The sex is gone -- why should I stay?

Is marriage more than just great sex? Can it survive without it?


Cary Tennis
January 22, 2005 1:00AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

You've gotten a number of letters from spouses who have strayed or are thinking of straying because their sex lives have stagnated. Your response is always to suggest they work on ways of improving their marriage, that they not abandon the thing that they have merely because of a lack of passion. But are you being fair? Passion, desire, frantic groping in the dark, warm lips pressed against each other, this is a huge part of why we live. Do we need to abandon this simply because we made a vow -- a vow we meant very sincerely at the time -- but now find ourselves with someone who simply does not have the romantic spark that we crave?

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Obviously, my question is not hypothetical. I'm married to a good person, a kind person, but one who isn't very interested in sex, and whose idea of passion does not match mine. Avoiding details, from everything to kissing to oral sex we have different approaches and different wants. This reality was made excessively real to me when I had a recent fling -- the only one of my marriage -- with someone else. The fling's kisses were passionate, its gropings were frenzied, in a way that my sex life with my wife had never been. Sure, I know there is the spark of the new that is so appealing. But isn't it possible that I have also locked myself into a marriage that will never satisfy my libido? Do I have to stay if that's true?

I'm not asking for an answer for me -- although I wouldn't mind your help -- it's more that I am asking you to defend, publicly if you like, your approach to issues of sexual satisfaction and infidelity in marriage.

Bewildered in Matrimony

Dear Bewildered,

Thank you for pointing out my position. I was not completely aware that I had one. I rather thought I was more relativistic. But perhaps not. Perhaps I do have a consistent and well-worked-out approach. If so, I don't know whether to apologize or congratulate myself. Maybe I will do both -- in the privacy of my office.

But how to defend this position I did not really know I had? Rather than defend, perhaps I ought to remind myself that I am simply a writer plying an unusual trade, and try to describe my method itself, to say, Here is what I do and how, and then inquire why my methods so often result in the same conclusions.

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First some background noise. Because my own parents divorced when I think they might have been a great help to each other had they stayed together (they are quite cute when they occasionally get together now, 30 years later), I do have an emotional bias. I did not like seeing my father in the dating world. I did not like seeing him lost socially and emotionally after many years of a relatively happy if sharply eccentric family life. It was very painful for me to see this man adrift in his advancing years, seeking companionship outside the world of his wife and five kids. My mother, I think, fared better after divorce than my father, being intensely solitary and suited to living alone in the woods, but she, too, I think, might have been better off had she been able to cobble together some kind of working arrangement with my father despite their manifest differences and limitations. So I do have many images in my mind of sadness and desolation after divorce. It does color my perceptions. I do have this baggage -- which I am attempting to check here at the door.

My parents' marriage of course contained children, five in all. My own marriage does not contain children, yet I still have a strong bias toward preserving my marriage through whatever challenges my wife and I may face, both singly and in relation to each other. Why do I have this bias? Is it because I have been so hurt by beginnings and endings that I cannot stand to face another painful dissolution? In part, yes, it is. I did not marry until I was nearly 40; prior to that I was chronically peripatetic. Some of my experiences were deeply enriching, some were fun and inconsequential, but many were wrenching, exhausting and, if I might say so, because their implications went unexamined or unassimilated, some experiences did lasting damage to my still-unfolding self.

I was drinking heavily at that time, trying to kiss the girls and smash the state while holding a bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other. (Perhaps smashing the state would have gone more smoothly and the kisses would have been more debonair if I had had both hands free -- but then who would have held the bottle and the incessant cigarette?)

Not everyone has pushed the limits of romance, drinking and drug abuse like I did before I settled down. Consequently, many will find the sense of desperation with which I cling to my stable married life somewhat alien and without foundation. That is why I tell you, my friend: This prior suffering, this wandering, this ragged, confused poverty to which I do not wish to return: This is why I cling so desperately to Smoochie and the poodles.

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I would not wish on anyone what I went through myself.

If you are in your 20s or 30s and have not experimented terribly much sexually, and find your marriage is stale and dull and that a fling brings much excitement, I don't see much wrong in that. It sounds quite normal. Whether it means you now have to dissolve your marriage in order to pursue sex outside it, or whether your marriage is a vessel that can contain such nominal violations, I do not know. If you yourself wonder why you should stay married, I really cannot think of any compelling reason either way. You must search yourself for such reasons, as I have done.

In regard to my putative position and the appearance that I might be changing it in response to you, here is something to consider: It is to you and you alone I am responding. For my response to you to differ from my responses to others is natural. I sense in your challenge to me that you might do fine on your own, that it might be time to move on. In your very inquiry I hear a rationality and questioning that might sustain you well through the emotional turmoil of divorce. And in fact your rationality might have made you appear, to your wife, a being for whom she can no longer find much sexual passion. So it might be best for everybody to go back to their places and begin the dance again with new partners.

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I do not always sense such strength and flexibility as yours in those who write to me. Sometimes I get the impression that although the sex has gone bad there are deep and lasting reasons to stay together beyond the need for regular mutual orgasm; I sense the presence of much else that is valuable and nourishing. I don't know how I sense these things. Sometimes it is only the tone of a voice, but other times I can pinpoint evidence in a letter. For instance, a person will say that she is married with three children and her husband is the most wonderful man in the world except that their sex life has cooled, and she will ask should she therefore divorce him. It is my inclination in such cases to feel that not only does she have abiding obligations to her children but that she is getting more out of the marriage than sex alone, and so I find myself thinking she should try to stick around and see if the sex improves as the overall relationship improves.

Another of my biases is toward utter thoroughness, leaving no stone unturned, not quitting too early. This bias has its roots in my early nature as a quitter. I quit everything. I walked out on loved ones and jobs. I lightly threw away degrees, awards, accolades, commitments, money, housing, friendship, potential victory in games, wrestling wins, you name it. In combing my life for clues to my suffering, when I came across this startling and shameful pattern I resolved never again to be a quitter. So I am preternaturally determined, at the age of 51, to see things through. I have been so at Salon, whose survival, to my great joy, continues to confound the pronouncements of pundits and analysts, and I have been so in my interminable work on various creative projects, including my house, my novel, my marriage, my relationships with my siblings and my parents, my nonfiction book, my music and all my other artistic rages that from time to time lie fallow only to spring to life again.

So that's my dour and determined approach. That's sort of my job: I put up with stuff and keep going. That's how I get by. Being one who went to extremes of chaos and impulsiveness, I now go to extremes in commitment, orderliness and resolve. Then, as now, it has been my feeling that a lot of us just don't really try that hard. We're afraid to take it to the limits, to really experience and really suffer. In my wild days, it seemed that few knew how to really drink and really dance, to really howl and really feel joy, to get to know ecstasy; and now, it seems that few have that same verve to really peer deeply into the abyss and see how contemptible and awful we really can be.

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In some sense, I consider marriage a laboratory for going down there into the scary bad places. Maybe that's cracked. Maybe marriage is supposed to be just a sunny garden with uniformed waiters and lots of iced tea. To me, there is no more vivid arena in which our frailties are revealed and our foibles enacted. This is it; this is who we are: demanding, impatient, self-involved, petulant, domineering ... human! I'm in it for the suffering and the waiting for change. Being that way, I suppose I occasionally consider people's marital discomfort insufficiently grave to warrant dissolution. I'm usually of a mind to hang in there.

Hanging in there, as a bias of mine, is also rooted in the hanging in there necessary to dry out sufficiently from alcoholism in order to see straight and get to work. For me, endurance is huge! Here I am going on how many years without a drink? And how many years do I have left? There are so many things to do and so little time! It is so costly in time and energy to be always beginning anew. Let's finish what we started!

In active addiction, there is only the present scramble for present needs. In recovery, there is a sense of always moving in one direction toward something else, away from illness and insanity and toward greater understanding and autonomy. Such a thought would have been alien to me in my drinking days. To think of merely continuing on the same path because there is a pleasure in the accumulation of steps toward some unfathomable shrine in the distance on the horizon would have been laughable. You had to be enjoying the moment, and if the moment was not good, screw it, try something else. But that is why I kept jumping off moving trains. You hurt yourself when you jump off before the thing stops. I was always jumping off because I had no faith in destination; I had no faith in working to get somewhere worth going to. I was always jumping off moving trains. I tend now to wait until it pulls into the station, and get a porter to help me with the bags.

How many times have you jumped off a moving train, only to find that you don't even know what town you're in? How many times have you packed up a household and moved, because you just didn't care so much for where you were? Change is laborious and expensive.

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But you may have married too young, or married the wrong person (Whoops, excuse me, I thought you were somebody else! How very awkward!). There may be no reason for you to stay and every reason to go. Far be it from me to presume to guess. All I can do is try to lay bare my deep and manifest biases, born out of my own life, my own choices, my own mistakes.

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