The question My wife and I are both 51 and have been together 30 years. She is experiencing terrible perimenopausal symptoms and I am trying to support her as much as possible. I have always been sensitive to her needs – period pain, labour, postnatal depression and three years of anorexia –and I have researched all I can about the perimenopause. I adore my wife and find her sexy, but I know that intimacy is not something she wants at the moment and I respect that. Our sex life has never been regular during our marriage, but I still desire her and wish for some form of intimacy when she is ready. I do not want anyone else and my outlet is self-pleasure when needed, although the teenage guilt is still there! Is there still hope for us to continue a sexual relationship when the time is right? I just don’t want to accept our physical relationship could be over.
Philippa’s answer There you are, living with your sexy wife and, oh dear, you don’t know if you are ever going to get a shag again. Not that you put it like that, that’s just how I read it. You are very measured in your email, showing me just how well you behave, almost as though you’re walking on egg-shells. Got me wondering whether you must walk around your wife on egg-shells, too. By being too tentative you may be losing authenticity. If you over-adapt to your partner, what happens to you? Is there anything left of you for her to have a relationship with? It is a difficult balancing act to be who you really are when you obliterate it by being who you think you should be. Be careful the real you doesn’t get lost with the supreme effort you put into doing what seems to be the right thing.
There you are, living with your sexy wife and, oh dear, you don’t know if you are ever going to get a shag again
Apart from this possible over-adaption there are at least four more things that could be going on here.
1. Your wife may feel infantilised by you taking care of research and becoming the expert on her. You describe your relationship with her as a series of her needs. I wonder if this is a habit. She may be feeling as if she is a specimen to be analysed and researched – something to be right about rather than a person to relate to. And anorexia can be the body’s way of trying to solve a problem that has not been articulated and quite often after psychological investigation that problem seems to be the patient’s lack of autonomy in their life. Of course, I do not know enough about your dynamic to say whether it was like this for your wife, I’m voicing it only as a possibility. If you became too parent-like and controlling, this might have been her body’s way of rebelling.
2. What is the dynamic between you? I’m getting a clue from your saying sex has never been regular. In many marriages, instead of being two adults, partners switch between being in parental or childlike roles. Having sex with this parent-child dynamic may make the whole thing problematic. You both seem to be switching between the roles of parent and child. She takes the role of child-like patient. You take care of the research like a parent, but then you’re like a kid in the back of the car asking, “Are we nearly there yet?” when it comes to sex and then she switches to a withholding parent role. The guilt about masturbation is also strangely child-like.
3. You are having the problem – no sex – but you see your wife as the one having the problem. How was it decided that your wife would be the sick one? What’s happened to your problems? With all your caring focused on your wife it makes me wonder about your inner child. Perhaps you were neglected and never want your wife to feel like that, or you had an overbearing parent who micromanaged you. Perhaps this was your blueprint for a loving relationship. What was it about your upbringing that, at 51, has left you with hang-ups about masturbation? It can be so much easier to see what needs fixing in someone else than it is to realise what it is in ourselves that may be limiting our own lives and relationships.
4. Too much rescuing. In our culture, we big up men and boys to be knights in shining armour and downplay girls and women into damsels in distress, so it’s too easy to take it for granted that it’s the male role to problem-solve. But it isn’t. Think about it: if your dog is run over, you’d rather someone felt for you in your grief than advised you on how to hold a dog lead. So if someone says they are having, say, hot flushes, rather than trying to take control of the situation with research about the female body in general, instead be curious about her unique personal experience. There is also a flavour of I-want-to-get-you-right-for-me about the fixing that I expect she picks up on.
I cannot predict what is going to happen and neither can you. But as Henry Ford said, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got, which in your case was an irregular sex life. It may be an idea to investigate the dynamics between you rather than keeping the focus just on her. You could seek further help here: tavistockrelationships.org.
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