Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I am a (woman? Nonbinary person?… Still figuring that out…) in my 30s. My husband and I have been together for almost ten years now, and in that time we have been through some majorly difficult situations. A few years ago I was in a car accident that left me bedridden for a few months and while I have mostly recovered, I will have pain and some mobility issues for the rest of my life. When I lost my job because my mobility issues had a bigger impact on my ability to work than we thought they would, we were briefly homeless. Relying on my social connections (he wasn’t close enough to anyone to feel that he could reach out), we were able to pull ourselves out of that. I have been able to find a job more suited to my capabilities, and although it does not pay well, we are ok financially because we have adjusted to live within the means of his job (mostly by moving 3 hours away to less rent intensive city – we weren’t spending frivolously before).
Through all of our difficulties, hubby has repeatedly shown himself to be a caring guy and a loving partner. We are socially, values-wise, and spiritually compatible, and we really compliment each other’s skill sets in a lot of areas and help each other grow. I feel like we are a dream team in all areas but sex.
I have been saying for years that I wish our sex life were more… Interactive, I guess? I feel like it’s always either his turn or my turn, and my turn only comes when I break down and beg for it. This is not a problem that I’ve had with previous partners. His experience before me was fairly limited, so I guess I always figured we were just in a learning curve. He has gotten a little better about this over the years, but ultimately I feel like our sex life doesn’t really include me at all. I have stopped asking for anything really because having to beg for an orgasm means that I am not able to enjoy the stimulation enough to get there. Sometimes after sex I find myself fantasizing about leaving him. Sometimes I even get stuck in suicidal ideation.
Recently he told me that he saw Terry Crews talking about porn addiction, and thought that he had it and that was causing our sexual difficulties. Before this neither of us really saw how his porn habit was a contributing factor. He said that he had gotten so stuck in the pattern of a solo habit that being turned on was like switching a flip in his brain that made him feel like he was alone. He started seeing a therapist (this is all very recent) and told me that he wants to start working on having a real sexual connection with me. I want more than anything to have that connection with him, but frankly the idea of being present in sex at this point sends me into a total meltdown.
I do have a therapy appointment scheduled, but as an Autistic woman who is very very good at masking, I feel like therapists really don’t understand what I’m saying a lot of the time. (I was diagnosed as a child, taught to act neurotypical, and then just sort of tossed back into the general population with no acknowledgment that I might have some less obvious problems… And I did pretty well at pretending that I did not.) While I’m often very good at understanding other people (I have had to make a very intensive study of this just to keep up), I am not good at all at making myself understood. Therapists, I have found, often tend to get fixated on helping me through issues that are common but not at all what I’m struggling with, and when I try to correct them they assume that I’m in denial. While this has taught me a lot about how to understand and help my friends, it leaves me to figure out my stuff on my own, and frankly I’m flummoxed here. How do I cope with being present in sex when alarm bells are going off in my head the whole time? The logical part of my brain says that now that the problem has been identified, we have a real path to victory here, but the emotional part of my brain does not see the path at all. Please help!
Waiting For My Turn
So the other day, I mentioned a genre of advice letter called the “BUT” letter. As in “our relationship is great! But…” This is another example of that. Your relationship with your husband is incredible… except for this one thing. It’s not much, it’s hardly worth complaining about… except for the part where you’re feeling abandoned and feel so hurt that you think about leaving him or hurting yourself.
That’s a pretty goddamn big but, WFMT.
In general, you and your hubby are doing exactly the sort of thing I tell people they need to do when it comes to strengthening and maintaining a relationship…. but. We live in a sex-negative culture that tells us that if everything else is working well, then you shouldn’t complain, that it’s just sex and maybe somebody should do more dishes and take up more of the housework or something equally anodyne. We’re told that we shouldn’t get that upset about sex and that if need be, the member of the couple who isn’t getting their needs met shouldn’t impose too much on the other.
The truth is that sexual compatibility is a vital component when it comes to the health and longevity of a relationship; possibly THE most vital. After all, people will blow up their entire lives over sex; they almost never do that over whether someone’s not doing their share of the washing up. Sex and sexual satisfaction is about more than just who’s orgasming when and how many times; in a relationship, it’s also about intimacy and connection, about bringing two people together. Problem is… none of that’s happening here. From the way you’re describing things, it sounds an awful lot like your husband is treating you like a sex-toy, not as a person and certainly not like his wife. It sounds like he gets himself off and anything after that is… well, is it even an afterthought?
Now it’s good that he’s talking to a therapist. It’s good that he says that he wants a better sexual connection with you and to be more present during sex. The part that sets off my spidey-sense though, is the part where he blames it all on porn. See, porn addiction isn’t really a thing. There’s no diagnostic criteria for problematic porn usage, nor does porn addiction exist as a diagnosis in current edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists issued a statement saying that there’s not sufficient evidence to link sexual thoughts or behaviors to porn addiction or pornusage. In fact, the only places I find that insist that it’s a real and dangerous problem are the no-fap subreddits and organizations – frequently religiously based – that promise treatment and cures.
Sex addiction and porn addiction does, however, create a very handy excuse for whatever problems people care to blame on it. It becomes a great way of avoiding any real accountability or responsibility and makes it that much harder to deal with the actual problems in your relationship.
So no, I don’t think that watching so much porn just flipped a switch in his brain that made him forget that he wasn’t in the room with another person. I think he’s got other things on his mind. Maybe he’s just selfish, maybe he feels like your mobility issues make sex too difficult for more than just getting his rocks off… I don’t know. What I do know is that if he’s going into the therapist to talk about being addicted to porn, that nothing meaningful is going to change.
I think what you two need to do is see a sex-positive counselor together, on top of seeing your own therapists. Ideally, you want to see someone who isn’t going to see a mismatch in desire or interest as a problem for the person with the higher libido or who isn’t going to take “porn makes me treat you like a Fleshlight” for an answer. I strongly recommend AASECT’s referral directory to help you find a sex-positive counselor in your area, who can hopefully help you two communicate with one another about what’s going on and find an answer.
And one more thing: if you’re finding that therapists are insisting you’re in denial when you feel like you’ve been misunderstood? Then it may be time to find a different therapist. Therapy is a lot like dating; you need a therapist who understands you, who listens to what you’re actually saying and has a genuine rapport with you. If you’re finding that the one you’re working with doesn’t understand or isn’t listening? You’re totally allowed to fire them and find someone else. Don’t forget: the whole point of a therapist is that they work for you.
Dear Dr. NerdLove:
My wife and I were extremely happily married for more than 45 years. We virtually never fought and only wanted to be together. My wife suddenly died, without warning, approximately 4 months ago. We both come from very close families, and we have several children of our own. I have been very lonely since her death. How long would you say it is appropriate to wait before starting to look for another companion? I am getting older and do not want to spend the rest of my life alone. But, I also do not want to cause problems with any family members who might think that I was not being loyal to the memory of my late wife.
First, I’m so sorry for your loss, WW. Losing your partner is hard enough; losing her without warning or even a chance to say goodbye is almost cruel.
Now to answer your question… the most appropriate time is when you’re sure that you’re ready. One of the things that people often don’t understand about grief and the loss of a partner, especially a life-long partner, is how huge that void can be. This was a person who’s been a part of your life for decades and now there’s nothing. We talk about how recovering from the end of a relationship is often like coming to terms with losing a limb; often when we lose a partner to death, it’s more like we’ve lost a piece of ourselves. There’s a hole where this person, our lover, our partner, our companion used to be, and the existence of that hole can sometimes be more devastating than the initial loss.
It’s totally understandable that you’re lonely and want to find someone who can help alleviate that loneliness. That’s natural, and I don’t think you need to hold yourself to some artificial deadline – whether it’s six months, a year or more – in order to make sure you’re not being disrespectful somehow. To be perfectly frank, I think it’s more disrespectful to your wife for you to not find companionship again. I would find it almost impossible to believe that someone who loved you as dearly and as passionately and as long as your wife did would want you to be alone, to not love again or to suffer because she’s gone. I rather imagine she’d want you to continue to live and be happy.
And that’s my suggestion too. You are still alive… so live and love. That, I think, is the best way you could be loyal to the memory of your wife.
As for family members who think that you’re somehow betraying her? Tell them what you’ve told me: you’re lonely and do they really think that your wife would want you to shut yourself away from the world? Would she really want you to hurt so much while she’s gone? You deserve love, you deserve happiness and you deserve to care for someone and to be cared for in return. Your finding someone new isn’t disrespecting your memory of your wife. It’s a tribute to the love you had and the depth of your feelings.
Go find a new companion, WW. You have my blessing.