My marriage, which I told my husband I wanted to end last March, didn't meet the legal definition of “sexless,” which would have qualified me, in some divorce courts, as technically “abandoned.” But it was sexless in every way: declawed, defanged. Empty of tension. Devoid of spontaneity, or pleasure. We were in a nightmare version of Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity: all captivity, no mating. We were in physical contact, yes. Sometimes, once every few months, we had sex. It was always the same, followed the same physical and emotional pattern, and happened only under very specific circumstances: I would be on my way somewhere else for a few days, or on my way back from somewhere, and this brief sense of unavailability, this brief moment of lack, would somehow motivate my husband to come to bed at the same time as me. To turn toward me. To touch me.
The rest of the time, I, having told him every few months that sex was an important part of life, that I didn’t want to live without it, that I felt rejected and trapped without it, would watch his face for signs of interest. Was he heading in my direction? Was he actually lying down next to me? Was he turning toward me? Or was he, on the rare occasions he slept in the bed instead of on the couch, putting his headphones in and rolling over? Once or 10 times, early on in the beginning, before it had become such a thing, I’d tried to initiate sex, and was always rebuffed. And when I’d brought up how sometimes I tried and he pulled away and did he want to talk about that, he’d said he didn’t like it when I initiated, that it made him feel like he was being pressured, or controlled, or tricked, and since then I had committed to never initiating.
We were in a nightmare version of Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity: all captivity, no mating.
Let him come to you, 10,000 advice columns said. Sometimes, I faltered in my commitment, because I was so desperate to connect, and also because I wanted to have sex, and I would initiate anyway, and as I tried to kiss him he would lie there like a stone — unmoving, immovable. When we married, we joked that he was a wildebeest and I was a butterfly. Once it felt real, it wasn’t such a joke anymore. Of course I took this all personally. Of course I took our marriage seriously, and wanted it to last, and so I just kept waiting. Waiting for a spark. Waiting for his desire to return. Waiting to have that feeling of absolute physical abandon I knew we’d once had.
Now, having left, having been gone for over a year, having seen what happened to his psyche when his tiny world, with his computer at the center of it and me at the edges, collapsed, I believe that his challenges were much bigger than our marriage, than me. It feels now, in retrospect, that the burden he was carrying was something I couldn’t — still can’t — actually imagine. But at the time, and still, all I knew was my side of things. It seemed simple. I wanted to have sex with my husband. I used to be attracted to my husband. I know that he used to feel attracted to me. I wanted to feel attractive. I wanted to feel desired. And I didn’t.
A week and a half after I saw my husband for what still, as of today, remains the last time, I had a one-night stand. The week and a half earlier, after a long talk about rehab and hope, I had kissed my husband goodbye, because he had been on his way to California to try and figure some things out, and we were pretty sure we’d decided to get divorced, or I’d decided that we were going to get divorced, even as I was still wondering if maybe things would turn around, or if maybe he’d come back to being the person I fell in love with, someone I felt I hadn’t seen in a while. He walked out the door and suddenly, within seconds, after six years of pledged loyalty, I was a free agent. And then almost just as suddenly I was standing in another man’s apartment, knowing what was going to happen, and it felt right and wrong, and familiar and new, and it felt like it had been no time and an eternity of time since I’d been with a man who wasn’t my husband.
This man and I went from the living room to his bedroom, to a different bed, I to a different body. It was at once everything I wanted, and it wasn’t enough. Couldn’t be enough. The depth of my hunger, my need to feel desired after almost six years of feeling a constant coldness, a drive away from my direction, was too much for one person, or for one encounter. In that moment, I couldn’t control myself, couldn’t calibrate. It was like being given water after six years in the desert, and gulping, and receiving just enough water, but at once drowning and being sure I needed more. Still feeling like I would die. My sense of momentum, my sense of my own physical desire, my own needs, had become so addled that I was at once like a rocket and a sloth. I was rushing, headlong, into nothing.
A few days after we hooked up and I hadn’t heard from him, which surprised me, I texted a friend. “I’m really trying not to text him,” I wrote. “Oh, I suggest you do,” she wrote. “Why not be a pleasure activist?” I bought adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism, and I texted him.
I’d been taught for the entirety of my sexual career, which started when I was 17 or 19, depending on how you count, that my role was to not want.
I’d been taught for the entirety of my sexual career, which started when I was 17 or 19, depending on how you count, that my role was to not want. To not seek my own pleasure. To pretend that my own pleasure would be a happy accident, a by-product of giving a man something. That sex is about giving, and taking. But I wanted to take. I wanted to take everything. I wanted to swallow the world. I wanted to fuck this man, again and again and again, I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to feel how wrong it was, how inappropriate (he was much younger than me). I wanted to come, and make myself come, and have someone else make me come. I fantasized about violence, his hands on me, his hands on my throat. It was all about him. It was all about my marriage. I could see, in brief moments of clarity, that the entirety of what I thought my sexual needs were had been shaped and molded by the part I’d been shown how to play in my marriage, the one in which I did not desire my husband — in which only he was allowed to show desire for me, and only when I was almost gone.
I didn’t see that first one-night stand again, but I did have more sex. A friend, who’d also gotten divorced once, referred to it as checking on old accounts. I thought about everyone I’d had sexual tension with while I’d been married, and called them up. Everyone knew why I was calling. One old friend and I had sex and it was light, and fun, and friendly, and it felt afterward that I had slightly recalibrated, that my amygdala wasn’t shocked, that the water was enough, mostly. And then another friend and I had sex, and it was thrilling in its desire and similarity and intensity, and also — and this felt new — safety and communication. Both of them drove me home after I came over. Both of them I’m still friends with today.
The experience of sleeping with one friend and then, pretty quickly, another reminded me of the weekend I’d first tried to get sober, almost 13 years ago. I was living with one man, starting a relationship with a second, had had a one-night stand with a third, and was about to have another one-night stand with a fourth. At the time, I categorized this as bad behavior. And of course it was, though I can see more clearly now why: It was predicated on desire. My desire. I’d always thought — been taught — that my capacity for sexual desire was bad, and wrong. That my wanting to fuck four dudes in close proximity had to be some sign of trauma, or maladaptiveness. No one had ever told me that, besides our culture. I never heard it from anyone except everyone. I adopted the belief. And I thought that getting married would show how chaste I could actually be. How prudent. How good. How not-bad.
A friend who’s known me since I was 17 asked, after I left my husband, if I’d cheated on him. I hadn’t. We found this extraordinary, and my friend high-fived me. At first, yes. At second, but wait. Because at what cost — to me — had my fidelity come? My friend hadn’t asked about the price of staying faithful to someone who did not want me. Hadn’t asked about the quiet way in which I suffocated myself, all so that I could be a good wife, a good daughter-in-law, a good girl. Neither of us thought to. But after I left my husband, after I realized that I really did want to get divorced, I felt those chains start to lift. Maybe, 13 years ago, wanting to have sex with four men in rapid succession was about wanting to — and deserving to — feel that much pleasure, that much aliveness, that much connection. Maybe, now, I deserved it again.
Being single after divorce isn’t the same as being single before, a friend told me. The culture assumes that straight (though I’m not entirely straight) women get married and then get divorced and then go on to seek their next husband, and so we don’t talk that much about this burst, whatever form it might take. But that pattern hasn’t been true for many, many, many divorced or divorcing women that I know, and it’s certainly not true for me. Since I left my husband, my primary relationship aim is no longer to figure out if this is the one, or if this is going somewhere. I don’t need my sexual encounters to go anywhere. I don’t have to worry about whether a man is going to take me seriously or not and try and pretend that I don’t always fuck on the first date because, reader, I always do.
Divorce, and the cultural indulgence that comes with it, has given me this window of freedom, to live in the present and ask for my present needs, and in those weeks following my husband’s departure, my present needs were sex with no strings attached. I wanted to feel physical pleasure and sexual pleasure and desire, and I wanted that desire to be met. I loved the freedom of the window. And sometimes I had the thought: What if that window could be open all the time? For all of us?
I don’t need my sexual encounters to go anywhere.
In early July of last year, I met Troy at a party. The day after he invited me to the movies, and we went to the movies and then we walked home and then halfway home we agreed that we were in fact on a date, and he said he was thirsty, could we stop at the deli, and I told him I had LaCroix in my fridge, and took him on a tour of my house and then asked if he wanted to see my room again. For a moment, before I took him back to my room, we sat on the couch just laughing, and I remember that particular anticipatory feeling, before we kissed, and how much I’d believed I’d never have that feeling again. How before I got married I read Sheryl Paul’s Conscious Bride, and did the premarriage workbook, checking into hotel room after hotel room and writing letters to my single self saying goodbye. How I’d said goodbye forever to that moment, just before you kiss someone for the first time, because I planned to only ever kiss my husband. And Troy and I went into my room, and he sat on my bed, and I lunged at him and then we kissed and I thought, it’s too bad this won’t happen again, because this is how I want to be kissed.
He slept over. We had sex. I saw him a few days later, and then I flew to see him in Budapest from my family vacation in Germany because why not, I was getting divorced, I could do anything. We had sex there. And the sex kept getting better. He showed me things I’d done maybe once or twice, 10 years ago, but now I liked them. He wanted me to spit in his mouth, he said. I learned I wanted to drink his. One night, he took his hand and held it to my throat, just so, very gently, and I took his hand and put it in my mouth. He read my cues, put his fingers down my throat. He could have killed me. I loved it.
I kept asking for what I wanted, no matter how ashamed I might have felt.
Troy and I didn’t slap or hit each other. There was a quieter intimacy and a quieter threat of invited violence at work here, in the way in which he slowly put his hand on my neck just to either side of my windpipe. The way, sometimes, he knew I couldn’t breathe, and pulled away just in time. That was trust. That was intimacy. That was desire flooding our systems. That was what I had missed in my marriage. It took months for me to realize how safe and how sexual I could really be with Troy. Months of me asking for what I wanted, and getting it. And I kept asking for what I wanted, no matter how ashamed I might have felt, how much I could, sometimes, still hear my husband's voice, see his immovable face, feel his judgment scratching at the back of my brain to say that what I wanted was too much.
I kept seeing Troy, always just one more time. We went on a third date and then a fourth, and fifth. I kept falling for him, and he for me. But then, a few months ago, I noticed that I was initiating sex more, that he wasn’t doing it as much. And I brought it up. I’d been in a sexless marriage, I told him, and I wasn’t going to do it again. He listened, and understood, and in the months after, he initiated, until we both got COVID and didn’t see each other for six weeks. Something happened in that absence, and we couldn’t find our way back to each other. Between the first and second draft of this essay, I broke up with him. It was the first time I’d broken up with someone I deeply cared about because they couldn’t give me what I wanted; the first time I’d left a situation instead of trying to make my needs smaller and tinier; the first time I’d truly chosen myself and my wants.
There’s a freedom in seeking sex for the present moment, and not needing to tie it to roles: girlfriend, wife, ex-wife. Once I became someone’s wife, I stopped being Eva, in so many ways. Sex with Troy, and lately with myself, and even more lately with far-flung friends over the phone, has become a way of returning me to my essential core. I’m not someone else’s wife. I’m not someone else’s girlfriend. I’m not someone else’s sex partner. I’m free. I’m free because I decided to say yes, and yes, and yes again. ●
Eva Hagberg is the author of the critically acclaimed How to Be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship, out now in paperback.