SN&R columnist’s advice on a local woman’s sexless marriage sets off a firestorm of feedback
It’s your wedding day.
You and your beloved stand, in elegant attire, before the celebrant. Turning toward the one who will be your life partner, you exchange vows, promising to love, comfort, honor and keep each other in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or for worse, forsaking all others as long as you both shall live.
Wouldn’t it be useful to include something about having frequent, satisfying sex, too? Polls reveal that in 15 to 20 percent of American marriages there is little or no sexual intimacy. Couples have sex as rarely as 10 times a year, or never. Considering the professionally recognized tendency to fudge the truth on questionnaires that impact self-image, there’s little doubt that the number is even higher.
Recently, a local woman wrote in asking for advice about her sexless marriage. Her letter—and my response to it last month in SN&R—set off a firestorm of e-mails, phone calls and confrontations by readers. So we’re going to review and revisit the sexless-marriage theme again here.
In her letter, the woman described herself as having a high sexual drive. But her husband had absolutely no interest in getting his key into the ignition. During their premarital courtship, sex was occasional and not satisfying, she said, but she married him because of the many other joys of being with him. During the first few years of marriage, the pattern of infrequent and unsatisfying sex continued. After the birth of their son, sexual activity between this woman and her husband stopped completely.
Now experts agree that the arrival of children is the No. 1 reason that sex dwindles in marriages (stress and all-consuming jobs are the other culprits). Moms, understandably, feel physically depleted by the unrelenting physical needs of infants and young children. When a woman’s body is no longer her own, she is quick to rebuff her partner’s attempts at seduction. Moms of babies and tots must learn how to re-experience their bodies and boundaries if they want to enjoy mutually pleasurable sex with their partners. The path back into the body requires a commitment to schedule an hour or more of time alone daily to nap, meditate, go for a walk or hit the gym.
But in the case of the woman writing in to me, it wasn’t her but her husband who refused her sexual advances. He brushed off her attempts at conversation about the problem and vetoed the idea of therapy. He was a good companion, she said, and a great father. She didn’t want a divorce. She just wanted some advice.
I didn’t promote the usual suspects: sex toys, videos, lingerie, aphrodisiacs or the installation of a stripper pole in the boudoir. Sure, that’s the easy and expected answer. But in reality, at this juncture in their marriage, those choices would feel manipulative to him and, when he rejected her advances once again, could be demeaning to her. Instead, I suggested that she explore the psycho-spiritual dynamics of the crisis by unpacking her beliefs about herself. Having a high sex drive might be a perfectly natural aspect of her personality, but it might also be an attempt to fill an emptiness inside herself. And why marry a man with whom you are not sexually compatible, I asked, and then claim, as she did, to feel cheated?
Who is actually cheating whom?
What was interesting about the responses to my column on this topic was that every one of them came from men and nearly every one had misread the letter or my response. Their filters were fascinating.
A man calling himself Archangel Michael (no, seriously, I’m not making this stuff up) wrote a long e-mail telling me that he nearly fell out of his chair when he read my response (but angels don’t have bodies, right? Oh, never mind!). He explained that when a couple marries, there is an assumption that sex is included in the package. I say that Sister Anna Marie, my third grade teacher, was right when she told our class, “To assume makes an ass out of you and me.” Archangel Michael continued: “If the husband was not willing or interested in having sex, he should have clearly stated that at the very beginning, giving the wife that option to not go forth with the marriage.” But in the real world, dear Angel M., human beings are not always that self-aware and, of course, we humans do change our minds. Perhaps angels are different?
Many, many other men wrote to complain that they are also stuck in marriages where sex has gone extinct. Several of these guys read the column and thought they discovered a silver lining. “I’m desperate,” said one caller. “I’m in the same situation as the woman who wrote to you. My wife has no interest in having sex. So if the woman who wrote to you has any desire to meet someone in the same position, she could call me. We could be of mutual help to each other.” OK, yeah, I’m an advice columnist. I don’t pimp people out, and I don’t condone extramarital affairs. But, hey, I do counsel people, so do you want to put your wife on the phone?
My absolute favorite response to that column was from a man who thought that, since my photo is posted right above the question, I must be the woman who wrote in. (Sorry, no, I did not write to myself. I am not in a sex-starved marriage.) This man left me a long voice-mail message. Here’s the best part: “A woman wants to be wanted and noticed. I seen your picture and you look beautiful. If your man can’t take care of you, call me. Here is my address, just come on by my apartment. I want a sexual woman. By the way, I’m 79 years old, and I’ve still got it going on.” I bet you do, my brother, but I won’t be showing up on your doorstep in my birthday suit, shouting “Surprise!” Bet on it.
Obviously, sex with strangers doesn’t cure a sexless marriage. Couples who are drifting through a few months of no sexual activity need to schedule time together. Write that appointment down on a calendar along with those vital never-missed activities like working out, doing laundry or catching the latest episode of Flashpoint. Get a baby sitter and a backup sitter. Then, in a private space, gradually work your way into being curious about each other again. Give yourselves the gift of time and being present with each other so a real appetite can build and heal your sex-starved life.