For some of us, there is no amount of self-love or body-positive work that will inspire passion and sexual chemistry in our partners. For many of us, our partners simply don’t find touching our bodies desirable and aren’t capable of manufacturing that sensation. It’s not about us, though it unquestionably has a huge impact on us.
Dressing provocatively, engaging in self-affirmations, living loud and proud, knowing we are sexual and desirable beings – sometimes those things don’t change the fact that our partners simply can’t generate sexual interest, desire, or physical companionship. Knowing that can be incredibly hard on our self-esteem and on a whole host of relationships. This includes relationships with our partner and also with those who give advice but who don’t fully understand the realities of living with and loving a person with intimacy issues.
Good relationships have challenges, no matter how well-partnered people are. For some, it’s about fidelity; for others, it’s about money or children. For some of us, it’s about two people who genuinely want to have intimacy, but one partner simply can’t. For both people, that fact can create heartbreak and a sense of failure, which can lead to isolation, anger, and crisis.
In my own life, it’s been a decade of learning: learning how to cope, how to find compassion within myself, how to build a new framework for self-acceptance and change the paradigm of what a successful marriage looks like. I married someone who was a good match for my sexual appetites but, because of medical emergencies and life-saving medicines, my husband lost that part of himself. I’m not talking about dysfunction alone; I’m speaking of the loss of intimacy and desire.
I’m not sharing a struggle that can be overcome. Some aspects of life and love aren’t fixable, and for me, leaving or getting a divorce is nowhere near the answer. In my situation, my marriage is good and strong, and the answer is hard work.
My partner loves me. Because of that, he has struggled with enormous unspoken shame in not being able to contrive interest in my body and for not being able to manufacture a playfulness that attends to my needs. My partner silently mourns the loss of his libido. His health crisis took something away from him that was personal and important – something he can’t find his way back to.
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I’ve struggled with the dichotomy of generating my own sexual persona and still not motivating the person I love. I’ve always been an active person, and sex was an enormous part of my life and a large part of who I was. I was good at it. I was never ashamed. I enjoyed the game and the way it made me feel.
Because I’m in a loving, monogamous relationship, sending out sexy signals is really confusing. The person who should be receiving and enjoying the signals can’t reciprocate, and my continued hunger to be sexually appreciated only leaves me feeling as though I’m missing out. To be sexy, to feel sexy, and not be fulfilled is very frustrating.
So what’s the point in manufacturing sexual energy when all the attention I get comes from people with whom I can’t (and won’t) act on it? It’s akin to saying I’m starving and then offering food to a table full of people I can’t sit and eat with.
Over these last ten years, I’ve fundamentally changed the way I see this issue.
I used to yell and cry and shame my partner for not finding me desirable; for not touching me or fulfilling my fantasies; for not pursuing me or flirting; for not finding enjoyable the curve of my breast or the warmth of my thighs. I used to get drunk and try to negotiate other options, like open relationships or – more than once – divorce. I was distraught, and I couldn’t bear to imagine the next several decades unfulfilled and feeling as though my body were off-limits or disgusting.
I’d like to say that I had an epiphany and learned to value the love we share far and away more than the sexual side of my nature, but that’s not true. And it’s not that I engaged in extramarital activities or that I even called our relationship quits.
I found balance. I aged. I looked around and saw that, even without sex, my life was rich and full. I was loved. And I compared what I have – that 90% of fulfillment – with the idea of the reverse – a hot sex life with no trust, no love, and no future. That held no interest for me, and the thought of losing the partner I love was a non-starter.
Some may say I settled, and possibly I did. But settling takes a lot of work. A lot of invested time, money and vulnerability go into “settling” if you are making the choice to work on a lifetime with someone you love and who loves you. Settling is not for the faint of heart.
My husband and I go to therapy to talk not only about the trauma that changed his life and abilities, but also about how sex (and the lack thereof) affects my sense of self and personal value, and how outside influences make me feel toward my marriage. We talk about communication, we talk about histories, and we talk about practicing simple touch; but none of it is “natural,” none of it is spontaneous, and none of it is “hot.” It’s work – worthwhile work – because I love my partner; but it’s NOT titillating, heart-pounding, or easy. It’s not desire. It’s homework.
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Let’s face it, sex is everywhere. It’s in our books, our TV programs, our advertisements, our humor. You can only read so many para-military, post-apocalyptic zombie novels before you run into the love scene you’ve been trying desperately to avoid. You can watch Sci-Fi Channel, engage in politics, be a civil rights advocate, and try as hard as you can to insulate yourself but, invariably, you run across hot, wet, sweaty bodies doing the things your body misses.
Knowing that your life, and the future of your life with someone else, doesn’t include this release, can be hard. It can be depressing. It can be trauma in and of itself. It’s okay if you see yourself in these words. You are not alone.
If you are in a similar situation, or if you are trying to help someone in the same plight, please don’t take on the mindset that “if you dress and act sexy, you’ll draw that person to you.” Sometimes, it’s not a matter of not being sexy enough or beautiful enough or desirable enough. Sometimes, it’s about the larger picture. It’s about you together.
During our lives, as we find the people we love and who love us, we have to struggle with unanticipated hurdles. Some of the things we aren’t prepared for are the things that seem to come “naturally”: sex, eating, health. As we move along, the things that aren’t on our radar, the things we didn’t necessarily prepare for – those are the things that will take the most work, the biggest investment.
I’ve found that investing in compassion and understanding – finding ways to love and to be loved beyond the physical – have proven to be more rewarding and more gratifying than the alternative. Though I miss the heat of passion, the strength of stability and commitment are more enriching the longer they surround and comfort me.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a couple lying in bed and facing away from each other under a white comforter. The person on the left has dark short hair and a short beard and is wearing a white t-shirt. They have their eyes closed as if they’re asleep. The person on the right has long brown hair and has the white comforter pulled up to their chest. They are looking down with a somber, worried expression.]