Sometimes, staying together means rewriting the rules of marriage.
I wish I didn’t need sex. That I didn’t crave it. That the longing for it didn’t make me restless, and going without it didn’t make me grouchy.
Sometimes, I wish I could see celibacy as my calling. That way, I could find a way to extricate my sexuality from who I am as a person so I could be happy and well-balanced without it.
If I didn’t need sex, my husband would be enough for me even when we go for months without any sexual contact. I could bask in the love that he gives me every day, I could luxuriate in all the ways that he likes to spoil me, I could soak up his affection, and I would be satisfied.
I wouldn’t need to feel desired to stay in shape, to take pride in my body. I wouldn’t feel the loss of libido as the loss of life-force. I wouldn’t feel devalued by my husband’s lack of interest in sex with me.
My husband wishes that he was different, too. He wishes that he could manufacture desire out of love. He thinks that if he was better at giving me sexual pleasure, I wouldn’t notice that he isn’t really into it. He thinks that between the force of his will and the strength of his love, he can raise his testosterone levels to something approaching normal, even though all of the gels and injections are failing. A little too much New Age teaching has him wondering if maybe his lowered t-counts are caused by some psychological issue that he can fix with therapy or carrot juice or both. He hates the idea that our marriage goes through times when it is virtually platonic.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how much love you have for another person, if you don’t have a libido, you don’t want sex. He is crazy to think that he’s some sort of marital Rumpelstiltskin, able to spin love into lust. And he’s even crazier if he thinks that I want him to do anything sexually that he isn’t excited to do.
We have gone through times when Pete’s condition, whatever it is, has gone into remission. His testosterone levels come up, he is full of playful energy, and what we have together is wonderful. But those times are becoming more infrequent as the years go by.
Recently, I strongly considered if Pete was asexual. He says he isn’t. But I was determined that we should both live the truth. Then he found some pictures of his face that I took while we were making love a few years ago. There is no way to look at those pictures, to see the love and longing written in the furrows of his brow and the set of his mouth, and think that this man is asexual.
We love each other too much to divorce. But asking your spouse to stop being sexual just because you have lost your interest is akin to asking them to chop off their leg because you are in a wheelchair. For a fully sexual person to voluntarily lay aside their sexuality for the rest of their lives is asking them to amputate an integral part of themselves. When I have put away my sexuality for the sake of our marriage, I have stopped being the person my husband married.
This is the beauty of marriages with gender equality: When you throw away the gender rules, you discover that you can mold a marriage to fit the people involved, rather than trying to pound the people into rigid one-size-fits-some rules. Marriage becomes an ever-evolving, living agreement, with both parties renegotiating the contract as they go along.
For most couples, this means life-long marital monogamy. Other couples find that keeping their marriage intact requires customizing the rules.
Pete and I have recently renegotiated our marriage. We tried an open marriage a few years ago, and neither of us liked it. Today, we have a marriage that is “closed with an asterisk.” It is closed, except for when things are not going well with Pete’s health. So I see a man named Harry about once a month. Harry is, for lack of a better term, a volunteer sex surrogate.
Pete and I know Harry from our brief time in an open marriage. We know that he is, above all, respectful of our marriage. When Pete is feeling well, Harry understands that I won’t accept any invitations. And he knows that when Pete is not well, and I do accept his invitation, I will do so with a certain amount of sadness. He isn’t threatened to know that my heart is always with my husband, and he chuckles when I call out Pete’s name from time to time.
If you had told me 17 years ago, when my husband and I first fell in love, that this is what we would be doing now, I would be horrified and ashamed of myself. But I am starting to come terms with the fact that my marriage will not survive if we try to apply the rules of other people’s marriages to our own. Marriages have to be as individual as the people who are in them, and they must grow and change as the people in them do the same.
I don’t feel worthy of the extraordinary gift that I am being given. I have no words for how grateful I am that my husband accepts all of me, even my sexuality. And I am stunned that Harry is willing to share his gift of pleasure with me on terms I find embarrassingly skewed to my advantage.
But I am too grateful to feel ashamed. I feel profoundly honored and loved. I mean, seriously, who does this for their partner?
We are probably missing some of the most epic love stories of our time because we can only hear those that fall into the “traditional” model.
People who know us already think of my relationship with Pete as an epic love story. Our love and tenderness toward each other is obvious. So if I were to withhold this vital piece of the puzzle, it would feel like I was selling people on a lie.
This is the truth: Our relationship is an epic love story. We are two people with all of the flaws and foibles of our species. What makes our marriage extraordinary is that we love each other so much that we will do anything, including rewriting the rules of our marriage, to stay together.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.