To me, sex is one of the most important parts of a relationship. It’s what connects people on a deeper physical and intimate level. It’s one thing that, if you’re in a monogamous relationship, can be shared equally between the two of you. It’s yours.

So why did I decide to stay in an unhappy, sexless relationship for 6 years?

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Illustration by Brittany England

The first year of my relationship was exciting and filled with spontaneous sex. Our vigorousness lasted longer than the expected honeymoon phase and didn’t die down until about a year and a half into dating, when we moved in together.

In January of 2015, just a few months into living in our new home, I got sick.

After years of debilitating symptoms, my large intestine perforated and I found that I had been unknowingly living with ulcerative colitis. It was an incredibly traumatic experience.

I was given a stoma bag to wear for 10 months, and even during this time, the sex in our relationship hadn’t completely vanished. We weren’t doing it every day (or the sometimes 4 times a day, like at the start) but it was still frequent.

I did begin to feel somewhat emotionally distant, though. But, I didn’t really see it as a red flag. So much had happened that it was hard to not get knocked out of our rhythm.

The stoma bag wasn’t a stated issue either. No comments were ever made about it, and sex was never awkward. But it was just kind of… empty. The spark had definitely faded.

And it was tough for me to not see it as somehow being my fault.

Things drastically got worse after I had my stoma reversed. That was a surprise since I was certain it would help our sex life (and my confidence) to improve. But it all went downhill instead.

We soon moved into a new apartment, and it was like we were nothing more than roommates from the start. We spent most nights in different rooms. On the occasions we did spend time together, we would sit on different sofas. I remember really hating this. He always wanted his own space. I wanted to feel close to him.

In bed, I would try to initiate things, but he would push me away. I remember it being a shock the first time he did it. He told me he was tired and didn’t feel like it — so I went to sleep instead. But then he said it the next time, and the next — again and again until 6 months went by without us having sex.

He would give me a slightly different reason every time: “I’m tired.” “I have a stomach ache.” “My TV program is about to start.” “I’m just about to go to the toilet.”

I begged him to just be honest with me about how he was feeling — if he didn’t love me anymore. Each time, he would say that he loved me, but he just “got lazy” and would “make more of an effort.” But nothing changed.

One night, I attempted to spice things up by wearing some sexy lingerie. I didn’t feel great about it but managed to tap my last ounce of confidence, hoping he wouldn’t reject me again. But I was nearly shattered when he took one look at me and said he had a stomach ache.

I felt numb after that — no longer bothering to make any more attempts at intimacy. The only thing I felt was loneliness. And it’s a horrible thing to be lonely in a relationship. But I didn’t leave. I was scared of being on my own.

My confidence and self-esteem were at rock bottom. Since he didn’t want me, I didn’t think anyone else would.

We finally split at the end of 2018. He had been cheating on me.

I was devastated, but not because I’d lost him. That had happened years ago. I was devastated that he had been having sex with other people while I spent years convinced there was something wrong with me.

I blamed myself for a couple of months after the breakup. I blamed myself for needing to stay in the relationship for so long, for letting him absently string me along, and for allowing my self-worth to get ripped to shreds.

I topped it off by torturing myself through stalking his social media and comparing myself to his new girlfriend.

Not long after, I eventually met someone on a dating app. He was gorgeous and funny, and he looked at me like I was the most gorgeous woman in the world. It was like coming up for air for the first time in a while.

The moment I felt an initial connection with him, was the moment I realized what I was missing in my last relationship. It wasn’t real.

I had grown dependent, not connected. My fear of being alone was based on what I thought he gave me, not what we built together. None of it had mattered. That’s why it was so fragile.

Even with that realization, it took time for me to regain my confidence. My current partner makes a point to compliment me every day, and our sex life has always been brilliant. But I still find myself worried about initiating physical intimacy for fear of rejection. It’s like a traumatic feeling that I want to avoid.

I don’t know when or if I’ll ever be able to feel totally confident. But I know that I’m happy now. I gave birth to a beautiful little boy in April 2020. My life is very much complete.

There should be more empathy for those who stay in unhappy relationships. It’s so easy to tell someone else to make different decisions to change their situation.

But when your sense of self-worth has you terrified of leaving the familiarity of a lonely relationship, it’s hard to take that leap.

When a relationship does end, though, and you pick up the pieces, there’s nothing like the moment when you realize that you’re free. Not necessarily free to make the same mistakes — but free to love yourself again.


Hattie Gladwell is a mental health journalist, author, and advocate. She writes to diminish stigma and to encourage others to speak out. Follow her on Twitter.