Posted by: Dan Savage
Conversation about: Infidelity—what else?
Today Wendy wrote...
A marriage without intimacy is indeed a poor imitation of a marriage, but to me the next step would be to make a serious effort to seek help. Have they gone to marital counseling? Sex therapy? Has his wife had her TSH (thyroid) levels checked? (Being hypothyroid commonly puts a damper on the female sex drive.) It sounds like he is closing off in response to her closing off--which may be why medications have had no effect on him. Has he taken his wife out to a romantic dinner and told her how much he misses the physical aspect of their relationship? There are at least 20 related questions I would ask such a man. He's presenting the affair as the "only" humane solution, but I would challenge that.
I don't believe that a marriage without intimacy is necessarily a poor imitation of a marriage. There are lots of loving, mutually fulfilling and completely sexless marriages out there. I realize that I'm the sex-obsessed sex-advice columnist here, but sometimes we place too much importance on sex. Oh, it's important, but I don't think sex has to define a marriage, or every marriage. If a marriage is loving and both partners are happy, it's a good, loving marriage whether they're getting it on every hour on the hour of not getting it on at all. But, again, only if both people are happy with what they're getting or not getting, as the case may be.
As to Wendy's point about all the many hoops a married person should be asked to jump through before he's even allowed to contemplate an affair... well, what if someone has tried all of that and it didn't do any good? I get letters every day from men and women that are unhappy in sexless marriages and most have tried counseling, romantic meals, sex therapy, hormone level tests, and on and on, to no avail. They're writing to me because they're at the end of their ropes—and, I think, because they know that I will, if they have tried everything, give them permission to have that affair.
So I would challenge Wendy: Supposing someone has tried everything? At what point is a husband or wife allowed to stop banging his or her head against the wall and seek intimacy elsewhere?
We live in a deeply sex-negative culture—which is why the spouse that wants to have sex is regarded as the "problem spouse" in a sexless marriage. Once everything has been tried, and everything has failed, we turn to the "problem spouse" and say, "Can't you just go without? Or, hey, maybe there's something you haven't tried yet?" We shift all responsibility for the problem onto the shoulders of the denied spouse—he or she hasn't thought about it enough, worked on it hard enough, tried every solution on our list. And if he or she has tried everything on the list, we add a few more things to the list. And then, in a final bid to prevent the lesser evil (cheating), we insist that the only reasonable, responsible thing to do is divorce your spouse before you seek sex elsewhere. And we do this because we know that most people don't want to divorce their spouses for sex. If they fall for this advice, they'll stay and stay miserable—forever.
To live in a constant state of sexual deprivation and rejection is a misery; to subject someone to sexual rejection year after year, decade after decade, is to do real emotional violence to that person. It is a kind of abuse.
Eventually people get sick of asking, and give up—because they've tried everything, and nothing has worked. And then they start making allowances and adjustments, and they find themselves doing things that they never imagined they would—like cheating. And sometimes people have to cheat—for their own sanity and, ironically, to preserve their marriages.