Passion poison

My husband used to make me feel like the sexiest woman alive. Now his idea of seduction is "Wanna do it tonight?"

By Cary Tennis

Published October 22, 2002 7:41PM (EDT)

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Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been married for nearly eight years. We have a preschool-age son and another baby due in a few weeks. We have a wonderful marriage, and he's an excellent (quite nearly perfect) partner in all areas but one -- the seduction.

When my husband is feeling amorous, he usually communicates this with the oh-so-romantic line, "Wanna do it tonight?" He will make this proposal while looking at his e-mail or sweeping the floor or some activity equally unrelated and unsexy. At times he shows even less finesse, pointing to his crotch, tilting his head and whining about how horny he is. This makes me roll my eyes and want to run in the other direction. My usual response is, "Gee, no thanks." If I am trying to be a good sport (or if he has been a nice guy lately), I will follow up with, "How about another blow job, honey?" This takes only five to 10 minutes of effort on my part and will get him to shut up for a few days, but it is always followed by the same lousy approach later.

He was so wonderfully flirtatious earlier in our relationship. He could really make me feel like the sexiest, most beautiful woman alive. Why is he so lazy now? I have tried to tell him that his standard line isn't working for me, but I don't think the message is coming across. And I don't think it's just because I'm pregnant now, because this has been an issue for some time (as I recall, even before our first child was born). When we actually do have sex, it is great for both of us. But it is ridiculously infrequent, and I have to really focus to get into it, because my husband has not done anything to help me get in the mood.

I have asked a couple of my most trusted girlfriends about this, and I was surprised to hear that they had experienced this in either their current or past relationships. Is this just a guy thing? Are all men like this?

You've Gotta Be Kidding

Dear Gotta Be Kidding,

His approach does sound crude, but the pattern you describe is so pervasive that it's probably not fair to single him out. Reluctant as some of us are to admit it, domesticity, for all its benefits, can be passion poison. We accept it gladly because we want safety and routine, we want comfort and security, we want to raise kids and keep order in society and care for someone we love. But it's poison nonetheless.

The routine of life in a busy house gives birth to a kind of distracted emotional shorthand, a system of spiritual triage. Sonnets are reduced to Post-its on the refrigerator. Whatever is most urgent is what gets our attention, and romance gets neglected in favor of money, education, housing and other immediate concerns.

Bit by bit we get careless. We make short-term decisions that have long-term consequences. We have little unsatisfying moments whose sting lingers and works to further erode the passion that once was the life-giving center of the relationship. And all the time this is happening, the relationship is moving inexorably forward, developing a language, a collection of habits and a context all its own.

Sometimes you have to break the routine. It helps to get away somewhere, to be reminded of why you're together. And it helps to find a way to reintegrate the act of making love into the larger realm. I'm not sure quite how to explain how to do that, but if you break the routine that's killing the romance, the romance seems to reemerge, like a plant that's been deprived of what it needed.

You can go to counseling too, if you can't break the routine on your own, or if you're lost and can't focus, or if you're lost and he can't focus. You can use more candles at dinner and turn off the TV. You can send the kids to camp. You can camp yourself, in the back yard. But there's no doubt that being a couple in America and working for a living can drain your once consuming passion until the dark, wild and ageless drama of seduction is reduced to a snapping of the fingers and a pointing at the crotch. There is no simple solution. It's a fact. It's the way we live. It's who and what we are.

We ought to be better. But we're not. We're Americans, we rule the world, and we go to sleep hungry, restless and alone.

Dear Cary,

I've been living with my boyfriend for the last two and a half years. We live in a city where housing prices often force premature cohabitation, and as I was the one with the apartment, it was my concession, early on, to agree to live together, and I suspect that this planted a kernel of resentment that has seeped its poison steadily throughout our time together. Both of us have issues with depression and substance abuse as a way to mitigate that. He binge-drinks and socializes widely in the neighborhood, while I tend to stay closer to home and smoke weed by myself or with a few close friends. I go out with him sometimes too, and our societies of friends are very intermingled. We are a very public couple.

I want to change patterns of consumption that I think are leading to an unstable home economy. I'm 31 with a salaried job, some debt I think I could get a handle on if I stopped getting stoned, and he's 33, a freelance artist, with steady design gigs but sporadic checks that don't quite cover his half of expenses -- or they would if they didn't cover quite so many rounds at our locals. He has tried A.A., but isn't willing to go back, and of course I can't force him to.

Our level of intimacy and tenderness is rare for a gay couple nearly three years into a relationship. We've gone through so much together and have both been transformed by the relationship. But just recently we had a fight when he returned in the wee hours, drunk and ranting in the other room about a fight we'd left dangling before he went out without me because at the last minute I decided I would hang back rather than go out in public while an argument was unresolved. He continued ranting until dawn, in the other room. I lay in bed, my stomach in knots -- again -- until he petered out on the living room sofa.

When I said that the relationship wasn't working, he immediately took an aggressive stance and began dictating the negotiations of the split. I was huddled in a corner sobbing. Then he was "comforting" me and saying that he was a terrible partner and that I'd be better off without him. We settled into affectionate holding of each other in bed, each crying, in turn. We ordered Chinese, cried some more, watched TV. I began to cave.

Before our latest two and a half years, we had a six-month stint together that I also blurted out a call to end, but when a few months later we saw each other at a party, I caved and within a matter of days he was living with me.

Are we going to be Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, forever splitting and coming together? What can you do with a dysfunctional system that seems so familiar that it is both the torture and the comfort? Should we bite the bullet and separate?

Hate Closure

Dear Hate Closure,

You probably cannot change without outside help; it would be like trying to perform an appendectomy on yourself. Whatever you call it -- recovery, healing, therapy, enlightenment, growing up, whatever -- you're going to have to undertake it with some outside help.

You can get through this. It will be painful, but you've already begun to see your situation. Describing it clearly is a great beginning. The fact that you know you're dealing with depression, that you know your substance abuse is related to that and to your economic problems, and that you have written to someone for help are all powerful evidence that you're on the road to change. I think the next thing you need to do is go somewhere where you and your partner can sit down every week with someone who can help guide you through this. I know what you're talking about, and I just don't think you can make much progress alone.

And if your partner isn't willing to commit to such a project, I think it would be best if you moved apart. That doesn't mean you have to break up. If you still want to be together, you can be. But the kind of work you need to do can't be done if your partner is living with you but unwilling to participate. When economic conditions play a role in cohabitation, there's a temptation to be there just for convenience. That won't work. He has to be committed to you for more than just the apartment. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Good luck. Let me know how it's going.

Dear Cary,

I'm 23 and in a satisfying, amazing relationship with a 40-year-old man. I graduated from college a year and a half ago, and during college I never had a serious boyfriend.

After graduation I moved to NYC and got a great full-time copywriting job. I have an immense amount of responsibility, no direct boss, and write and edit every letter of copy this retail company requires. And for many months no one here knew how old I was. I bring up work because it is a part of my life that makes me feel older than I am.

For a year after I arrived in New York, I ran around relishing being an attractive, young single woman in the city. But then I met Ben. I wrote him off at first because I thought I wasn't attracted to him and I'd been in a fickle mode for so long. He suggested we hang out anyway and we did, and he was a gentleman -- we just had fun. But as time passed and I got to know him better, I realized I was falling for him.

He's in no way a typical 40-year-old. He's kind of a bohemian artist, has tons of energy, is insanely creative and very smart. In other words, I take him seriously. He's honest with me and seriously doesn't have any sort of younger-woman fetish. It doesn't at all feel like he's some older sugar daddy and I'm the young sex kitten. It feels balanced.

The problem that I've been ignoring is that I want very much to be with Ben, but not with someone who is 40. It's awkward merging our lives. I told half of my friends that he's 35. Lately, and suddenly, when I look at Ben I see his receding hairline and the flecks of gray around his temples. I'm most attracted to him when he's dressed "young" in dark, worn canvas pants and a hipster T-shirt, as opposed to a button-down shirt and jacket.

I think these feelings are coming up because he wants me to go home with him this weekend to meet his family in a city six hours away. I mumbled that the cable installer was coming on Saturday and I might have to be home for it (despite the fact that I have two roommates). Ben and I are emotionally, intellectually and physically compatible in a way I never really believed was possible, and it's so good for me to feel this. He claims it was love at first sight.

But how many levels does a relationship need to work on? What does being 40 mean?! I'm afraid if I talk to him about this (of course we've talked about it, but we're in love, have been gloriously happy, and not thinking seriously about ramifications), it will become an ominous, brooding stain, because there's no way to change things.

I trust you, Cary, and if you could give me a few words on your gut feelings I'd be extremely appreciative.

Rose-Colored Rift

Dear Rose-Colored,

My gut feeling is that it doesn't sound good. If his receding hairline and flecks of gray are bothering you already, I think the age difference may be too great. You're young. You're 23. You're just coming into your own as a woman. It's biology. Here's a guess: You may have fallen in love with him because he's the first emotionally mature man you've been with. But over the next few years, guys closer to your own age are also going to reach some level of emotional maturity, so you can combine hot physical attraction with those other qualities that come as a boy becomes a man.

If you stay with this 40-year-old guy, these little signals of his age may become more significant and burrow their way into your psyche because of the inevitable aging and loss of animal power that they represent. You may come to feel that you are trapped and losing out on youth. You're not even close to the point where such things no longer matter -- nor should you be! You're young! Take advantage of it! That's just my gut feeling, but that's what you asked for.

Dear Cary,

I am a 26-year-old single heterosexual male having an affair with a 36-year-old married female co-worker with two children, ages 8 and 11. This began four and a half months ago when I escalated our weeks-long flirting to a kissing/groping session in my office at 6:30 a.m. (we both arrive at the office early by choice). After 24 hours of anticipation, our first sexual encounter occurred in my office the next morning on my desk. All subsequent sex took place in my apartment over our lunch hour until three weeks ago.

Her motives for getting into this: 1) retribution against her husband, 39, who has cheated on her at least twice that we know of, most recently a year ago with a 22-year-old; 2) she has been cut off at home, since her husband now finds her completely undesirable; 3) the thrill of breaking a taboo/sneaking around -- her family is Hispanic, conservative, and very Catholic, so in her world, when the husband cheats, it's a nuisance, but when the wife cheats, it's a serious transgression; 4) attention from the only young, decent-looking guy in our 50-person office.

My motives are the obvious: no-strings sex with a woman I'm interested in.

Problem No. 1: She has grown increasingly insistent over the past three weeks that we fuck in the office. I have reluctantly indulged her in this, but I am getting very nervous. We have escaped detection so far through luck and caution -- neither of us has told anyone (I think), and we staged a public disagreement at work three weeks into our affair to further deflect suspicions. We are now very cold to each other at work, which, incidentally only makes the sex hotter for both of us. When confronted, she has admitted that the possibility of discovery gives her a taboo-shattering thrill.

Discovery of our tryst in the office would probably mean termination for both of us, and an expensive divorce and Stalingrad-like custody battle for her. On the occupational side, she views her job as nice but ultimately fungible because she is good with computers. My job is of the long-hours/high-pay variety (I'm in a senior, but not supervisory, position to her), and I am lucky to have it, and I doubt I could find another as good. On the home front, the possibility of a divorce and custody fight scares her so shitless that she can barely bring herself to think about it.

My point? I'm ready to cash in my chips here. We've had a nice run, and no one has gotten hurt (so far). However, when I raised the possibility of ejecting, she became agitated and not-so-subtly threatened to expose me at work. When I pointed out that this might have negative repercussions for her too, she claimed to have convinced herself that everyone at work could find out but she could still keep it from her husband and family, which strikes me as just plain coco-loco. (I think the prospect of being rejected and humiliated by her husband and me is very painful for her.)

Problem No. 2: (Get ready to suppress a groan) I'm a classic male commitment-phobe. I tend to pursue married and/or unavailable women because I have found that women are less eager to demand a husband and kids when they have them already. However, I'm worried that I'm starting to fall for her (despite her obvious mental instability), which kills me, of course, because I know that if I went public on her, she would deny everything. We've never discussed it, of course, because I can't bring myself to force her to lie to me or, even worse, tell me the truth.

Any practical advice on how to fuck in the office and escape detection? And any larger advice on a way to extricate myself from this mess that does not end with termination/divorce for her and termination/job at the supermarket for me?


Dear Adulterer,

I think you have to break it off with her immediately and take your chances. I don't think she'll expose you. Her threat is probably part of her erotic role-playing. If you remove the erotic element, the threat will probably evaporate. But if she does expose you, that's the price you have to pay, because this is about more than you and her. It's about her kids.

I have to say, in fact, that I think you're being unfair -- not to the woman you're fucking on your desk, but to her children, 8 and 11, whom you're using as a sort of a human shield. To maintain your own freedom, you've stacked the deck, buying immunity from commitment with the threat of a family tragedy. You're using her kids as insurance for your own personal amusement. I don't think it's admirable of you.

Do you understand how damaging it could be to a child to learn that the poverty she is enduring with her now single parent came about because her mother was fucking some man on his desk in his office and was discovered by the cleaning lady, or the security guard, or by her boss? Children do come to learn these things. The possible disruption and damage to her kids make your behavior verge on the criminally irresponsible.

So here is what I suggest: Meet with her privately away from the office and break it off with her. Stop arriving at work before others. Make sure the office is full of people when you arrive. Begin keeping your office door open all the time. Prop it open with bricks if necessary. If anyone asks, say it's for ventilation. If she enters your office, don't allow her to close the door.

And hope for the best.

Cary Tennis

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