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anonymous on September 12, 2011

My husband has a spinal chord injury and now won’t even touch me. What can we do to fix our marriage?

My husband sustained a spinal cord injury just a year after we married. Since then, he’s not interested in sex, and never touches me. In fact, even when I hug him, he pushes me away as soon as he can. I have begged him to go to marriage counseling with me to get help but he refuses. His refusal to even try to work on our problems has made me resentful and I have stopped trying. I live in one part of the house and he lives in the other and we don’t spend time together at all without fighting. Part of me thinks "leave and get a life," and part of me still loves him and feels sorry for him, and wants our marriage to work. I just don’t know what to do anymore.

answered by Mitchell Tepper, PhD, MPH on September 12, 2011

I’m so sorry to hear about your situation, and that your husband has shut you out. First, perhaps I can offer you some general insights about men with spinal cord injury (SCI) that might help you understand what he may be going through...

It sounds like your husband is avoiding you…and avoidance can be a common reaction among people who feel unable to live up to an expected role. For example, it’s possible that – when you hug him or otherwise try to be affectionate with him – he sees these gestures as leading to sexual intercourse, an activity he no longer feels confident to perform.

Or perhaps he envisioned himself as a provider in a dominant, take-charge role…and now he feels more like a burden or a patient, instead of your partner.

In other words, by avoiding you, he may be attempting to also avoid facing his fears, anxieties, disappointments…perhaps even depression. To make matters worse, a lot of men aren’t comfortable talking about their feelings. By and large, modern-day society doesn’t encourage men to express emotions in a healthy way.

As you mention, couples counseling may be beneficial for your marriage. But while your husband is resistant, going to counseling on your own could be a helpful first step.

A counselor may be able to help you work through your conflicted feelings about your marriage, and perhaps help you identify new ways to interact with your husband. Eventually, he may wish to join you in counseling…or go to a counselor on his own.

If nothing else, I would encourage your husband to talk openly with his doctor. For example, if your husband is diagnosed with depression, medications (especially when combined with counseling) can help people move past the sense of loss caused by their injury.

I wish you both courage as you attempt to better understand and hopefully heal the psychological and emotional wounds between you.

Related info:

Mitchell Tepper, PhD, MPH

Dr. Tepper directs sexual health education at SexualHealth.com. An AASECT-certified sexuality educator and counselor, his areas of expertise include sexual dysfunctions, sexuality following disability or illness, pleasure and orgasm, relationships, and military and veteran couples' counseling. Dr. Tepper was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University.

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