I’m stuck. I’m in a loveless marriage. We get along OK, as friends. But we haven’t had sex in ages. I’ve cheated. I want out, I’m pretty sure she wants out. But we have young kids, which is a factor. The second factor is money. If I leave I pay alimony, child support, etc., which I can’t afford. So, here I am, stuck. Is there a solution, or do I just need to accept this reality?
I’m sorry that we’re not having this conversation over coffee — there are a few follow-up questions that I wish I could ask you.
First, how old are your kids? It’s pretty normal to have an exhaustion-induced sexless period when your children are small. If you’re not sure whether to count your youngest child’s age in months or weeks, then stop complaining: not having sex is part of having a baby. This too shall pass.
Second, is there some other catalyst which may have functioned as a cease-and-desist order on your sex life? Could prescription medication, for instance, be trashing your wife’s libido? Is she radically self-conscious about her body after two or more pregnancies? Have you gained a whole lot of weight?
Third, how does your cheating fit into this puzzle? Your affair(s) might well be 100 percent of your problem. A betrayal can sabotage intimacy for months if not years, especially if the cheater believes that he or she was entitled to sex somewhere else and isn’t working all-out to rebuild trust.
Finally, and most importantly, what does your wife have to say about all of this? You write that you’re “pretty sure” that she wants out. That suggests to me that you and she aren’t actually talking a whole lot. If there is to be any hope of becoming unstuck, Stuck, then you need to begin a conversation with your wife right now.
Here’s the good news hiding in your letter, Stuck: you and your wife get along OK as friends. That’s miles more than a lot of couples can say. So, give your friend the gift of speaking with her honestly. Tell her that you believe sex to be a vital component of how a couple connects with one another. Tell her that you respect and care about her too much to spend the two decades until your kids are in college watching the silent resentment between the two of you grow. Tell her that you need her to reciprocate your honesty, that you want to hear the unvarnished truth from her, no matter how much it may sting: what have these past few years been like for your wife? And then tell her that the two of you need to go to counseling.
A good counselor will be an enormous help in facilitating a conversation such as this one. Look for a counselor who is sex-positive (I found tons of resources just by typing “sex-positive counselor” into Google). Such a counselor is not going to be embarrassed, surprised, or judgmental about your situation. Indeed, the reason that such a counselor is gainfully employed is that she regularly sits with couples who are struggling with the very same problems as you and your wife.
I understand that initiating this conversation with your wife after so much silence may feel scary. There is a good reason for that: it is a big risk, a big act of vulnerability, to tell another person the truth. But it is a risk that is absolutely worth taking. The alternative, to keep on saying nothing, is going to wear you and your entire family down. The pain which is so evident in your letter is only going to be magnified by further weeks or months or years of inaction.
Let me end with a little theology, Stuck. Marriage is a commitment before God and to God. In it, you promise to love your partner as she is right now, not as she used to be or as you wish her to be or as you think she one day could be. God models this love for us: God loves us exactly as we are right now.
Now, that’s not to say that God does not call us to grow or that we may not help out partners to grow. But it is to say that genuine love is not conditional on that growth. In the words of Richard Rohr, “Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.”
Now, for those of us who aren’t God, maintaining this change-giving love through the traffic of the years is a big undertaking. That’s what people mean when they say marriage is work. As hard as it may be, however, it is our calling as married people to do this work: to love our partners as they are now, to help them to become the joyous and purposeful people whom God wants them to be, and to be open to receiving the same love and help ourselves.
So, take the deepest breath that you can and tell your wife that you need to talk to her today. Your marriage, your children, and your own integrity demand nothing less.
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