The state of your unions

Straying, sexual dysfunction, traumatic vasectomies and other tales from the front lines of marriage.


Salon Staff
February 4, 2004 9:35PM (UTC)

An end to pain

My marriage is a story of first love, sexual dysfunction and hope.

When my husband and I met, we were both teenagers. We argued over politics and religion, started to date, fell into puppy love, and enjoyed a mostly innocent romance. We went our separate ways to attend college in different states. Several years later, we realized we were still in love, reunited, and decided to move in together.

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Neither of us had much sexual experience. We figured we'd learn together, and the prospect seemed sweet. Instead, our inexperience nearly proved to be our undoing. Because what I didn't know at the time was that I had vulvar vestibulitis, a condition that makes any kind of penetration painful. I expected sex to hurt the first time, so I didn't know my pain was unusual.

When my pain continued, I wasn't sure what to do. I didn't know that trying to "grin and bear it" could be a harmful strategy, and I absolutely didn't know how to treat a problem I had no name for and was too ashamed to tell anyone about.

So I buried it, and I buried our sex life with it. We thrived as a couple in many ways but never as lovers. I knew the lack of sex bothered him, but I failed to appreciate how much my rejections hurt him or how dangerous his unhappiness was. And when I did work up the courage to seek medical help, I twice had a gynecologist look me in the eyes, ask no questions, and tell me I needed to relax, light some candles, use a lubricant and make sure I got enough foreplay.

This useless advice only made me feel worse. Sex was almost always painful and was frequently impossible. And since I had been told the problem was in my head, I assumed the worst about myself. My libido disappeared, and I suspected that I was either phobic or frigid. I resisted almost all my husband's advances, and I could only see his desire through the filter of my own deficiency.

After years of not talking about the elephant in our bedroom, disaster struck: My husband came home one day and announced he wanted to split up. He agreed to counseling, but he was no longer committed to the marriage. I wanted to fix things; he was undecided. Worse, he was interested in someone else. Worse still, she was someone I knew and trusted, and she quickly cut off communication with me and acted against my marriage's interests. The combined shock of emotional abandonment and betrayal made me, for the first time in my life, wish I could die to end the pain.

But I'm not the suicidal or depressive type, so I collected myself and decided it was time to develop a Marshall Plan for personal happiness. To survive the crisis, I found new friends to go out with, leaned on my family, reconnected with old friends, and bought the kind of self-help books I usually mock. To prepare for the worst, I consulted an attorney. In hoping for the best, I continued the marriage counseling. And most important, I found a gynecologist who could diagnose and treat my condition so that, regardless of the outcome of my current marriage, history would not repeat itself in my future.

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It's been almost a year since my husband said he wanted out. We've had many ups and downs in this time, and we've both had moments when it seemed easier to quit than to stay together. We're still in counseling, but much has changed from those first miserable sessions. We now arrive at the therapist's office committed to the marriage and proud of the progress we've made in becoming a better, happier couple.

We are also enjoying an active sex life for the first time in our relationship. I'm not cured, but I am greatly improved and have been released from a horrible psychological burden. For the first time in my adult life, sex is something I enjoy and pursue with enthusiasm. For the first time in my relationship, sex is something that brings me closer to my partner.

Having weathered this crisis, it seems possible that we will forge a greater union as a result of it. I like to think that I have just begun my second marriage -- one I enter with more baggage than the first, but also with more wisdom. What I look forward to most is the day my husband and I can discuss the pain that recent events caused while feeling none of it. I have faith that that day is on the horizon.

-- Anonymous

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Goodbye heels, hello marriage

We've been together for four years, married 18 months. It finally feels a little more settled. We're not newlyweds anymore. I go through the mail before throwing him on the bed and taking his shirt off. I wonder how I can correct the way he holds his knife and fork before the babies come.

For the first year we were dating, I kept waiting for the fatal flaw to reveal itself. He's so great, but the parents must be monsters. Nope. He's so accomplished, but there must be a seed of hubris in there waiting to grow. Nope. My mother warned, "You can't keep thinking he's perfect, because you will end up disappointed." Still perfect. (Ask again in 10 years.)

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I feel so much more myself now. So calm and happy. It took a year of therapy in Manhattan for my shrink to elicit my secret. I would leave the office every Tuesday at a quarter to seven, expensive heels clicking through the marbled lobby, and take a taxi crosstown to my therapist's plastic-paneled little tomb of an office. After the session, I would stare into the bathroom mirror until I no longer looked like I'd been crying, before returning to work. Finally, we uncovered the secret. He asked, "What would make you happy?" I answered in an embarrassed whisper, "to be married and have a family."

When my husband and I go to bed after dinner, it's better than law review, it's better than expensive heels, it's better than Manhattan. It's who I am.

-- Anonymous

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The big V

I found the gumption recently to drop my drawers and do what I believe every domesticated suburban dad feels he must -- get a vasectomy. It's been a year now, and I'm still grappling with the decision.

Actually getting to that operating table was a story in itself. My wife, a therapist, and I never really discussed the decision, not like they tell you to do. So one day several years ago, we ended up in the doctor's office for our scheduled vasectomy appointment.

The nurse offered me a bright yellow Valium for my nerves. But nerves weren't my problem. My wife and I looked at each other in a shared moment of instant terror and came to the realization that we had never adequately -- indeed, never at all -- discussed the ramifications of the decision. I was 41, she 38. Were we ready not to have more children? Were two enough? Both our boys had been surprises, which wasn't surprising considering our lax attitude toward birth control. But we liked surprises. Move to Spain for a year? Go for it. Ditch jobs and go freelance, why not?

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Have more children? After the operation, the answer would basically be: Sorry, pal, you're finito.

When our first son came into the world, I sold our only prized possession, a 1964-1/2 Ford Mustang, and plunked down the fresh cash for a far more practical Nissan Sentra station wagon. I did it under the illusion that I could always buy a Mustang again. But have I ever? Will I ever? Nope. Once that shiny classic left the premises, it was over.

And the same holds true for the vasectomy. Once I lay back on the crunchy paper of the urologist's table and he taped my penis down, or rather up, so he could gain unobstructed access to my shaved testicles, I knew there was no reversing this decision. The Mustang would be gone.

All my suburban friends had vasectomies, but they also had car payments and jobs in sales. I'm an author, freelance writer and screenwriter -- however I choose to define myself that day. My beat-up Mazda, paid in full, is one of the last vestiges of a bohemian lifestyle I struggle to maintain, despite a mortgage and a garage full of suburban paraphernalia. Was a vasectomy the equivalent of a lower-brain lobotomy that would condemn me to a life of domestication? Was I one little snip away from becoming a Stepford husband?

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Who knows, I speculated, maybe my wife would die in a terrible car accident tomorrow, and I would find a lovely 29-year-old who wanted nothing more than to have children with me. Maybe at age 55 I would find myself with plenty of money and a tank full of daddy energy ready to explode. Maybe by the time I reached 73 the good people of science will have us living to age 193 and feeling like 23. Improbable as these things are, no one can call them impossible.

So, on that day of our first V appointment, my wife and I walked out of the urologist's office. We simply turned around and left. We drove around the neighborhood for 20 minutes, hurriedly reviewing the pros and cons of the procedure, and hastily came to the conclusion that we were ready. This was the right decision after all.

When we returned to the unit, the nurse brightened. The doctor saw us but refused to perform any life-altering operations, not after the arrive-and-dash spectacle my wife and I had just staged. Instead, he took us into his office and to his credit actually spoke with us, banishing us for a year and instructing us to return only when it would be without hesitation or regrets. No regrets? I live on regrets like my kids live on sugared cereal.

Two years passed. More V's in the 'hood. Other husbands around me were dropping like flies.

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My reticence became the object of good-natured ribbing at backyard barbecues and cocktail parties attended, of course, by a pack of vasectomized males and their wives struggling to keep their figures.

Maybe it was a slow day, or a pregnancy scare, or a trying evening with our two preadolescent sons, but for some reason, I made another appointment. The date was so far off in the future, I was sure it would never arrive. But of course it did.

When we returned to the hospital, the same nurse was stationed vigilantly at her post. She pulled up my record on her computer screen. "Are you really going to do it this time?" she asked.

"Yes," I said softly. The nurse did all she could to conceal her pleasure, but she couldn't fool me. She was pleased as pie to see me capitulate. I'm used to a 45-minute wait to see the doctor, but I swear within two minutes my name was called and I was hustled into an examining room as if this were some sort of cult operation and they could sense my ambivalence. I've seen car salesmen dance to the same tune with pen in hand.

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The entire moment had a surreal quality about it, a pathetic imitation of an out-of-body experience. The only panic came when I was asked to sign a little yellow form that stated in all caps: "I UNDERSTAND THAT AS A RESULT OF THIS PROCEDURE I WILL NEVER FATHER CHILDREN AGAIN."

Gulp. I felt a tremendous urge to bolt, but it was too late. I was in the doctor's office, in a ridiculous robe, and I wasn't going to fuel the nurse's cynicism or subject myself to the ridicule of my friends for chickening out a second time. The doctor remembered us well and asked if we were really sure this time. Of course we were sure, we were grown adults, weren't we?

The good doctor allowed my wife to stay for the procedure. He seemed genuinely happy to have someone to talk to other than a somber patient with his penis taped to his abdomen. He began his litany of vasectomy jokes as he administered the anesthesia via two very long needles inserted into my scrotum. "It's the only thing that'll hurt, I promise you."

He was wrong. Through all his snipping and tugging, I felt my heart sinking into my stomach with the realization that my life was changing before my eyes, like watching the stock market in a frenzied fall or your child ride a bike into the path of an oncoming car. I smiled, pretended to laugh at his jokes, squeezed my wife's hand, and wondered what the hell I was doing.

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As with many of life's momentous occasions, the procedure was somewhat anticlimactic. He was finished in about 10 minutes, assuring us that he had added an extra stitch or two to prevent any bleeding. He rattled off the short list of instructions for a quick recovery: wear boxer shorts; take it easy, no sex for five days; nothing strenuous.

Nothing strenuous. Was that to be my life's credo from now on? No strenuous sex. No demanding creativity. Careful when you push that lawn mower. Why don't you lie down and I'll fix you a margarita, hon.

My wife drove me home. I sat in the passenger seat of our minivan, fingering the empty plastic specimen container to be used four months hence to warrant that I was truly infertile. Buyer's regret overwhelmed me; I sank into the seat like a sack of groceries.

"How do you feel?" asked my wife.

"Great," I said, "and you?"

"Good."

Lying fools, both of us.

It's been a year now since V-day, and I feel as mixed as ever about the decision. I went through the essential grieving stages of denial and anger. But I'm still working on acceptance. Nothing has changed really. I'm as creative (or not creative) as before. My sex drive is the same. But somehow everything's not the same.

I don't have to worry about my wife's menstrual cycles, yet that feels like a loss, not a gain. And the loss of the potential to father more children lingers like a ghost.

I feel as if something inside my very soul has been taken apart and reassembled -- in proper order, to be sure, but like all reassemblies, it never feels quite the same. It's all psychological, they tell me. And perhaps it is. But that doesn't make it less real. Only more difficult to address.

I often forget about the vasectomy long enough to fool myself into thinking anything is possible again. And truly, everything I want in life is still possible. Make a film with that newfangled digital video gear, finally run a marathon, play a lot more music -- all more possible now that the specter of additional children has been banished.

But then, suddenly a vintage Mustang roars by, low-slung with gleaming rims and a satisfying growl that only comes from those ball-to-the-walls, cast-iron, eight-cylinder American engines they don't make anymore. I could go out tomorrow and buy one for about 10 grand, the same price of a vasectomy reversal. But I doubt I'll do either.

-- Eric J. Adams

Messy ending

A few years ago, my husband went back to school. After five years of working hard at his job and in school, and after a near breakup, he graduated. Two years later, he had not found a job in his new career and was depressed. His negative, critical, and dreary presence was so oppressive that I found myself dreading the moment he would walk through the door at the end of the day.

We had a 2-year-old daughter who was the center of my world, and for some reason he seemed incapable of being a tender, nurturing father. When she'd wake in the night, I was always the one who got up. When I'd ask him to help, he'd refuse. When I'd ask him to hold her and comfort her, he'd say, "She just cries no matter what I do."

He was angry about the way she had become the recipient of all my love, and I was furious with him for being so selfish.

Then I met up with an old friend at a party who said he'd always had a "thing" for me. He was warm, had a generous spirit and a big, hearty laugh. We kissed in the moonlight and it was electric. I was so overwhelmed by the power of my feelings that I asked my husband to leave, and when he said no, I insisted until he did. The new relationship deteriorated within a couple of months. He was a sensual person and I'd craved that quality, but he was also evasive and dishonest. After so many years with my straightforward husband, I'd forgotten how to be wary.

Meanwhile, my husband did not give up on me. He insisted that we were meant to be together; he promised he would change his approach to his life, to me, and to our daughter. I had a new appreciation for his integrity and his determination, and I was sure he sincerely wanted to change, but I wasn't sure he could. When I agreed to his coming back home, it was with reluctance. I was still sore from his negligence and selfishness. I decided to make the best of it, mostly because it would be better for my daughter to have her father living with us.

I'd like to wrap up this story neatly, but the messy truth is that it has taken me more than five years and another failed relationship to let myself really love my husband again. And I am so grateful to finally be here. My daughter is 9 and they adore each other. I'm amazed by how he loves us both, and that he didn't falter even when I had so little to give him.

I now know why I fell in love with him 14 years ago.

-- Anonymous

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We want to make you a part of this series. What is the state of your union? Did you find the one and never look back, or has finding lasting love been a marathon of trial and error? Did you have a fairy-tale wedding only to watch things crumble once the reception was over, or have you glided along in marital bliss since Day One? We want to hear your stories of joy, romance, heartbreak and pain. After all, partnership, as we all know, is a complex concoction of all of those things. (Please remember: Any writing submitted becomes the property of Salon if we publish it. We reserve the right to edit submissions and cannot reply to every writer. Interested contributors should send their stories to marriage@salon.com.)


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