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Dear Patricia: After 20 good years he's leaving over our lack of sex

AFTER 20 good years of marriage, my husband is leaving me. He says it's because we haven't had sex for 10 years -- which, he argues, is all my fault.

We rarely talked about it -- maybe twice a year in a sheepish way. We were both embarrassed. Those conversations were short. There were never great discussions on the matter. Neither of us spoke at length about what we were feeling. The topic was too hot. It stood like an elephant in the room.

Yet the rest of the marriage was good with lots of affection, hugs and kisses, singing in the car together, dancing around the house to good music, and laughter, lots of laughter. We couldn't get around this issue of sex, though we both agreed that "things would come right".

Then, one day recently, it boiled over and he told me the marriage was at an end. Why? Because he's having sex with someone else, it turns out. So here we are and I'm crushed. A big part of the pain comes from the cold indifference he shows me -- as if we were never a couple. Some switch was thrown in his head and he feels nothing for me.

Apart from all the pain, I also feel terribly exploited. Let me explain. We sold our house and moved back to Ireland to help care for his elderly mother who is now dead. In our 20 years together my husband has only been employed full-time for six. The rest of the time he was a student, right up to obtaining his PhD. I worked full-time to support us. He got that PhD only nine months ago. The timing of this marriage break-up is striking. And he admitted that he knew he didn't love me before we even moved back here. So, I feel conned as well as devastated and have to wonder if he ever loved me.

Patricia replies:

RELATONSHIPS are never one-way traffic. The two of you were in that marriage together. Secondly, you could spend the rest of your life trying to second-guess what your husband felt or thought or believed and get absolutely nowhere. Getting past the pain, therefore, is best achieved if you try and learn more about yourself, and what you brought to the marriage. How did you set the seeds, or at least nurture the seeds, of your marital breakdown? And no, I'm not trying to apportion blame. I'm trying to help you avoid the role of victim, which brings nothing but heartache, frustration and despair.

The most glaring feature of your letter is your failure to say, even now, what went wrong with sex. It is still the elephant in the room. Your husband said it was all your fault. What did he mean? No, of course he's not right. The failure to discuss issues was a two-way breakdown in basic communication. So it was his responsibility too.

But what was he referring to? Did you opt out of the sexual relationship? Did you turn down all his overtures? Did you feel sex wasn't important? Did you relegate it so far down the agenda that it fell off the end of the list? Did you, however subtly, ridicule his sexual interest? You see, you're still not talking about it.

On top of that, you're still implying that it shouldn't have been all that relevant. You talk about the laughter and dancing and singing in the car. All of that is lovely. But it's not, fundamentally, what marriage is all about. As I seem to say a thousand times, marriage is based on sexual love. It is also presumed that it will be monogamous, exclusive, based on faithfulness on both sides. So what is a husband to do when his wife walks away from the sex? Yes, I know I'm presuming that that is what you did. And of course I could be wrong. But like I said, you're not saying -- well, not directly anyway.

You also seem surprised that he went elsewhere for sex. Why? How did you see it all panning out? I mean, even if it were your husband who withdrew from sex, despite his argument that it was all your fault -- which you haven't challenged by the way -- why did you think the marriage was sound? Why was there no warning signal going off in your head?

You financially supported him while he studied. You made serious sacrifices to help care for his family. And he did what? Got a PhD, laughed and fooled around with you, but left sexual intimacy out of the equation. So what was he, a lodger cum brother cum soul companion?

I'm so sorry if this sounds unsympathetic. I'm simply trying to show you that you were not the victim of a bad man. You are not a victim at all. You willingly participated in a relationship that in marital terms had a serious flaw. It denied the importance of sex.

Maybe sex isn't important to you. We don't know that, since the whole issue is still that silent elephant. The fundamental mistake you made was to think it wasn't important to your husband either. You allowed embarrassment to block insight. And yes, it's painful to look at that reality. None the less it's far better than feeling you were conned. You were not. You turned a blind eye to a glaring reality. Both of you did. The point is, it suited you as well as your husband. Otherwise it could not have happened.

Sunday Indo Living