Dear Prudence: My wife won’t have sex with me.

Help! My Wife Says She Loves Me. Why Won’t She Have Sex With Me?

Help! My Wife Says She Loves Me. Why Won’t She Have Sex With Me?

Advice on manners and morals.
Nov. 2 2017 6:00 AM

Perfectly Sexless

99 percent of our marriage is amazing—it’s just this one small thing.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
My wife and I (we’re both women) have been together for 10 years, married just over three. She is the most amazing person I have ever known. I adore her, and I know she loves me based on her actions every day. She is kind, caring, funny, and we cook, take care of our pets, and keep our home as equal partners.

The trouble is, I don’t think she’s in love with me anymore, at least not the way I am with her. We are rarely intimate—maybe six times a year. We aren’t even that physically affectionate anymore, and it’s not for a lack of trying on my part. I’m only 46, and she’s only 35; we’re both healthy and active. I have done everything I can to rekindle some basic affection. I have flirted, taken her out on dates, left her sweet notes, sent sexy texts, suggested we watch porn together, bought toys, engaged in her hobbies and interests, discussed it, not discussed it, suggested sex therapy, suggested a medical checkup (I think she may be depressed, but she does not, and her last physical didn’t raise any flags for the doctor), been understanding, been hurt and angry, cried, ignored it, changed my hairstyle, lost weight, changed my wardrobe, you name it. I have spoken to her about it on multiple occasions, and she always listens, seems concerned (even tearing up), nods in all the right places, agrees, and says we need to work on it, and then, nothing changes.

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When we are intimate, it is amazing, almost like the first time, but it’s so rare. When we discuss it, I am calm, rational, and choose my words carefully, always reassuring her that I am fully committed and not looking to go outside our relationship, unless of course that is something she is interested in. She usually responds with nothing, staring at me with wide eyes, nearly crying, saying she doesn’t know what to say and that she’s caught off guard by the conversation.

Last night I admitted that I am sad and lonely and tired of nothing changing, tired of trying so hard with no results, and tired of trying to get a hug or kiss out of my wife. We had the same conversation (that is to say, I gave the same monologue), with the same lack of results. I outright asked if she’s happy and she said in general no (she feels stuck in a dead-end job and stressed about the state of the world), but at home yes. She doesn’t think she’s asexual (and the first few years of our relationship seem to bear that out) or that there’s a medical reason for this, and she isn’t “looking around” and “doesn’t want to go anywhere,” but she has no other explanation. She insists she loves me and does really enjoy sex but just doesn’t know what’s wrong. As I told her last night, I am reaching a breaking point. Ninety-nine percent of our relationship is perfect, and I feel like I have the greatest wife on the planet, except for this. I’m at a loss and dreading the next few decades of sexlessness.

—Lonely in Love

Good God, 99 percent of your marriage is not perfect. There are only so many hours in a day, and if you’re doing even half the things in that laundry list you’ve included in your letter, this is a problem that is affecting the majority of your marriage—not least the fact that you can’t even get your wife to hold your hand or pat you affectionately on the shoulder, much less have sex with you. The fact that she claims to be “caught off guard” by a conversation you’ve had over and over again suggests that she’s being less than fully honest with you. At the very least, your wife’s definition of what being “happy at home” looks like is wildly different from yours. You sound miserable and exhausted and like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders, and if your wife thinks that’s what “happy at home” means, then I shudder at the prospect of being married to her.

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By your own admission, you’ve tried everything to change the state of your marriage, but your wife isn’t even willing to admit that the two of you have a problem worth addressing. I wish I could tell you there was something else you could try, or that there was a way to convince your wife to be honest with you, but there isn’t. If you’re dreading the idea of spending the next few decades in not merely a sexless but a touch-starved marriage, then I think you will have to seriously contemplate leaving this one. It may be that if you make it clear how seriously this state of affairs is negatively affecting your well-being and that you cannot stay in a marriage without honesty and mutual vulnerability, your wife will get the picture and open up, but if she’s seen you weeping and begging for a morsel of affection multiple times and only managed to come up with, “I’m really taken aback by this conversation! I don’t think anything’s wrong,” I don’t have a lot of hope that she’s going to change. I know that’s likely not the answer you were hoping for, and I can see the ways in which you’re trying to minimize your own pain by saying that 99 percent of your marriage is good and that you love the woman you married, but this letter did not describe a 99 percent good marriage. Your letter broke my heart. You deserve so much more than what your wife is giving you, and I hope you can find it someday.

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Dear Prudence,
My first partner and I broke up nine months ago after a year of dating. He was a 27-year-old postgrad and I was a 20-year-old undergraduate; we met at the same university in England. He was poly and I was not, and we broke up when one of his other partners asked to be exclusive. He said he’d “know more” about whether we would be able to continue seeing each other in a few weeks, but weeks turned into months. Right before we broke up, he had introduced me to the new person he was seeing (without telling me they were dating) and kissed me goodbye, so I did not see a breakup coming. Afterward, he continued to send me sexualized messages, saying he was looking forward to seeing what I was wearing at events, bringing up his favorite porn when discussing my dissertation, even asking me to compare the sex we had to the sex I was having with my new partner.

His new partner was deeply insecure about his continued contact with his exes, including me, and I felt like part of the problem. When I raised objections, he said that was just how he and his friends talked to each other, that he was “cheering me on,” that I was too young, too naïve, and too English to understand. I felt increasingly guilty about my association with him, and it was clear his behavior wasn’t going to change.

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Finally I messaged his girlfriend to explain that this contact had been happening and I didn’t want it. She responded that I was “the most manipulative person [she’d] ever had the misfortune to meet” and accused me of using the anniversary of my father’s death to force him to talk to me. My ex-partner called me “arrogant, meddling, and naïve” and blocked contact with me. I know rationally that this man didn’t treat me well as a partner or a friend and that cutting off contact was probably for the best, but I still feel so guilty sometimes about the hurt I caused him. What if I was naïve? What if it is my fault? How can I stop convincing myself that he was right about me?

—Hurt and Guilty

Sometimes, especially if you are a particularly sensitive person, it can be easy to confuse “someone who is angry with me” with “someone I must have harmed in some way.” In this guy’s case, the former has nothing to do with the latter. Your ex is an absolute jerk. If there’s anything in your letter that I would have encouraged you to do differently, it would be to tell him the contact was unwanted and to leave you alone, rather than his girlfriend, but that’s nothing compared with your ex’s behavior. You do not have to endure unwanted contact from an ex—particularly from the kind of person who hears, “I’m uncomfortable when you sexualize our conversations about my work or my new relationship,” and responds, “You’re too English to understand why this shouldn’t bother you.” It’s also troubling that he considers you too young and naïve to have an opinion about whether his behavior constitutes harassment but were apparently not too young and naïve to date well over a year ago. This guy is a red flag factory, and it sounds like his new girlfriend has signed up to be shift manager at Red Flags Manufacturing Inc. It isn’t naïve to dislike it when someone asks you to disclose details about your sex life (even if you two have had sex in the past), nor to want someone to refrain from introducing their pornography viewing habits into a conversation about your dissertation. He’s trying to suggest that you’re to blame for his anger by having boundaries, and that’s an incredibly manipulative (and flat-out wrong!) claim. You are well, well rid of him.

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Dear Prudence,
Two years ago I moved to a beautiful suburb where there is no social life for someone under 40 without kids. I’ve mostly counted on my friends online. My best friend had also been living somewhere where she didn’t have a big social life, and we were both fairly depressed. I felt we were really close, and we talked almost every day online and a couple of times a month on the phone. A month ago she moved to New York City, where she now lives with an old friend and has many other friends nearby. She got a pet she loves and is doing really well in her field, and her depression is improving. I’m really happy for her. But she hasn’t spontaneously contacted me since she moved. I messaged her once, and her replies were monosyllabic. She hasn’t really engaged with me on social media, although she’s been more active than ever.

I miss her, and I feel incredibly alone and depressed. I’ve cried for days about this. Our mutual friend thinks she’s just busy, but I suspect she doesn’t have room for me in her life anymore. I tried to be a supportive friend through all her rough times, but she’s basically gone from my life. How do I get over the hurt? Am I just jealous?

—Nobody in Nowheresville

Talk to her! Talk to her, talk to her, talk to her. It could be that your friend is so relieved to finally be surrounded by people she knows and cares about IRL that she hasn’t stopped to take stock of whether she’s ignoring someone else whose situation hasn’t changed. It may not be malicious, but it’s thoughtless, and it’s hurting your feelings, and you should tell her now, when it’s only been a few weeks and hasn’t yet started to fester. Don’t just send her a generic message and wait for a response—ask if she has a few minutes to talk, and tell her that while you’re excited for her new and improved circumstances, you also miss talking to her and feel like she’s forgotten about you now that her social life is picking back up. You say you two are best friends, so trust that if you bring this information to her in a spirit of vulnerability and affection, she’ll listen to you, apologize for hurting you, and get in touch more often. If she doesn’t respond that way, if she brushes you off or dismisses your feelings—well, you’re already crying and feeling isolated from her. At this point, you have everything to gain and little to lose.

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* * *

Dear Prudence: I told my husband I’m trans, and he called me selfish.

Hear more Prudie at Slate.com/Prudiepod.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a retiree with four adult children. I am proud of all of them. All are successful in their respective fields (none of which are financially rewarding). All are married. Child A has no children, Child B has five, Child C has three, and Child D has two. I recently received a large inheritance (think seven figures) and told my children that I wanted to divide it between them now, rather than wait until I die. Child B asked if I would consider using some of the money to give gifts to my grandchildren, an idea I agreed to if Child B could come up with a formula that would be fair to all. It was suggested that the money be divided into five shares, with each of my four children receiving one full share and the fifth share divided equally among the ten grandchildren. Child A—who has no children—objected, arguing that Child B’s suggestion was an attempt to take more than his or her fair share and listing many previous occasions on which Child A had felt obligated to make financial concessions to a sibling.

In the end, I divided the money four ways. I would like to be able to give gifts to my grandchildren, but I also want to be fair to my four children. Was it out of place for Child B to suggest that a portion of the money be given to grandchildren? Is it unfair for a grandparent to give significant gifts to grandchildren if that means that some families will get more than others?

—A Proud Parent Who Wants to Be Fair

I love this question because it makes me feel like I’m sitting for the math portion of my SAT again, but with absolutely zero real-world consequences, because I don’t personally stand to inherit anything, and you’ve already split the money. If nothing else, this serves as a reminder that there’s no inheritance so large and no parent so generous that a bunch of siblings won’t find a way to rehash old grudges fight about money.

If Child B—let’s call her Rhadamanthus—wanted to use her portion of the inheritance to give gifts to her own children, then it would have been incumbent upon Rhadamanthus to do so in an equitable fashion. Your original plan was to give the inheritance to your four children; while you of course had the right to change your mind and distribute the money however you see fit, there’s a simplicity to dividing it into four equal parts that managed to sidestep Child A’s frustration about (what sounds like) years of perceived disparate treatment on account of not having children.

If you wish to give gifts to your grandchildren, there’s nothing preventing you from doing so! Give them Christmas gifts, or birthday gifts, or set up college funds—anything you like. But that’s completely separate from the inheritance you gave your own kids.

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Dear Prudence,
My old friend Nancy has been reaching out to me on Facebook Messenger. In the mid-’90s, she called me the C-word, twice, while we were at a neighborhood bar.

After that I didn’t have anything else to do with her. These recent attempts to contact me are the first I’ve heard from her in years. I haven’t ignored or encouraged her; I’ve responded without being either rude or friendly.

This week, my brother accompanied a friend to buy furniture he’d heard about through an online ad. It turned out to be at Nancy’s late mother’s house. Nancy embarrassed my brother, in front of his friend, by telling him what she called me all those years ago, tried to apologize to him for it, and explained that she had been drunk at the time. I’m 63 years old, and we were friends in high school. She had a triple bypass this year. Her immediate family has all passed away. She has no husband or children. She’s probably lonely. Not wanting to be mean, rude, or hurtful, how do I tell her, I’m not interested?

—Thanks but No Thanks

It certainly doesn’t seem like Nancy has spent the past 20 years improving her judgment and discernment, if she’s trying to justify her behavior toward you to your brother while he’s trying to buy furniture. I’m not surprised you’re not interested in reopening contact with her. That said, you say that you’ve neither ignored nor encouraged her, but you responded to her messages, which she’s likely taken as a sign that you’re available to talk to her, if only a little bit. If that’s not what you want, you should write back, “I’m not interested in revisiting the past, and don’t want to speak again” before blocking her contact information. Whether she is lonely or not is not your problem. That’s not mean; that’s saying no.

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Dear Prudence,
Six months ago I was able to get out of a yearlong, emotionally abusive relationship with “Katie.” It was my first relationship at 21 years old, and I was very naïve, which kept me in the relationship for a long time. I’ve been getting to know a friend of mine, “Jessica,” better in the months since, and we’ve started dating long distance while I’ve been spending the semester abroad. I consulted my close friends and sisters before making the decision to date again, and they support our relationship.

I would love to tell my mother about Jessica since she is so much better for me than my last girlfriend. But my mother did not support my last relationship. In hindsight, I understand why, but I was stubborn and didn’t listen. She disliked Katie for some valid reasons and some not-so-valid (she had dated more than I had, was not of my Christian denomination, etc.). Since she did not like Katie when they met, she was very cold and often ignored Katie and tried to freeze her out. I do not want my mother to have the same reaction to Jessica. How do I tell my mother about her? Or should I not tell her anything at all?

—Much Happier Now

First of all, congratulations on getting away from your abusive ex and for finding a relationship where you’re happy and being treated well. As for your mother, I have some good (albeit challenging) news for you. You get to tell her about your new girlfriend, communicate your expectations for basic politeness, and then enforce your boundaries, regardless of whether your mother likes Jessica or not. Not telling your mother about your girlfriend should not be an option, especially because it sounds like you and Jessica have been friends for a while and your siblings and close friends already know and approve of your relationship. Tell your mother that you’re seeing Jessica, that you’re very excited to be in a healthy relationship, and that you want her to be polite, friendly, and open-minded when they meet. If she can do that, great! They may not be best friends, but that’s perfectly fine. If she rolls her eyes, avoids eye contact, utters monosyllabic responses to Jessica’s questions, “forgets” to invite her to social events, or otherwise indirectly communicates contempt, then you’ll have the opportunity to say, “Mom, I’ve asked you to be polite to Jessica. If you can’t do that, we’re going to leave. I’d rather stay, because I believe you’re capable of being respectful when you want to be.” Then be as good as your word. This may feel challenging at first, but I promise you, setting limits with your mother now is going to pay massive dividends in your future relationships.

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