The ‘No-Sex’ Experiment and why I think it’ll help

Fast forward almost a year into our marriage. Life is ambling on with unrelated ups and downs until one Friday, my husband has a conversation with a friend which makes him think about All The Things:

He feels not only rejected and depressed, but embarrassed, ridiculed even, as if this is a joke I’m playing on him, or a lesson I’m teaching him for something he’s done in the past. (I don’t know any of this at the time, but immediately assume what happened based on his silence). He clams up, gets distant. I shrink with vulnerability, feel pushed away, dread divorce. The weekend isn’t ruined but each night we go to bed silent and upset.

A month later, during a women’s retreat, I finally tell someone. I tell a whole group of someones. I never bring it up myself of course but when I’m asked how often my husband and I have sex, I feel like a shower curtain has been flung open and I am standing there, exposed. It’s as if I’m admitting that I’ve been lying to them this whole time, that I acted like I was ‘normal’ but really I’m this sex-withholding wife and life is horrible and my relationship is a lie. But they just want to understand. Questions are asked, suggestions are made.

And then one catches my interest:

What if I gave myself a break and decided to not have sex for 30 days?*

Yes, it’s ironic, because obviously we’re already not having sex, but this was different. This wasn’t a ‘not having sex because I can’t.’ This was a ‘not having sex because we choose not to’, or, ‘because it’s forbidden.’

My first thought? What’s forbidden is always more tempting and this basically always turns me on. But the second thought was more of a surprise: relief. I could already feel a wave of relief coming over me: How amazing it would be to be able to enjoy my husband? To flirt with him, hold him, cuddle him, look at him, and touch him without worrying that A) sex would cross his mind and he’d expect it and then feel rejected when it didn’t happen, or that B) sex would cross his mind and he’d know it wouldn’t happen and he’d feel rejected preemptively.

So when I returned, I nervously/full of hope explained this experiment to him – we rarely never discussed the topic so openly and he remained silent as I talked. I thought he was upset – that I told someone, that random people were suggesting things for our sex life like it was an interactive game, that I’d be willing to ‘experiment’ on something so serious.

Instead, he said he was open to anything. So we discussed some rules.

For him: If the ‘issue’ gets to him at any point and he feels upset, communication lines need to remain open – he can’t clam up and get distant like he usually does, otherwise the intimacy we’ve been building goes out the window for me and I have to start from scratch.

For me: When he initiates touch, I’m not allowed to make ‘icky faces,’ especially not at his penis, which essentially pushes him away.

For us: Touch and play and flirt and cuddle without the pressure of either of us thinking/hoping/dreading that it might lead to sex.

So I will put updates on here about that 🙂

This might seem like I’m treating the situation lightly, being ironic or making it sound ‘easy’, but I’m taking this quite seriously. I don’t know that the experiment will work but the immediate relief from pressure is already worth trying it out.

I also think it’s important to say that I’m not sure I would’ve necessarily been up for it even a few months ago, and so don’t think this is something that could work for everyone.

But I’m excited. And I’m finally open to trying something and that is a big step in itself.

 


*  It started with the Big Magic podcast. It was about a woman putting so much pressure on herself to write that she couldn’t. The suggestion? Stop writing. No writing for 30 days no matter what. At worst, it’ll give her a break. At best, she’ll go so crazy not writing and she won’t even last the 30 days.

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Admitting is the First Step

A few months after that one visit to the doctor, I decided to give sex another go. At this point, we were averaging probably not even a handful of times a year, though I preferred not to count.

I tried so hard not to think about it, tried not to psych myself out, tried to get into it – within mere minutes it was painful. So much discomfort. But this time I tried to pinpoint exactly where it was and decided to do some research. I came up with the following:

  1. It was some sort of horrible disease, probably related to cancer (thanks WebMD!), or
  2. It was vulvodynia – have chronic vulvar pain with no known cause1 which could be consant or inconsitent, general or localized.

Neither helped, and neither offered what I wanted: an instant solution – a pill, a cream, a food I should avoid, a hypnosis session…I was so desperate to just make it go away; anything that required longer than ‘right now’ seemed futile.

Resigned, shortly before our wedding, I went and got a referral to a gynaecologist. She had her own two theories:

  1. It could be a side-effect from the birth control I was using, which could lower my testosterone and as “both estrogen and testosterone receptors in the vagina contribute to lubrication, it is understandable that low testosterone not only makes things drier, but also more painful, a condition known as hormonally mediated vestibulodynia”2 However, this was unlikely as it was usually a consistent pain, and would be present when putting in/taking out my Nuva ring or the Diva Cup or even a finger, which it wasn’t.
  2. It’s a psychological issue. Not that it’s necessarily “all in my head,” but that psychological (mental/emotional), not just psychiatric (medical), help might be necessary.

But I was willing to try anything, so I stopped using my Nuva ring immediately and got the fancy shmancy cream she prescribed that could help heal the little spot of irritation down there. But I knew deep inside that the cream wouldn’t help – I didn’t trust it to help, so I wasn’t willing to try to see if it did – which promptly brought me back to the psychological issue.

So I went to see a sex therapist. I tried to be all facts but talking about how I feel like a fraud, that I’m embarrassed and ashamed and disappointed in myself, always brings up all the emotions. 

[Sidebar: It was a relief to tell someone who understands, someone who had not only clinical knowledge but also emotional empathy and psychological wisdom to help with. I had only told one friend about this beforehand and while the reception was of a caring variety, it was shallow and quickly forgotten. It made me resent saying anything. So this was nice.]

There were, once more, two options:

  1. A thorough exam conducted by specialists in pain, followed by participation in a program that helped me deal with it.
  2. Rebuilding the foundations of intimacy

The therapist emphasized that it wasn’t “all in my head” but rather that following some sort of trauma it’s normal for a psychological connection to form between sex and pain. As an example, your toe wouldn’t just hurt if you thought about it, but if you stubbed it and it hurt really bad, you might then become averse to even touching it out of the expectation of pain (which might then actually reproduce the pain).

Since there’s so many other variables involved in sex for women (and I had since stopped wanting sex with him almost regardless of the pain), the plan would be to work on rebuilding those foundations – spending time together, reintroducing touch, etc. – and from there hopefully eliminate that connection to pain.

This made sense to me as the route we should take, especially since my gynaecologist had already done that very thorough exam on me (and even if I wanted to do the program, it’d be a long wait to get in).

Except, thanks to a perfect storm of completely unrelated events that followed, I never went back.

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I don’t have sex with my husband (pt.2)

[Continued from I don’t have sex with my husband (pt.1)]

After a few years of being with my husband, our sex life had become effectively nonexistent and our relationship, while strong in every other way, had a massive crack silently running through it.

We talked about “the issue” once. It was uncomfortable; we were both just trying to explain ourselves, we used inclusive, loving words, and yet we both felt attacked, defensive, hurt. I felt he just didn’t understand; he probably felt the same. He wanted me to get it checked out, to get help, for me to feel better. I felt so vulnerable that any suggestion just made me feel pressured.

It seemed like we made a silent pact not to talk about it, not to think about it, not to go there.

Every few months I’d get brave enough to update him on my progress. “I’ve been doing mantras about it for a couple weeks, and was already feeling more comfortable,” I’d tell him, or, “I made an appointment to get it checked out.”

The mantras couldn’t reach the depth of the problem unfortunately.

As for the appointment – sure, I should’ve done this years ago. I meant to – but the awkwardness and shame I felt meant I didn’t want to think about it much less bring it up for someone to test. The one time I did, the doctor said she couldn’t see anything specific that would cause the discomfort, but if I have sex and it continues to hurt, then she’ll check it out.

But, I’m not going to have sex! I wanted to yell. It was like a phone company telling you to call their help number when your phone didn’t work. I couldn’t even bring myself to try to have sex much less to test whether it would hurt.

So we kept ignoring the issue as we tumbled towards our wedding date.

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I don’t have sex with my husband (pt.1)

There, I said it: I don’t have sex with my husband.

In the past three years, the number of times we’ve had sex could probably be counted on two hands…maybe even one.

My therapist says it probably came from a trauma, and while I have no great trauma to speak of, I can pinpoint it to a specific time when I was in a crisis of sorts – emotionally, physically, mentally.

I had just come back from a long trip overseas. I felt lost, wasn’t ready to be back, and I definitely wasn’t ready to move in with my husband (then-boyfriend). Sex was awkward; it was like we didn’t remember how to be together (it had been six months at that point). I was struggling creatively, stressed out and putting a lot of pressure on myself to succeed in a difficult career; I dropped that, too. And all around the same time, I had to go to the hospital with a weird thumb injury and (TMI) got a very uncomfortable yeast infection.

[A word on *too much information*: this blog will be filled with it. You’ve been warned.]

It didn’t happen all at once but eventually sex became uncomfortable. It wasn’t exactly painful, but the friction caused such a discomfort that it may as well have been. I felt awful. I really wanted to have sex with him but it hurt. It was only a matter of time before I wasn’t into it at all. Oral still happened a few times but eventually that, too, was nonexistent.

I started dreading bedtime. I avoided talking about sex, avoided closeness. I felt like a fraud: sex was so good and ample in the beginning, I felt like I had lured him in and then turned off the tap.

I gave him multiple outs – if he wanted to break up, sleep with other women, we could do that. (He didn’t). I hated that I couldn’t show him love in all the ways I wanted. I hated that he felt unloved because of it.

I tried to convince myself it was all in my head. I wanted to believe it was just a habit I had gotten out of, and if I just did it, I’d get ‘used to it’ again. But I could never quite talk myself into it. The times I did, I cried, it was so uncomfortable.

But the truth was, I didn’t even want sex anymore. And I blamed him: his hair, his hobbies, his weight. But I knew those were all excuses: they were never a problem before.

We didn’t fight about it constantly – actually, we rarely talked about it at all – but it was always the elephant in the room, silently underpinning most other issues, until we finally almost broke up. (We didn’t).

We agreed to a fresh start, and got engaged a few months later; nonetheless, the issue remained. I once more gave him an out – we could still call things off – but everything else was perfect…except…this.

It was confusing. He said didn’t need the sex, he just wanted the closeness. But I knew the closeness would inevitably lead to the topic of sex and everything that came with it, so I avoided it all.

He felt rejected, embarrassed. I felt guilty and ashamed. I didn’t want to be in a sexless marriage, and yet here I was, the architect of it.

I turned off that part of myself. I didn’t need sex. I didn’t care for it. The times I did get aroused, I willingly took care of it myself. I didn’t want him to touch me – it had been so long that any touch of his was foreign, uncomfortable.

And I hated that I felt that way. I wanted to want him. I wanted so badly to want to have sex with my husband. I would’ve done anything to just take a pill and make the discomfort STOP. I was sure that if the pain just went away, I could then at least reasonably consider  going through the motions.

Going through the motions would’ve been a welcome improvement. That’s what my sex life had become.

[Continued in next post…]

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