I don’t think a relationship can survive in a healthy way without intimacy. When you use the word “intimacy,” most people today see it as a euphemism for sex, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
There are plenty of relationships — especially unhappy marriages — that are missing both intimacy and sex, but if you can have only one of them, genuine intimacy is the one you need.
I’m thinking about this unusual subject tonight because it’s randomly come up in two conversations in the past two days — both times involving sex for women who have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). When random chance brings such a strange subject into my life twice within 24 hours, I tend to pay attention.
Thursday evening, I was talking with a young woman who I’ve known for only a few weeks. She’s a very attractive 18-year-old who I met randomly and see fairly frequently. (For privacy reasons, I’m going to disguise the identities of both women I discuss.)
At one point, this young woman mentioned that she hardly ever dates anybody, so I asked her why. She’s had boyfriends in the past, so why doesn’t she date now? She said she has PCOS and has had to start taking a medication that makes her lose interest in sex.
“I’m OK with that,” she said, “but no guy sticks around after he discovers I have no sex drive.”
Skip ahead to Friday evening. I was going into Walmart when I saw a woman — I’d guess in her mid-30s — who was crying. There was nobody with her and other people were just awkwardly ignoring her, not in a mean way, but more like they didn’t know what to say.
She was standing in the entry area of the store — inside the main door, but in the area where the carts are kept. I didn’t know whether she needed something or wanted to be left alone, so I was apprehensive.
“Are you OK?” I asked tentatively. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
She pulled herself together after I started talking with her, almost as though she had been unaware others were watching her. At first, she said she was fine and thanked me for asking. I was about to leave her alone when she suddenly decided she had something to say.
“It’s just that my husband just told me he wants a divorce,” she said. “I knew things were bad but I never thought I’d have to tell my parents that a man didn’t want me.”
She started crying again on the last part of that sentence.
It would be too difficult to reconstruct the entire conversation, so I’m going to tell you more about the substance than the form. There’s a Subway sandwich shop just off the cart area and we went in there to sit and talk.
At first, she hadn’t wanted to say anything, but soon it was all tumbling out. She kept apologizing for telling me these things. She said she had been ashamed to tell her friends or family, so she had kept it inside for a long time. She had a lot to say.
Several years ago, she was diagnosed with PCOS. Up until that time, her relationship with her husband had been adequate. Not great, but not terrible. They had rocked along together for more than 10 years.
Then she was put on a medication related to PCOS. She told me the name of the drug, but I don’t recall. I have no idea if it was the same thing that the 18-year-old had meant Thursday night, but it seemed reasonable. She had suddenly lost interest in sex and started gaining weight. Her mediocre relationship with her husband turned into a nightmare.
The fact that two people had related such similar stories to me in less than 24 hours set alarm bells off in my head. What did this mean? Was somebody trying to tell me something?
The second woman said she ended up feeling terribly unattractive, partly because of the weight loss and partly because her husband seemed to resent her more and more. She was ashamed to tell anybody. She said she felt less like a “real woman” than she had ever felt.
And now he wanted to divorce her.
They had tried counseling, but there was nothing a counselor could do, because their relationship wasn’t good before and the removal of sex had taken away the only thing her husband seemed to think she was good for.
For about the fifth time, the woman said, “I’m so sorry that I’m telling you all this. I’ve never done anything like this before.” And before long, she seemed to have gotten enough out of her system and was ready to go. As she became less emotional, she seemed embarrassed that she had spilled her guts. Eventually, she said she had to go. As we stood to leave, she hugged my neck and thanked me for listening.
And then I was left to ponder why this has come up twice so quickly. And I asked myself how I’d feel if I were one of those guys interested in dating the younger woman or if I were the husband of the second woman.
I don’t have any great revelations, but I have the sketchy outline of some thoughts.
First, I’ve made the case here several times that sex is greatly overvalued in our culture. Sex can be a wonderful thing, but it’s treated as though it’s the most important thing in a lot of ways, especially in relationships. If you’re not having wild, ecstatic, Olympic-quality sex, there must be something wrong with you. That seems to be the attitude today. But as great as sex can be, it’s not absolutely required, especially when it’s simply not possible. Maybe not everybody can see it that way, but I realized as I thought about it tonight that I can.
Second, if a relationship is based on sex, that relationship is in trouble. Even if the sex is amazing in the beginning, that will eventually change in some way. Someone will get bored. Someone will want other partners. Someone will rely on porn. (And porn always destroys intimacy. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.) There are a lot of scenarios, but none of them are good.
Third, intimacy is what matters, not just sex. Intimacy is emotional and physical closeness — a sharing of space, both physically and emotionally. The natural extension of that is sex, but you can have intimacy without sex (or without much of it). But if you skip the emotional connection that needs to happen first, the sex is never going to be enough. So if you can have either intimacy or sex, choose intimacy.
I’m still puzzled about how two women could have told me such similar stories so quickly. I’m baffled, but it’s one of those coincidences that leave me searching for meaning.
In a perfect world, we would have everything in a relationship. We would have emotional and intellectual connection. We would have wonderful and mutually pleasurable sex. We would have both people feeling as though they were getting everything they needed out of the partnership.
But in this imperfect world, there are times when we have to sacrifice some things in order to have other things. I know some people who could never sacrifice sex (or could never give up very frequent sex). There’s nothing wrong with them if that’s what they value most.
I just know that if I fell in love with a woman — or were already married to her — and she said, “This medical issue and the medication related to it have taken away my desire for sex,” that wouldn’t be my signal to dump her.
If I really loved her, I would take it as an opportunity to find other ways to build intimacy even further — to make sure she knew she was still loved and valued in the face of that tradeoff.
When I think about what I want most from a relationship and marriage, it’s the emotional intimacy that I want most. Sex is great. I’d be happy if I got that, too. But if you give me a choice between real intimacy and sex, I know which one matters.
Now I want to know what God is trying to tell me by beating me over the head with these stories. Or maybe they’re just coincidences. Maybe I’ll never know.