Married in Name Only

Friday, October 05, 2012

Question

Dear Patrick: I was happy to find the symptoms of menopause were winding up. I felt like I was about to enter a new phase of my life where I would have more freedom. Prior to menopause, every method of birth control I tried had its own set of problems. Birth control pills depressed me, condoms interfered with spontaneity and every man complains about having to use them, etc. It was exciting to think about having sex with my husband without being on the pill, having an IUD, getting a hormone implant, etc.

          We have been married for more than 30 years, and sexual intercourse took place at least once a week, usually more often. I felt so lucky when friends complained that their husbands never paid them any compliments or didn't give them enough attention in the bedroom. But now it seems that my husband has lost all interest in sex. He no longer approaches me. He gets into bed, rolls over, and goes to sleep without even kissing me.

          Maybe our marriage is old-fashioned. I have never had to initiate sex and we never talked about it much. I enjoyed what we did, however, and always let him know that I was satisfied and found him attractive. Since we both come from religious families, I was a virgin when we got married, and he always told me that it meant so much to him to know I had waited until the right man came along.

          I know I am not the same woman I was at 18, when we married, but I have not allowed myself to gain a lot of weight. I pay attention to how I dress and make sure that I am well-groomed. If he found me attractive just a year ago, why would he be turned off to me now?

          I've struggled to talk to my husband, and I can't even find the words. Writing this letter has taken me a week of false starts and tears. Is there any way to communicate with him about this without embarrassing both of us? I don't want to be—Married in Name Only

Answer

 

Sorry, I don't want to call you “married in name only” since we can hopefully find a way to fix this problem! I agree with you that after such an active sex life, it would be a crying shame for you and your husband to become sexless bed partners. Since I don't know either one of you very well, I can't promise a perfect solution, but I can suggest a couple of different reasons why your husband may have withdrawn. You may need to get a little more information before you know exactly how to address this, but I believe there's a very good chance of a reconciliation and more romance for both of you.

          Your husband's behavior is a mystery to me. There are a few reasons why he might have become unavailable for sex. I'll describe some of them, but the only way to find out what he's experiencing is to get him to talk to you. I'm going to bring up a few possibilities to make it easier for you to guide the conversation.

          Some men have a subconscious belief that sex is exciting only if there is a chance of impregnating their female partner. These men often have problems using condoms, and some of them become impotent if their wife or girlfriend gets pregnant. This identification of sex with fertility can be so far in the background that the man himself is unaware of that dynamic. But if your husband was having sex with you during menopause, I doubt that this is what is going on.

          It used to be quite common for everyone to believe that sex was a male need; it was a wife's duty to provide sex for her husband, but she was not expected to enjoy it. While you believe you have let your husband know that you enjoy sex with him and find it satisfying, he may still be influenced by the idea that he is imposing a shameful need on you, expecting you to service him even though you find sex disgusting or distasteful.

          That anti-sex myth can really harm the relationships of older couples when it is combined with the stereotype that sex is only for the young. Many older people grew up being taught that sex was undignified and dirty. Young people can't help doing it, but as you get older, you really ought to know better, get some self-control, and cut it out. Your husband could be judging himself harshly for continuing to be a sexual person. Ironically, he might be trying to be considerate of you or loving toward you by no longer “bothering” you for sex.

          Unfortunately, age can have a negative impact on male sexual functioning. It's really not fair. You are feeling liberated because you can stop worrying about birth control. But he might be experiencing problems with blood pressure, heart problems, or side-effects from medications that can make it extra hard to get an erection that is firm enough for penetration and full intercourse. Older men tend to need more direct stimulation to be able to get firm erections. A teenager can be ready for sex if he just thinks about looking at a woman's nude body; an older man might need his partner to stimulate him.

          Now, to me, that just sounds like a fun encounter. But some men can be ashamed of this change. They may believe that they have lost their masculinity. Women are the ones who need sexual touch; a man should just be ready to go if he's any kind of real man. This is complete nonsense, but it can be hard to identify sexual myths like this and change one's own beliefs or behavior in the bedroom. For example, masturbation is one way for older men to preserve their potency. It's important to have regular orgasms to keep everything in good working order. But if you were raised to think that masturbation is wrong or immature, or if you have a partner who disapproves of it, an older guy can unwittingly harm his potency by avoiding an activity that has been mislabeled as a sin or self-indulgence. A couple who has little foreplay might find it hard to transition to a different style of lovemaking that allows her to stimulate his penis. Most heterosexual women find this an enjoyable and arousing experience, so I hope your husband will understand that he is actually making sex better for you if he lets you touch his equipment.

          Depression is a common problem for older people. Anxiety can also interfere with sexual functioning. It never hurts to see your doctor, provided they are knowledgeable about sex and open to a frank conversation. Your husband might need a complete physical to identify the problem and find a solution that will restore intimacy. Unfortunately, some anti-depressants have sexual side-effects, so stay in close communication with your doctor about this. Make sure the doctor understands the two of you want to continue to have an active sex life, so he or she can choose medications with less chance of causing impotence.

          There are many choices for treating depression other than medication. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be very, very effective at improving depression without the use of medication. Also be aware that sometimes people who are depressed do not need to take the medication forever. Once their brain chemistry is balanced, they can sometimes gradually quit taking it, under a doctor's supervision, of course.

          There are, fortunately, a lot of excellent resources for a man who has trouble getting the same type of erections that he had as a teenager. There are several medications that affect circulation so that an erection happens more easily. Vacuum pump devices are also available that can produce an erection without the use of medication.

          When you have never had explicit conversations about sex, it is indeed difficult to find the right words to let your spouse know how you feel. I understand why you are having so much trouble. When did you ever have the chance to develop a vocabulary to describe your own sexuality? You were fortunate to have a compatible partner who met your needs without spelling things out. But if you want to enjoy getting past the menopause, you, too, will need to take some risks and learn some new skills.

          In couples counseling, when people have an issue that is hard to bring up with a partner, I suggest that they write a letter. Don't share this letter with your partner. Just write it for yourself. Say everything that you need to say, and be as plain as you can. Leave the letter for 24 hours, then go back and read it again. Read it every day until you feel that you can read it out loud. Repeat this exercise until you are bored with your letter. This will mean that you have gotten more comfortable with the issue and the terminology.

          Now you have a choice. You can share the letter with your husband, write him a new message, or have a conversation. Speaking about a sexual problem usually goes better when you pick a time when you don't have to rush out of the house to do errands. Try to find a time that is low-stress. Just let him know how much you have enjoyed being his wife, and that you miss his attention in the bedroom. Tell him that you want to reciprocate for all the pleasure that he's given you. Ask him to tell you why sex has been less of a priority of late.

          Many husbands would be touched to have a wife like you who wants to remain physically close. A tactful opportunity to open up can be a big relief, especially because men often don't know how to start such a conversation. I hope the two of you are able to get back on track so that the rest of your years together will be joyous and naughty. Brazen, even.