To answer this fraught question we’ve called on the expertise of two of our esteemed long-term contributors, Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., and Dr. Cecilia M. Ford, Ph.D., both of them members of the Women’s Voices Medical Advisory Board. —Ed.
Dear Dr. Hutcherson and Dr. Ford:
I am 52 years old and have been married for 21 years to a wonderful man. I always felt safe with him and knew that he would be a great father and husband. My husband and I were never sexually compatible, but I felt that the tradeoff for a kind, caring man was worth it. We have sex only once or twice a month, and this is longstanding. He never had the same interest in sex that I have, and since he turned 50 he has had difficulty achieving an erection. I have nagged him for years about finding a specialist to evaluate his testosterone level and to find a drug for the erection problem that works. He has no interest in making this effort. He is satisfied with spooning.
I have managed my sexual appetites with my friendly sex toys, but have increasingly become angry at the lack of physical passion in my life. It seems at this age that having a really good “business marriage” is not enough. The big issue is that neither of us wants a divorce, but I certainly don’t want to give up my sex life at this stage of my life. I am considering joining an online dating site for married people, like Ashley Madison. Should I? Is my story unusual?
Dr. Hutcherson Responds:
Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., a nationally renowned expert on women’s health, is Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. She has written many “Sex Talk” articles for Women’s Voices, as well as many books (including What Your Mother Never Told You About Sex and Pleasure: A Woman’s Guide to Getting the Sex You Want, Need and Deserve).
You are not alone. I have spoken to many women who have chosen security over passion when choosing their life-partners. In fact, I once asked an auditorium full of women to choose between two men: The first is gorgeous, knows his way around a woman’s body, but is not dependable. The other is less physically attractive, has difficulty finding the sweet spot, but is always there for you. The vast majority of the women chose the dependable man.
Some women choose men with whom they are not sexually compatible thinking that sex will improve after marriage. The truth is that for most, though not all, couples, the frequency and passion of sex decrease as the years of marriage increase. Over time this can lead to anger and resentment. Great sex requires communication and the willingness to always work together to make sure each of you is satisfied.
It is also not uncommon to experience a sexual awakening in middle age. Fifty is an age at which some women feel more comfortable in their own skin, more knowledgeable about what works for them sexually, and more empowered to ask for what they want. However, midlife is also a common time for some men to experience a decrease in sexual desire. Spooning, for them, may be more desirable than intercourse, for instance.
A recent study presented at the meeting of the American Sociological Association showed that some middle-aged women are choosing to have extramarital affairs for romantic passion that is missing in their marriages. Women in this study expressed love for their husbands and did not desire divorce. They simply desired more passion and sex in their lives, and most sought a monogamous extramarital relationship.
Extramarital affairs have worked for some women. These women have told me that it made them feel closer to their husbands, since the affair removed a major source of friction in their relationships. The nagging about sex ceased, the pressure to perform was lifted from their husbands, and harmony returned to the marriage. But more women have described problems caused by an affair. The deception and need for secrecy caused constant anxiety and fear of being discovered. While technology makes it easy to meet and interact with like-minded partners for discrete affairs, it also makes it easy to get caught. Cell phones and Internet search engine histories can be discovered. A suspicious partner can use computer key loggers, GPS, and other tracking devices to uncover the affair. One woman, lets call her ZZ, was caught when the wife of her lover discovered email exchanges and informed ZZ’s husband, ending her “otherwise perfect” marriage. You will need to decide whether it is worth the risk.
Some people will judge you harshly for even thinking about having an affair. I will not. A 52-year-old woman has the right to decide how to run her own life. Seeking couples therapy from a sex and marital therapist might help you make a well-informed decision.
Dr. Ford Responds:
Cecilia M. Ford, Ph.D., who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. She specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image problems, sex, and marriage therapy. She also counsels and coaches women on dating and relationship issues. Look for her column, “Dr. Ford on Emotional Health,” every Thursday on this site.
Many aspects of your story are not unusual. It is very common for couples to experience periods of sexual incompatibility as the years pass. For example, a woman often experiences a decline in sexual appetite when she is a new mother, much to her husband’s frustration. Also, just as women are reaching their sexual “peak” in their late 30s and 40s, men’s desire begins to decline. Negotiating these vicissitudes is one of marriage’s biggest challenges.
It interests me that you have chosen to marry someone you recognized was not all that compatible with you in this area. The sticky problem is that sex is the one thing you can share only with your spouse; if he is not such a great tennis player, or you cannot share his interest in golf, you are both free to pursue these activities with others outside the marriage. Close friends can even fulfill the need for intimate conversation, which many women find their husband either unwilling or unable to engage in.
It appears that your choice was a good one, on the whole. So, given that you married a man you knew was not all that libidinous, perhaps you are more ambivalent about this issue than you are aware.
I also wonder if some of your dissatisfaction with your sex life at this time may be a “displacement” of feelings about other issues. The multiple challenges of menopause, empty nesting, and declining health all contribute to making this often a turbulent time during marriage. It is important to examine carefully what may be bothering you so that you do not make any decisions that could have serious consequences.
I am referring specifically to your idea of seeking a partner outside your marriage. Though there are instances of outside affairs’ providing someone with satisfaction and therefore “helping” him or her stay in an unfulfilling union, choosing this course is definitely “playing with fire.” Not only do you risk exposure and thus hurting and/or losing your husband, you may not be able to control where your feelings take you. Sex is an intimate act, and it produces not only feelings of emotional closeness for psychological reasons, but there is even evidence that the endorphins produced during orgasm promote intimate feelings as well. This course could possibly restore the balance of your marriage, but it has great potential to destabilize it, perhaps fatally.
You mention that you have “nagged” your husband to deal with his low libido. Perhaps a marriage counselor could help you do this in a less confronting, threatening manner. For most men, poor sexual performance is a very loaded issue, and the more they dwell on it, the more “inadequate” they feel, thus perpetuating the problem. If you are like most couples, there are probably many complex issues underlying the issue of sex in your relationship. Many of them may be hard to recognize and discuss outside of a very neutral, safe situation. The partners in a couple often have too much anger, resentment, and fear to do this on their own. My suggestion is that you and your husband consult a well-trained professional before you take matters outside the marriage and risk losing the many good things you have.