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A reader writes:
My wife and I, in our 70s, haven’t engaged in any intimacy in 10 years. Even if I try to give her a quick kiss on the lips, she turns slightly so that I kiss her cheek instead.
Our sex life came to a sudden, abrupt, undiscussed halt. I didn’t pursue sex after my wife shut down for fear of rejection, or diminished desire, or both. We were going through financial difficulty when my mother, unable to live alone anymore, came to live with us. Mom died a couple of years ago after 10 years with us. This brought us a little closer, but more out of sympathy than desire for intimacy.
“Our sex life came to a sudden, abrupt, undiscussed halt.“
Communication about our lack of sexual intimacy has been non-existent, a difficult topic for both of us. I finally brought up the subject, pointing out that it had been years. Did she think we could rekindle some sense of desire?
We went to couples counseling for a short time, but intimacy was a topic only once when the counselor brought it up. My wife said she would be more comfortable discussing it if I left the room. To this day, I don’t know what they talked about. It was a therapy environment, and I understood that conversations between patient and counselor were private and privileged. So I never asked. Maybe that was a mistake. We never came to any resolutions about anything during our therapy, and we stopped going.
Then a devastating diagnosis
We plod along, enjoying each other’s company as well as independent activities. Our lives consist of a lot of sameness, little affection, and no physical contact. She was recently diagnosed with a treatable cancer. She has an excellent prognosis, but it’s cancer — a frightening word — with additional pressure on us both.
I may have to put my meager attempts at renewed intimacy on hold for a while, though I don’t want to. Shouldn’t we be closer than ever at this time? Do you have any words of wisdom?
Husband Missing Intimacy
Thank goodness your wife’s cancer is treatable. The shock and fear of a cancer diagnosis sometimes brings couples closer, or it can have the opposite effect. Counseling can make a great difference, and I encourage you to consider that now.
Too late to speak up?
It sounds like you and your wife never openly discussed your emotions, needs, desires, wishes. Sadly, my “words of wisdom” are more about what you could have done earlier than what you might do now. Clearly you both needed comfort during that hard time of financial challenges, coupled with caring for your mother — yet when sex stopped, you said nothing. I’m not blaming you, please understand — you did the best you could with what you knew then. But what might you have said? Maybe one or more of these statements:
- “I know we never learned to talk about sex and intimacy, but could we learn now?
- “I miss your closeness. I love you and need you. Can we try to bring back our intimacy?”
- “We never expected to be caregivers for my mother. I really appreciate all you do for her and for me. Can we make some time for just us, alone?”
- “I should have asked you what you and our counselor talked about after you asked me to leave the room. I was afraid to know, and I didn’t know the rules about what I could and couldn’t ask. Can you share some of that with me now?”
- “I don’t understand how we let our intimacy go. It would mean everything to me to recapture it. Please tell me your feelings. We’ve gone too long without talking about something this important.”
- “Could we please see a new counselor who would prioritize helping us talk to each other?”
“You are right — addressing cancer with you as her intimate supporter is important.”
Can you bring up these questions now? Of course. But you’ve gone so long without intimacy and without discussing it that you’ll need a therapist’s help. I asked sex and couple therapist Barry McCarthy, PhD, author of Rekindling Desire, what he would tell you now:
“Sadly, you are caught in a cycle of avoidance of intimacy, touching, and sexuality that has become more severe and chronic over time. Unfortunately, the couple counseling reinforced the avoidance in part by not exploring what ‘poisoned’ your spouse’s feelings regarding touching and intimacy.
Address Medical and Sexual Issues
“You are right — addressing cancer with you as her intimate supporter is important. I suggest consulting a couple therapist with a specialty in dealing with medical issues as well as sexuality issues. You can get referrals at https://www.aasect.org and https://sstarnet.org. Many couple clinicians use an assessment process starting with a couple session, followed by an individual meeting with each spouse to explore psychological, relational, and sexual factors, and then a couple feedback session to set goals in dealing with your marriage, her cancer, and intimacy and touching.”
By now, after a decade of no intimacy—not just lack of sex, but not even kissing, or cuddling, or confiding in each other—it will take effort, commitment, and professional help. Please take Dr. McCarthy’s advice and seek a good, sex-positive therapist. Don’t try to do this alone. My best to you.
Send Joan your questions by emailing email@example.com. All information is confidential. Joan can only answer questions that are chosen for publication from readers age 60+
Joan Price is the author of several self-help books about senior sex including her newest, “Sex after Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality after Losing Your Beloved,” and the award-winning “Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex.” Visit Joan’s website and blog and her Facebook page. For senior sex news and tips, subscribe to Joan’s free newsletter.
For more of Joan’s take on this topic, visit here.
I think that open communication is most important in any relationship — old or young. Intimacy can be developed and enhanced when two people are not afraid or ashamed of speaking their hearts to one another. My husband is 83 years old and I am 79. We have a wonderful closeness and sexual intimacy due in no small part because we love each other enough to express ourselves, our needs and desires to one another. This goes across the board from restaurants or movies we like to how we please each other sexually. Communication is the key to intimacy. And keep GOD FIRST.
I feel very sad for the man who’s in a sexless no intimacy marriage, I was in such a marriage in my case it was the man who was so cold It’s really tough i know! After he died i met the love of my life, how things have changed! We’re not young we’re recycled teenagers! . I really wish the man luck because having lived through a cold sexless marriage I know how lonely it can be! I don’t know if he’ll ever get any intimacy back with his wife, but I sure hope so!
I wrote you before regarding me having Herpes at 71. Then last Jan. I had surgery for Skin Cancer of the Vulva. I was out two months from work. It was major and I suffered a lot. I still have a fear of it coming back which it can.
How can I ever tell a new partner about both of those. I can have sex, but then there’s the Herpes. How do I find that special person who would accept me?
Donna, if you’d like your question to be considered for a future column, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Include more of your story so that I can answer you most helpfully if your question is chosen. Thanks!
Why don’t you consider beginning broaching the subject of affection (not sex) with your spouse because of the cancer. In other words, I would consider saying to my spouse something to the effect of…This scary diagnosis has caused me to reflect even more on our marriage and what you mean to me as a life long partner that I am committed to. I want to express my care and concern for you in a supportive way and be there for you. My desire is to express that through a hug or kiss but we unfortunately have grown away from that…can we talk about why that is and what you need to feel loved and supported?
A great book that is related to this issue is “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman. You will get great insight into yourself and your partner and what you need to feel loved.