Is Your Marriage Sexless? One Possible Hidden Cause

Love, Self

“Now I understand everything about the last twelve years,” My life-coach client, Stephanie, said. “I have a lot more compassion for [my husband,] a lot less anger. But also so much grief.” She paused. “I’m reeling, to be honest.”

Stephanie spoke softly, a change from the edge of frustration I’d often heard in the preceding months, when she would weep bitterly “I’m completely invisible. It’s unbearable. I didn’t sign up for this!”

With details changed to protect her identity, we are sharing Stephanie’s story in case you are enduring the same quiet agony for the same hidden reason.

Stephanie loved her husband and felt lucky to be his partner. But soon after their wedding, she noticed that he never initiated sex, and the relationship had become amicable but distant. Over the years, she’d tried everything to improve intimacy and connection. He responded that she was too needy or that infrequent sex between married people was normal. Stephanie felt undesirable. When she became more insistent, her husband would appear to agree with her increasingly specific requests for affection and attention (“smile at me, ask questions about my feelings, surprise me with a warm hug!”) But nothing changed. Her therapist told her to just put on a negligee. “She didn’t get it,” Stephanie says. “I had all but pole danced – and the response was nothing.” Stephanie went through three more counselors; none could help.

If this sounds familiar to you, you may be in the dark about an important aspect of the problem, which Stephanie finally discovered through an internet search. She had been begging affection from a person who had little capacity to display it. Not because he didn’t love her – Stephanie sometimes felt his commitment to their marriage actually exceeded her own. His brain simply wasn’t wired for empathy.

What does this mean?

First, let’s look at how empathy kicks in. Did you know that scientists have found where empathy lives in the brain? To say it “lives” is the wrong verb. We have particular brain cells called “mirror neurons,” that are activated when we see someone else having an emotion, or even when we read or imagine them doing so. Your mirror neurons are the reason you can sense what it must be like for other people. People who can’t sense this have what is called mind-blindness. This can be a symptom of people on the autism spectrum. On the mild end of the spectrum, mind-blindness may be one of few other symptoms.

Now imagine you have a typically-working set of mirror neurons, and you form a pair bond with someone who is mind-blind. What happens? If your partner lacks the capacity to intuit your feelings, over time you will feel invisible in an important way (even if you know, somehow, that they care for you.) Your attempts to elicit mutual mirroring will leave you sadder, wondering if you are inherently undeserving of attention. Stephanie didn’t blame herself for being “too needy,” but she did override her needs and give herself pep talks: “It’s fine, I’m independent anyway, I can just be stronger!”

This toxic loneliness is invisible to others, and at first it’s easy to be self-reliant, tolerate it, and dismiss it as unimportant, as Stephanie tried to do for years. But lack of mirroring is crippling for people with normal empathy, and can even cause physical illness.

As Stephanie and I worked together, here are a few important insights she discovered.  If her situation is similar to your own, we hope they’ll be helpful to you, too:

1. First, stop blaming yourself. It’s not you. Empathy is meant to be reciprocal, and people who feel it, need it. Remind yourself of this, especially if your partner thinks you are the problem. What you are experiencing is not a product of too much dependence or idealism. “It’s such a relief to not feel ashamed,” Stephanie told me. “This is a real syndrome.”

The point is not to pathologize your partner and saint yourself, nor weaponize a diagnosis. But labels in the field of psychology can function as a ray of hope for partners or parents trying to understand their loved one. “Ah! It’s a thing!” can be such a useful discovery. You know you are not alone, it is no one’s fault; bitterness dissipates. You feel hopeful there may be a map for you to navigate by, since others have gone before, and get energized about possible next steps.

An important “part two” of this realization is to make an agreement with yourself: “my emotional needs matter.” You may have ended up in a relationship with a mind-blind partner because you felt the pain of invisible neglect when you were small. Because empathy deprivation feels familiar, no red flags were triggered for you in the early stages of the relationship. You may have even rejected partners who showed empathy (“boring,” “no chemistry”) because you were hoping to have a “re-do” of that early situation and thus repair the wound by “persuading” someone a bit absent to become emotionally present.

If this is the case for you, this first step will involve the difficult effort of breaking an old agreement (“I am unseen”) and making a new agreement about what you deserve (“I am seen and loved,”) and all the grieving and healing that reset entails.

2. Second, recognize that neither is it their fault. It may seem selfish or uncaring, but mind-blindness is not a choice. Even after you verbalize and explain your feelings, it makes no natural sense to your partner offer certain behaviors (gazing caringly for example) if he gains nothing from being on the receiving end, or even finds them unpleasant. Your mate might accept at a logical level what you need, and want to give it to you. But - try to empathize! – it isn’t easy to fake behaviors that feel utterly pointless and yield no intrinsic pleasure.

Accepting your partner will allow you to grieve and release some of the pain. The more Stephanie educated herself about the impact of High Functioning Autism on intimate relationships, the more she was able to depersonalize her disappointment.

3. Give yourself permission to leave. Regardless of whether other people understand, it is absolutely a valid choice to renegotiate the terms of your life. It will probably cost you, but the cost may be worth it, and only you can make that calculus. Work through any doubts you have about your ability to create something better for yourself. That exercise alone can completely shift your experience.

At the least, instead of feeling trapped, you will have a real choice about staying or not. Giving yourself permission to exit the relationship is a crucial part of deciding to stay, if you do.

It’s also crucial to the work that will be involved if you stay. Without a firm conviction not to abandon your stand to receive the attention you need, you cannot advocate for yourself and maintain this boundary within the relationship.

4. If you do choose to stay, get outside help. First, have conversations, regularly, with friends who are masters of reciprocal empathy. This will lessen your deprivation. Make this time a top priority. Confide what you need and why.

If you look around and see that your social network is shrunken – not unusual for people who’ve spent years with a mind-blind partner - start by hiring a life coach who lets you feel your emotions. This person can also support you to begin to gradually repopulate your social life.

The second part of reaching out for help involves hiring a professional couples counselor. (How you get your partner in the therapist’s door is another article!) You need one who understands the impact of mind-blindness on intimate relationships, and practices some form of cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT can help your partner learn how to compromise between your two brain types.

Your part of the compromise is to recognize that providing the spontaneous expressions of empathy that feed you will never be effortlessly authentic for your partner. See if you can allow yourself to be fed by the meaning of their effort. Someone to whom empathy came naturally could give you perfect moments of reciprocal flow and accurate mirroring but not love you, choose you, or commit to you nearly as deeply as your partner does. Your partner’s efforts to give you what you need, however flawed, show caring. Receive that and allow it to count.

5. Finally, take responsibility for yourself. This is implied in some of the previous “steps” above but it deserves it’s own explicit nuance. An important facet of relinquishing self-blame, or being willing to leave despite the cost, or getting your needs met from friends, involves taking on responsibility for your own happiness (rather than making it dependent on your partner’s change.)

Does this mean more of the same “doing-without” affection-deprivation? No. It means that, as the one responsible for you, you cannot ignore and neglect you. It means that you insist on being the fully beloved person you long to be, and heliotropically find the sources of love that will allow you to flourish.

Heliotropism is a lesson from the plant world: it means turning toward the light. In a new location, a plant’s leaves will orient for maximum photosynthesis in a few hours. Unlike a plant, you don’t have to stay where you are. But if you do, maximize what’s available to you (and you may find you have an unusual degree of independence if your relationship is distant) – whether that be adventure, artistic expression, reading, service, membership, owning a cat or dog, cardio (or dance, yoga, weights, etc), metta (lovingkindness) meditation, or socializing.

Over a year of coaching together, Stephanie went through a painful process of discerning her true wants and honoring her values (intimacy, affection, self-care, honesty, compassion, loyalty, family.) She came up with a plan and worked her way down a list of ways to improve her relationship. Her connection to her husband got better through some tough conversations and couples’ counseling, and she got better at leading the way to more affectionate interaction.

Despite these improvements, Stephanie still felt a longing to be seen and touched. Once her children left for college, she no longer had daily doses of contact and reciprocity. Through the support of the coaching process, she found a way to create an amicable divorce that kept intact many of the positive aspects of her former marriage, and has since been enjoying her sexual freedom.  

I should note that hers is not a one-solution-fits-all prescription. Some women in empathy-challenged marriages find their happy ending involves staying. The coaching process surfaces true desires and facilitates conscious choices unique to each individual. Stephanie agreed to share her story to let you know that “no matter how hopeless you feel, it is possible to have a new life if you hold fast to your commitment to YOU and have faith that there is a way, somehow, even if you can’t see it. What I have now still feels like a miracle.”

As her coach, I did not supply Stephanie with the courage and imagination she brought forward, nor give her pre-baked answers. But in her words, “without coaching, I wouldn’t have been able to keep choosing ‘more,’ over and over until I got there.” If you feel stuck in a similar place, or in another kind of dilemma, I would love be an ally on your journey toward your own miracle.

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Atieno Bird, MA, CP, is a life coach certified in Psychodrama, Conflict Resolution, Co-Active Coaching, and Appreciative Inquiry, and has twenty years of training, facilitation, and coaching experience in corporate, clinical, law enforcement, nonprofit, multilateral and government settings with over a thousand professionals. For a free consult, visit the Two Bird Coaching website: www.atienobird.com

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