Is it normal for a husband to lose interest in sex after his wife has had a hysterectomy or mastectomy? Several years ago I underwent a hysterectomy. More recently, a bout with cancer meant the loss of one of my breasts. That's bad enough, but it gets worse: since my last surgery, my husband has distanced himself emotionally and doesn't seem to care at all about sex. I'm devastated. Can you help me?
You're not alone. Many couples in your situation experience similar conflicts following a procedure of this nature. These bumps in the road can leave a marriage seriously damaged if the situation isn't managed properly, especially if the relationship is unstable to begin with. But it's possible to get past them if you and your husband are willing to work together and talk candidly about your feelings. Everything depends on how you handle your emotional reactions to the surgery.
Let's begin with you. It's easy for a woman in your position to feel like she's been "diminished" as a person - that the loss of her uterus or breast is somehow tantamount to the loss of her identity or femininity. As a result, her body image is skewed and her self-image plummets. Many times this feeling is compounded and aggravated by the emotional ups and downs associated with menopause and mid-life. If she allows her insecurities to get the better of her, she will inevitably convey this to her spouse in unconscious, non-verbal ways. This in turn can have the effect of driving him away.
That's unfortunate, since he's probably already wrestling with issues of his own. Despite his best efforts to put on a brave front, a man often finds it difficult to watch his wife undergo a major surgery like a mastectomy or hysterectomy. Fear and uncertainty may cause him to back away and shut down emotionally, and this in turn can leave him feeling like a coward and a failure. He may see himself as inadequate and lacking the mental fortitude or the emotional resources to support his wife in her time of need. In many cases this attitude gets expressed in the form of silence and withdrawal.
In both cases the perception is the real problem. Both husband and wife are laboring under false ideas about themselves. They're looking at their circumstances through distorted lenses, and consequently they're allowing serious misunderstandings to take root and grow. The longer this infection is permitted to fester, the harder it will be to heal.
The solution, of course, is honest communication. If you and your husband can acknowledge your feelings to yourselves and then discuss them in open conversation, we suspect that the cloud hanging over your marriage may begin to disperse. This can be a valuable learning experience for both of you - so valuable, in fact, that you may eventually find yourselves looking back on this period as a crucial turning point in your relationship. The key is to get the streams of candid self-disclosure flowing.
At the same time, you should each find time to talk to other people. Enlist the assistance and support of trusted same-sex friends and mentors who can help you work through the specifically male and female aspects of your respective situations. As a woman, you need the empathy and understanding of other women - preferably women who have been through these surgeries themselves. They can relate to your experience as no one else can, and because of this they're in a position to fill a role in your life that your husband can't even comprehend. He, on the other hand, needs the reassurance of male friends who understand what he's thinking and whose wives have undergone similar medical procedures. And you can both benefit from the spiritual insights of a pastor and the medical counsel of a physician or gynecologist. As you probably know, there are a number of treatments available (including hormone replacement and reconstructive surgery) that can help couples overcome some of the physical and hormonal obstacles to marital intimacy resulting from a mastectomy or hysterectomy.
If you find it hard to talk with your spouse about this subject, we'd strongly recommend that the two of you seek professional counseling. Our staff would be happy to provide you with referrals to qualified marriage and family therapists in your area who specialize in the area or marital communication. You can contact our Counseling Department at this number.
Love Must Be Tough: New Hope for Marriages in Crisis (book)
Marriage Alive - The Web site of Dave and Claudia Arp, a husband and wife team who strive to help couples build better marriages and families.
Keeping Romance Alive