I'm happily married. Great husband, two kids, dog, house, lawn, the whole show. The problem? Sex, of course. Specifically, its frequency. We've been together for 13 years, married for seven. And this problem has been around ever since those first heady months wore off and we got back into real life. I often feel like the best analogy for my level of sexual desire is that it's like a well. It takes a certain number of days to refill after use. Of course my husband's takes about half as much time to fill as mine.
I'm perfectly happy at about a 10-day frequency. If I can wait that long, sex is fun, joyful, adventuresome, fabulous, satisfying, all those things it should be. There's a whole bath in the well, enough to have a good-size water fight. At seven days, I'm not unwilling, but only mildly interested. Let's say there's a bucket or two. At five days, I can dredge up a teaspoon or two, if I really work at it. Sex for me then is work. It's hard. It's not much fun for me or him, but I'm doing my best.
My husband operates on a completely different schedule. At five days, he's beginning to gnaw the furniture. His "well" was full a day or two ago. At seven days, he's frustrated and nearing angry and feeling rejected. His well has overflowed all over the floor. At 10 days, he feels like I don't love him anymore and things are seriously wrong.
We have so many other things that are right with us. We really do love each other. We laugh at the same jokes. We have terrific kids. We know the foibles of each other's families. We have great friends, and similar financial goals. We've never cheated on each other. The only bump in the road is this one, and it's big. He's resorted to Internet porn occasionally, which he swears he's not really interested in, he'd much rather have me, but I'm not available as often as he wants. Maybe it's my upbringing, but I can't stand the idea of scantily clad Barbie women lurking in his mind, in my mind, in our home, making me wonder if he thinks about them instead of about me, an over-35, few-too-many-pounds, full-time working mom with no time and two kids. I feel violated and betrayed, and we've had the most serious fights of our relationship over this. I just can't seem to go there.
We've been to counseling, and it didn't seem to help much. If there was Viagra for women, I'd take it.
He thinks (great fantasy for a guy, isn't it) that the answer is oral sex for him when I'm not interested. Um, no. I really don't enjoy it all that much. Like not much at all. We do it once in a while, but I'm really not up for this as a regular thing.
Am I a prude? Am I in the wrong here? I always come away thinking there's something wrong with me, that I'm the one with the problem. And any ideas to fix all this? And this problem has been with us before kids, before we had a dog and a house and a yard to mow, back when we were carefree and young and lived in an apartment with no responsibilities. Getting a cleaning service (we did) or a nanny, or a dog-walker, or whatever doesn't really seem to change anything.
The Woman With the Slow-filling Well
Dear Slow Filler,
I don't know if there is any way to "fix" this "problem," but in the course of doing the things I suggest, you may come to feel that, whether your situation has objectively changed or not, it becomes less of a problem for you.
I would urge you first to educate yourself about yourself by visiting your doctor and by reading widely on the subject of human sexuality. If you don't have a doctor who displays a broad, humanistic interest in human sexuality, find one. Referral sources for such a doctor might include the counselor you mention you have seen, as well as intimate friends and any sex-positive organizations you may have in your area. Find out as much as you can about how sexual desire arises, what role hormones play, what role cardiovascular health, age, diet and exercise play. Get information about yourself in all these areas, so you know where you fit in the normal range of humanity.
Then, having gathered enough information to profile yourself, I would urge you to seek to honor your own psychology, your own spirit, to trust your instincts. Armed with knowledge, we must struggle to simply accept who we are sexually. Your well takes 10 days to fill up. That's marvelous. Your husband's well fills up quicker. That's fine. So be it. So let him masturbate! Why did he go and tell you he masturbates to Internet porn, though? Didn't he know that would stick in your craw, that it would tick off some reptile-brain thing? Why, who knows, but it's a fact: Most women I dare say cannot abide the thought of their husbands looking at porn and masturbating.
But if you do love your husband as you say you do, maybe you need to try to live with this thing and accept that everybody, not just your husband, has an unattractive side: We men aren't evil; we just fill up faster than you do. And we can't help looking at porn. It calls to us like the sirens called to Ulysses! We are weak!
I also must say that I am not an expert on sex. I am a writer, a humanist, an idealist, and a person of enormous faith in the power of honest, fearless self-disclosure and study. Self-knowledge in all areas is an end in itself. Keep talking about it and don't let it become some weird, festering source of resentment. Nibble away at it.
The more I read letters like yours (and believe me you are not alone) the more I believe that we wall sex off too much. We make it this little secluded area of study, divorced from science and spirituality; divorced, too, from health in general, and from other sensual pursuits, from art, from music, from movies, from food.
We are obsessively concerned with sex as a discrete, defined thing walled off from the flow of life, ghettoized, shut away into Internet porn channels and dark strip clubs and at the same time celebrated in a flash of tits here and a flash of ass there, so we -- men at least -- are alternately stimulated and scolded, tempted and slapped, until we retreat, like abused children, into a kind of sulky abandon, or we sneak a furtive jerk-off like guilty schoolboys having a smoke behind the gym, or we lie awake dreaming of the unspeakable fantasies. It drives me wild and makes me sick, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's making all of us a little sick.
So on the one hand you get these unctuous sex-positive proselytizers practically dripping with KY jelly as they proclaim that sex is a normal part of life and we should not be frightened of it, we should not hide it. And some of us go Yuck, those people are crazy, sex is frightening, and if they don't think it's frightening they're missing something, and they cannot possibly help us. And sex is frightening and that's why you should study it: Have respect for it. It's frightening and weird; it is the mystery of life; it is the repository of our unconscious fears; it is the deep, dark well. So I say go sit in the well, like the character in Haruki Murakami's novel "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." It is interesting that you use that metaphor of the well. He is driven to sit in the bottom of the well because he needs the silence and the darkness.
Why can't we all be Italian or French? I do not know.
What is our problem? We are so sensitive! We are so nervous. We are so afraid that there is something wrong with us because of who we are! Why is it so frightening that the sexual frequency of one couple may be thrice weekly and another's thrice monthly and another's thrice yearly? Why is it so hard for us to simply accept what we feel and what we want? Well, of course, it's so frightening because our dissatisfaction with one another threatens the dissolution of our most primal bonds. If your husband is dissatisfied with you, might you fear that he would leave you? Or that he would seek satisfaction elsewhere? Of course. So what to do about that fear? Fret nervously? Allow your fear like a cancer to grow, like a tumor of anger to overtake your whole belly? What to do?
Live with the fear. Tell your husband what your fear is. Ask him if he is going to leave you because you disagree about the frequency of sex. Ask him to be truthful. Ask him if he sometimes wants to leave you. Maybe sometimes he does want to leave you. Maybe sometimes he thinks he'd like to shack up with some voracious tramp who works in a bait shop.
I think over hundreds of years men and women have learned to follow a don't ask/don't tell policy about some of these things. So, keep talking about these things, but try to live with them; and just leave some of these things alone! Don't try to fix everything! Be more modest in your expectations. Seek some quiet time, some serenity, some acceptance of your life, some gratitude for what you have -- your children, your lawn, your dog, your husband's love for you.
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Want more advice from Cary? Read Friday's column.