I remember having “the talk” with my mom like it was last week. I was seven, and I’d asked during dinner prep, “So, I know that mommies have babies in their tummies, but how does the baby actually get there?” (Ever the reporter, I had a notebook ready to record her answer.) She expertly redirected my attention with a “We’ll talk about it later,” and true to her word, she woke me up later that night, after my little sister had gone to bed, to address my query.
It was all very clinical—penis in vagina, sperm to egg.
“Like a key in a keyhole?” I’d asked.
“Sort of,” she’d said, with a laugh I only understood years later.
But the conversation that followed, and that continued to surface for the next decade or more, had much more impact than the explanation of conception. My mom, devoutly religious, told me that “making love” is something that should only happen between a husband and wife, and that the purpose of the act is to create children. My mom wasn’t clueless or naïve—she was brilliant in so many ways—but this was what she knew to be true from her own upbringing. Sex is for marriage. You should wait to find the right person. She went so far as to tell me it wouldn’t feel good unless I was deeply in love; unless my partner was my soul mate.
And so I waited. I dated casually but never went all the way. Part of it was nerves, I’m sure, but the other part was the idea that sex for sex’s sake was wrong. So much so that, when I finally did meet someone special, during university, I made him wait for.ev.er. Until he put a ring on it, when I was well into my 20s. And when we finally did have sex a few months after we got engaged (because I just couldn’t wait any longer), I remember thinking, “That was a lot of drama for nothing.”
It wasn’t that it was bad. My fiancé—who then became my husband—was lovely and kind, but it didn’t feel much like anything. It felt a lot more like my mom’s first, clinical, mechanical explanation of sex than the magical love-making she described between people who are supposed to be deeply in love. But regardless, I felt vindicated, even smug, that I had followed “the rules.”
The truth was, our sex life was never great. I never felt the kind of fireworks you see in the movies. It was adequate and I did get off from time to time, but I never felt the kind of connection other people described. I could not imagine how people could miss it if they didn’t have it, because for me, it was a box I had to tick. Anniversary? Check. Birthday? Check. It’s been four months and that’s a bad sign? Check. And eventually, when we were trying to conceive our children, and I knew I was ovulating? Double check.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that after our kids arrived, sex went from sporadic to non-existent. Intimacy had never been a priority for us to begin with, so when you add in colicky babies, years of disrupted sleep and the chaos of having three children under four, our sex life had no hope in hell. Somehow, what began as a “dry spell” grew into two years of celibacy.
Then, one night, two summers ago, my eight-year-old son was watching a video on my husband’s phone when a text message popped up. It was a picture of a woman I didn’t know, with a flirty message attached.
“Mom, who is this?” he asked me, flashing me the phone’s screen. My heart leaped into my throat. It was confirmation of what I already knew, to a point—that the gap between my husband and me was widening by the minute, and that it was all but irreparable. But still, there it was, painful and glaring: visible proof of a problem that had been growing for years.
I won’t fill in all the blanks in terms of what happened next, because it doesn’t really matter. The short version is that the text on my husband’s phone was a symptom of a larger, even more distressing issue: We had lost what little spark there was to begin with, and I knew we weren’t getting it back, no matter how much we tried. (And we had tried: couples counselling, sex therapy and even at one point considering an open marriage, but that was pretty much a non-starter for me.)
At the heart of it, we were just the wrong people for each other.
What does matter is that I know, deep down, the dissolution of my marriage was rooted in the lack of physical connection, even in the earliest stages of our relationship. Had I known better, had I understood what sexual chemistry feels like—that marriages are about more than just getting along and sharing the mundane day-in and day-out work of raising a family—I think I would have made a different choice back when that kind, lovely man got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. In fact, our relationship probably wouldn’t have even progressed to a proposal.
I loved my husband as a person, and I will always hold fast to the fact that he was a decent partner, and he remains a good dad. On the day he moved out of our family home, I hugged him goodbye. It was the final milestone in our life together, as a couple. And I remember thinking, “We gave it our best shot.”
But now I’m not really sure we did. We were young and inexperienced and we just didn’t know any better. Never let someone tell you that a lack of chemistry or physical intimacy won’t cause a gulf in a marriage. It does. It did.
In the two years since our separation and subsequent divorce, I’ve dated a few other men and I’ve felt the flutters I’d being missed out on all along. Even kissing feels different. I’ve found that physical connection, even though long-term potential hasn’t presented itself yet. I want the whole package. At 41, I finally have the experience to know what I want and what I need—and I will not compromise.
But this is why I will never, ever tell my son or my daughters to wait for “the one.” Because if you don’t know what it feels like to be with someone who isn’t “the one,” it’s too easy to convince yourself that you can mold or shape the relationship into the dream.
I will tell my kids, when they’re old enough to understand, to be safe and to know their boundaries. I will teach them that their bodies are their own, and that they only have one, and that choices about sex should be taken seriously. I will do my best to be honest, to answer their questions, to make sure they are equipped to make good decisions.
I will teach them that sex and shame should not go hand in hand, and that while sex can definitely be an expression of love, it’s also about meeting a physical need. And I will not tell them to wait. I will not put that on them.
I will tell them to make damn sure they like having sex with the person they marry, so that when life is hectic or hard—as it’s bound to get—they’ll want to make time. I want them to be able to connect with their partners in a way I was never able to connect with their dad. Because friendship isn’t enough. It just isn’t.
There’s a reason love has been called “friendship on fire.” I’ve always had the friendship part down; it’s the spark I now refuse to go without.
This article was originally published online in July 2019.