Thursday 14 December 2017

Dear Mary: We were having lots of great sex, but now his desire has fallen away

Illustration: Tom Halliday.
Illustration: Tom Halliday.

Mary O’Conor

I'm a twenty-something who is lucky enough to be in what has been a very loving and fulfilling relationship for over a year. My partner and I get on great, and support one another very well. We find one another attractive, and we're great friends too.

I also thought we were having great sex. Particularly in the early months we had loads, and it was good for both of us - we communicated openly and had fun. Of course, it is natural for the frequency of sex to drop off a little but we were doing well until a month or two ago. I noticed a sizeable drop in his appetite, which we discussed, and at the time decided it was just an ebb; but it has become sparser. We have spoken again, and it is now clear that this is a much more extensive issue than I thought.

In a previous relationship, an ex-partner of his would use sex as a way of keeping control and power balanced in their favour. At one point, sexual contact was withheld for quite a time without explanation. He grew used to denying himself desire, and to punishing himself emotionally for wanting sex.

Eventually, he couldn't feel good about it anymore, and while he could perform, it would lead to a period of deep guilt and sadness at his own desire, both during and after. As a result of this emotionally abusive behaviour, and perhaps a preconception towards sex as something 'dirty', it now has negative connotations for him. He thought the issue had disappeared at the beginning of our relationship, but it has now returned. He says he finds me sexy, and he wants to sleep with me, but he feels like he shouldn't - that he can't make himself, because he "doesn't deserve it", and he finds his own sexuality in some way repulsive if he goes ahead.

This has obviously had quite an effect on me. We still have sex, but not a lot, and it has been marked by these revelations. I can't enjoy it, knowing that he doesn't feel as good about it as I do. I am a sexual person, and I love the intimacy of sex. I am honoured that he has trusted me with the real issue, but now that I know I feel very confused, worried, and rejected. I love him very much, and I know this is mutual. I want his drive and enjoyment back. I know we can get through this if we can help him get his feelings sorted. Please advise - we can't afford counselling.

Mary replies: This is a fairly complicated situation, particularly as I know very little about your partner's previous relationship which seems to be at the root of all his problems regarding sex. In that relationship, sex was used as a bargaining tool and was used to maintain the balance of power. What a nasty way to operate. This has obviously had a very big effect on your partner, but you are also suffering because of it.

At the beginning of any relationship and before the couple realise that it is serious and has the potential for being a long-term one, the sex is often really good. Then, as the relationship develops, a very strong emotional link develops and the ideal is to have both emotional and sexual intimacy. However, in some cases when one person has a problem with either component they withdraw from that one and this appears to have happened with your boyfriend. He had been made to feel for some reason that it was wrong to enjoy sex and so he has concentrated instead on loving you and feeling emotionally close to you. But that is not as it should be, and I'm glad that you have brought the subject up with him as things could go on for years as they are now if not addressed.

It is indeed a pity that you cannot afford counselling because you would both benefit from it. I will try to very briefly explain what would happen in therapy. Firstly, past history would be discussed to try to make sense of what has happened, and in effect this is what you have been doing with your partner. Indeed, it is a sign of how much he values your love that he was able to confide in you. Then a programme would be devised for you to get used to the emotional intimacy that a non-sexual massage would bring to you both by putting a ban on anything sexual. You would be instructed to make dates a few times a week for this massage - firstly non-genital touching and gradually adding in the genital areas, but without any arousal. It sounds a little strange but it actually works very well as the couple get used to being sensual without being sexual. Then gradually a little arousal is added - kissing and stroking - and it is quite a while before the couple are allowed to get back to being fully sexual. Hopefully by then the negative connotations that your boyfriend associates with being sexual will have become much less and you will be able to go forward in your sexual lives together. But I have to reiterate that this would be much more successful if it were done in conjunction with a qualified therapist.

I found a letter from my husband to another woman

Question: Many years ago my husband and I were part of a group that hung around together as we all had children around the same age. We had some of the best times of our lives with this group and I was sorry when we moved away from that area. We have kept  in contact via Christmas cards and now on  Facebook. In a couple of months we are going to a wedding of one of the children of our friends and it will be the first time that we will all have been together since the late 90s.

Recently, I was cleaning out our bedroom, and to my horror I came across a letter written by my husband to one of the wives, telling her how much he fancied her and detailing what it would be like if they got together. I don't know if this was a copy or an original that he never posted. I could always feel a chemistry between them which I suppose should have put me on my guard, but I was much younger then and not too socially aware, plus I had a young family to take care of which took most of my waking hours.

Should I tell him that I found the letter or keep quiet about it? I'm dreading the wedding now even though I was so much looking forward to us all being together again

Mary replies: It sounds like your husband wrote that letter a long time ago but it must have been very difficult for you to read. Ultimately, only you can decide whether you tell your husband or not. A lot will depend on how things are generally between you. If they have been good - apart from normal ups and downs - then what have you to gain by telling him? If you do, you will be opening a whole can of worms and things will never be the same again between you. Perhaps you could postpone any decision until after the wedding when you can see how things are between them and also how you feel. Try to bear in mind that he may never have sent the letter - writing it may have been enough for him at the time.

It is such a pity that you are dreading the wedding. It will be fun to see everybody again - even though you will have a worry with regard to the object of your husband's desire. By the way, be prepared for everybody to have changed quite considerably in the intervening years - they will all look older whereas you will feel that you haven't aged at all!

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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