My husband won’t touch me — what can I do?

I want desperately to have a child, and so does he.

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, FEB 23, 2005

Dear Cary,

I am married to the man of my dreams — except for one thing: He won’t touch me. I’m not just talking about sex; I mean he’s averse to basic human contact. We’re down to a chaste kiss as he leaves for work, an occasional hug when I ask, and sometimes another chaste good-night kiss before he turns his back to me and falls asleep.

We’ve been together for almost 14 years (we’re both 37) and married for 12. We don’t have any children, although we married each other in part because we thought we’d have great kids together. We met in graduate school and reasoned that we’d get our careers off the ground before trying to start a family. More than a decade later, we’ve stopped even trying.

I think passion and romance are the sweetest stuff of life; he finds them completely unnecessary. When we were dating, he was a reluctant lover, always telling me, “We’ll do it after exams” or “It will feel more right after we’re married.”

For the first several years of our marriage, he blamed my weight as the sole reason we were not having sex. Let me clarify that I am an attractive woman with a beautiful face, long blond hair and a curvy, voluptuous body, which many men find very attractive — just not my husband. He told me about five years into the marriage that he’d felt deceived, that he’d believed I would change and lose weight. Of course, I’ve always said I wished I were thinner. At one point I lost a lot of weight, and nothing changed. However, at some point he did stop openly criticizing my body.

Several years ago, I went against all of my morals and upbringing and had an affair. I told myself it was my husband’s fault that I was forced to get my needs met elsewhere. But I was racked with guilt the whole time, and ultimately I ended it, resolving to try to make things work with my husband. A year later, it was still not working, and I separated from him. Only after the separation did he accidentally find out about the affair, and it was a wrenching experience for us both.

For a year we lived apart; I wound up driving home every weekend to see him. Because we just plain missed each other, we reconciled. But he warned me that his intimacy issues might be even worse than before my affair or the separation. Still, I wanted to try to make it work, and so did he.

Fast-forward three years later. It’s like I’m living as roommates with a best friend who is totally supportive of me emotionally and professionally, but not physically. He is my rock, my companion, the one I want to grow old with. Still, I don’t want to have a platonic marriage.

We went to a marriage counselor after our reconciliation with clear instructions that our objective was to find a way to be intimate with each other. The therapist said that our marriage appeared normal — if we were in our 60s, not 30s! During the second session, the therapist said he would only continue to see us if divorce were on the table. That was the last session we had with him.

Since then, we have near-weekly conversations about how to fix our little problem. We talk; I inevitably cry; he says that he doesn’t need intimacy and he’s sorry that I do, but he can’t give it to me. We’ve tried talking about this at other hours, too: on a Saturday afternoon over a game of Pente, over a bottle of wine at our favorite restaurant, in the car on a road trip as a philosophical discussion.

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Some people might ask if maybe my husband is gay. But he denies that he’s attracted to men and says that he likes to look at attractive women (implicit in that statement is that I’m not included in that group). He says it boils down to the fact that he doesn’t really like to be touched or to touch other people, and that he feels emotionally dead inside. I have a nephew with Asberger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, which among other things makes people ultra-sensitive to touch. I see a lot of similarities between my husband and my nephew, and I wonder if he might be afflicted with that disorder, too. I do know that my husband’s first and only other love really devastated him when she ended their relationship when he was 21, and I’ve wondered if that was the cause of his intimacy issues. But he said he was like this with her, too.

Every once in a while (three times last year), my husband takes pity on me and says that it’s time to reset the clock. That means we do the deed. Then I can no longer say, “Come on, honey, it’s been three (four, five, six) months since we made love,” since the clock is reset to zero. After such a resetting, it is an unspoken rule that I am not supposed to ask again for a really long time.

Cary, if I didn’t love this man, I would just leave. But he is wonderful to me in every other way. We are great partners in this thing called life, and we really get each other as people. I don’t want to leave; I want to break through these intimacy issues.

Please don’t tell me that I should get my physical needs met elsewhere. I’ve worked hard over the last three years since the reconciliation to rebuild trust. But for all of my self-denial, I feel like it’s getting me nowhere. I’m starting to go a little crazy from being starved for simple affection. And, yes, for sex, too. And deep down, I fear that I will never have a family, something which is extremely important to me (and, I thought, to him).

My heart is breaking over the loss of so many important dreams. I may never become a mother, I may never have a family of my own, I may never again know sweet intimacy between a man and a woman, I may never even have another passionate kiss.

I can roll with things not being perfect. But he turns his shoulder to me every night when all I want is for him to take me into his arms and show me his love. Is this too much for a good wife to expect?

Mrs. Heartbroken

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Dear Mrs. Heartbroken,

It sounds like what you are going through is very painful. I know how desperately you are seeking a solution. But I do not think that a solution will arise until you look at the situation in a new light. I suggest that you ask not how you can get your husband to give you what you need, but what the meaning of your suffering is and what you are being called upon to do. Once you discover what you are being called to do, and accept that as your fate, you will find it easier to surrender, to stop fighting, to do what has to be done.

What your suffering means, I think, is that life wants to come through you. You are stopping it by remaining with your husband. That is why it hurts you so much. That is why you are suffering. It hurts to deny life. Of course it hurts. It’s meant to hurt. That’s how life tells you what it wants. You’re leaning into a wind full of needles. You’re defying something that wants to be born.

There is a baby that wants to be born, but there is also a happiness that wants to be born. There is some contentedness that wants to be born. And there is a man somewhere who wants to make you pregnant and raise a child with you. He’s banging on your window but you can’t hear him or see him because you’re frozen hard to your husband. Until you tear yourself away you will remain stuck, deaf and blind to your destiny. Of course, it is your choice whether you leave or not. I know you have said that divorce is nonnegotiable. I also know that nothing we say is irrevocable, and we cannot know the future or our own capacity for sacrifice and pain.

I think you will leave your husband eventually, or you will collapse around the emptiness. I only think you should leave him while you still have a chance to raise a family. It will hurt to leave your husband — it may tear some of your skin off, as though you were frozen to a January lamppost. But it would hurt more to stay. And I do not see that you have any choice, if you are to accept what life is asking of you.
Perhaps you feel that leaving your husband for purely personal desires might seem irresponsible. But these are not personal desires. These desires are universal. They are transpersonal. It will be easier to see that if you think in terms that transcend the individual self. Consider the awesome force that wants to move through you, to use you as its avenue of fruition; consider your needs for intimacy and affection as the way this force expresses itself. Think of the child who desires to come into existence.

Why is that so far-fetched a notion? We happily grant that when someone dies it’s beyond our control. Yet when life insists with a terrifying power on having us for its purposes, when some unknown being insists on disrupting our plans in order to be born, we find that strangely mystical and abstract. What is abstract about the force that through the green fuse drives the flower? Why is it so far-fetched to imagine that life wants to move through you, but that you are blocking it, and that is causing you pain?

It seems a shame that you and your therapist were unable to continue beyond two sessions because the question of divorce was deemed nonnegotiable. Shouldn’t everything be on the table in therapy? Isn’t the purpose of therapy revelation and change? How can the unexpected be revealed if you think you know what you want, and if you rule out certain options? I think if you rule out certain conclusions, you undermine therapy’s capacity to surprise, to unearth unexpected meaning. But perhaps that therapist did not have the right approach for you.

Divorce needn’t mean that your husband disappears from your life. If the bond between you is spiritual and familial, as it sounds like it is, you can maintain that bond. Your relationship needn’t simply end; rather, think of it as being transformed by grand, elemental powers. He will probably want to know this child and to remain your lifelong friend. Perhaps he can be like an uncle to this child.

Why life chose you, who knows? But I can’t see much profit in resisting it. It’s obvious that, painful as it may be, you have to leave this man and seek someone you can raise a child with.

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