Dear Rhonda,

My husband and I have almost always been sexually incompatible although I didn’t realize it initially (we’ve been together 22 years). He has a high libido, strong fantasies, and interest in BDSM. The first time I had sexual intercourse (which was with him), it was incredibly painful. It is still painful. I have tried to figure out why I can’t rally more sex drive.

Possibilities: I have had primary vestibulitis for 19 years at least so vaginal sex is out, I am on psych meds which dampen my sex drive (SNRIs), I was molested as a child, I feel male sexual energy is unsafe, I was raised conservatively, I feel too pressured by him, and/or his sexual interests are not mine.

I was very orgasmic through non-penetrative sex with various people throughout college. I had lots of boyfriends and felt sexy, but the trauma of our sex life has been devastating to both of us. We have been through sex therapy and now coaching three times — totalling 2.5 years (just for your reference). I have tried on his fantasies (and have no problem with him having these fantasies), but they don’t do it for me. It isn’t coming together for us and our years of difficulty has created trauma for both of us.

Our current sex coach recommends that we have an open marriage and that it will make both of us fulfilled (me because I won’t feel the pressure to fulfil his sexual desires). My husband agrees and says sex is sex — an activity that is separate from a bond. He wants to stay married to me, but he also wants to experience an ongoing vigorous sex life to fulfil his sexual life-force (a cheesy way to say it, but he wants to have a good sex life before he dies).

I don’t want an open marriage so even if he were to go outside our marriage with my consent, I wouldn’t look outside. I’m not cut out to be non-monogamous. I am willing to be flexible and give him my tentative blessing (like, try it out and then let’s figure out what you and I want), but even if it works out for him sexually, I believe it is very likely to hurt our relationship.

I am wary of outside complications, my very hurt feelings, and a nonsensical, but very strong, feeling that if he has physical intimacy with other people, I will think of him as spoiled (like rotten food) and not want to touch him sexually. I am willing to end our marriage if things go poorly (I’ve said to him that he should choose what he wants and then based on how I feel, I’ll choose whether I stay). He does not want to end our marriage. I love him and he loves me. I trust him; he is honest and a person of integrity. We talk through our feelings well. We don’t have any other areas of difficulty in our relationship.

Do you have any thoughts, advice (psychological or strategic), or resources that might be helpful for us to figure out what we should do? We are working so hard to make this work out for both of us.


Dear Melissa,

Firstly, I want to say how deeply sorry I am that you have experienced so many years of pain, hardship, and associated trauma. Being sexually incompatible is hard enough on its own. I congratulate you on seeking help and not giving up. It speaks of your great strength and determination.

You have covered a lot of ground with various therapists and have come to non-monogamy as the obvious logical conclusion for a relationship that works in every way except sexually.

This possibility presents another set of problems, however. You say you feel wary of complications, anticipate hurt and revulsion (if that is the right way to describe it) should your husband have physical intimacy with someone else, that you will think of him as spoiled and not want to touch him sexually.

I wonder if you have explored (on your own or with an individual therapist) where these feelings come from, as it doesn’t seem like your concerns stem so much from insecurity or jealousy as your underlying feelings about and associations with sex and male sexual energy.

To me there are two parts to this:

  1. What it will take to feel safe with your own sexuality; and
  2. What it will take to feel safe with your husband’s sexuality.

It sounds as though you have dissociated from your sexuality (and with good reason), but this hasn’t always been the case. Can you reconnect with the times in your life when you have felt sexy, when you have been orgasmic? Can you dedicate time to getting back in touch with your eroticism? What are your fantasies? What can you do to feel sexy? Not for someone else, but for yourself. It’s time to take control of your sexuality, of your arousal, and that means doing some homework.

Unlike men, whom society sells sex every day through advertising and the media, who are encouraged to associate with their male sexual energy, society sells women motherhood and washing detergent. Staying in touch with our erotic energy and desires is something many women have to work at, and that means scheduling time and making masturbation (mental or physical) a priority. No one can afford to wait to be spontaneously aroused, particularly when medications are working to dampen what little erotic energy we have. Add to that your negative experiences with sex, and it’s no wonder you have struggled to maintain your sex drive. Working with a therapist, attending workshops, reading books, sourcing erotica or pornography are all ways you can explore your sexuality, heal old wounds and overcome any blocks.

Looking at the second part, without considering your different sexual interests, I wonder if you are comfortable with the idea of your husband being sexual (exhibiting male sexuality) at all. Did he have sex with anyone before you got together? How does that make you feel? What would you need to feel safe and comfortable knowing he is having sex, and is therefore sexual? Have you tried to compartmentalise his sexual side (as you must do day-to-day) to make the rest of your relationship work?

For instance, have you considered giving tacit agreement to your husband to get his sexual needs met discreetly, on the proviso you never have to know (which is something some couples who are sexually incompatible do, ignoring their partner’s outside interests)? What about providing boundaries and limitations for any extra-marital interactions that you control? Or engaging a sex worker or surrogate to keep the interactions strictly professional or therapeutic? (Dan Savage likes to say you pay a sex worker not for the sex but to go home afterwards).

You know what your options are; you have articulated them clearly. Remaining in a sexless marriage as you have been is not one of them. All you can do now is find ways to make the transition as safe as possible.

I wish you the best of luck. Let me know how you go.

Rhonda x

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