I was two years into my first marriage. I had arrived at a sex toy party that a friend from work had thrown, showed up early and brought a chocolate fountain. Later, in a circle of giggling, half-drunk women, the seller at the party pointed at me and said “You’re the biggest prude in the room. You showed up early, brought food, you’ll probably help clean up, too. I’ve got you pegged.”
My face was red with embarrassment, not because he had me pegged at all, but because showing up to that party to begin with, to buy a vibrator that I would use to give myself the first orgasm I’d had in a year, was out of my comfort zone. I was a sexually abandoned spouse, and going to that party was a painful admonishment that I was a married woman who couldn’t get sexual satisfaction from my own husband.
The sarcastic sex toy pusher was completely wrong on quite a few levels. I’m anything but a prude. I have an above-average sexual appetite and have never had issues pleasing my partners. I was also a good wife to my ex-husband.
My ex, let us call him simply “F,” and I were married when I was 23. Both of us decided that we wanted to remain celibate before marriage as part of our faith, and so we were true to that. I didn’t even see him without pants on until our wedding night, and we did nothing more than kiss. To his credit, I think F tried to warn me once that I might be in for some disappointment.
“I don’t think I care about sex as much as you do,” he said to me one day.
We didn’t discuss it beyond that first comment, and later I would look back on that opportunity for full disclosure with heart-wrenching hindsight. I was so in love with him though. I thought we would overcome anything by sheer will, by the strength of our love for one another that, in my opinion at the time, could tear down monoliths.
However, our marriage was the building, and brick by brick it would be dismantled with our own hands over the next four years. As newlyweds we had sex less than twice a month. I went on like that for almost a year, and finally I broke down, asking him what was wrong. Am I somehow making you angry? Is there something you want me to do?
Of course I thought it was my fault, because what kind of husband doesn’t want to have sex with his own wife? I expressed my anguish and depression over his neglect and he told me he would change, that things would get better. When I asked him why he rejected me constantly, why he never initiated, the only response I would ever get was “I don’t know.”
A year later our situation in the bedroom had only become more complicated. I think that third year was the period that we went an entire 12 months having sex only once. I started exhibiting physical signs of anxiety and depression. I was constantly thinking about sex, my association with the act fusing with feelings of guilt, self-loathing and loneliness. I brought up my worries less and less frequently to F, our communication over our sex-life devolving into an endless loop of arguments, brief periods of effort and then backsliding into old habits. Rinse, repeat.
We had hit our four-year anniversary, and I broached the subject of kids. I felt like a fool for bringing it up again, but my heart ached to be a mother. At this point, thoughts of divorce hadn’t entered my mind. It wasn’t an option. Conversations of cherubic faces and baby names quickly turned into another argument, another one-sided conversation, where I tearfully asked him if he would do what it took to be a father. F promised me our sex life would improve so that I could get pregnant. Two months later we’d had sex only twice.
After that last broken promise, I hit what I call a “critical mass event.” That event involved a lapse in judgment and a lot of alcohol. I didn’t sleep with anyone, there was no sex of any kind involved, but what I did was enough to say that I cheated. I went home to my husband and told him everything. I also told him I couldn’t live like this anymore and gave him an ultimatum — either we go to counseling or we separate. I told him I would understand if he wanted a divorce.
What I got was the same song and dance: Things will change, I promise. He started following the formula from the book The Love Dare and left little notes about how he loved my smile, my kind spirit. What I really wanted was for him to make love to me, to plant kisses all over my body, to tell me how much he wanted me. I knew The Love Dare was formulaic, something he did out of desperation, and instead of making me feel hopeful, it gave water to seeds of doubt that he knew how to emotionally cope with a broken marriage, especially one faced with infidelity. His responses to me were ripped from a dogma that I felt betrayed me in its prayerful answer to problems that were so much more nuanced and complicated than I’d ever expected. When F asked for us to go to counseling with our pastor instead of a sex therapist, I had already made my decision to end our marriage.
I always told myself that lack of sex was not a good enough reason to divorce someone, and after several tear-streaked conversations with friends who had no idea the personal hell I was going through, I realized how wrong I was. As a survivor of such a relationship, I can say without doubt to anyone facing a similar situation — sexual abandonment is emotional abuse and is, in fact, legal grounds for divorce.
Similar to any emotional abuse, sexual abandonment is not easily identified and is frequently dismissed and trivialized. Constant rejection and refusal of intimacy by someone who I trusted to be my partner was a source of emotional anguish that took me years to recover from. Part of my emotional recovery has been sharing my story and talking about my experience. Over the past ten years, several women came into my life that told me their own story of sexual abandonment and the pain that had been their relationship or their marriage.
All of these kindred spirits were stuck in long-term relationships where their partner had left in spirit by refusing to be intimate, sometimes physically but most of the time both physically and emotionally, which literally ripped any intimacy out of the relationship and left them no more than roommates. My experience is not only common, but a problem that is rarely discussed, a secret shame that rages against everything society and culture teaches about male sexuality and desire.
In Western society, men are supposed to be sexually voracious. Husbands are meant to be sitcom dads — ready for sex at all times and constantly having to wheedle it out of their prudish wives who chronically “have a headache.” Peg Bundy from Married with Children is the only pop-culture wife that comes to mind who is the flip-side of that formula. Peg has an undeterred sexual appetite for her boorish, lazy husband whose purest moment of happiness is watching television after work, hand in pants, wife and kids otherwise occupied and out of his hair.
Peg Bundy is a fictional character, and her endurance to constant rejection goes far beyond what an actual woman can stand without long-term emotional scars. The reality of the sexually abandoned wife is the same as a sexually abandoned husband — depression and self-loathing after long-term, repeated rejection and eventually, loss of love.
However, unlike men, women have the extra burden of accusation and shame. According to society, they are the source of their own pain, the author of their own absurd, unbelievable story that must have another layer in order to stand up to public scrutiny. The underlying question of these accusations is always the same question I’d asked myself — What kind of husband doesn’t want to have sex with his own wife?
Mine didn’t. Hers didn’t. Two of my friends. Two of my family members. A co-worker who had been married almost a quarter of a century. The hundreds of women I found on support groups. We are out here, like unicorns that were, once upon a time, caught and then inexplicably no longer wanted. Our husbands don’t want to have sex. That is the kind. Right here, at your sister or your co-worker or your neighbor’s house.
I was accused by strangers and loved ones alike of being bad in bed, of ignoring my ex-husband’s needs, of “letting myself go,” with no evidence to support those claims. I had lost weight and then gained some back, but was still thinner than I had been when F and I started dating. I had people insinuate that maybe I didn’t know how to please my husband in bed, and they gave me tips and suggestions that I had long ago mastered. I nodded and said nothing.
Others assumed that my ex-husband was gay. Repeatedly I was asked this question until I refused to acknowledge it. All of these assumptions, however, went along the same thread: There was nothing wrong with F, it was my fault that our sex life had stalled, or perhaps, although he’d walked down the aisle with me, I wasn’t his cup of tea? Maybe he preferred thinner women, better looking women, or men?
A year and a half later, F and I were officially divorced. He didn’t bother coming to the court hearing. Both of us were with other people by that point. I could tell by his urgent emails asking when I would file that he wanted to propose to someone. He sent me half the money for the fees, and I went down to the courthouse to file, and then had him served.
We had our court date three months later. The divorce was uncontested, but I wasn’t prepared to not see F at our divorce hearing. I was the only person there without my partner. I was also the only one with my paperwork in order, so I got to go first. I sat in front of the judge and stared out at the couples who sat with their lawyers, arguing and glaring at each other.
I wondered if the other couples there loved each other still. There is a type of love in passionate hate for someone you used to share a bed with, that you’ve seen naked and exposed to daylight. I speculated about why they were here, if they still had sex with each other or if that had long ago faded under the glare of other, more serious arguments. Substance abuse, money issues, verbal abuse, cheating — there are so many reasons for the death of a marriage, one where passion might still be there, where there could be a reason to still love one another.
When everything else is screwed up in a relationship, the sex can be amazing, the passion fueled by anger like kerosene to a bonfire. A friend of mine said once, when sex is good, you hardly think of it. But when sex is the only thing missing from a marriage, it becomes such a big thing. Possibly the biggest void you could imagine — a black hole that swallows your whole world.