Shared by Catherine Grant
I always told myself that lack of sex was not a good enough reason to divorce someone, but after several tear-streaked conversations with friends who had no idea the personal hell I was going through, I realized how wrong I was. None of my extremely religious family members or friends blamed me at all for wanting to get out. Quite the opposite, they asked why I hadn't trusted anyone with my experience. My response was indignant and protective. It wasn't my place to tell the world about my husband's sexual dysfunction, so I'd ignored my own pain.
When I separated, I pursued my relationship with the man at the party. I was happy in the glow of my new relationship, but it was more of an emotional band-aid for mourning the death of my marriage. An editor for HuffPo once asked me to do a slideshow of my “survival kit” for my divorce, and my response was “Do you really want me to tell your readers that I survived my divorce through a combination of booze and casual sex?” I never heard back, strangely enough, but it was the truth. Rebound relationships sometimes do have purpose. They can be a source of healing as well as a mistake.
Three months after I moved in with my mother, I emailed F to see how he was. The last time I'd seen him, he'd looked at me and asked me not to leave. When I received his email back, it gutted me.
“I'm actually okay with the way things turned out.” he wrote to me. Later I would find out that was a lie, that he was doing so badly at work that he'd almost been fired, but the ice-cold response to my concern for him only solidified me in my rebound relationship where I would stay, dissatisfied and broken, for another five years.
Abandonment as Abuse
Most relationships have an imbalance between partners when it comes to sexual appetite and preference. Most couples negotiate a healthy medium or navigate into ethically non-monogamous relationships (open relationships, polyamory) to meet those needs. Trapping someone into a strictly monogamous relationship and then refusing them sexual satisfaction or an alternative relationship, indefinitely, is more than just a “problem.” 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. Sexual health and intimacy are such a vital part of someone's well-being, and can have very significant emotional consequences for a partner being starved of their needs. 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, but once I had a name for it, it was easier to focus on healing. Part of my emotional recovery has been sharing my story and talking about my experience.
One of the most effective resources for me was a website called The Experience Project (http://www.experienceproject.com/), where I found dozens of thorough, detailed stories of couples who suffered or were still suffering the same mental anguish I'd been pushing through while with F. It was like looking into a mirror, and for the first time I acknowledged my deep depression and loneliness and realized that my pain was valid, and although I'd acted selfishly by cheating, my needs were not selfish or irrational.
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 accompanied their relationship or their marriage. These relationships have been the most healing for me in my journey to discover why my past relationships have failed, and what role my sexuality plays in my life and in my current relationships.
All of these kindred spirits that have gifted me with their experiences 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. I often described my relationship with my ex-husband as living with a houseplant that I occasionally had to water.
Every individual's needs are different and valid. A sexless or asexual dynamic can work if both partners have muted sexual appetite, but it becomes a problem when one person in a relationship has an itch that just isn't getting scratched and they are not allowed to get satisfaction outside of their primary relationship. My experience as a woman languishing in an unsatisfying monogamous relationship 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.
Expectation and Portrayal
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 own 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?
Widespread Secrets and Nonsense Excuses
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 and blogs. We are out here, like unicorns that were, once upon a time, caught and then inexplicably no longer wanted. We are being held in captivity, withering and ashamed of our sexuality. Our husbands don’t want to have sex, but they don't want us to have sex with anyone else, either.
What kind of husband doesn't want to have sex with his own wife? That one, right there, at your sister’s or your co-worker’s or your neighbor’s house. Everywhere you look, there are women trapped in cages of monogamy where the only thing wrong with their marriage might be lack of getting properly fucked by their partners. Society tells us that we have no recourse, that to go outside our marriage for sexual fulfillment is a sin, a shame. We have scarlet ‘A’s sewn into our clothes and tattooed into our foreheads for daring to admit that we're attracted to other people, that we enjoy flirting, that we ache to enter into “the dance” just to feel a spark of something real in our hearts, or the warmth of another person's body between our legs, because our spouses don't want us and we are starving for that intimacy.
Although close family members and friends acknowledged the validity of my divorce, their reactions to the knowledge that F didn't like sex were generally insulting. 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”—all 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 for the future 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?
Sexual abandonment has no such tidy, pat answers. I walked into my first marriage ignorant of the appetites of someone I intended to spend the rest of my life with, and then expected it to go well. I'm a passionate, kinky woman who thoroughly enjoys sex, and I married a man who viewed sex as repeated failure, a reminder of his inadequacy, a source of pain. My first marriage made me acknowledge, for the first time, the importance of sex for my well-being.
F and I dove into marriage without knowing that we were polar opposites sexually, magnetic poles repelling each other until it became intolerable. It was no one's fault. There is a tendency to want to place blame when two people decide to part ways, but sometimes things are just broken from the beginning. People get into relationships when emotions are intense and shallow, and they don't see how completely incompatible they are until the dust has settled and they see for the first time who they chose to spend the rest of their lives with. It can be a heartbreaking revelation.
A year and a half after I moved out, 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 was still in a long-distance relationship with the man from the party, a few years shy of discovering just how vital frequent sex was to me and eventually leaving that relationship, too. As for F, 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.
Absence of Passion
We had our court date three months later. The divorce was uncontested, but I wasn’t prepared not to see F at our divorce hearing. I was the only person there without my partner—alone, an arm full of paperwork I'd meticulously researched and filed without a lawyer. I was also strangely the only one with my papers 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 attorneys, arguing and glaring at each other, their faces twisted with anger, pain and, to my observant gaze: passion.
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. There's a vulnerability in sex that softens the heart, that makes someone the object of affection that can blunt edges and soothe tempers. I speculated about why these people in the court with me were getting divorced, 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, gambling — 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.
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.” For me, it was possibly the biggest thing. A void that, for a short time, swallowed my whole world.