By Umm Ayoob
It is any woman’s worst nightmare to find out that her husband is not attracted to her. It so happens that I am that woman. I am in an intimacy-starved marriage with my Muslim husband and have stayed in the marriage for 10 years. To be “intimacy-starved” means that we as a couple lack intimacy in terms of touch (something my husband dislikes), kissing (which does not appeal to him), and sex.
From my description, you may understandably assume that my husband is a loner who is shy and asocial. However, quite the contrary is true. He is a charming, charismatic person, active in the Muslim community, and widely respected both at work and among his brethren for his integrity, hard work, and vision. I am very proud of him.
With this, people may assume a number of things about my appearance and personality or situation. I will be brief by saying that everyone has personal preferences regarding looks. However, my husband chose me for marriage, knowing how I look and I didn’t feel that he was being charitable in asking for my hand. I have a postgraduate degree, speak several languages and I would describe myself as flawed as anyone, but not generally unappealing.
How did we get here?
We were young when we got married and this was the first relationship for both of us. We were (and still are) best friends. We laugh and have similar world views and goals. I love him and I have no doubts that he loves me. Our cultures encourage spouses to remain married, so divorce wasn’t an option I had initially considered. And why would I leave him? I loved him intensely and still do. However, intimate moments steadily declined. I initially blamed it on the stress of living independently and his long working hours. Weeks turned into months and I tried reasoning with him. I asked him what was wrong and if I could change something; he eventually opened up about superficial matters. I took care of them, but that changed nothing. I explained women’s needs for feeling loved. I cited studies and explained chemicals released during the interaction that promote good feelings, but to no effect. I tried to seduce him and was rejected. I encouraged him to come with me to couples counseling without success. And when all else failed, I made dua’a.
Months turned into years and the problem persisted. I started to blame myself. I wasn’t beautiful enough, thin enough, appealing enough. All of my insecurities were at full throttle. My self-esteem tapered off until nothing was left. Who would want me anyway? I stayed in a dead end job because, although I had a postgraduate degree, I wasn’t smart enough to move ahead in a career. My depression, a diagnosis that had previously been mild, became severe. I was sick all the time. I had thoughts of killing myself. My husband and I still enjoyed each other’s company but I was noticeably miserable. My husband became upset at me for being miserable, and asked me to cheer up. I was lacking in everything including social upkeep, home upkeep, exercise routines, career moves, you name it. I threatened to leave him over this issue and formally asked for a divorce once. I went back on my own word however because I couldn’t imagine my life without him; I loved him deeply and couldn’t let go of the connection.
I was in the process of grieving and I didn’t know it. I grieved the life I wish I had. I grieved at my own inadequacy of not being enough for him. My heart was broken and to a large extent, still is.
Why am I telling this story?
You may experience a difficulty and not realize how much it is affecting your life. The well-known sources of grief and difficulty in our communities include, among others: death, child concerns, handicap, financial worries and health problems. It is, to a large extent, societally acceptable to discuss these matters and highlight their hardship. However, I have never seen a sheikh, or a learned religious person publicly speak about my experience or the idea that gender stereotypes aren’t always accurate. Lack of intimacy is an intensely private matter and likewise, an intense source of grief.
Difficulties and Stereotypes
I have written this article in the hopes that others may realize the enormity of this issue and identify how harmful it is. I also wish that we would realize that stereotypes of any gender, including the sexuality of men aren’t always true.
In my case, believing the stereotype that all men are extremely sexually inclined damaged me extensively because I expected my husband to display those tendencies, and when he didn’t, I believed that something was wrong with me. I cannot lie and say that I feel adequate, even 10 years later. I haven’t figured out my way yet.
If you are a woman finding yourself in my situation, let me reassure you: what is happening to you is not exclusive to you. Many women have struggled silently with this issue. Shame has prevented many from speaking out or even seeking counsel from others.
It is most assuredly a difficult test, and with difficulties, shaitaan is ever present. You will be tempted. If you have not decided where your relationship is headed and are “waiting it out” several things may happen. You may want to start looking more attractive when you go out. You may look things up on the internet to satisfy your urges, or even look for sexual outlets such as an affair. I am suggesting that this could happen to the most pious and proper of people.
Therefore, I advise you, my sister, to make a decision about your relationship for the sake of your deen. You have two options. Either you will decide to leave the relationship, or like me (for now), decide to stay.
In either case, I strongly suggest that you seek religious and psychological counselling. Counselling will help you deal with your emotions. It will also help you in identifying what intimacy actually means to you, and help you decide (with guidance) if it is something that you can live without.
From personal experience, your counsellor does not need to be a Muslim to be able to help you. If your husband is willing to come with you, I would strongly suggest couples’ counselling. From a religious point-of-view, know that if you decide to leave, this circumstance warrants the rights to a divorce, or a khula’. Consult with the imam of your community to arrange this.
If you choose to stay, you are certainly not alone in your decision. In this situation, it is essential that you continuously nurture your connection with Allah . Remind yourself that this life is temporary. Live your life solely for Allah , and He will help you throughout your difficulties. Become active in other areas of your life and do your best to excel in them. This will give your life meaning as well as give your self-esteem a boost. I ask Allah to strengthen you as He strengthened Ayoob in his intense difficulties.
Allah is the Most Merciful, and verily with hardship there is relief.
فَإِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا