My wife and I have been married for 26 years – but for the past 12 months we have not made love. Although we row sometimes like any couple, we still get on quite well and have four super kids aged 22, 19, and twins aged 15, but the spark in our relationship has long gone. I’ve tried being romantic – candlit dinners, flowers and boxes of chocolates – but my wife just isn’t interested in physical intimacy. She thinks its normal to lose interest at our age (I’m 49, she is 50), but I really miss the sex and feeling close. Even if I cuddle her she goes cold on me because she thinks I’m just trying to get her into bed – to be honest most times I am! Having teenage twins that stay up all hours doesn’t help – my wife is paranoid about us being heard. But I also think that she uses that as an excuse. I feel frustrated and fed up. She won’t even talk to me about it. In most other ways she is a brilliant wife – she looks after us all very well, a great cook, mother and main carer of my mum who is wheelchair bound and lives in a granny flat next to our house. She is well regarded by everyone really – she is a mainstay at our church, teaching in Sunday school and also working part-time in the church office as the secretary to the minister – which is one of the reasons why I haven’t spoken to him about this. What can I do to win her round?
"Your wife sounds like she is channelling all her energy and love into looking after everybody else, but has lost sight of being your lover. You are going to have to take this head on, as the flowers and chocolates haven’t worked. I appreciate that to date she has refused to talk to you about it. So I suggest you say to her that you have something very important to you, that you want to ask her to talk through and get her help on. Maybe that will spark her skills at caring for others. Don’t get drawn into telling her what it is about at this stage, instead ask her when would be a good time to talk. She will probably want it to be soon, as she will now be tantalised as to what it is!
Once you get to talking, explain that this is something very personal to you and that you would appreciate her help in talking about it, as it is not easy. Be honest and focus on how you are feeling. Don’t allow the conversation to become blaming. Own it as your ‘together problem’.
Once you have shared how you are struggling, then express to her that you genuinely want to understand what has gone on for her. I suggest you talk through the following key areas, in an environment where she feels encouraged to be honest, even if it is hard stuff to hear. Give her space to talk, without you jumping in ‘correcting’ her memories. Although her answers won’t be balanced memories, nor indeed will it be what you remember, but it will be telling! These could be vital clues as to why she has decided to close the chapter on this part of your marriage, so bite your tongue and listen. You need these clues to guide you through what can be very bewildering territory.
Ask her how she found your love life when you had one in the past. Was she getting pleasure out of it? According to a survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago (based on interviews with 3,400 adults) 17% of women aged 50-59 get no pleasure from having sex and, if anything, consider it an ordeal. Some people give up on sex because they are not getting enough out of it to feel it is worth what they have to put into it.
Ask her what emotions she has about sex. For example, when you were making love in the past, was she feeling shame or embarrassment, was she feeling under pressure or feeling low about her body image? No less than 70% of us are cranky about some bit or other of how we look and this can seriously affect our sexual pleasure. If we perceive sexual intimacy as somehow shameful or ‘not me’ then it becomes impossible to abandon yourself to your lover, making sex an act of tension not of intimacy. Such emotions can be the barrier that you are up against and will need dismantling to move forward.
It is also worth checking out the physical side of how it was for her. Did she find it painful in any way? Between 8 and 21% of women experience some form of pain at intercourse. This can be caused by infections and other physical conditions, there can also be psychological causes of pain. Clearly, if something is painful we are going to be doing all we can to avoid it. However, the good news is that with professional help, this can probably be sorted out.
Once you have taken turns to listen to each other in a nondefensive way, take what you have heard to God, in prayer. Prayer creates a wonderful discipline of refining our attitudes to the situation and each other.
The stage of life you are in is challenging to your sex life. Your wife no doubt gets tired with all she is giving out and that can make her feel that when she is with the one she loves, she doesn’t want to give out again. This is where her mindset will need changing from seeing sex as another area of giving, to a place of receiving for her. Teenagers constantly around can also be the greatest contraceptive, if you still need one! You and your wife need to gradually rebuild everyday low-level physical intimacy, before you can enjoy passionate sex. Don’t give up on holding hands, cuddling up on the settee, hugs and french kisses when there is no opportunity to take it further. They are wonderful in their own right and if the kids don’t like it they can walk out the room, giving you the perfect opportunity to make that kiss a little more lingering and make them feel secure deep down that Mum and Dad through all their un-cool clothes are still in love. As for being heard, I’m sure you could put some music on in your bedroom to give you some sound cover; no doubt your teenagers are not sitting in silence either and have the TV on or their MP3s surgically attached to their inner ears. I assume that after all these years of marriage you invested in a lock on the bedroom door many years ago, so use it!
But you are right, these lifestyle practicalities are probably masking deeper issues which need to be surfaced through honest conversation. Once you have talked and prayed, then I suggest you make a clear request of her to come with you to get some professional help. It does not have to be normal to lose interest in sex in your 50s. It is also not ‘unholy’ to want sexual intimacy within marriage. In 1 Corinthians 7:5 Paul tells married couples, ‘do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time…then come together again.’
If you talk to your GP they can arrange for you to see a Psychosexual Therapist who will gently work with you and your wife to get to the causes of this lack of interest in sex. They will also give you some practical steps you can take each week to gradually move forward, rather than stagnating. Your wife needs a change of outlook from ‘how can I avoid sex’ to ‘how can I learn to re-engage in it’. She may need someone other than you to challenge her on this, but will also need you to express how important it is to you. All the time you continue to be accommodating you are enabling her to get more and more stuck in her problem. Sometimes love has to be tough."