Just Google it: “My wife is more like a sister.” So many stories – more like pleas for help – like this letter gleaned from dearcupid.org:
“Hi I have a big problem. Over the years my wife and I have had many issues… The problem is though, that as much as I love her I’ve lost that sexual feeling for her. I can’t bring myself to have sex with her. Not because I don’t love her but because she feels more like a sister to me than a wife and it doesn’t feel right to make love.”
And of course, it goes the other way. This help-me letter, from a woman in her early 30s, published in The Guardian, spawned more than 450 pieces of advice and me-too admissions:
“My husband and I married when we were 21 and I was his first sexual partner. I love him as my best friend but, despite still having sexual urges, I no longer feel attracted to him. I first told him six years ago and he was devastated, so I have kept my feelings quiet since. We went on to have two children as I felt I should just get on with life… He is a hard worker, a good father, a loving husband and we share similar tastes… Divorce is very frowned upon in our social community, but I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life with somebody who I view as a brother.”
What to do beyond cuddling the cat?
The advice on these discussion threads inevitably include: get counselling, run like hell, pray to God, or hang in there but get a bit on the side to take the edge off. As someone called ‘artdealer’ advised in The Guardian’s comments section:
“Better to have an affair than walk out of the marriage and kids, and the long term poverty of divorce for both parties, then the resentment for ever after from the kids, even when they’re adults.”
In the main, it appears these couples don’t talk about the issue, there’s a lot of pain on both sides, counselling is avoided for its Pandora’s box potential, and there’s a universal desire to keep the marriage going.
Also, it appears there are more stories posted from people who have been sexually rejected by their spouses on the basis that they’re now seen as a sibling, not a lover.
On the face of it, telling your partner that they are more like a sibling has the devastating effect of turning intimacy between you into a taboo event. There’s no way, dude, there’s just no way. The more I read about these scenarios, and hear about them from people I know, the more it seems there is no way back.
One in three couples stay in this stand-off
Anastasia Panayiotidis, General Manager Clinical Services, with Relationships Australia Victoria, isn’t so bleak in her view. In fact, she gives pretty good odds for turning around such a bleak situation – based on her experience working with couples.
One in three couples will continue to live in their unhappy elephant stew, one third will eventually break up and one third will find a way back to communicating and caring for one another with some measure of intimacy.
“There is hope,” she says. “And there have been cases of transformation and positive change and people staying together and working it through and falling in love again.”
But there is a hell of a lot to it
Broadly, there is an arc that relationships travel through – and it’s useful to understand this ahead of time.
It’s not news that when people live with each other for extended periods of time, as they become familiar with each other – and submit to the hard work of raising children and the tedium of routine – the hot and lively feelings, to whatever extent they initially existed, give way to something more companionable.
But to see relationships come off a template fails to account for severely rough patches – mental and physical health issues, job loss, crises that bring about a change of roles in a relationship and so forth. And all of this needs to be worked through by a couple seeking help.
But first of all, for someone like Anastasia Panayiotidis, there’s the matter of teasing out where these people have come from (the dynamic of their family of origin, as its called in the trade) and what they have created as partners (the family of creation).
“Every couple’s experience is unique and different to them,” Ms Panayiotidis said.
“We want to know their own love story, what they’ve created together. how they met, what attracted them to each other.”
Brotherly, sisterly love, not necessarily a wrecker
“It’s not uncommon,” she said of the brother-sister marital dynamic. “It’s almost a common relationship theme.”
And it’s not one to be automatically viewed negatively, she says – because going through a stage where a relationship takes on the qualities of a child-sibling relationship may involve the positive aspects of sibling life (caring, support, being at ease with one another, fun) rather than the conflictual dynamic (sibling rivalry and resentment).
It’s not so much that you’ve become siblings, but rather that you’re drawing upon your childhood sibling relationships in the way you relate to and interact with your partner.
That’s the thinking anyway, based on the famed attachment theory in which the emotional bonds we have as babies (with parents, but also with siblings) will affect how we relate to others as adults.
Over the past 30 years an offshoot of attachment theory holds that the relationship between infants and caregivers and the relationship between adult romantic partners share similar features.
All of which is interesting, and possibly useful for couples to understand more of what’s going on with them.
But as Ms Panayiotidis advises: all the digging and exploring in the world won’t help a couple whose regard for one another has degraded to contempt.
It’s not the lack of sex that kills a couple, it’s the lack of respect.