Loving at Arm’s Length: a memoir about living in a sexless relationship.
As a woman it can be difficult to imagine an instance where a man would not want to have sex with you. With all the misogyny, societal expectations, and disadvantages to being a woman today, one of the times sexism seemingly benefits us is when it comes to sparing us this rejection. Yet somehow I found myself there, in a situation where I slept next to a man who, night after night, didn’t lay a finger on me. To say I was lonely would be an understatement. I was more than lonely: I was embarrassed, I was angry, and I was being extremely selfish.
This man and I, let’s call him Christian, had been in a committed relationship for quite some time. We had fun together, rarely fought, loved each other, and were truly best friends. People loved to spend time with us for that reason. We gave each other space, while also being a part of each other's world. It was the perfect balance.
Balance, however, is delicate, and ours was soon disrupted. As is common with couples who spend their youth together, we eventually both wanted to break free. We went our separate ways. I moved into an apartment in an exciting new city, with my best friends. I began working on my career, and started dating for the first time in three years. A year had gone by since the break up, and I was just beginning to strike a new balance, when Christian and I decided to give the relationship another shot. In hindsight, we both should have known it was a premature move. But hindsight is a presumptuous bitch who only knows to say “told ya so.” And so, we tried. But modern dating is complicated. To make a long story short, I was caught chatting up another guy via iMessage, on my MacBook. We seemingly resolved the issue, and made a solid re-commitment to our relationship, but this was the beginning of the end.
We always had what I would call an “above average” sex life. After this incident occurred, his drive nearly vanished. Christian’s view of me had changed for having betrayed his trust. Sex was still happening, but much less frequently. At this point in time, the universe conspired in such a way that my lease was going to be up, and we had the opportunity to move in together. Neither of us was ready, we both knew that, so we didn’t make any immediate formal decisions. But on move-out day, Christian drove that U-Haul straight to our new place, no discussions. It was almost as if we were too scared to say it out loud. Our inner-selves must have known then, what we would learn later by moving in together.
For nine months we lived in the same house, slept in the same room, and shared the same bed. And for nine months, we did not once have sex. We tried in the beginning, but it quickly became clear that that part of our bond had died. I was too ashamed to talk to my friends about it, so I kept this to myself. I knew that people would think Christian was cheating, but I knew he wasn’t. The tears in his eyes, and the pain in his face, made that impossible to doubt. Our sex struggles were probably harder for him to bear than they were for me. The amount of mutual crying, and late night conversations that went into soothing a living, breathing wound is unimaginable. I blamed myself for what I had done, for not being as attractive as I was before, for being a nag. Christian insisted it had nothing to do with me, and blamed himself for gaining weight, for low self-confidence due to hair loss, for undiagnosed depression. Regardless of where the blame lay, we still had a problem, and we had no idea how to fix it. So, we both stopped trying. I became a recluse, turning to booze and TV as distractions, and Christian escaped by hanging with his friends or at the gym, as often as possible. Everyday, we kissed, said “I love you,” shared meals, and held each other, until we fell asleep. There was still so much love and intimacy between us, but nothing was enough to fill the void of a physical, sexual connection for us, no matter how much we tried to convince ourselves otherwise.
When we did muster up the courage to try, the sex was forced, and uncomfortable. Like having sex with a stranger, but sober. We agreed, once again, that it would be best for us to end the relationship. At that point, I thought I would never have a healthy sexual relationship again. I was so terrified of my body not working, of it not doing what I needed and wanted it to do, that I avoided sexual contact for months afterward. When I did finally have sex again, it was with a man who I spent months getting to know intimately before taking that step, and even then I was afraid. Learning that my body was not broken was more painful than I could have expected. Our relationship is what was broken, and my sexuality was only a casualty of that. I moved out, and began the process of healing what I would learn to call sexual trauma. Christian moved on too, eventually saw a doctor to regulate his low libido, and, with time, we became great friends.
Looking back, one of my regrets is not sharing this experience with people around me as it was happening. I’ve since met various women who have been in similar situations, and I feel honored to have contributed to their healing. Back then, I would’ve given anything to talk to someone in the same position as me; to feel less alone and less humiliated. I also regret expecting Christian to have all the answers for me. I neglected to acknowledge that he was hurting, too. He was experiencing physical and mental pain, in addition to bearing my emotional weight. He never tried to pass it off on me, though. I, however, never hesitated to point the finger at him for not wanting me, not telling me what I needed to do to to make it better, and for running around with his friends instead of staying with me. Ultimately, the way I interacted with him during our hardship was unfair, and is what I’ve had the hardest time forgiving myself for.
If this story reflects your (or a loved one’s) experience, my only plea is that you remember that sexuality is not “one size fits all.” Intimacy, sex, and love are all important parts of a relationship, but can mean different things to different people. Christian being a man does not exempt him from sickness, mental illness, and other ailments that contribute to sexual health and readiness. In these moments, we have the opportunity to examine how ideas of masculinity can also hurt men deeply. I advise anyone in a sexless relationship to check their ego at the door because, more often than not, when sexual problems arise they are from within, and not a reflection of their partner. I would urge them to lovingly support their partner, whether from inside the relationship or out of it. Read the book “Come as You Are,” by Emily Nagoski, maybe even as a couple. Educate yourselves, act from love instead of fear, and remember that one day, you will have your desires fulfilled.
Writing: Jessica Milton
Photography: Ariana Mygatt