My husband and I have been married for 13 years. I can tell he loves me. He treats me well and treats my grown children like they are his own. We have had sexual intimacy only a few times in the past 13 years because of his age and his health problems. I have come to an acceptance of this. But the problem I have that has always hurt me and has come up through the years is the fact that his first wife was and still is a beautiful woman. I’ve even seen a twinkle in his eye a few times when he has talked about her, their past, and her beauty. I’ve never seen that twinkle in his eye for me and he’s never tried to have a sex life with me. I’ll go into a tailspin over it for days with deep feelings of anger and sadness. They split up because she is very hard to live with. She sounds very proud. How do I deal with that? Other than that, I’m happy with him. Do I need to somehow just get over it?
I can tell you are mixed about the emotions and thoughts you’re experiencing. While you recognize your husband’s commitment and goodness, you’re also plagued with insecurities about his romantic desire for you. Instead of trying to just suppress these feelings and wish them away, let’s talk about how you can make peace with this troubling tension.
We are meaning-making creatures. When we go through something challenging, we often want to understand what it means, why it’s happening, and find some kind of purpose in it. If we can make these connections, then we can organize our experience and feel more settled. Strangely enough, it doesn’t even matter if the reasons we come up with cause us more pain. Any answer feels better than no answer. Even though this reflex is completely normal, it can sometimes work against our best interest and create additional suffering.
You’ve determined that you are less attractive and desirable than your husband’s ex-wife. You’ve connected a few events, observations, emotions, and thoughts to draw some troubling conclusions that may not even be based in reality. These conclusions are so vulnerable that I’m guessing you’ve never formally addressed their veracity with your husband. While you can certainly ask him if any of these things are true, I’m going to suggest you pause and consider a different way of viewing your situation.
Please recognize that in your final meaning-making conclusion, you’ve reduced yourself and his ex-wife to the one dimension of physical attractiveness. Not only is this area highly subjective, but it’s also limits you own expansive view of yourself and others. As Drs. Lexie and Lindsay Kite often say, “You are more than a body”.[i] Then, then ask the following challenging questions:
Can you imagine the impact of half the world’s population feeling defined by and perpetually focused on their appearance as their primary source of value, health, happiness and power? What is the world missing because a portion of our attention, effort, and income is devoted so consistently to our looks? How many girls and women in this world are being held back, waiting to really live until they feel qualified to be seen? The lost presence and leadership and voice of women; the lost experiences of unencumbered joy and fulfillment; the lost happiness, health, well-being, confidence; the damaged relationships and missed connection.[ii]
Even if his ex-wife was the most beautiful woman that ever lived, will you allow yourself to be defined by her body? Will you allow yourself to be defined by your own body? Please don’t give up on your capacity for belonging, peace, and joy because someone else has different physical attributes. When you can see yourself as a multi-dimensional being complete with a spirit, a body, emotions, thoughts, and boundless capacity for growth, you’ll more easily escape the self-imposed prison of insecurity you’ve built over the years. Parley P. Pratt taught this beautiful principle in the following statement:
An intelligent being, in the image of God, possesses every organ, attribute, sense, sympathy, affection, that is possessed by God…
But these are possessed by [men and women] in [their] rudimental state, in a subordinate sense of the word. Or, in other words, these attributes are in embryo, and are to be gradually developed. They resemble a bud, a germ, which gradually develops into bloom, and then, by progress, produces the mature fruit after its own kind.
The gift of the Holy Ghost adapts itself to all these organs or attributes. It quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands, and purifies all the natural passions and affections, and adapts them, by the gift of wisdom, to their lawful use. It inspires, develops, cultivates, and matures all the fine-toned sympathies, joys, tastes, kindred feelings, and affections of our nature. It inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness, and charity. …[iii]
As you seek the Holy Spirit’s influence on your being, He will help you “see things as they really are”.[iv] We simply don’t have the capacity to see clearly without this influence.
Now, I do recognize that much of your pain springs from years of sexual disconnection paired with the meaning you’ve given his comments and interactions with his ex-wife. It may be true that he referenced her in a way that was hurtful to you. While I have no idea if he secretly longs for her, my hunch is that this is driven more by your own fears that his actual feelings. You’re hurting and longing for more connection with your husband, which is a totally normal and healthy desire. Instead of fixating on what he’s thinking about her, see if you can fix your attention on how you both can feel closer to each other.
Even though healthy sexual connection is a divinely designed gift to help couples feel more secure with each other, it’s not the only way for you to feel your husband’s desire for you. It’s common for many men who struggle with arousal or erectile issues to pull away to avoid feeling like a failure in the sexual relationship. This can inadvertently cut off the supply of relationship oxygen which is so vital for a healthy intimate bond. If you are questioning his desire for you, first see if he is drawing close to you in other ways. Ask him if you can find additional ways to physically connect. Let him know how important he is to you and find ways to draw closer to each other.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[ii] Lindsay and Lexie Kite, PhD, in More Than a Body
[iii] Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, 61–62
[iv] Jacob 4:13