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A reader writes:
My wife and I have never shared penetrative vaginal sex. We’re 66, married 35 years. Our sex life has always been limited to kissing, cuddling, and mutual masturbation. She says she wants to have penetrative sex with me one day — just not yet. I cannot help feeling that she is not being honest with me.
I met my wife through a lonely-hearts newspaper ad. Within weeks, we became sexual, but it was always mutual masturbation to orgasm, no intercourse or manual vaginal penetration. Eight years later, we married. On our wedding night, she stopped me when my penis barely began to penetrate her vagina. Any further attempts at penetration were met with resistance.
I felt like a failure. I blamed myself. I was confused by the continued rejection and felt worthless for not being a “proper” husband. What was I doing wrong? I suggested counseling, but she insisted that “things” would sort themselves out. But they never did.
How I wish that I had sought help then. I believed that she wanted to sort out things by herself and that pressuring her would be counterproductive. Also, my male pride made me too embarrassed to admit my failure.
Three years into our marriage, my wife confided to her doctor that we had never had intercourse. She also told my mother. Although embarrassing, it was a relief that the problem had been revealed. We were referred for sexual counseling, but she ended the sessions without any resolution. When my mother tactfully inquired whether we had “resolved” our problem, I said yes, to avoid embarrassment. I wish that I hadn’t hidden the truth.
My wife experienced two manic episodes requiring hospitalization. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She knew it was genetic, and in order not to pass it on to any offspring, she asked me to avoid pregnancy by not trying to have sex. Maybe I should have considered a vasectomy.
More than 10 years ago, my wife passed through menopause. With the possibility of pregnancy over, I hoped that we might resume trying to have penetrative sex. But she always objected that it was not the right time or place, or it was too cold.
Two years ago, she finally admitted that when we married, she was scared that penetration might hurt (but never tested this). She was “too embarrassed” to confide in me or seek help to address her fear. Her solution was never to have penetrative sex with me. I doubt that she considered how her decision would impact me. I think there are more issues that she hasn’t confided and seems unwilling to confront. I never sought sex outside marriage because I did not want to betray her. We do masturbate each other to orgasm.
I have no wish to leave my wife because being with her makes me happy. She is my best friend, and despite everything, I love her dearly. I have been a loving and more than patient husband, but I cannot help feeling betrayed that my wife denied us this fundamental experience. All I have ever wanted for us is a normal sex life. Is that too much to ask?
Your story is terribly sad, and I don’t have a magical answer for you. Your wife has refused penetrative sex, also called “PIV” (penis-in-vagina intercourse), throughout your 43-year relationship. Though it’s not what you want to hear, I think you need to accept that PIV with your wife is never going to happen. Whether it’s fear of pain, or an unspoken issue, or simply habit by now, your wife does not want penetrative sex. I suspect that she’s happy with the mutual masturbation to orgasm that you share now, and she wishes you didn’t want more.
However — and I need you to hear this — you did nothing wrong. This is not your fault. You are not a failure or an inadequate husband. She never wanted intercourse — not when you were first sexual together, not early in your marriage, not ever. The original version of your story that you sent me was nearly three times the length that appears here. In your detailed account, it was clear that you made no blunders hoping to overcome your wife’s resistance. You respected her autonomy.
This was never an issue that your wife would or could resolve on her own, and you couldn’t help her.
Your only mistake, as I see it (other than not getting a vasectomy, which probably wouldn’t have helped anyway), was letting embarrassment prevent you from pursuing help over the decades. This was never an issue that your wife would or could resolve on her own, and you couldn’t help her. Ongoing professional help was needed. It would still be helpful, not to get her to change her mind — I see that as a lost cause — but to help you resolve your feelings.
You say you love your wife, and she makes you happy, other than this. Can you live with the sex life, love, and orgasms you have now? Can you let go of PIV as a goal? I’m not criticizing you for wanting that, please understand. But if you can’t have it — and everything you’ve said points to that — can you accept that?
Send Joan your questions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. All information is confidential. Joan can only answer questions that are chosen for publication from readers age 60+.
Joan Price has been Senior Planet’s “Sex at Our Age” columnist since 2014. She is the author of four self-help books about senior sex, including her award winners: “Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex” and “Sex after Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality after Losing Your Beloved.” Visit Joan’s website and blog for senior sex news, views, tips, and sex toy reviews from a senior perspective. Subscribe to Joan’s free, monthly newsletter.