My husband and I have the best marriage of any we know. We live and work together virtually without argument. We share many interests and have plenty of time for our own hobbies as well. We have more fun together and laugh so much it often feels too good to be true. We respect each other on an intellectual level, which is something we both cherish. Friends and family are amazed and admiring of how happy we both seem. So what's the problem?
Our sex life started going downhill four months into the relationship and has all but come to a halt now for close to three years. After two years of being the only one to ever instigate sex, I decided to see what would happen if I left it up to him (he kept saying that he did find me attractive). Here we are having just passed the third year of waiting. We discussed the problem several months into it and he was pleased to report that his therapist sees many couples who need to "work at their sex life" and that he would do "whatever it takes" to get things back on track. Nothing came of that conversation.
After waiting almost a year, I told him that I needed to see some action on his part, some indication that he wanted to get help. Since that time, I've purchased books and magazines, and I've found and sent countless Web sites only to be the only one to really read them. I tried videos and sent them back after they sat collecting dust once I'd watched them. I gave him a list of all the local sex therapists over a year ago. After several weeks of avoidance, he went to one and came home with favorable reports but then decided to give his longtime therapist a chance instead of starting all over with someone new. He went twice.
This past summer I again (now for the third or fourth time) told him that I needed to see action so he went back to his therapist. Several thousand dollars of hypnosis, testosterone and antidepressants later, nothing has changed. I've broken down and started something quite a few times in the last three years, but it was so mechanical, awkward and passionless that it discouraged me from doing so again. The last time, it was over in about three minutes. I've found it difficult and lately almost impossible to reach orgasm with him, a problem I've never had before with others or myself. Part of this may be that I find sexual insecurity or shyness to be a huge turnoff (coy giggles when I go places). He's explained feeling dead below the waist, feeling somewhat repulsed by sexual images, and to feeling guilty and concerned daily -- for which he compensates by doting on me and being the world's most generous, supportive spouse.
Throughout all this I've seen my therapist many times, talked to a few select, cherished friends and read oodles of material on the subject. In the beginning he claimed he'd never had this problem before but recently the story changed considerably and I now realize that he's never had a truly healthy sexual relationship.
I knew when we married that this challenge wouldn't always be easy and I accepted that it may never be what I might wish for. But I believed that he was serious about finding help, and his life is full of accounts of self-exploration and improvements so I saw no reason to doubt him. Now I'm feeling so many things -- angry, sad, hurt, insecure, tempted to cheat -- the only consistent thing I feel aside from love for him is a sense of being the most resistible woman on the planet, at least inside these walls. If I had a dime for each time he's told me it has nothing to do with me and that I'm beautiful, I'd buy him a sex drive -- or a boyfriend for me at the very least.
I really don't have any answers for you. It sounds like you've done everything in your power. All I can do is urge you to make a decision about what you yourself are going to do. This is the much-neglected work that we come to when all our remedies are exhausted. This is what we do when either something irrevocable has occurred, or we have reached the limits of our power to change or even comprehend some ongoing phenomenon.
When all else is maddeningly unclear, making a decision can be the only empowering action available to you. Your choices seem to be to A) leave him; B) stay with him but find sexual satisfaction elsewhere; or C) stay with him and accept your unacceptable sex life. None of these options is great, but you have to do something because you're stuck.
What I perhaps can help you with is how to make the decision. I would pick a person who will help you through this, your therapist or a close friend. Pick a deadline for yourself, say, six months. Don't tell your husband what you are contemplating. That would just sound like an ultimatum, the terms of which he would attempt to meet in order to forestall action.
In order to make the decision, use the methods you have used to make other big life decisions, like marrying, or buying a house, or taking a job. If you like a decision tree, use that. If you like to simply stew over the thing, do that. But please make your thoughts concrete. Identify each specific benefit and each specific danger or loss that each choice entails. And go over it thoroughly. For instance, if you were to decide to seek sex elsewhere, ask yourself if you have any experience with such attempted arrangements in the past, or if every sexual experience has always been accompanied by the unspoken rules of romantic attachment; ask yourself what your husband would be likely to do; ask yourself if it's within your ethical boundaries to deceive him, or whether you would have to reveal to him your plan.
This could be a lot of work. Each choice is teeming with powerful emotional and ethical questions. But if you go through this process in detail, taking notes, talking through your fears, one clear choice should emerge. It might not be the choice you hope will emerge, but it will be a choice.
Then you will need the courage to act. I don't know where that comes from. You stand on the cliff staring down and eventually you lean forward and next thing you know you're falling. And then you land. And then you sink, and the water is freezing, and you can't breathe. But then you float to the surface and take a deep breath and the world looks different.
Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.