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Question 

After months of marriage, my husband and I have not shared complete marital intimacy. Granted, we are an older couple. Previously, we each married and raised children. We met in our early 60’s. While dating, he was quite affectionate – hugging me often and ending each evening with a warm embrace and a tender kiss. Then our physical relationship developed very slowly after we married. Eventually I realized that he has erectile dysfunction. He has neither desire nor intention of treating it. He thinks that a woman of my age should be content with hugging, kissing, and snuggling. Am I doomed to live in a sexless marriage? My husband is otherwise healthy and physically fit. He often rides his bicycle 20-30 miles a day. Your help would be much appreciated.

Answer

Your husband is likely struggling from embarrassment and shame from not being able to perform sexually. This is something most men dread and don’t want to talk about, especially with their wives. Avoidance is the main strategy men employ when they realize they can’t function sexually the way they used to.

Unfortunately, most men are socialized to believe that their worth as a man is tied to their ability to perform at work, on the sports field, and in the bedroom. When men who have internalized this belief retire from their jobs, lose their physical prowess, and develop sexual performance issues, they experience a deep sense of loss and often withdraw from their marriages.

His emphasis on nonsexual touch is his way of trying to stay close to you without having to be humiliated with his inability to perform sexually. In his shame, he may blame you for wanting more, causing you to feel high maintenance or demanding. Your desires to fully be one in the marital bed aren’t demanding or unreasonable. You’re just up against his shame, so it’s going to require a more indirect approach.

Instead of putting pressure on him to perform something he clearly can’t do, continue connecting with him in the ways he allows you to be close. It’s critical that you recognize that when women bring up their needs, men often instantly feel like failures. This pass/fail mentality shuts down communication and leaves couples feeling more distant and alone. Recognize that this will likely happen when you begin to address this need for sexual connection. Stay with him and don’t give up on the discussion.

As you stay close to each other, let him know how important physical touch and sexual connection are to you as his wife. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge how difficult this must be for him to not be able to perform. Tell him that he’s not a failure in your eyes because of this one struggle. He will have difficulty hearing this and believing you because he most likely already sees himself as broken.

There are some conditions that can’t be treated and couples need to work on acceptance of new limitations. Erectile Dysfunction is highly treatable, so it’s worth it to keep addressing it with him in a loving, reassuring manner. Your common enemy is the unhealthy male socialization he’s internalized as reality. Your husband needs your patience, courage, and ability to see through his fear that he’s a failure. You have to manage your own feelings of rejection so you don’t become reactive and leave him feeling more inadequate. This isn’t about you not being enough. This is about shame. Please know it’s possible for both of you to stand up to these unhealthy beliefs and open up a new level of physical intimacy for your marriage.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT