Isn't it every person's right to indulge themselves when they feel like it?

By Cary Tennis
May 14, 2002 11:20PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

My wife is insatiable, and I can't really keep up with her. OK, this is normally a good thing, am I right, guys? In the real world, I might go days at a time where I won't feel like having sex -- stress from work is usually the reason. Any day that I feel relaxed, I'm usually good to go. But sometimes I'll wake up in the morning (perhaps from having a hot dream) and really be in the mood. Alas, my wife is usually up and out of the house before me and so I'm on my own at that exact moment, and I indulge myself.


I believe it's every person's right to "indulge" themselves as much as they want, but my wife gets angry with me for doing this. She believes I'm wasting my mood bank or sex drive or chi or whatever, which I should be saving up for her. The fact that she even knows I do it surprises me -- I assume she's doing detective work to determine if the lube has been touched. I leave no obvious evidence at the "scene of the crime." I think she's being obsessive, maybe a little nuts. And she'll pout for a whole day or more about this. I certainly don't want to have our sex life reduced to me being her sex slave, but I'm beginning to feel like that. Am I wrong to feel she's being oppressive?

Just a Jerk

Dear Just a Jerk,


Whose penis is it, anyway? It's yours, right? If it's yours, you can do what you want with it, right? Paint it red, white and blue if you want. Perhaps that would appeal to your wife's patriotic instincts, and she would take it upon herself to aid in your morning ministrations.

Unless perhaps she follows Jewish law, which prohibits male masturbation. "In fact," says the Judaism 101 faq,"the prohibition is so strict that one passage in the Talmud states, 'in the case of a man, the hand that reaches below the navel should be chopped off.'" If you see your wife with a cleaver, you know you've got a problem.

But seriously, folks, while it is a commonplace today that masturbation is perfectly OK and does not unduly deplete the male energy or whatever, it is not wholly unreasonable for a partner to feel that the sex one has with oneself represents a refusal to give of the self to the other. I would be sensitive to such feelings, even if it may also feel as though your wife is being controlling or crossing some boundary of privacy. It's not for nothing that the world's great religions have concerned themselves with this matter. It is not trivial. So keep those hands above the covers! (Just kidding. It's your penis. Do what you want to do.)


Dear Cary,

I finished with my long-term boyfriend five months ago (he wanted to get married, I didn't) and have been merrily splashing around the dating pool ever since. When it comes to relationships, I tend to be a 0-to-60-in-10-seconds kind of girl, so I've never really "dated" before. It's great fun! I'm 26, and it finally feels like I've hit my stride.


A few weeks ago, I met a man who makes my heart sing. He's a dreamy but determined green-eyed man of the earth, a proud papa who's prone to making up spontaneous silly songs about his young son. He says he's stayed in past relationships too long, so now he wants to take his time (and a good look around) before making any promises. Fine by me. I'm looking to change my pattern too. I have a bad habit of putting the rest of my life on hold when I'm in love, and right now I really need to finish college and figure out what I want to do when I grow up. He lives 100 miles away, which is a bonus in my book. It means we'll have plenty of time to do our own things should we become each other's main squeeze.

It's been three days since I spent the night with this amazing fella and I'm still glowing. Incredible. I've never felt so comfortable with a new lover. Here's the problem: Now that we've done the deed, I can't shake these nasty twinges of guilt and awkwardness. They're really ticking me off! I don't believe physical intimacy and committed relationships need necessarily go hand in hand. And I'm certain that on both our parts, jumping straightaway into something serious wouldn't work. So why can't I live in the moment and enjoy this sweet, indefinable thing we've got? How do I silence this niggling voice that keeps squawking, "I can't believe you fell for that! Ha ha ha, you're so easy"?

Haranguing Harpy in My Head


Dear Harpy in Your Head,

As far as I can tell, nice guys actually appreciate a woman who jumps into bed with them right away. They don't figure she's some dirty slut. That's old-fashioned. Today they just figure she's smart and has good taste. But you're going to have to walk around containing all these bubbly feelings, and you probably don't have much experience fashioning a steady relationship out of bubbly and effervescent magic.

Just try to remain calm and see where it goes. Sure, you're going to be nervous; just be nervous. If you have twinges of guilt and awkwardness, just have twinges of guilt and awkwardness. You don't have to do anything about them. They're just feelings. It's all quite natural.


Dear Cary,

Can you comment on 50-year-old men who go berserk? That have the Dan Rather syndrome -- you know, really cry-ey, very emotional; worse than girls. Is it hormones? I have just finished with one who was this way, and very possessive and manipulative too. He hid it well for a few months, then it all came out. He compromised the safety of some people we were working with in the political realm; it was just unbelievable. I am so shaken and sickened I don't ever want to date a man again. I am 41 and usually have a very good sense of who I am dealing with; this yo-yo fooled me. I want to cap him. Of course I won't but I am enraged and it still hasn't gone away. I tried talking to him but he lives in a world of self-delusion, wants to blame other people for what he did all on his lonesome. What a loss. Any insight you might have would be appreciated.

What's With Them?

Dear What's With Them,


In my private reply to you, I asked if you could supply more details, and since you said you couldn't because you feared compromising the identities of the people involved, I can only comment in a general way. I must admit I'm fascinated by the sense of fiery drama singeing the edges of this cryptic missive. But I have also witnessed with some skepticism the nearly erotic air of drama, martyrdom and victimhood with which some members of fringe political causes justify their impassioned and futile campaigns against intractable powers. So I remain curious about what sort of political realm you were working in, and continue to believe that any real solution to your described troubles lies in the details of what happened between you and this man.

Nevertheless, while I can't say much, I do know about sudden expensive motorcycle purchase syndrome and midlife-onset facial hair. When you realize you'll be 60 in less than a decade, you kind of wig out. Who wouldn't? Men haven't been burdened with age-consciousness their whole lives, so it can hit with the force of a fatal disease when it finally dawns on them.

So you wanted to cap him but you didn't? That was darn nice of you. Tell him not to cry, everything's going to be OK. And go out with younger guys. Their motorcycles are cheaper and they work on them themselves, which purifies the spirit.

Dear Cary,


I've been dating a woman now for five years. With the exception of one year in the same city, we've had a long-distance relationship (but we see each other at least once a month and talk every day). The problem is that it's getting to the point where I feel that I should either ask her to marry me or break it off. Yet I feel that there's something missing. Part of it is that I've never really had another serious relationship and keep on wondering whether the grass would be greener elsewhere. I wish that I could pause the relationship, have another one and then come back.

Now I'm going to Spain for a year. My girlfriend has made it clear that she expects a ring on my return or else it's over. On one hand, this seems like the perfect opportunity for me to date on the sly without her ever knowing and getting a sense of perspective on our relationship. But I don't feel that I can do that without telling her, and I think that she might call off the relationship if I even suggested such an "open relationship."

Help, Lost and Confused

Dear Lost,


The saying is, "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." As perhaps you are aware, it is meant to remind us that one tends to value what one does not have more highly than what one has, in spite of what Sheryl Crow advises, which is that we will be much happier if rather than trying to get what we want we strive instead to want what we already have. Sheryl Crowe is no Aristotle, but then Aristotle was no Sheryl Crow, and neither of them is an Einstein. Which means you should go to Spain.

What frequently strikes me about how we live our lives in this country, in this century, in letters such as yours -- may I take a moment here to make a general observation? -- is that while we are looking down at the map trying to decide which way to go, the car continues along the road, passing this and that remarkable statue and mountain. What I wonder is: If we're sitting here trying to figure out which way to go, who is driving while we're looking down at the map? Because we're still moving. It's not like you can pull over in life. Even when you pull over, you're still moving, because the road is made of time. It's made of aging and eating and disfigurement, of sleepiness and longing and wonderment. It's a road that travels under our feet like those people movers at the airport. So we're standing there, looking at the map, and travelers brush past us eager to kiss their children. The wheels of their luggage make a clacking sound on the seams of the band of flexible road that is the people mover. And then even if we're standing still when we look up from the map we're somewhere else.

That is to say, when you go to Spain, there is no telling what will happen. They have women there in Spain. I hear they're very nice. You might end up sucking the juice out of an orange and drinking sangria across from a woman the likes of whom you never imagined could exist on the same planet as you. And you will fold up your map in your knapsack and follow her down some stone steps in the last rays of sunlight. So go to Spain. Then come back. If you still want to buy a ring, buy a ring. Give it to your lover. Marry her. And forget that woman in Spain. Don't talk about her. Don't imagine you could stay with her. She's in Spain; they have Spanish things to do there that don't include you.

Dear Cary,

I am married almost 16 years, both in our late 30s, one child. Husband is a professional, works from home office. I am a technical writer working for a software company. About two years ago, I became friendly with a male co-worker, and after about a year of increasingly personal conversations both at work and at home through e-mail, we had a "one-night stand" together. The reasons for this can be attributed to many things -- none of which can adequately explain or excuse what I did.

I was immediately filled with unbearable guilt and within a couple of days of that one time together, confessed everything to my husband. The time since the affair has been extremely difficult for both of us. We've been through countless blow-ups, enormous stress and emotional turmoil, drinking problems (mine), job loss due to emotional problems (his), counseling with clergy and a secular therapist, and a renewing of our vows. I don't want to leave him and I fervently hope and work toward an eventual forgiveness for what I've done. The problems we are having now revolve around our sex life together. My husband is still emotionally crushed and needs me to give him some form of sexual release every day. I don't have a problem with this -- I do it gladly. But he won't reciprocate; in fact he actually "makes love" to me on the average of about twice a month (in a good month). His reason is that it hurts him too much to bring me to orgasm because of what I've done to him.

This is starting to feel like an extended punishment. I've told him how much I miss making love with him and try everything I know to be desirable (I work out six days a week and take care of my appearance), but he says I should just be happy with what affection he is able to show me and any complaining just makes me more "unlovable." I am sadder every day and feeling very undesirable and depressed. Is there anything I can do to change this situation or am I doomed to a one-sided relationship -- giving love but not receiving it -- from the one man I truly love in this world?


Dear Unlovable,

This is all about getting over anger and hurt, as no doubt the clergy and counselor have pointed out. He's still mad at you. He's punishing you. What is it going to take for him to forgive you and move on? You say you renewed your vows? Did that bring an authentic sense of renewal, or was it merely a hopeful exercise? Where is that light, loving, happy feeling? Did your one mistake truly crush that? Perhaps you are feeding his self-righteous anger by acceding to his desire for a "sexual release" every day. There is something troubling about that, as if, because you enacted a moment of sexual freedom you must now do penance by acting as a sexual slave. This kind of negotiation on your part does not sound promising, because you are not two states negotiating trade.

You need to find your way back to the magic, to the light, free, happy state of unfettered and willing love. I can't tell you how to do that -- it's a mysterious state -- but just envisioning it might help. Can you remember what it was like before this terrible dark thing interceded? Can you feel in your body what it was like to be untroubled and carefree with your husband? Can you just try to be that way, regardless of what happens? Perhaps if you can dedicate yourself to embodying that old, unmarred delight in his company, he will gradually give up his resentment and need to punish and control you. Or perhaps not. But if he can't, you're never going to be happy.

It's revealing that you felt you had to tell your husband about this in the first place. My feeling about such things is that you sometimes do more harm than good by telling, as is apparent in what you have described. Had you simply taken it upon yourself to protect your husband and your relationship by privately enduring whatever guilt you felt, rather than running to your husband for absolution and/or punishment, you might have averted much of this chaos and pain. It is possible to make mistakes, after all, and move on, without creating a larger drama. But, anyway, I wish you luck.

Dear Cary,

I (female) am about to start a Ph.D. program based in a company. My (male) partner took a research job at this same company after rejecting other Ph.D. programs. He is loath to do literature reviews. He is loath to write. He's been telling me for months how happy he is not to be in a Ph.D. program.

But now, just when he told his boss that I am starting a doctoral program, his boss, who had never offered him a Ph.D. slot before, suddenly asked him why he doesn't consider doing a Ph.D. too. He called his sister for advice, and she asked him if he wouldn't feel bad if I had a Ph.D. and he didn't. I get what's going on ...

He wants my advice about doing this program. I'm too angry to give him advice. I won't respect him at all if he suddenly changes what he wants because a bunch of backlashers think he's a buffoon if he doesn't match my degree. But he seems to really be considering the option. I am in the firm grip of a power struggle. Help!

Fighting Off Backlashers

Dear Fighting,

What's wrong with him getting a Ph.D. too? Why can't your ambition serve as an example to him? Why do you insist that he stay one rung below you on the ladder? Imagine the reverse situation: A husband is about to pursue a Ph.D. program; the wife has always expressed a lack of interest, or a dread, of such an undertaking. But the wife's brother, and her employer, suggest she give it a try anyway, and she thinks, well, if my husband can do it, why can't I? Wouldn't it be rather heartless and cruel of the husband to try to stop his wife from such an undertaking?

Have you considered what signals your "partner" would be giving his boss if he didn't take the hint about the Ph.D.? Wouldn't he be signaling to his boss that he doesn't really care to advance, to become more valuable to the company, to increase his skills and expertise? Wouldn't that be a kind of slow professional suicide? Maybe he finally realized that his work life isn't about doing what he enjoys, but doing what he can to contribute. On the other hand, perhaps what you're really saying is that your partner has demonstrated that he has no spine, that he's a copycat, a worm, a striving, conniving operator and not a free thinker, unbowed by boss and academy and unimpressed by fancy degrees. If that's what this moment means, then perhaps it's all over between you.

But you really ought to dig deep in yourself and be sure. What else is going on here? Have you fallen in love with the idea of being the one with the Ph.D. in the family? Does it diminish your accomplishment if your husband does it, too? Are you not strong enough to share the stage? Somewhere deep in your heart, where you carry the dreams you never say out loud -- I am not attempting to belittle you here, but I am asking you to drop your defenses for a moment and honestly assess your inner hopes -- do you imagine yourself as a hero for women? Do you see yourself declaring your independence, breaking away from the family mold? And does your partner's desire to emulate you feel like encroachment, or copying, almost like the unwanted imitation of a sibling, perhaps?

There are more important matters here than your own desire to see yourself in a certain way, to be unique and impressive. You can still be a hero for women. But you may have to share the stage. That's what having a "partner" is all about. The question is: Is this a man you could proudly share the stage with? Or is he just riding on your coattails?

Dear Cary,

About four years ago I ended a relationship that symbolizes the lowest period of my life. Both my girlfriend and I were addicts, and after several attempts to rehabilitate together, it became clear that she didn't really want the change. I ended the relationship and proceeded to sort myself out on my own. I've been clean since then, and in the past year have finally felt ready to date again.

I know I messed up my body pretty good, but to my dismay I'm discovering that the consequences of my past vices have manifested specifically as a more-than-usual impotence. Also, there seems to be a psychological correlation tied to the fact that we used to make love exclusively involving drugs and (toward the end) pornography. I hesitate to use the word "love," but I still believe there was something honest and tender beneath the wreck we had made of things. Now, I'm not willing and can't risk finding out if drugs (prescription or otherwise) would bring back some performance. But I've verified that pornography does, though I'm reluctant to introduce this to any future relationship. I sure hope there's some other way.

I haven't mentioned any of these specifics to any recent girlfriends and subsequently all of these relationships have ended before becoming anything more than short-term.

In a new relationship, how do I broach the circumstances of my problem as the time arrives when physical intimacy is normally expected?

Nearly F.U.B.A.R. (in my mid-20s)


Face it, if you're an addict in recovery, you've already got enough issues. I wouldn't start wishing you were normal all of a sudden, even after four years. It can take twice that time to get even halfway normal. Sheesh, and you're so young, you probably never had a sex life without the drugs.

Remember that moment of clarity when quitting the drugs became more important than the girlfriend or the scintillating underground lifestyle or the clothes or the rock-star thinness or even those increasingly brief flashes of medicated OK-ness? What you need to do is cultivate that memory, carry it with you, relive it, act it out in your daily life. Because that moment is the sexiest and most attractive thing about you: that you quit bullshitting long enough to get clean. Now you're flirting with bullshit again. You're thinking maybe there's a con you can use to get over with a woman. Banish the thought. That way lies madness and death, asylums and jails. So be utterly, utterly frank, without expectation of understanding or sympathy or anything. Admit your fear as you admit it to yourself, without sentimentality, just as frankly as you'd admit that your grandmother was Swedish. That is, not with any shame attached, but just as one more fact in your dossier. If you're an addict, you've got issues, but that doesn't have to be a huge group therapy moment. It's just part of who you are.

I would also consider your overall regimen of fitness, just for your general well-being and also, tangentially, for your sexual performance. Exercise regularly and eat lots of fruit and vegetables.

By the way, the link between addiction and pornography is a fascinating one: instantaneous, worry-free access to the id, to feeling; the messy and chaotic material of the unconscious neatly packaged as tits and ass; or as needle and spoon; or as a bottle and a pocketful of cash: that endless highway of insular well-being stretching out before us as long as we've got the materials at hand to channel our discomfort. But the discomfort is existential and eternal, and until you accept that every day, you're likely to be buying little baggies again real soon.

Cary Tennis

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