enjoyed being the dominant one and treated her partner well, but in real life I have never seen anything other than the women becoming miserable and then treat their husbands badly.

    • I read a very interesting article on genderratic a while back. This article was saying that women’s groups (groupings of what happens to be all or mostly women in say business, not “womens” groups) have a hierarchy (among peers) just as men do.

      It was a very long article, but one of the ways described for women to climb the hierarchy (among peers with no preset guidelines) is to position oneself to be the most aggrieved victim in the group. If you can have an emotional melt-down it has a way of tamping down dissent (I have seen mild versions of this with my wife and her two sisters and extreme versions on the show dance moms which my wife watches).

      What I see happening is women taking this dynamic and applying it to their relationships. The default presumption is that having a greater emotional range is better.

      But I have seen some women (in real life not tv) who weren’t just emotionally open, but emotionally incontinent. Their emotionalism became a HUGE PROBLEM that everybody in the room better damn well be centered on “fixing” or the woman will essentially tell you that you are a bad person.

      While I think not repressing emotions is good, I have seen quite a few women (and some men) use their emotions like a battering ram, basically commanding attention and sympathy.

      For somebody to keep kicking up the beehive for emotions (that will pass/change in 15minutes REGARDLESS of the level of handwringing) is just abusive.

      This is another way in which people can and do shut down dissent, disrespect other peoples opinions, and show a huge uncaring for the emotional turmoil they spread in their wake. It seems to me this is another way for someone to seize the dominant position.

      • I love that phrase, “Emotional Incontinence.” I am related to a couple of people like that. With regards to Bethany, she’s emotionally continent. IF the ship is going down, she’s bailing water. She handled her divorce calmly with no drama and Doug did the same. IF there were ever a “good divorce” they had it. Doug’s at their house almost as much now as he was during the marriage. I definitely think it was a romantic relationship that turned into a friendship. And I suspect they’re both to blame for that.

  9. Other than in the headline, where does it say that he witheld sex from her? The author’s friend made it sound like it sort of just stopped in a more or less mutual way. Maybe he was more accepting of it (or depressed and resigned) but it isn’t clear from the text that he was witholding.

    On the “you go girl” tone some people picked up from this, I’m not sure that was the real intent. This seems to be more an examination of the author’s initial negative response and sense of feeling threatened by her friends choice. Which brings us back to the inaccurately adversarial headline?

    I left a marriage in which no one was being harmed and in which there was limited acrimony. We were a lousy match for each other, but we managed to be decent people most of the time. I needed more than the absence of terrible stuff to make me believe the effort was worth it, though. My choice hurt and confused people, and I’m not pleased by that, but I couldn’t let my concern for others entirely dictate the course my life took. Consideration fed into my decision, yes, but not the final say.

  10. I can just imaging the mockery and misandry if this was a man divorcing his wife for withholding sex.

  11. I cried when I read the line ” I cant live with out passion”

    Being in a situation like that right now, where love is only words and things and no passion, that hit home. I cant explain enough to him that intimacy is necessary.. unfortunately he thinks that just means porno style sex.
    The void is painful and one that may never be filled here. The thought of it being a control issue is a new one to me… one that I need to chew on because it may fit.

    The use of porn is almost daily for him… the sex between us has been almost non existent for a year ,and when it does happen its disconnected and.. well.. porn like. I cant battle that mentality anymore.
    I wish more stories like this one were publicized. Then, women in her shoes would not feel so alienated and think they are wrong. Its so easy to hear about men claiming their wives are not interested, but there is little about the man having serious issues that change the relationship. Societies take on relationship problems is so far off the mark it isnt funny.

  12. I’m an older gal and no longer desire any sex, but my life was trouble from the git go! When we were first married we were virgins, but on our wedding night we had sex. It was probably kind of clumsy and didn’t mean a whole lot, it was uncomfortable but we got through it. I thought next time would be betterbut was I wrong ! My husband was the first to express his opinion, he told me it was disgusting , messy, smelly, pointless, meaningless, didn’t think it was worth the effort, and to much work for so little. It was like some thing just shut off in his head, he then said he would move to the basement and live his life down there. He built an apartment and thats where hes been. We never communicate or even see each other for months at a time. I’ve gotten through the depression, lonelyness and the hate by working part time and working at my church. Still its terrible the way I feel, I hate all men and its a terrible thing to say but I have no trust in any male. I avoid them at all costs. This has been going on for 45 years now and my life will end that way.

    • I’m sorry about the experience you went through Amy.

      Having your first sexual experience go like the way you describe is a real fear for a lot of people (it was for me at least). All that time apart from each other must have been painful.

      I’d really hate to see your life actually end that way though.

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