Patrick Pomfrey, Psy.D., is a doctor of clinical psychology in Fairfield,Iowa. If you’d like to submit a question, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Dr. Pomfrey,
My husband and I have been married for more than 10 years. We try to lead a spiritual life. Before marrying me, my husband said we had to be celibate in our marriage. He told me that if I didn’t want that kind of life, he would become a monk and I was free to find another partner. I loved him deeply, so I agreed.
It’s been harder than I thought. And what makes it worse is he’s a terrible flirt! If he doesn’t want me, why would he act like he wants someone else? Now—and I’m so humiliated to say this—I find myself getting excited when I’m around certain men . . . and I never know who that’s going to be. But I know it’s not going to be my husband! I’m fantasizing about them in bed at night, and I feel so guilty. Ahhh! Now I’m going to go crawl under a rock. Do you see why I’m afraid to come to therapy?
This is so embarrassing to me. If you have suggestions, please email ASAP before I eat my pillow.
Celibacy is a time-tested path designed to enhance spiritual development that priests, monks, nuns, and seekers throughout the ages have tread. It’s not an easy path—I admire you and your husband for your courage. It’s not a matter of whether it’s a good path or a valid path; it’s a matter of whether it’s the right course of action for you.
Pillow, this is a significant marital, personal, and spiritual issue that will take more time to resolve than we have here to do it justice. Having said that, I would like to offer a few points for your consideration.
Celibacy, although thought by some to be helpful to spiritual development, is unnatural. Nature’s intelligence designed you to have sex. Without it, humanity would vanish within a few generations. Life itself depends on sex. You’re here because of sex. God wants you to have sex! Nature’s intelligence designed sex to be your strongest drive or instinct—outside of eating. There is nothing wrong with sex and nothing wrong with you for having a sex drive. In fact, your sex drive is so strong that even if I could reach into your head and pull “you” out, your body would still roam the world in search of sex.
So why are you getting “excited” by men other than your husband? Because your brain knows you won’t be having sex with him. But that doesn’t stop your sex drive, so your preconscious mind pulls you into fantasy. You can’t have your husband, and you can’t risk another, so your mind compromises with fantasy in order to feel the excitement of sexuality.
Also, Pillow, the same biological impulses apply to your husband. He knows he won’t be having sex with you. You are like a sister to him. The door is closed—and even though he closed it, his body still demands sex—which he is able to achieve in a modest fashion via flirtation. Biology follows genetic design—no matter what.
Another consideration, Pillow, is that celibacy wasn’t your idea. At the time of your fiancé’s marriage proposal, you agreed because you loved him “deeply.” Now it sounds like you’re questioning that choice. I know I am. Why? Because, he made a choice—you made a compromise. Perhaps it’s time for you to talk to your husband about your sexual fantasies and invite him to do the same. How do you know he has a fantasy life? Check his pulse: if his heart’s beating—he’s got one.
Remember, you do have choices: One is to simply remain on your current path and “eat” your pillow from time to time. (May I suggest a light-bodied Sauvignon Blanc while dining on a feather pillow?)
Another option is to rethink your choice of celibacy as a couple and see if it fits with where you currently are in your marriage and spiritual path. You can undo the decision. Life changes. The purpose of change is to maximize evolution at each stage of your life. Don’t be afraid of change—embrace it. You have a right to reconsider any choice at any point in your life. What was good for you at one stage may not be helpful or desirable at another.
The other option is moderation. You can have your cake and eat it, too—periodically. If you do decide to add the physical dimension to your relationship, I’d encourage you to give it a few tries. The first pancake’s not that great.
Other options are Asian and Hindu disciplines that encourage sexual relation with your partner without loss of energy. Google it. There’s a ton of information out there.
If one of you wants to be celibate and the other doesn’t, then I suggest therapy. And your point about being “embarrassed” or “afraid” to come to therapy—that’s natural, but please, get over it.
While sex is an integral part of human relationships, it’s not everything. It’s essential to look at other aspects of your relationship. Do you feel a deep ease around each other? Do you have emotional intimacy with each other? Is it more fun being with each other than with anybody else? Do you have a shared fondness and admiration? Do you manage conflict well? Do you trust that your partner has your back? These are important questions to be able to answer yes to.
Remember, celibacy is not a path to liberation—it’s to augment the path. You won’t find God by merely keeping your pants on. And you can’t arrive at the destination of happiness by treading the path of misery. Whatever your choice, Pillow, make sure that it brings you joy.