What Being In an Asexual Relationship Is Really Like
"Are you sexually active?" the medical assistant asked me in the exam room during my annual physical.
"I'm married," I said, with a smirk that I thought made my answer obvious.
"So, are you sexually active?" she asked again, my attempted sarcasm lost on her.
"No," I said. "I'm not."
I watched her poker face as she took notes on the computer and, unfazed, moved on to the next question. "Are you still taking just multivitamins?" (Related: 13 Questions You're Too Embarrassed to Ask Your Ob-Gyn)
I had thought with certainty that marriage meant bed death, that the more years you tacked on to your Happily Ever After with your spouse, the more you grew to be old, dusty socks sitting next to each other in the drawer; fond of one another, needing to be paired to be whole, but not exactly excited or even excitable.
My wife and I have been together for ten years. For eight of those, she has been asexual.
The reason for her lack of sexual desire has not been medically or otherwise proven with certainty, but we believe it's hormonal, with early-onset perimenopause the main culprit. Low-dose antidepressants may also add insult to injury. No doctor, herbalist, Chinese medicine man, or Amazon customer-recommended product algorithm has helped return my wife's sex drive even a tiny bit. She tried herbal supplements (like Goop's Moon Juice), watching hot sex scenes from movies, and even hormone replacement therapy.
We started out hot and heavy sexually, like many couples newly in love. After a year or so, the steady flow of lovemaking slowed to a drip and then, eventually, a drought. (Related: 6 Ways to Increase Your Libido)
It was the classic "it's not you, it's me" line, only it wasn't some sugar-coated way of telling me that she was no longer interested in walking through the world with me. She was being honest. She still loved me, she said, and I saw the devotion in her big, bright eyes. She just didn't want to have sex anymore.
I was pretty shocked at first, and certainly disappointed, particularly when my own hormones ramped up midway through each month and I felt trapped without sexual satisfaction. For a while, though, I remained hopeful. Perhaps with the right combination of ingested or topical concoctions, or some melange of lingerie, romantic settings, tropical getaways, massages, and coaxing, we could rekindle the heat back that roared in her veins those first few months. (Related: I Tried a 30-Day Sex Challenge to Revive My Sexless Marriage)
But nothing worked.
It took me years to fully process that my partner is asexual. For a long time, it felt like someone sucked all the water out of the ocean on a hot beach day, and I was a fish left gasping for breath and flapping around on the dry ocean floor, all pathetic and frail.
In other words, having an asexual partner became nothing short of devastating. As someone who considers herself a very sexual person — and who had, at-long-last, met her soul mate — this felt like a huge blow in the game of life. I blamed her, I blamed myself, I blamed the universe. I kicked and screamed and created a lot of disagreement between us.
Then, I blamed my frustration and my tantrums on sexual tension rather than extending empathy to my wife (who was not feeling so great about her own loss of sexual identity) or trying to summon my own demons and take responsibility for how I was feeling and acting.
It took an incredible amount of soul-searching (and a painful, three-month-long separation) for me to realize that sex wasn't the thing that I wanted most in life. I couldn't imagine never having sex again, but even more incomprehensible was the thought of enduring this life without her.
We talked about an open relationship. She was very accommodating and wanted me to be happy. But I had been there before. I knew how quickly trust could erode between two people — even with years of foundation-building, even with clear ground rules. I weighed the benefits of sexual satisfaction against the benefits of a wholly engaged and transparent (read: vulnerable) partnership with my wife, and the winner was clear. I chose to remain monogamous.
I realized that I would rather not have sex with her than have sex with anyone else. Everyone's desires and boundaries are different, so there's no one-size-fits-all solution to how to be in an asexual relationship. But here's what I've personally learned over the last eight years:
Asexuality is no one's fault.
Still, it took me a few more years to really understand that her asexuality wasn't my fault and wasn't my burden. It took me even longer to figure out how to live with no sex. And not just live with it, but come to terms with it, to own my sexless life in a way that was honest and, most of the time, OK.
I saw a therapist for a little while who helped me channel my frustration and my sexual energy into words that I was able to vent during our sessions and into healthy and productive activities like exercise and art. She didn't necessarily condone that a sexless existence was the right path for me, but she understood that leaving my wife or pursuing an open relationship were not options I was interested in.
Working out how to have a relationship with an asexual person isn't simple or easy. In fact, abstaining from sex is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. In essence, my wife's asexuality rendered me asexual too. I've had to redefine myself against a new set of standards and idiosyncrasies that have nothing to do with sex. It's been a roller-coaster, emotional journey, but an incredible introspection that has helped me learn about my own character and just how omnipotent the depths of love can be.
My operating philosophy requires an incredible will of mind, body, and soul. Of course, my hormones and my desires fluctuate with the lunar calendar, and some days are more challenging than others. There are times when I ask my wife for help in the mechanical relief department, and sometimes, it's hot. There are still moments when I cry. And I do masturbate from time to time, but the act comes less from a place of pleasure or sexual desire than from self-care and maintenance when I'm feeling particularly frustrated or pent up. I suppose that makes me not purely asexual, but I come pretty close in terms of my day-to-day actions.
You can create intimate moments without sex.
Despite the tremendous shift to a nonexistent sex life, I am generally happier than I've ever been, and I have more control over my sexual appetite than ever. I used to let my libido guide my decision-making, a terrible idea that led to many heartbreaks (both for myself and others).
With trends pointing toward millennials having less frequent, but potentially more quality sex, my sexless dogma isn't so far off. Why engage in something that isn't fulfilling, like (for me) sex with a stranger, or sex with my wife who isn't into it?
Actor and funnyman Garrison Keillor best sums up how I feel: "Sex is not a mechanical act that fails for lack of technique, and it is not a performance by the male for the audience of the female; it is a continuum of attraction that extends from the simplest conversation and the most innocent touching through the act of coitus."
This has been a breakthrough for me in learning how to deal with having an asexual partner. My wife and I create moments of intimacy in a million different ways each and every day, through hugs and massages, eye contact, and acts of service — whether bringing home my favorite dessert or remembering to fold the towels the way she likes — and each deepens our love and commitment to one another.
And I wouldn't trade those things, or what we share, for all the orgasms in the world.