Starved for affection

My wife is smart but not loving so I feel distant from her. Should I have an affair or get a divorce?

Cary Tennis
April 30, 2004 11:08PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I've been married 10 years to an incredible woman. She's smart, funny, accomplished and poised. She is not very affectionate or loving so I feel very distant from her, unhappy and unloved. Our sex life has dwindled to one to two times a month and she never initiates -- nor will she tell me what she wants, or how to make it better. In fact, she claims that she is perfectly satisfied with our sex life and our relationship, that any problems are mine alone, and she refuses to discuss them. She flatly refuses to go to any kind of couples therapy.


She is the kind of person who maintains very tight control over her emotions and actions and is close to perfect in her conduct, but also untouchable, invulnerable. Once this was extremely attractive to me, but no longer. I think she has a profound fear of losing control or admitting weakness, but getting her to discuss such issues, or even getting her to acknowledge that she has any feelings or motives that she's unaware of is impossible. The problem is that we have two young children, and I've always believed that children are better off with both parents at home. My wife and I are highly functioning -- there's little fighting or conflict between us in the household. A divorce would be devastating to the kids.

A close friend of mine tells me to leave her, that despite the pain, the kids would ultimately be better off having a father who's happy than one who's so unhappy. I'm not sure. I feel like I would be abandoning them. Furthermore, my wife is not one to trifle with. She would make any divorce as painful as possible for me. I've thought about trying to have an affair -- if I get away with it, great, and if not, it would bring a quick death to the marriage -- but I realize that's cowardly and that she deserves better than that: For all her faults, she's always been consistent and honest about what she wants and who she is.

I also realize that a big motivation for an affair would be revenge against her for her indifference toward me. (Though I do still really want to have an affair.) In some sense, the problem is mine, not hers. I just don't want my children to pay the price for my happiness. What can I do?


Lost in Oregon

Dear Lost,

I think what you can do is try to meet some of your needs for intimacy outside the marriage. I don't mean sex. I mean emotional growth. I mean that the need to talk honestly about our deepest feelings, our fears and dreams, our shameful, chaotic impulses, our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, often comes upon us after we've been married for a few years. To a wife, such a change in a husband can come as a big surprise. It's not the role she thinks you signed up to play. Your wife may not have a great well of human empathy, or a deep interest in the complexities of intimacy. So if you expect her to meet all your needs you're going to be in a hopeless struggle.


One thing you said really struck me. You said that your wife's air of control and perfection was once extremely attractive to you, but no longer. I wonder if that's a key to what has happened over the last 10 years. Think about it: As boys we learn to fight for what we want. Despite the warmest and most caring of parental attempts to neutralize our savage honor and round off the jagged edges of our gender, we poke through and draw blood. We follow a primitive code until we're old enough to reason.

Now here's the tricky part. What is good is often hard to attain. But it does not follow that what is difficult to attain is necessarily good. Yet somewhere along the line, we conflate the struggle with the prize; thus the cold, aloof and unyielding woman must be the biggest prize of all, and so we fight over her and the man who wins her wonders later what he won.


And why do we pursue such women? We do it to impress other men. And we do it for the challenge: Because such women withhold so much, we must outdo ourselves! They drive us to new heights. And when we succeed, we are not only gratified, but elevated somehow, as though what they truly held out to us was not themselves but a magic mirror in whose reflection we see a greater, higher version of ourselves. It's an old story in which the woman represents not only erotic satisfaction but a truer calling or vocation; she comes to embody our destiny.

But it is not a real destiny, this place we arrive at through conquest; as in all journeys of escape, we bring ourselves along. We have been playing a role to get her, and now that we've got her, we revert to ourselves again. The spell dissipates and there we are as we were.

Sometimes, all the while we're playing the confident male we are secretly hoping for Mommy; once we succeed, we reveal our true agenda, which is to be more fully human and vulnerable, and less the hero of her dreams. It's a lot of work being the conquering hero. It wears you out. I think this is what women refer to when they say they thought they married a man, but he turns out to be only a boy. After the fall, we become who we really are: The man in control is a cauldron of anguish! She didn't expect it!


We are not all pretenders; sometimes we are true all along, but we change as the years go on; our emotions get richer; they tug at us more. We don't expect to change, but we do. I know it's awful to contemplate, but men do shed some of their armor and become more complicated as they grow up.

In either case, as we begin to exhibit our vulnerabilities, it seems to us as though she must be repressing! We see her in terms of our own volcanic tumult and wonder how she can remain so placid, so self-assured, sitting on top of what must be unbearable pressures. But no. She's as she always was. It was never a pose. She was a grown-up when you met her; it's you who changed.

So now, 10 years into the relationship, it is you who must somehow find a way to continue to grow emotionally while not wrecking the marriage and betraying this woman and your children. You love her and she's the mother of your children. So please stop this talk about screwing around, or abandoning your kids. There's a whole galaxy of experiences peculiar to men that wives can't help us with. So why not look for some other setting in which you can explore your feelings? Professional counselors and therapists can guide you. And there are many groups of amateurs, people who need to sit and talk about what's going on in their lives, people who need support for getting through difficult periods, that kind of thing. I think all that's a very positive and useful cultural phenomenon, even though it's easily mocked.


If you need to pound your chest and beat a drum, get some guys and go out in the woods. There's probably a lot of anguish stored up in that chest of yours. It's like a national resource, all this anguish of men! So much energy stored in our hearts! You could light the world with what we feel but do not say. We're everything they say we are, silent and glowering and all the rest; so what's the use pretending? Warm up the sweat lodge! There's another man shivering out there under the cold gleam of a perfect woman. Bring him in. Let him sweat.

You dig? What I'm saying is instead of trying to get from your wife what she does not seem to have, why not get it yourself from the outside world and bring it into your marriage, to make your family a richer, fuller experience for everyone.

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Dear reader,

If you are interested in telling your story onstage, please see Monday's column. I will soon be on vacation for a week, so if I don't get back to you right away, I will read your letters with great interest upon my return. Cheers -- CT.

Cary Tennis

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