My husband doesn't want to have sex with me

He's being treated for depression, and it's making me crazy.


Cary Tennis
May 7, 2008 2:22PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I am 32 years old. My husband does not want to have sex. Moreover, he does not desire any kind of intimacy. With anyone. It's not always been like this; our relationship was one based on mutual physical and intellectual attraction with all the mundane intimacy and tenderness of a normal young(ish) couple. I am (and I think he also is) aware of the circumstances that led to current sad situation: A few years ago I became pregnant. We were not ready. I had an abortion. Neither of us expected it to be so emotionally terrible; it was a tumultuous time in our new marriage. Last year I became pregnant again. Both of us were happy about the upcoming child.

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Then an avalanche of stressful events happened in my husband's life: He had a fallout with his family; he was having a hard time with law school; while stressing about not finishing school, he was offered a job that would move us from the West coast to the East, far away from all our friends and family and my blossoming career; and of course he was a newly expecting father. He has a history of severe depression, and these events seemed to set him off into a deep, dark funk.

Going through the pregnancy with a depressed partner was, to say the least, challenging. But I had a wonderful support network otherwise, and gave birth to the most beautiful, healthy girl. I quit my job, he started his new job, we moved far away. Most major life stressors were endured.

A few months after the baby was born, I convinced my husband to see a psychiatrist. He began medications, and his general experience in life has improved. He seems more able to enjoy life. He is more talkative. Though he has always been a decent father, he now is a much more engaged and loving father. I am glad about all these improvements.

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But my husband still has no desire for sex. He is loving in other ways: He encourages me to take time for myself, to do fun things with our daughter, to make new friends; he brings me small gifts; he is generally the considerate and humorous man that I love. But he does not hug, nor hold my hand, nor snuggle on the couch, nor put his head on my shoulder when we sleep, nor any of the normal intimate gestures that were part of our daily life before his depression set in last year.

We've talked about this, repeatedly but superficially. Basically we can't get beyond this: He does not know why he doesn't want intimacy, but he knows he does not. I desire intimacy, but I sure as hell am not forcing him to do anything against his will. He says he is working on it with the psychiatrist. Maybe he's working very hard on it -- I don't know -- I just know that he hardly touches me at all, certainly not in a sexual way but also not in any other way. I know he has had a terrible time dealing with inner demons. I am so glad for him and for our family that he's shown signs of improvement. But it has been over a year since he desired any physical intimacy, and I am so lonely for his affection.

I've talked about this with some friends, which of course is helpful. My way of dealing with the world is to take action, to improve my own actions or knowledge and to do something about stuff I'm not happy with. But it seems the appropriate action of this circumstance is no action. To be patient. He's working on it. I need to understand, and to be kind and to wait.

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How long am I supposed to wait? I am so tired of waiting. My issues seem so trivial compared to other suffering in the world: I don't worry about our finances, my daughter is gorgeous and happy, my husband is kind and intelligent, my family and friends are loving and supportive. If not having sex is my biggest issue, I have it pretty good, right? But how long am I supposed to wait? I imagine living for five or 10 years like this -- this pleasant, platonic relationship, and I fear wasting my 30s on a passionless marriage.

I know you won't be able to tell me what to do, but I'd appreciate some perspective on this. Taking a philosophical long view may help me to deal with things over the next couple months or years.

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Hungry

Dear Hungry,

You are having a hard time living with a husband who is depressed. The lack of sex is a very painful part of that. So how do you deal with it, and what can you do to give yourself a sense of acting on it, even though you know that you cannot cure it?

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If taking action is your instinct, then take action.

I suggest that you undertake a number of activities that have been shown or are believed to in some way help with depression. Pick activities that have benefits for both of you, such as exercise, diet and stress reduction. While not trying to cure his depression, you will be doing things that may help. And they will help you as well, by making you stronger and healthier and better able to cope with life.

I have only very mild depression, episodes of relatively short duration, and I have worked on it with a psychologist to good effect. In addition to my work with a psychologist, the way I keep depression at bay is pretty much by managing stress, eating well, getting enough sleep and working out a lot. I'm on a routine now that I hope to keep on as long as I'm alive, because every time I quit exercising I get depressed, and every time it's a little harder to climb out of. And I'm 54.

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So if it's possible for you both to join a gym and begin working out strenuously two or three times a week, I'm not saying it's a cure, but it sure might help. You just feel better regardless of whether anything has changed in your psyche or not. And then, what I have found, is that if I have the benefit of mood elevation from physical exercise, I then have the energy to do more strenuous emotional work, such as entertaining in memory the past traumas and pains that could, under less favorable circumstances, make me depressed.

That's the kind of work that he is probably doing with the psychiatrist. He may find he has more energy for that very taxing work if he is exercising and eating well.

Having patience is hard. Waiting for someone to improve is hard. Do you ever talk to the psychiatrist with your husband? Maybe some perspective on what is going on with him might make the time more bearable.

And is there anything you can do in the way of going to Paris for a week? Going to Paris for a week is a good thing for a married couple to do, I would say. But I know that sounds so rich and self-involved, and I'm not rich and I'm only a little bit self-involved (By California standards I am not all that self-involved. Really.)

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If not Paris then perhaps you can go some place where you can be in your bodies for a couple of days, maybe some place where they put you in some kind of bath, and give you a massage, and make you take showers together. Some place to make the body come alive again!

The body can just go dead under too much stress!

You can only take action with things you have control over. So, what do you have control over? Do you have control over the rhythms of life in the house, and the food that is eaten in the house, and how much exercise and sleep you get? Then take action in those areas. Can you plan a vacation where you and he can get away without the kid for a couple of weeks? If that is in your power to do, then there is an action you could take.

The good thing about activities that can combat depression is that many of them are pleasurable whether you are depressed or not. In this group I would include looking into couples therapy, so that you don't miss out on the fun of visiting with a therapist once a week.

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You know, I started looking up things on the Internet about the relationship between endorphins and depression, and next thing you know I have so many links that I'm not even going to try to put them in the context of the writing. I'm just going to list them as sources at the bottom. I think they all may have something to offer.

So ...

Relationship between anger and depression

Since he is dealing with family conflict, perhaps his attachment style is the avoidant one.

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For some reason I found reading about attachment disorders very soothing today -- probably because I am one of those people with insecure attachment and its resultant strangeness.

But that's probably more about me than about you. For you, I would suggest reading the Helpguide.org's piece on living with a depressed person, especially the part about having a depressed spouse.

"There is massive evidence in favor of the endorphin level link to depression," according to this unsigned paper from the UC Berkeley Molecular Neurobiology Department, "but there is also disputing testimony showing that changes in endorphins levels of depressed patients have not been found in clinical research."

I would also look into the whole connection with food and exercise and seratonin, though some of these links don't look like the most authoritative ...

Now, I'm not so comfortable with the lack of attribution and all that, but I'm pressed for time, so will just quote this thing too: "Indeed," it says at this Go Ask Alice.Columbia.edu site, "a Duke University study released in 2000 showed that, for some people, 45 minutes of exercising, three-times-a-week, was as effective in lessening depression as was taking the antidepressant Zoloft."

You might also check this out: The Depression Learning Path, out of the U.K.

And also maybe check this out.

And the BBC Magazine on running to beat depression.

Finally, it sounds like you know exactly what to do and it's just hard doing it. So these are some things you can do, and think about, while you pass through this difficult period: Exercise, stress reduction, a couples getaway, meditation. All these things can help you. You seem to grasp that intuitively. I'm not telling you much you did not already know. It just helps to hear it from somebody else, doesn't it? I would agree with you -- that you have much to be grateful for in spite of your current difficulties.


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