‘There has al­ways been a huge gap in our re­la­tion­ship – there was sim­ply no sex’

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - The Back Page - Tr­ish Mur­phy email: tellme­[email protected]­times.com

QI am a man in my 60s mar­ried for over 30 years. We get along well but there has al­ways been a huge gap in our re­la­tion­ship – there was sim­ply no sex. We did man­age to have one child and there was talk of an­other, but it never hap­pened. My wife suf­fers from vagin­is­mus and shuts down if the sub­ject is broached. Even at­tempts at sex­ual engagements not in­volv­ing pen­e­tra­tion were awk­ward and deeply frus­trat­ing. She was not able to re­lax or en­gage in any sex­ual play.

I have strug­gled very badly with this, watch­ing my prime slip away and not be­ing ful­filled within the re­la­tion­ship. My man­ner has un­doubt­edly been bad at times as frus­tra­tion spills over. This frus­tra­tion and sense of be­ing aban­doned just won’t go away. We went to re­ally good coun­selling where this was iden­ti­fied many decades ago – but my wife would sim­ply not en­gage.

I prob­a­bly should have made the de­ci­sion to leave, but never did. I ac­cuse my­self of cow­ardice some­times. The sad thing is, it all could have been as good as it gets, but for the phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers. This will never leave me alone, but I am un­able to rec­on­cile or have peace with it. In my own mind I threaten to leave the bed­room, or even leave com­pletely. I stamp down the lid on this, but it won’t stay down. I feel I will ex­plode some­times.

There has been no at­tempt at phys­i­cal en­gage­ment for a long time. I wouldn’t wel­come it at this point. I even re­sent the ca­sual hello/good­bye kisses. Talk is good, but it re­quires both par­ties to en­gage. If I at­tempt to talk, I would sim­ply dis­solve into tears of frus­tra­tion and lone­li­ness. This should sim­ply not be. It has af­fected so many ar­eas of my life ad­versely, the only an­swer I can see is leav­ing. Yet, I do not.

AYou sound in such pain as you recog­nise that your re­la­tion­ship could have been a happy one if ei­ther of you had the courage to be hon­est with each other. Vagin­is­mus is a con­di­tion where the body pro­tects the woman from in­ter­course and while a phys­i­cal cause must al­ways be in­ves­ti­gated, there is of­ten an as­so­ci­ated psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tor, per­haps a trauma or fam­ily con­di­tion­ing.

In any case, your wife has re­solved to avoid in­ti­macy with you and I as­sume both of you suf­fered from the sub­se­quent iso­la­tion and lack of con­nec­tion in your life to­gether. Frus­tra­tion seems to have been the main emo­tion in the re­la­tion­ship and 30 years of this is a long time to suf­fer. Yet you both con­tinue to share a life and have not aban­doned each other in 30 years. This would seem to im­ply that there is enough left in the re­la­tion­ship to war­rant risk­ing en­gage­ment and hon­esty. If, fol­low­ing this, there con­tin­ues to be no in­ti­macy or close­ness, then you both must take re­spon­si­bil­ity and chose what is best for both of you.

You say that you’ve had good coun­selling in the past and I won­der if it is worth hav­ing a few ses­sions to get the con­ver­sa­tion go­ing.

If your wife wants to ad­dress her vagin­is­mus, she may need the sup­port of a gy­nae­col­o­gist and a charted phys­io­ther­a­pist as well as en­gag­ing phys­i­cally with you in a slow and guided man­ner. All of this re­quires that you both risk awk­ward­ness, em­bar­rass­ment and shame but this ex­po­sure is at the heart of in­ti­macy and is the be­gin­ning of find­ing plea­sure to­gether. Talk­ing and open­ing up does mean that you speak about both the lone­li­ness and the long­ing and there should be tears and sad­ness as this is the ex­pres­sion of what is re­ally go­ing on. It may well be that your wife has de­vel­oped a de­fen­sive re­sponse to your need for con­nec­tion and you might need to be pa­tient as she ex­plores her fear of open­ing up. If you are an­gry and blam­ing, her de­fences might in­crease and your sub­se­quent re­jec­tion lead to fur­ther anger, etc – you can see the pat­tern that could emerge.

Ne­go­ti­ate dis­cus­sions

The strength of this pat­tern is why you may need some­one to help ne­go­ti­ate the ini­tial dis­cus­sions and you will need to learn (as a cou­ple) the tried and tested means of ad­dress­ing sex­ual dif­fi­cul­ties in re­la­tion­ships. Grad­ual sen­su­al­i­sa­tion ex­er­cises are usu­ally pre­scribed for the cou­ple and these prac­tices (where the body is re-trained to en­joy touch, grad­u­ally mov­ing from non-sex­ual to sex­ual touch) re­quire com­mit­ment, trust and risk from both peo­ple.

These are acts of in­ti­macy and can lead to fun and plea­sure but a word of warn­ing: if the cou­ple do not fully com­mit, then the old pat­tern is al­ways read­ily avail­able to re­turn to. If you pro­pose a re-con­nec­tion to your wife, you will need to have a long-term view plus pre­par­ing for set­backs, and this is why putting in lots of sup­ports at an early stage is vi­tal.

If at the end of this road, you still feel the need to sep­a­rate, you should have at least in­creased the pos­si­bil­ity of a joint de­ci­sion and joint re­spon­si­bil­ity as the com­mu­ni­ca­tion will have be­come real and hon­est.

If I at­tempt to talk, I would sim­ply dis­solve into tears of frus­tra­tion and lone­li­ness


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