Never a spark

My wife and I saved each other's life, but I've never been sexually attracted to her.

By Cary Tennis
August 14, 2003 11:24PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I'm 33 and my wife and I have been married for a year, after a year and a half of living together. My wife is probably the most intelligent woman I have ever met. She has a sharp and incisive mind, and though she tends to negative and pessimistic views, and has a bit of a temper, she can hold forth on any subject. She has helped me to better understand myself, to put distance between me and the horrible childhood I endured. In her youth she was a gymnast, and though she grew too tall for that, she retains a natural grace of bearing.


The problem: I'm just not sexually attracted to her. Never have been. Sure, there have been a few moments here and there where we had some very enjoyable encounters, but on the whole the sex has been abysmal. I don't want to get into the particulars, and I understand that it takes two to make bad sex, but still I'm just not aroused. They say sex is 90 percent mental and the brain is the most important sexual organ; if that is the case, why can't I get it to lust for this woman who has been wonderful for me? I get it to go to work every morning, which it often doesn't want to do, but it seems to have drawn the line on sex.

This absence of attraction isn't a new development -- it's been there since the beginning. At the time, I was so grateful to be learning that life didn't have to be an endless re-creation of the misery I grew up with, that I ignored the lack of attraction.

There are many other women I'm attracted to, just not her. I would rather not hurt her, but I don't want to subjugate my desires anymore. Is there any way to reconcile the two?



Dear Unreconciled,

The history of marriage is nearly as varied as the history of humankind. People marry for money, for care, for companionship, for therapy, for status, for land, for children, for houses, for television deals. People marry because they've been single so long it hurts. People marry because other people marry. People marry for love. People marry because it's hard to back away from the altar in a wedding dress.


In America, marriage is like Europe: People go there because they've never been there before. Of course, most people return home from Europe after a short visit, but they tend to stay in marriage quite a while. Besides marriage being a big commitment, there's the fact that in most marriages, when you arrive you already speak the language. Still, a certain percentage of Americans visit marriage but almost immediately return to their native soil, having decided that it was interesting to visit but no place to live, that the water tasted funny or gave them the runs, that the shopkeepers pretended not to understand them and gave them inferior biscuits.

Personally, I think it is unfortunate that there aren't a whole array of alternative marriages, like there are mortgages: There could be a five-year marriage, a 10-year, an adjustable, a fixed. After all, with a mortgage, they always ask you, How long do you plan to keep the house? But when you get a marriage license, they assume it's forever. That flies in the face of what we know to be true: People change; people make overly optimistic projections. Still, permanent marriage makes for a more stable society and that's probably why it's so enshrined in law and custom.


That said, of course, regardless of your inclinations and temperament, what you signed up for is the eternal and monogamous kind. It's the only kind they offer, so I understand. And I understand that when you meet someone who has a profound and life-changing effect on you, marriage seems the highest and most solemn tribute. But it does not seem just that you should have to sacrifice your whole sex life for it.

In some cases I have read about, couples who find that they are satisfied with their marriage except for the sex agree to loosen the strictures of their arrangement so that each partner can find satisfaction. This is a tricky business, and it is best done quietly and in private, but it is done. If you think you and your wife could come to terms about such a thing, I think you should try it. Obviously you married your wife because she brought immense personal benefits to you. It probably would have been a good idea to have a frank discussion with her ahead of time about the sex. But better late than never. If you say to your wife that you love her but you don't find her sexually attractive, she may consider the marriage essentially over at that point. Sometimes that is the price of truth. You must weigh all that you have gained against the likelihood that your marriage will crumble under the weight of this admission.

The thing is, you seem to have been, in a sense, rescued by your wife. You were in some turmoil and pain, and you found her like a drowning man finds a life raft, and she shared her fresh water with you and covered you from the sun. What she wanted from you in return is also a question worth asking. Some women rescue men like puppies, out of sentimental impulse. Some women rescue men as an investment, like a carpenter rescues a shack on a good piece of land. Some women fall in love with a wounded man, and they accept his wounds like their own. Usually it's a combination of these things.


You, the rescued victim, the downed pilot, now that you've grown strong again, you owe her something. What that is, you have to find out.

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Cary Tennis

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