What My Sexless Marriage Taught Me

By Deirdre Fagan

When you have sex with a man in California one weekend, and sex with a man in New York the next weekend, and you are still sharing a car with the man you are legally married to, even though you left him six months before, it’s complicated. I was working my way out of a marriage. I was working my way back to myself. 

I had turned 30 six months prior and had been in a nearly sexless relationship with my husband since we got together when I was 26. What I mean by sexless is I could count on both hands the number of times we had been intimate. I know that our marriage, which lasted just under a year, included at least three intimate moments, the first being a very awkward wedding night when we went through with the deed to “consummate the marriage,” mainly because that’s what we were supposed to do and because for months I’d been insisting we better. 

I don’t know what I thought about as I dozed off that cold January night after we were done. Perhaps I felt assured that I had done what was right and married for the reasons one should: friendship, shared interests and commitment, and a desire for comfort and stability. He loved me and would do anything for me, he said, and I knew this to be true, at least mostly. He told me during our engagement that he loved me more than his parents—a startling and unsettling pronouncement. There was no doubting how far he would go for me, that he loved me, or had something like love for me, and would never leave me, and that he would even make love to me when he had to, when it was time to make babies, because he was always going to play by the script he created for us, or we had created for each other. But deep down I knew we were never going to really make love or be in love, and if I wouldn’t admit it to myself that night, in the months after saying, “I do,” when I waited for us to desire each other, I came to realize that intimacy was never going to be a part of our relationship. No amount of “I love yous” or “I dos” was going to make it so. But I did love him. In many ways, I still do.  

In the beginning of our marriage, I held tightly to him trying to be satisfied with our relationship’s own beauty, and trying not to desire touch on my body, a tingling in my belly and elsewhere, but as my thirtieth birthday neared, I became overwhelmingly sexually frustrated. It takes two to create and live with such a relationship, though, and while I wasn’t yet ready to admit it, perhaps I had wanted this lack of desire in my life. I appreciated that he loved me for me, my mind, not for my face or body, and he hadn’t tried to take physical advantage of my vulnerability at any point. I hadn’t felt that often in previous relationships. Maybe I, at first, even had a hand in our not making love, for the reasons I just described—the beauty of being loved for me, not the package I came in—but it was only much later I could realize that.

When we married, my husband had earned far more of my heart than any man before, but he didn’t have my libido; it had hung in limbo. I had told him the dozens of times I brought up our lack of intimacy that I still wanted to have sex and I was worried not having it was going to get us into trouble, even though it hadn’t yet, and he often remarked, “Are you threatening me?” “I’m stating a fact,” I explained. “If we don’t solve this, if we don’t resolve our sex issues, someday someone is going to find me attractive, and I’m going to find him or her attractive, and I’m going to give into temptation. It’s not a threat; I’m being realistic. I don’t know how long I can go without being intimate.”  

It turned out not to be a threat but a promise. California man, one of my brother’s closest friends, and I had been attracted to each other each time we’d met. Nothing had ever happened between us before, but there had been innocent flirtations. But when I visited my brother early that first December, California Man kissed me and I kissed him back, eleven months after marrying my husband. Then I got on a plane, flew home to my husband in time for Passover, and immediately told him what had happened and that we, or rather he, needed therapy.

After a week of my husband sleeping on the couch, both of us crying, and him being angry with me, I knew I had to get out. My husband was supposed to seek therapy because he had never been and was the one who didn’t seem to want sexual intimacy, and we were supposed to talk daily on the phone and attempt to somehow figure it all out. 

I arrived back in California by Christmas. By New Year’s, my husband hadn’t seen a therapist—I don’t know why I expected him to be able to during the holidays, but at the time I thought he was making excuses, or maybe I was for wanting to leave him—but my brother and I spent New Year’s Eve with California Man and by the end of the night, California Man and I were making out, and by the next day, we had had sex. It was the first time I had had passionate sex in over four years. It was intoxicating.

I was now an adulterer, but an honest one. I had not only flown home and told my husband about the kiss days after it had happened but now, I admitted to having sex with California Man when my husband called about thirty minutes after it happened. Maybe honesty wasn’t the best policy at that moment, and I’m not proud, but he already knew, and I also couldn’t live in lies. To me, an adulterer had always been someone who cheated and lied when they were still with someone. Kissing someone and telling the truth, and then leaving and sleeping with that someone a few weeks later wasn’t the same thing, or was it? 

California Man and I didn’t last six months. That is no surprise, is it? He was simply a necessary catalyst, but you probably already knew that.

If being an adulterer means still being married to someone and sleeping with someone else, then I went on to be one with New York Man, too, because my husband and I weren’t divorced long before New York Man and I got married. My husband and I had been separated twenty months by then, but in New York, the divorce laws were such that there were only a few justifications for divorce, and neither of us wanted to put in writing that we hadn’t had sex with each other, or that I had with someone else, or lie about the other ugly options, so we based our divorce on a year’s legal separation, but since we didn’t get around to creating an agreement until a few months after I began dating New York Man, it took another year for my husband and I to be divorced. On paper, I married New York Man less than two weeks after our divorce.

Some relationships are good for only a part of our lives. My sexless marriage was great for a part of mine, but we were never meant to be together forever, except neither one of us had ever wanted to admit that when we were barreling toward marriage. Anyone who knew what was really happening would have known; at least one person did.

Not all relationships have to be forever to be valuable and important. I think this is one of those myths we live by. We are told from very young that it’s not love unless it’s forever, and that the ending of a relationship means failure. I no longer believe either of these things. Love for any amount of time is love, and sometimes relationships end because they shouldn’t go on, and it’s not bad but good, for at least one, but often both of those involved. Sometimes even, for all of those involved.

New York Man–Bob–and I fell in love madly, passionately, and fast. We were together twelve years and married eleven before I lost him, the love of my life, to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). After he died, I heard someone say “true love” is dying oneself shortly after losing a spouse. But I was forty-three and had our two small children to raise–that was not an option, and not even true. I will love Bob forever but I am also now married to the second love of my life, a man who was also married before. We are loving our way forward.

In life narratives, our divorces are often dubbed “a huge mistake.” I now know better. We don’t really make mistakes, well, not exactly. Just as all “meant to be” statements and revelations occur in hindsight, so do all mistakes. While I now greatly appreciate the magnet on my fridge that reads, “The first two marriages are just for practice,” (Oh, yes, there was another marriage before my sexless marriage that I didn’t mention and it didn’t make it to a year either), I certainly wouldn’t enter any marriage for practice. But no marriage is a mistake the way that life itself is not a mistake. We choose what person fits the shape of us at the time. Sometimes we are driven by instinct, sometimes by history, and sometimes by qualities we do or don’t much admire in ourselves, but then our shape changes and we grow to see things differently. 

As I recently told a friend who has been married almost as many times as I, “Marrying means you believed in love and kept trying”—and who can fault someone for that?

Image by 123RF

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