How to Do It

The Moment We Got Married, My Wife Stopped Touching Me

It’s been 19 years.

Two people lie in bed, not touching. There are neon wedding rings hovering over them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slate’s sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to howtodoit@slate.comNothing’s too small (or big).

Dear How to Do It,

I was 25 when I married my wife. I’m 44 now. She’s 47. We have two children together, and a grown stepson whose father is in prison. Both our dating and engaged relationships were full of shared activities and physical touching. We did everything together from cooking to fishing, playing cards, walking, riding back roads, having sex, and socializing with friends. She never told me “no” when intimate desires scratched me. Never.
Not once.

Our relationship changed immediately the day after our wedding—and I do mean immediately. It just took me many years to see it. Our sex life went overnight from whenever I wanted it to only five to six times a year, even though I tried very often. Soon, a pattern emerged: I would try to touch her, and she would rebuff me. There was always an excuse: My stepson was home or would be home soon. She was hormonal. She had a headache or a cough. She was tired. Around year eight, our sex life dropped to around four times a year. I never stopped trying though, until three years ago. That’s when I finally gave up. It was the look on her face then that made me stop: disgust. She wouldn’t touch me. She didn’t want to be there. And now, since I stopped trying for intimacy, no one tries at all. We have a sexless, touchless, loveless marriage. And it’s killing me.

My wife tells me this is normal, that she’s happy this way and has no desire to try to be intimate, even though it’s what I want most. We haven’t shared any activities in a decade other than family trips and an occasional TV show. In fact, she does almost nothing else with her free time other than watch TV and sleep. Most weekends she sleeps up to 12 hours a day. She gets up, cooks breakfast, and goes back to bed. She usually doesn’t get up again until it’s time for supper; I handle the kids. Before you ask, my wife will not let me go to doctor visits with her, even for major surgery consultations. She got on Prozac and hid it from me for over a year. I found her pills by accident while playing hide and seek with our children. And even then she still tried to lie to me. She’s angry a lot. She’s taken thousands of dollars from my retirement savings account without telling me or paying it back, or apologizing.

Despite all of this, she loves our children and they love her. She holds down a good job. What I’m saying is she isn’t evil, she just neglects me, and often the kids. I’m so extremely lonely. She won’t even have a conversation with me about our relationship. She gets angry, closes off, and storms away. I’ve tried, calmly, to discuss this with her over 20 times. She just tries to deflect what I say. She says I’m not understanding that relationships are supposed to be like ours. She says sex is not important. That touching is not important. I desperately need to kiss, to hug, to hold, to be close, to enjoy each other’s warm bodies, to be active together, to have fun together, and not just watch TV or sleep. I’m not even allowed to see her naked. Am I being unreasonable for wanting intimacy and shared social activities with my wife? Is this grounds for divorce? I’m thinking I want one, even though I cannot bear the thought of being without my children. If I get divorced, how can I get primary custody of our kids? I’m the primary caregiver, but I know the woman almost always gets the kids. Please give me guidance. I’m lonely and helpless in Arkansas, and my wife says it is normal.

—Not Normal

Dear Not Normal,

Trusting that you have been accurate with your wife’s words, I’d like to share a quote from Michael Warner’s 1999 queer manifesto The Trouble With Normal, which applies to you more than you might think: “To be fully normal is, strictly speaking, impossible,” Warner wrote. “Everyone deviates from the norm in some way. Even if one belongs to the statistical majority in age group, race, height, weight, frequency of orgasm, gender of sexual partners, and annual income, then simply by virtue of its unlikely combination of normalcies one’s profile would already depart from the norm.” This is to say that your wife’s argument is based on a logical fallacy, and even if it weren’t, it’s straight-up sadistic to expect you to suffer in yearning because it’s “normal.” She’s 100 percent wrong there, you are right, and given her unwillingness to yield, collaborate, or even inform you of the most basic elements of her interior (and in some cases exterior) life, splitting up may be the wisest option. It’s at least time to talk about it—perhaps the severity of the notion will wake her up.

But maybe not. I believe your wife is deeply depressed, and I believe her secrets go beyond her medication. I wouldn’t know where to begin speculating about her issues, but you already know she’s lied to you about medication and your retirement accounts. What else is there? I don’t know, but I suspect something is up.

You are not unreasonable for wanting intimacy and shared social activities with your wife, because those things are fundamentals of partnership. Right now, you have a roommate, and not a particularly good one. You are unreasonable, however, for asking a sex-advice columnist how to secure primary custody of your kids in divorce proceedings. I know nothing of your character, but a lifetime of listening has taught me that few people are the angels they make themselves out to be in their stories of being done wrong. You have been doing this for 19 years. You have every right to pursue sexual and emotional satisfaction, but leaving your wife would mean altering your family structure considerably. You make that decision; you have to accept there will be consequences. The only people who get to have everything they want in life are those with no aspirations.

Dear How to Do It,

Lately, I’ve been having sex from Grindr, Scruff, et al. with five to 10 new partners each week. Sometimes, it’s a repeat, but most of the time, it’s a stranger (I live in a major city, so there’s plenty of supply). If I’m in a different neighborhood for a meeting, or an appointment, or even a drink with a friend, I open the app and actively look for someone. I take work breaks to get laid. I worry this is becoming compulsive, but the truth is I enjoy the sex and don’t think I’m hurting myself; I’m on PrEP and get tested regularly. I’m dating someone, so this isn’t an issue of loneliness or a cry for affection. Still: Is my behavior out of control? How do I know?

—Looking

Dear Looking,

A good rule of thumb to determine whether something as enjoyable as sex is becoming a problem is if you notice your behavior continuing to escalate (i.e., increasingly frequent or extreme sex), whether you’re unable to stop it, and whether it’s taking a toll on your daily routine. Are you ignoring family, friends, or obligations? Is it getting in the way of your job? Do you still have the same interests you did before this hot streak? Are you able to go a few days without, if only for the sake of proving to yourself that you can? I think that sex is a perfectly fine hobby along the lines of playing video games in that its primary yield is pleasure, but if it’s getting in the way of other hobbies and interests that do yield material products (like, say, art-making) or improve society (like volunteer work), it may be time to scale back.

It seems like you’re on the precipice of compulsion/addiction/a problem, though it’s hard to be sure—it’s taking time away from your job, but if you’re getting your work done and your place of employment allows you the break time without any potential consequences, then you’re probably in the clear. Sex Addicts Anonymous offers an online self-assessment quiz you may want to check out—do it for the peace of mind, if nothing else.

Also, this could just be a phase. You’re young, you’re hot, why not stick your dick in any hole that wants it? There are way worse ways to spend your time. I had a sex-drenched period not unlike yours a few years ago. Not all that I was having was of satisfying quality (when you go high volume, it’s inevitable that there will be basic mismatches in chemistry), which only made me want more. It reminded me of raiding the horror section of my local video store in the ’80s and ’90s—you sit through so much incompetent garbage but finding the rare gem keeps you going back again and again to find another one, which then means sitting through even more crap. After a very active month, I noticed that sex was starting to get boring (I realized this when Weezer’s “Tired of Sex” was looping in my head as I was having it). So I had less of it.
Not much was lost in my sluttiest of slutty phases, just some time and writing I could have been doing to maximize productivity. And look at me now, combining both things in the profitable endeavor that is this column.

It’s encouraging that you’re concerned about whether you’re entering the realm of compulsion; that kind of self-checking will help keep you from doing so and/or reel yourself in when necessary. In the meantime, have fun. And when it’s not fun, stop doing it.

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 34-year-old cis gay guy who has, for many years, avoided dating because of an embarrassing medical problem. I apologize for the somewhat unappealing words to come: I am beginning to explore the idea of dating again, and it’s probably just because I myself am somewhat sensitive to odor that my problem seems so awful that I have no idea how to bring it up with a potential partner. I have a condition that basically destroys the skin, causing abscesses and leaving painful tracts. This part I can deal with, because I’ve had the condition since I was 17. It’s awful and sometimes excruciating but manageably so for the most part. The issue is that the tracts are basically wounds that never heal and always smell bad. Like, very bad. Even directly after a shower, even not during a breakout, the smell is noticeable when you get anywhere near my armpits (manageable) or groin/anal area (less so).

My issue is: I know the general advice is just tell your partner when you feel comfortable and you get whatever reaction you get, but for some reason that feels so inadequate in my position. I feel that my sexual appeal is essentially ruined by this, because even if I got someone that seemed into it, I’d be horrified thinking that it’s the first step on the black-market path to exchanging soiled underwear or other gross things (I’m pretty vanilla). I have no idea how to word what I need to say in such a way that it doesn’t destroy my interest in him, or his in me. I recognize that smell is a powerful sense; some partners enjoyed my general smell during pre-bad-smell times, and I have greatly enjoyed the general smell of some other guys, so it seems like a singular sense in a lot of ways, since he can’t just screw me with his eyes closed or while shouting “lalalalala” or whatever. I think I may be responsible for manslaughter if I tell someone to breathe through their mouth while they suck me off, so what do I do? What do I say? How exactly do I say it? Humor aside, I’m so confused and hopeless about this. I’m not allowed to use products like antiperspirant or aftershave or anything on the areas to cover or mask the smell, and that’s really hamstringing my attempts to make myself comfortable with it.

—Sniff Test

Dear Sniff Test,

You must remember that you are not your wounds. They’re just part of you. So many other things make you you, and it is those things that will attract and keep a partner. Your condition may put you at a disadvantage when it comes to quick and cheap sex, which is a shitty hand to be dealt if leisure sex is what you want, but it doesn’t take you out of the game. You’ll likely want to form stronger social connections with potential sex partners, bonds that will make discussing your condition easier, as it will undoubtedly come up in broader conversation regarding your life. Besides that, it doesn’t seem like you have a working example of how repellant your sore smells actually are, so there is a chance that this is an issue you’re blowing out of proportion.

If you really want to engage in some no-strings sex, you may have to settle for activity that keeps your partner’s face away from the odor sites (for example, you could suck him off while masturbating). If you are absolutely intent on no-holds-barred sex with strangers via apps, just give them a basic heads-up before you get started: “I have a skin condition that produces an odor you might find unpleasant. If it’s too strong for you, just say the word and we’ll do something else.” You can’t mask the smell on yourself, but you could help block the odor from entering his nose by spraying cologne just under his nose or, hell, some Vicks VapoRub like in The Silence of the Lambs. That might be a strange thing to do/propose to someone that you don’t know, but people do weird shit that exposes their various issues during casual hookups all the time. (I thought it was strange that this guy I hooked up with never removed his baseball cap during sex, stranger still that he didn’t take it off in the shower, either. It was still fun, and I’ve never forgotten him.) You spend that much time this close to a person, you’re likely to get some strong whiffs of their humanity. Take solace in the fact that everyone stinks a little bit sometimes, both literally and metaphorically.

Dear How to Do It,

My husband and I (cis woman) are in a strong, happy, monogamous marriage of 10 years. We spent years with little to no sexual activity because of my husband needing hormone replacement therapy, but only recently found the right doctor to do it. (It’s way harder than it sounds—we’re both in our early 30s, and it took years before a doctor would give him more than just a “you’re young, you’ll recover.”) It was difficult for me in the beginning, but I found helping him feel free from pressure or guilt gave me the ability to be patient and focus on other aspects of us, and doing that gave us an intimacy and strong friendship I don’t know if we would’ve had without.

Now that his health is better, we’ve been adding back some sexual contact, but there’s another issue. We have a disabled child. He is on the autism spectrum and has some intellectual disability paired with anxiety, so if he doesn’t see me or if I don’t call back to him right when he calls to me, he panics and screams and cries. My husband and I made the mistake once of explaining our lock-the-door alone time as playtime, so now that sounds to him like an invitation for everyone to play. And if he can’t get in the room right away, he screams and bangs the door until he is physically hurt. (In case this crosses your mind, our home is child-proofed to the degree appropriate for him; he can be trusted to be in another room without supervision.) Once I open the door, all is well for my son, but it doesn’t feel that way for anyone else. Here’s another wrinkle: Our son has a bed in our room and sleeps there more often than not. We keep a separate bedroom with another bed just for him, but his fears around being alone, or being away from us, combined with his fear of darkened spaces and general heightened anxiety, makes spending nights in that room impossible for him at this point. To my husband and me, well, we’ve both always preferred to sleep during the night instead of trying to have sex, so our son sleeping there doesn’t cramp our style, but it is just another space where sexual contact is off the table, and that’s more than a little frustrating. So … how do my husband and I resume the sexual part of our relationship when we can’t get out of our son’s view? Or, as I’ve learned from parenting a disabled child, the better thing to ask: How do I change what I’m currently doing and how I’ve been behaving so that a better outcome for all is had?

—Blocked

Dear Blocked,

You have the patience (inherent? imposed? both maybe?) of a Christmas decoration still hanging in August. I trust that your strategies for managing your son’s separation issues are sanctioned by professionals; if not, I’d get guidance from a psychologist who specializes in spectrum issues. While you sound immensely loving, I don’t see how this situation, specifically your son sleeping in the same room as you most nights, is tenable in the long term. Do you get any time alone? If not, it seems worth working on strategies to change that with a professional as well.

It’s hard to know what you can afford or get away with because I don’t have more details, but it seems clear the current way of things will not give you what you want. If you are able to make some time for you and your husband away from your son, I suggest a venue change. Try getting a hotel room with your husband once a week, or even once a month, far from where your son can interrupt your burgeoning sexual exploration. I assume your son does not accompany you to the bathroom or the shower; you could try to sneak some sex in during bath time. I have the utmost respect for parents of children with disabilities, especially ones as sensitive to their children’s issues as you are. But I also respect you as a human with your own needs, including privacy. Your son will have to learn boundaries at some point, though I fear for you that it will be later than sooner. If you can wait it out, more power to you. But I hope there’s some give somewhere in the near term. You deserve it.

More Advice From Slate

At the beginning of the school year, my husband and I brought a 16-year-old exchange student into our home. My husband is a teacher at the high school she is attending, so by necessity they spend a lot of time together (driving to and from school, at school events, etc.). Over the past several months, I’ve noticed that their relationship has become very close. My husband is extremely emotionally involved in everything she does, they spend their free time together, and they text each other constantly. I don’t believe that they are having a physical relationship, but I don’t know what to do about their emotional intimacy. I confronted my husband about it, and he was angry that I would suggest that he was doing anything inappropriate with a teenager. He stated adamantly that he has come to love her as a daughter, but that his love for her is not a threat to me. Still, something feels “off” to me about their level of involvement. So I did something that I am not proud of; I snooped through his phone to see what they are texting about. They are constantly telling each other that they love each other and miss each other. The thing is, he will tell her that he loves her right in front of me. I know that if I confess that I snooped he is going to feel that I violated his privacy. I am starting to wonder if this situation is damaging to her, and if I need to remove her from our house to protect her from further involvement. Or am I just being the stereotypical “evil stepmom”? (Also: a succinct follow-up to this letter.)