My partner1 and I have had an excellent relationship for almost 20 years (we married almost 10 years ago). But not even a year in, the sex declined rapidly and remained minimal. Like once-every-two-months-ish or less.2
Because of me.
I wanted to want to. But — for some reason I couldn’t figure out — I didn’t actually want to. The result: I was on my guard at all times and simultaneously felt guilty that I didn’t want it. Completely torn. I was grateful (and occasionally a little surprised) that my partner stayed with me through it all. Top all of that off with another helping of guilt.
For the last couple of years, my partner has been studying overseas and thus has been away for 2 to 6 months at a time, and home for up to 3 months at a time. I hoped that my anxiety about sex would decline while we were apart, and that my defences would drop on their own. Maybe then I could make some kind of improvement.
About a year ago, I started to have serious challenges with work/family (it’s a family business — so complicated). I started seeing a counsellor occasionally and doing lots of reading on anything remotely relevant to the situation: toxic workplace; body language; passive aggression; my personality and the personalities of others at work; anger; boundaries; sensitivity and the highly sensitive person (HSP).
It took a while, but my sexuality began to thaw this past summer as hoped, and I started doing some reading in that area as well. I had always felt uncomfortable with sexuality generally. I had never experienced anything particularly negative — it just seemed to be an attitude or belief that I couldn’t shake, no matter what sex-positive stuff I read or how I tried to correct my thinking.
Somehow, the phrase ‘sexual shame’ came to mind, and now I had a search term. I was able to confirm that, yes indeed, sexual shame was what I was experiencing. Now, where the hell did it come from?
A throwaway line in a book about HSPs changed everything for me: the sensitivity of HSPs makes it possible for them to be deeply affected by the hurts of others, for instance a sensitive child picking up on the past sexual trauma of a parent.3
My mother was sexually abused by her father.
This is all I know about it. The fact that I know at all is, in itself, highly improbable.
What if my negative attitude about sex is actually hers, not mine?
Sex is shameful and bad. Being married doesn’t make sex OK. Sex is not enjoyable. Always protect yourself — merely saying ‘no’ is probably not sufficient. If sex can’t be avoided, it is to be merely survived. Men are dangerous and can’t be trusted about sex. Sex is absolutely private and should never be discussed with anyone. Displays of affection, sensuality or sexuality are always inappropriate. All of these incorrect beliefs are consistent with an unhealthy attitude created by abuse.
Finally — finally — things started to fall into place for me. I don’t think I spent much time pondering: the realization alone seems to have thrown the door wide open. Perhaps the other personal growth work that I had done (getting to know myself better in general terms, learning about sex positivity) had established the necessary groundwork. I’m not sure. But now I’m off to the races.
So here I am, in a long-term committed and deeply loving relationship, finally enjoying my sex life (thank fuck!) and wanting to express it, but oh god not to anyone I actually know!
1 For the purposes of this blog, he prefers the term ‘partner’ rather than ‘husband’ because the latter has a lot of connotations that he doesn’t care for.
2 I haven’t found any reliable definitions in my brief research on the point, but in accordance with this article, I accept the term ‘sex-starved relationship’ as meaning sex less than 10 times per year. A ‘sexless relationship (marriage)’ would then mean no sex at all.
3 I didn’t make note of the book at the time, but I think it was either The Highly Sensitive Person, or The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, both by Elaine Aron.