Editor’s Note: Our Answer Queen has handed out lots of smart advice to those in need, but at no point has her wisdom been more debated than when she answered this woman who said, “I don’t want to have sex with my husband.” Just take a look at the comments to see the varying opinions over what is reasonable for a husband to expect of a wife and vice versa. We welcome your thoughts.
Dear Answer Queen:
I’ve been married for 40 years. I love my husband, but when it comes to sex, he has been, and still is, a 14-year-old boy. At first I was a willing participant, but after years of his moping, cajoling, screaming, and disrespect, I lost interest. We went to therapy, but that didn’t help. Finally, several years ago, I decided to keep the relationship and family intact by agreeing to sex once a week. (I had no family support, no money, a lack of self-esteem, and young children.) But I’m now 60, with some physical issues starting to crop up. And I absolutely dread “date night.”
The thing is, other than sex, I love spending time with my husband; we get along well and enjoy each other’s company. But on this one thing we cannot agree. If I bring it up, he immediately says that if we don’t have sex, we should divorce. He does not take testosterone or engage in porn; he just wants sex with me. ALL. THE. TIME.
Do I continue to close my eyes and endure that 30 minutes once a week to enjoy the other 99 percent of my life?
So Over It
As the joke goes, “If you put a penny in a jar for every time you have sex before you get married and remove a penny for every time after, you’ll never run out of pennies.” Or recall the famous lines from the movie Annie Hall: The therapists ask both halves of a couple how often they have sex. He says, “Hardly ever; maybe three times a week.” She says, “Constantly! I’d say three times a week.” And then there’s the well-ish known, if controversial, concept of “lesbian bed death”: the idea that long-term lesbian couples have the least sex of any type of couple, ostensibly because women have less sexual desire than men.
The point is, sexual disparity in a couple is common, and usually, though not always, it’s the man who wants more. And a once-a-week, scheduled-sex agreement post marriage-and-kids isn’t unusual or wrong, especially when he wants it constantly and she feels constantly pressured. (Read about this arrangement here, originally from my book The Bitch is Back and reprinted in NextTribe.) But that practice might apply more widely to younger couples. A survey reported in AARP a few years ago showed that of 8,000 people aged 50 or older, a full third in relationships reported rarely or never having sex; another almost-third—28 percent—said they do it only a couple of times a month, and eight percent once a month. (Only 31 percent of these couples said they have sex several times a week.) Also—interestingly—even among the couples who said they were “extremely happy,” a quarter of them rarely or never had sex. That’s a hefty chunk of mid-lifers contentedly watching Netflix in their flannels and face cream, right? Who knew?
If you put a penny in a jar for every time you have sex before you get married and remove a penny for every time after, you’ll never run out of pennies.
Actually, a lot of us. Many of the otherwise loving 50-plus couples I know—the few who have managed to stay together for decades, that is—don’t have tons of sex, and even among those who do, it can be problematic. One friend, early 50s, who had a decent married sex life for 20-plus years, told me recently that peri-menopause had quashed her desire; a 60-something friend described sex with her husband as “not quite as bad as root canal.” (Ha! Okay, though, not that funny.) The point is, keeping your sex life “healthy”—or, frankly, keeping one at all in a very long-term marriage—is actually not particularly natural. And it’s not just women who need help, either, with our needs for lube, hormone creams, a clean fridge, and the perfect number of glasses of wine beforehand. How many hundred ads have you seen lately for Cialis and Viagra?
Still, supposedly, sex is (still) good for us. It supposedly strengthens our vaginal walls, supposedly burns lots of calories (really? Maybe in our 20s, when we were into stuff like Reverse Cowgirl, but …), and supposedly releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel bonded. I say supposedly because, as no doctor, I can tell you only what I hear, read, and experience myself. Also, weekly sex supposedly increases a couple’s happiness, though sex more than once a week apparently doesn’t further increase the joy factor. Again, though, that’s likely true only if both people in the couple enjoy (or at least don’t hate) the sex—if not right away, then soon into starting. Which brings us to you, SOI.
No Sex = Divorce?
I’ll be honest: Your husband sounds like a real piece of work. He’ll leave you if you don’t have sex with him once a week, rain or shine, discomfort or not? He won’t even talk about this without bringing up divorce? There’s a (big! VERY big!) part of me that wants to say, Kiss this asshole good-bye, or better yet, save the kiss for someone who cares one speck about your feelings. Yes, he has “needs.” But so do you. And feeling like you have no control over sex, even in your marriage, is not okay. He might not be physically forcing you, but to me it’s not unlike rape if you don’t have the choice to say no.
But. You love the guy otherwise, and you also like your life with the benefits that come with being married. I get it. And while he probably actually wouldn’t divorce you if you said a hard no once in a while, he would likely make you miserable—as implied by your comment about his whining, screaming, and disrespect. (Fun!)
The only solution here is to talk to this man. But don’t spring it on him like a (insert sexual metaphor here). Tell him you need to have a conversation about something important to you, and set up a time. When that time comes, put on some makeup (or whatever, at least get out of sweats), pour you each a drink, and approach him with a smile. Then tell him you love him and your life with him, but you need to discuss your sex life. If he wants to keep doing it, he has to understand your needs, too, because sex is about two people. Not just him.
Reiterate that you love him and want to stay married, but you need to find other ways to satisfy his desires without you feeling trapped, uncomfortable, and unhappy.
If he refuses to listen? Tell him intimacy between you is over until he does. If he threatens divorce, let him squawk; even if he heads in that direction for a while, I doubt he’s any more interested in letting go of your marriage at this point than you are. (Though if he is, a few weeks of internet dating as a selfish, long-married 60-something should enlighten him about that.) More likely, he’ll hear you out. In fact, since he’s apparently decent 99 percent of the time, I wonder if you haven’t actually attempted to talk to him about this for a while—or in an effective way—given how loaded and miserable the issue is for you. And he can’t read your mind.
Once you’ve got his attention, tell him you understand that he needs sex in marriage, especially monogamous marriage, and that you would like that, too (lie, if you must), but that your sex life isn’t working for you anymore. Tell him about the physical discomforts you’ve been having, reminding him that they’re not unusual for a woman your age. (Again: Maybe he actually doesn’t know this, consumed as he is with his own satisfaction.) Reiterate that you love him and want to stay married, but you need to find other ways to satisfy his desires without you feeling trapped, uncomfortable, and unhappy.
For starters: When your allotted time comes each week, he needs to ask if you’re up for sex—because a big part of your problem is you feeling forced, which turns it into something you’re doing fully for him and that you hate. (Why he would even want that is beyond me.) If you say no sometimes—and you’re allowed to! Guilt-free! though ideally you’ll schedule right then for another try—he needs to go in the bathroom with his laptop, watch his favorite porn vid (if he can’t find one, do some research and help him), and do it all by himself, just like a big boy. If he won’t watch porn, fine, but then he needs another alternative that’s not you. (Does Playboy even still exist?)
If you are able to get yourself in the mood when “date night” arrives, great! (And do try, once you see he’s putting in effort, too. NextTribe editor Jeannie Ralston suggests the Starz series Outlander—specifically, season 1, episode 7—to get you in the mood. Though really, she says, almost any episode of this broiling hot series should do the trick.) But that can’t always, or maybe ever, mean penetration anymore if you don’t want it to. Forgive me for getting graphic, but here are some other things you can suggest in lieu. You lie naked with him while he gets himself off. Again, he’s over 60. It’s high time he learns how. Or you help him, with your hands or your mouth, without him needing to be inside you, if that’s what you most dislike.
For more tips, go online or to a bookstore and find a manual of sex tips for couples over 60. I’d dig up a few for you, but I’d rather recommend some truly great reads you might not find in the self-help aisle: Mating in Captivity, by Esther Perel; I’d Rather Eat Chocolate, by Joan Sewell; or my own, The Bitch is Back, which has several essays about sex, two of them specifically about sexual discrepancy, in midlife.
Happy reading. And happier sex, I hope. ASAP.