Big issues, big answers

Not enough sex, too much sex -- and what to do with a man who insists on baby talk with his teen girls?

By Cary Tennis
Published July 9, 2002 7:37PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I recently married a very good man, and we have been fairly happy for the past two years. However, I am having a problem with his parenting style. He has two daughters from a previous marriage, ages 15 and 12. They stay with us every other weekend, which is fine. However, he insists on reading them a bedtime story before they go to sleep and then tucking them in with a goodnight kiss. They seem to enjoy it, but they do regress and talk baby talk with a high-pitched voice, lisp, batting the eyelashes, pouting, etc.

This really annoys me. We have talked about it, but he hangs on to this ritual like it is the Holy Grail. These girls wear bras and use eye shadow, for Pete's sake! He fawns over them and talks to them like they are 5 years old. It makes me want to throw up. I thought that they would grow out of this infantile behavior (hubbie included), but it is just not happening. I have two children of my own from a previous marriage. They are now grown and living on their own, so I am not a stranger to child rearing. I am by nature an affectionate person, but this is just too icky for me. What is your take on the situation?


Dear Icky,

I'm rather charmed by the situation. I grieve for the sweetness of my childhood, and this sounds unutterably sweet to me. These kids have been through a divorce and maybe some of their childhood got lost and maybe it's comforting for them to revert a little. Maybe it's the best part of their dad that they're getting and they don't want to let it go yet. They'll grow up, just maybe not as quickly as you think they should. Eventually they will! And then you'll wish for those icky sweet girls.

But how can I help you get over your revulsion? Hmmm. Learning to be cheerfully wrong might help. Could you keep your revulsion but categorize it as a cheerfully perverse and wrongheaded revulsion that is yours unashamedly and yours alone? Say it's like my revulsion for U2. They make me want to throw up. I'm reasonably certain that they're the most bombastic and annoying rock band in the world. But the people I love, love U2. So I let it go because I love them. I don't say anything about it. Love them, love U2. Or at least: Love them, shut up about U2. Love him, love his daughters. Or at least shut up about it.

When the daughters tell him to stop, he'll probably stop. Maybe then he'll come and read you a bedtime story, tuck you in and give you a kiss.

Dear Cary,

One of my close friends was bemoaning the fact that the man she lives with and loves never takes her out anymore and has ceased to be any fun. I've had the same thing happen. They no sooner move in than all of a sudden we're spending every night on the couch watching lame television. The sex life takes a nose dive too. They want you to do their laundry and cook for them at all times of the day and night, and going out to dinner never enters their mind as simply a gracious way of saying "thank you" for all you do and I don't.

How do you get men to continue being romantic, thoughtful and passionate after you've known them for a while?

Taking a Break

Dear Taking a Break,

Although I rather think that the opportunity to spend every night on the couch watching lame television is one of Western civilization's highest achievements, I will nonetheless offer some concrete suggestions.

If you say to your mate that he never takes you out anymore, he is likely to counter by saying that he did indeed take you out three weeks ago Thursday; he might add that on that particular evening you were no bowl of cherries either. Then you will be engaged in a side battle whose exertions may well exhaust you before you reach the matter that truly requires discussion: What can each of you do to make the other happier? For that is indeed the ball of wax. That is why you are together.

What makes one happy is gifts. If one has to give detailed instructions about what to buy, it's not like a gift; it's a joint purchase. So what you have to do is get across the general idea that he can make you happy by making arrangements all on his own to take you out and show you a good time. If you make it clear that if he does this, he stands to benefit by also having a good time, and that these mutual good times might lead to further enhanced good times at home together, he might get the idea.

Perhaps it seems to you that men should know these things already when they arrive from the factory. Perhaps you think that men's nature, because it arrives at your door preset in a certain way, cannot be reset, that you can't get in there and adjust the knobs, that you'll break him. But I would say that, frankly, we like our knobs reset. Men's behavior can be continuously modified by simple stimulus and response mechanisms that you can build into the relationship in your spare time!

The worst thing of all is having a woman walking around the house grumbling when we're trying to watch a rerun of "The Rockford Files" and she makes you miss the dialogue where the tough guy in the Buick Regal with the pointy collar and the herringbone jacket is telling the other tough guy that Rockford's no bank auditor, he's a P.I. and he'll have to be eliminated. If a man can prevent that desultory scenario by simply every so often surprising you with a night out, once he gets the cost-benefit picture, he'll come around.

Either that or he's really a dummy.

Dear Cary,

Here's one that I fear will apply to a lot of your readers, so why not kill many birds with a single stone: What do you do when the person you've been with for 10 years, and love like your own blood, inspires absolutely no sexual desire in you? Is it shallow to want that passion, and should one therefore tough it out? Or is denying the physical self a sure path to ruin at some point -- meaning, of course, that a breakup is the only solution? I know there's no answer to this question, really, but a perspective would be much appreciated. There's a lot of love, but no passion; it's almost like being siblings, and I don't know if that's enough.

Brother Man

Dear Brother Man,

Get yourself a cup of coffee, America, and settle back. This is going to be a long one.

My general perspective is that all the elements of a relationship coexist and compete along a continuum in a fluid and shifting way. Sex, love, friendship, kinship, dependence, attraction, all these attachments and desires graze in the relationship like animals in an ecosystem; like economic actors in a marketplace, they build places for themselves, they trade and produce. As well, they're buffeted by external forces like the need for money, housing, cleanliness, an automobile, social status, belonging. They're buffeted by hunger, fear of death, physical health, all these things. It's really a big soup!

Now, maybe the sex in your relationship is truly gone. That happens. That's why we have divorce. Sometimes the sex dies and nothing can revive it. But more often, the sex in a relationship is simply competing for nourishment against all the other voracious actors in the relationship economy. I think the only way to find out is to try to revive it. If, after numerous resuscitation attempts, it's still lying there unmoving, pale, cold to the touch, then it's dead. In that case you, my unfortunate friend, are going to wish you were Italian. But most likely, what you're dealing with is the gradual displacement of sex in the hierarchy of mutual needs and relationship events.

There are a lot of ways to look at it, but let's just take this one: Why not look at it in terms of cost-benefit? Why not ask, What would it cost to improve your sex life, and how great would the benefit be? To start with, what would it cost to first simply elevate sex in importance in your relationship so you could get your significant other onboard? Say you wanted to make sex the most important thing in your relationship? Could you lobby your significant other to get her onboard for that? What would that take? That alone might take you to the brink of divorce! Think of all the worms in the can! You mean sex is not good now? You don't love me? Why don't you love me? Are you having an affair? I've seen the way you look at my sister!

But let's back up even from that point: What would be the ideal sex life? Every day? Twice a day? Would three times a week do it for you? What, exactly, are you looking for? If you wanted to make sex the most important thing in the relationship, you might discover that even an incremental change would be quite costly in terms of effort, mutual understanding, counseling, etc. It's not like you couldn't do it, but it might be easier and less expensive to get a hooker.

But suppose you could make your life a sex-centered life, so that sex becomes the one thing you're really good at, so it's the one thing you know you've got going. Suppose you could do it. Why don't you?

I think the reason more people don't do this becomes clear if you look at your relationship as an economic model. Then you see the enormous range of competing desires and competing entertainments made possible by our society's remarkable productive capacity and our vaunted talent for creating amusement and diversion. Those entertainments and diversions may themselves emerge out of our fear of sex and our own bodies, and our constant desire to escape the spiritual vacuity of capitalism, but be that as it may, they're competing for your desires, your allegiance, your dollar and your time. True, many rather expensive entertainments, such as movies, rock concerts, the opera, professional sports, title fights on pay-per-view, violin lessons, etc., still do not have the physiological payoff of sex. But neither do they carry its risk. Your TV may not enlighten you, but it will not reject you either! Your food may not cause orgasm, but it will be dependably rewarding.

Sex, on the other hand, is the garden of delights that lies beyond the jungle of deepest fears. You have to go there if you want it. It's not going to come to you. But you don't always really want to go there, do you? Especially, in the marriage household, when you don't know who you'll find there. You might find yourself! You might find your sister! (You mentioned her first, not me!)

It's not like there's something wrong with you because you've allowed certain competing entertainments to tap some of your resources. You might even say that as a relationship grows it becomes more sophisticated, and while sex is still a great thing to do, our appetites become variegated and rarefied: We suddenly find it necessary to have a nice briefcase! What is that about? Suddenly we have to hear some Mozart, or Cole Porter, or Coleman Hawkins, right now! We need, absolutely need, to see the Gerhard Richter exhibit at the MOMA. What I'm saying is that the wonderful civilizing and stabilizing effect of a long-term relationship is that once the basic needs are met, all kinds of more refined appetites can afford to assert themselves. You create emotional security for yourself and next thing you know you're learning French! Why? Because we have infinite capacities as humans, and sex is just one of the magic buttons you can push. I mean, sure, if you're poor you can always fuck. It's free to fuck your wife, in pure dollars -- except of course for the contraceptive costs, and then, if no contraceptives, the potentially enormous costs of raising kids. It's basically a good free entertainment. And maybe if you lost your job, your friends, your car, your TV, your kitchen, your dogs, your guitar, your paints, your violin, and had no friends and it was just you and her, maybe you would fuck a lot more. But does that make sense?

All I'm saying is if the sex isn't great in your relationship you can change that but there's a cost. How much would you pay? A hundred dollars? Two hundred and fifty dollars? Of course, with prostitutes you're paying for certain other costs -- the cost of concealment, the cost of illegality. What if you tried to pay your wife? Would she take it? Or would that be some kind of sin? Would she be insulted? Why? Because prostitutes are bad women? Because we don't publicly venerate their skills, although they make more per hour than many lawyers?

Are you trying to have kids? Why are you fucking? That's the other question. For a guy, fucking is about attainment. Once you've attained, where's the attaining? This boner is for attainment? Who's available to attain? We want to attain something! Maybe if our wives made it scarcer, we'd fight harder to get it. (Maybe not. Don't want to find out.) Maybe if there was a threat from competition. See, I think a lot of us guys when we settle down we want security; we want someone we can trust, we go for a sure thing. But then there's no competition, so we lose our edge, our nasty possessiveness, our cunning and guile, our good grooming, our weight control: Because we've got it! But what have we got? Maybe we haven't got the erotic thing we thought we were getting because we were kidding ourselves about the relationship between eroticism and security. Can they mix? What we really wanted, maybe, was security, safety, a harbor in the storm of life, and the way to acquire that was sex! Maybe sex was only a means to an end, only we can't admit it, or we don't want to!

The fact is, when you get right down to it, in our culture, good sex between men and women in committed relationships is not that important, is it? If it were, wouldn't we have more traditional institutional support for good sex? Wouldn't the president be urging us to have more sex? Wouldn't we have sex church on Sunday? Wouldn't we have sex synagogue and sex mosque and sex temple? We're not a sexy society. We're a theocracy. On one hand, we've got church. On the other hand, all we've got is Esalen and Good Vibrations.

Couldn't we elect a president who could go out on a limb and just say, "America, we're not screwing enough! More screwing!" Maybe that's what President Clinton was trying to tell us! Screw more big-haired bimbos! That's what we need! Under the desk, you! What is wrong with us? I'll tell you what's wrong with us, we're still a Protestant, Calvinist, workaholic, techno-warrior culture and sex is fine for making babies but pleasure doesn't feed the bulldog. And every week the letters pour in: I'm in a great relationship all except the sex.

I get so many letters about the sex not being good in long-term relationships that I'm sort of fed up. Why don't we just all stay in bed this Sunday and screw! We work too hard the rest of the week. On Saturday you rest, you recuperate, you recoup your vital juices. On Sunday you go at it like dogs. Why not? America, I challenge you to screw!

Dear Cary

I have been in an absolutely wonderful relationship for a year now. We are insanely attracted to each other, have very similar personalities and interests and our conflicts are few and far between.

Recently, I have become somewhat concerned that he may be wishing I were someone else. Our only basic differences are that he has a postgraduate education and has traveled extensively, whereas these are all things I desperately want to do. The contrasts in our family lives are the main reason that he has had all of these wonderful opportunities, while I am having to pay my own way for everything, and still trying to scrape the money together.

I do not harbor any animosity toward him due to his great luck -- but I fear that he wants a woman who is overly educated and worldly, not one who merely wants to be. Just because I have not had all of these opportunities, yet am working to do so, is that a fundamental character conflict? Of course I can't talk about my wonderful experiences in Lithuania, but one day I will be able to. Are common interests as good as common experiences?

Getting There, in Minneapolis

Dear Getting There,

The feeling I get is that you see yourself in a subordinate position. Why have you handed him all the cards? Do you feel socially inferior? The cold reality of the situation is that class privileges do matter. The only way to even them out is by finding the strength within yourself to make demands not based on privilege but on rights and on the sheer power of your own personality. I know that sounds sort of p.c. or revolutionary, but all I really mean is having some pride and some backbone. If you feel that he's dissatisfied with you or he's going to dump you or something, challenge him on it. Find out how he feels. If there is a deep class difference, if he wants a woman from his own economic class, challenge him. Tell him that the strength you bring to the relationship comes from "coming up hard," as they say on "The Wire": from having to make your own way in the world, and having to gain insights about it for your own survival. Tell him that you have a kind of strength that privileged, overly educated women are not likely to have. Offer to be his life partner, if that's what you want. Tell him what you want from him: that you want the kind of experiences he has had, that you want him to share his life with you. And then plan a trip with him. Make it concrete. Privileged guys have too many options; you have to pin them down.

And then, if he doesn't get it, if he dithers, dump him like what's left of the yard sale. If you don't, if you stick around waiting for him to change, he'll probably dump you. What you need is a man who will stake his life on you, who would take a bullet for you, who's ready for you now, who, if he had the money, would take you to Mount Kilimanjaro in an afternoon if you asked him to. That's what you need. If you lay it on the line with this guy, and he won't stake his life on you, I would be cold about it and figure that, however lovely your relationship is now, he's just another privileged dilettante and there's no real future.

Dear Cary,

It seems like every time I read an advice column or magazine article about romantic relationships, sex is involved. Everyone writing for advice feels the need to mention that sex is great or terrible or whatever the case may be. Doesn't anyone else out there have a relationship that doesn't involve sex? I'm not being judgmental here, but I'm starting to feel like I'm the only person who puts sex off until marriage, and that seems like a pretty big difference as far as dispensing advice goes. It just seems like it's expected that everyone has sex with their girlfriend or boyfriend, that no one is a virgin when they're married. I can't figure out if it's really that way or not, but I'm starting to feel alone. Am I living in the past with this decision?

Waiting Alone

Dear Waiting Alone,

Hats off to you. You not go, girl! Just don't do it! Go from it!

Who cares what other people seem to be doing. No sex before marriage is a big tradition. Fathers dig it. Mothers dig it. Preachers dig it. They talk it up in churches. It's cheap birth control. The liberal intelligentsia don't really believe it exists, but, shockingly, we have to take it on the evidence that it does.

It's great to know there is at least one person in the universe from whom I'm not going to get a letter saying that the relationship is great all except the sex. Seriously, there are probably a lot more people abstaining until marriage than you would think judging from this column. The crowd that writes in here is pretty self-selecting on the pro-sex end of the scale. This is, after all, the site.

You might feel quite alone with your decision, but that's no reason to change your mind. If you know in your heart it's what you want, please don't let social pressure dissuade you. The beauty of sexual freedom is that you get to make your own choices.

Cary Tennis

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