Ashera is a Marriage and Family Therapist with an extensive background in sexual health education. You can ask her stuff anonymously and she won’t get weirded out. Seriously, try her. Send your queries through our anonymous contact form here.
I have been with my husband for ten years now. We met early in college and have grown up together in some of the best possible ways. He’s really, truly, my best friend and I cannot imagine my life without him. We have one major issue though—our sex life is nonexistent, and I think that it’s my fault.
Back when we first met, we were both relatively inexperienced sexually. He had never done much besides kissing. I had done a bit more, but not much. We used to have such HOT make-out sessions, and slowly we began to go a bit further. It was SO GREAT. But when it was time to finally “go all the way” so to speak, he couldn’t get hard. Me, being 20 and full of toxic ideas about men wanting sex all the time, totally freaked out. I thought he wasn’t attracted to me or was into someone else or maybe just not into women at all. I made the mistake of saying All. Those. Things.
And I ruined it all.
After that, I read up on erectile dysfunction and I learned that it’s a normal thing that lots of men go through, regardless of age or health. I know now that maybe he just had performance anxiety, and that what he needed in that moment was for me to be supportive and loving and to say it’s okay. We talked about it a little bit back then, but things have never really been the same. We don’t have hot-and-heavy make-out sessions like we used to, and if it starts to go there, he pulls back. We have had sex since then, but it’s only if we’ve been drinking and he can loosen up a bit.
Even though we haven’t had sex much, I crave it so much more. I feel terrible for what happened back then, but I can’t change it. Now, we’re stuck in this awful loop where if I bring it up, he just says “it’s his issue” and shuts down. I feel like I broke this piece of our relationship and I want so badly to fix it, but he won’t meet me there. Since our conversations around this go absolutely nowhere, I have gone from shame and guilt to resentment.
I’m almost 30 and I want to make this work, but if he won’t work on it with me I don’t know if I can stay in this marriage. Please, please, please give me a better starting point than an ultimatum.
Like A Virgin (But Not Quite)
Guilt, shame, and resentment are pretty un-sexy if you ask me. Couple them with pressure, obligation, and a feeling of de-masculinization and you are bound to have a bad time. The way you talk about your husband, it sounds like sex has become quite the elephant in the (bed)room. You both know that this is a problem. Both of you feel some type of way about it. Both of you are having difficulty approaching how to deal with it, so it just gets buried under some minutia. Avoidance might work sometimes, but it’s a band-aid on a gunshot wound, and the effects of it are beginning to wear on you both.
Most people that experience erectile dysfunction (or ED) are not keen to talk about it because of all the cultural baggage placed on it. We really do men dirty by attaching masculinity so strictly to genitals and how they function. You’re absolutely correct: ED happens regardless of health, age, or orientation. ED can be indicative of underlying health problems, which must be screened for by a doctor, but it is also just a thing that happens sometimes. Sadly, no one told your twenty years old self that, and now you’re carrying this weight.
It’s not a Smash Talks article if I don’t advocate for therapy: if your husband is open to it, seeing a sex therapist could be a real game changer. This conversation is obviously really painful for both of you, and it’s good to have someone that can slow it down and make sure both of you are really hearing one another. That being said, this would require openness to being vulnerable in front of a stranger, which is off the table for a lot of people.
Regardless of the presence of a therapist, you need a starting point. When there’s a repetitive problem, I am keen to look for the pattern that surrounds it. Mapping out how the conversation usually goes, and identifying where it goes off the rails can help. You can do this with even the shortest of conversations. It sounds like yours goes something like:
“I’m unhappy. We need to work on this.”
“Yes, I know. It’s my problem and I’ll deal with it.”
Before you get all mopey and hopeless because it’s a short conversation, let’s widen the lens. There’s more to this. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What is the catalyst for you to say something? What happens afterwards? Do you see an attempt to fix it? Do you both sit in awkward silence? Does it ever become a fight?
Let’s return to your brief conversation. Do you know what your partner hears when you initiate this conversation? Adjacently, what are you actually trying to say? If you’re attempting to communicate “I want to connect with you” AND “I’m horny AF so help me God” AND “I’m getting resentful that this hasn’t been fixed yet” AND “I’m sorry I reacted badly to this ten years ago” all in one pithy little phrase, it’s likely to be lost in translation. He may hear none of those things, but instead “You’re still not good enough for me and I don’t see you as a man.”
In a two-second exchange, you’re having two separate experiences and they’re both awful!
We’re looking for the greater pattern here AND the analogous messages. You both likely know the conversation is coming, so there’s pressure built around it. You can both feel it and it’s unpleasant. That pressure is a pitfall, and you need to work around it.
I’m not suggesting springing the dreaded conversation on your spouse, but there has to be a different time and way to approach it. The path of least resistance here is where and how you connect. Sex can be all sorts of things, but at the core it’s about communication and connection. If you start the conversation about feeling disconnected and wanting to be closer, about missing that piece of a person, it’s a gentler door to open. If you can both agree that you want to be closer, and that a part of being closer means having a mutually enjoyable sex life, there’s room to grow.
As with all things, progress is not “every day things steadily move upwards.” This is going to sound Koo-Koo Bananas, but in order to rebuild your sex life you’ll actually have to take sex off the table for some time. You’ll want to rebuild slowly and safely: get comfortable just holding hands, cuddling, or doing something romantic without the pressure of sex. Relearning how to connect with touch means enjoying all kinds of touch. As you both begin to feel safer and more confident with each other, things will likely become a bit more sensual, flirty, and coy. This will happen s l o w l y, and that’s not a bad thing. Enjoy the antici….. pation! If you try to jump from “no touch at all” to “rip each other’s clothes off,” it will backfire hard and leave you both even more disheartened than you are now. If you can take it slow and remain open and curious, you may be surprised at how deep of a connection you find.