DEAR ABBY: My husband and I have been married four years. During that time we have had three children. Our youngest was born three months ago with various medical problems including heart defects, enlarged kidneys, hearing problems and Down syndrome.
To top it off, I have recently been diagnosed with cancer. I start radiation and chemo next month. I am stressed to say the least, and being intimate with my husband right now is at the bottom of my list of things I need to do.
My husband is having a problem understanding why I am not interested in sex. He takes it personally when I don't accept his advances. I love him very much, and I'm grateful for everything he does for me and the kids, but right now I have no interest in sex. How can I get through to him without hurting his feelings? And how do I stop the advances so I don't feel so guilty? -- STRESSED IN WISCONSIN
There are many possible ways to interpret this heartbreaking, truly difficult situation. The key question is: how do you interpret the husband's desire for sex? Let's look at how Abby handles it.
DEAR STRESSED: Excuse me? You've had three children in four years, you're caring for a newborn with physical and developmental disabilities and you're beginning treatment for a life-threatening illness. Frankly, I'm surprised you are still standing.
If necessary, drag your spouse to your OB/GYN, your pediatrician and your oncologist. Your husband may be the father of three, but he needs to learn the facts of life -- the first of which is that right now, you are physically and emotionally distracted and unable to perform as he would wish.
Abby interprets the husband as being sex-crazed, immature and selfish. An easy call right out of the feminist playbook. What if there is a different interpretation? There is absolutely nothing in this letter to suggest that he is abusive or inattentive in any way. Let's give the man the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume this is an example of the Gender Divide over the meaning of sex.
Men quite often view sex as a way to show their love and to feel loved. That is why they take it personally when their wives say no. They feel unloved, and they don't know how else to show their love.
Look at what the husband is going through: he has the sole financial responsibility for 5 people, including a seriously disabled child. He may lose his wife to cancer. He may be physically healthy, while his wife is sick. But they are both stressed.
One possible interpretation of the man's desire for sex is that it his way of showing love and feeling love. When I showed this column to my husband, his response was immediate, "He is probably scared to death that he is going to lose his wife. He is trying to cling to her, in fear and desperation."
A more constructive approach than the one Abby offered, in my opinion, would be for the wife to express her appreciation to him. Tell him directly, simply, "I really don't have the energy to be sexual with you." Then ask him: what would make you feel loved right now? It would also be a good thing if one or both of them just said simply: "I'm scared we're going to lose each other. I'm scared that our days of holding and touching each other are numbered." Often, that willingness to be vulnerable has a way of breaking down the barriers and allowing real intimacy to happen.
In these kinds of situations, both members of the couple are driven to their limits, physically, emotionally, probably financially too. She needs him. He needs her. The relationship is in deficit. You might call it a Love Deficit. They each need extra love, at exactly the moment the other person is most needy and unable to give. They need help from outside. They need to enlist friends and neighbors and relatives to help give them some extra time so they can take physical and emotional care of themselves and each other. They need to be finding ways to stay close to each other. Back rubs, foot massages, just holding each other.
If they have any spirituality at all, this would be a good time to pray. The infinite love of God is always there for us, supporting us. This is a time to draw on that love. (I talk about this in one of my books. I forget which one right now.)
I ask my readers to pray for this couple.