Posted by: Wendy Shalit
Conversation with: Dan Savage
First of all, I love the irony Dan points out: that he, supposedly "the sex-obsessed sex-advice columnist" should come out in defense of sexless marriages--whereas I think a sexless marriage usually indicates a much bigger problem. On the other hand, this is only an irony if you buy into the pro-sex vs. anti-sex dichotomy--which I personally don't. In my experience, very few people are actually "anti-sex" or "sex-negative" as Dan puts it; rather, this debate is about the meaning we ascribe to sexuality. Does sexuality bring people closer and enable the ultimate in mutual giving? Or is it more like sneezing?
People disagree about the meaning of sex and so naturally, emotions run high. This may explain why Dan falsely attributes to me a belief in "all the many hoops a married person should be asked to jump through before he's even allowed to contemplate an affair." Also he claims that I treat "the spouse that wants to have sex... as the 'problem spouse.'" In fact I did not suggest anything of the kind. What I did suggest was that both members of the couple sounded like they needed help. If I singled anyone out, it was the wife, wondering if there were medical issues involved in her low sex drive: "Has his wife had her TSH (thyroid levels) checked?.... It sounds like he is closing off in response to her closing off..."
In marriage, giving is not just about clearing the dishes. If you are totally unaware of or unresponsive to your spouses' needs--whether physical or otherwise--that's a big problem. It's a lack of consideration. Just because I don't think a man should cheat doesn't mean that I'm treating him as a "problem." Actually, I'm trying to avoid creating more problems.
In such a case as Dan presents, where a husband's needs are totally ignored, it seems to me that there are deeper issues that need to be addressed first. This marriage as Dan presents it suffers from major communication problems, and the spouses have lost the ability to be vulnerable to one another. That cuts to the core of the marriage itself. Their sexual disconnect is just the tip of the iceberg, if I may be permitted to mix my metaphors.
Dan asks me, "At what point is a husband or wife allowed to stop banging his or her head against the wall and seek intimacy elsewhere?" I'm actually not much of a fan of head-banging to begin with, but if you're asking when it's time to give up on a marriage, I just don't see this as my role. To tell a stranger when to stay in a marriage, or to give them "permission" to cheat on their spouse? Chemistry's moniker of "expert" notwithstanding, I'm certainly not expert enough to be able to divine from such little information what is really going on with such a couple. I would have to talk to both the husband and the wife, in much greater detail, before even coming remotely close to understanding their situation.
But Dan feels that "sometimes people have to cheat—for their own sanity and, ironically, to preserve their marriages." Is this based on what people tell themselves, or is this based on a study? If there is such a study I would be very interested to review it, since for years I've been reading about how "affairs can help a marriage" in the women's magazines. And I've yet to see a single study substantiating this claim. Helen Gurley Brown, for one, made a career out of telling young women to "keep married men as pets," but needless to say, the wife and children of aforementioned "pets" tend not to find it as thrilling.
If people want to have sexless marriages, I personally think this challenges what marriage should be about, but I'm not going to criticize. I suppose that what people don't do within the privacy of their bedrooms is their own business. But the moment you say that one spouse is angling to cheat, then we're objectively talking about a marriage with a problem.
What is this debate really about? Some of us see divorce as preferable to cheating, while others see cheating as preferable to divorce. The difference really turns on how we define marriage. I think that when you get married, you are essentially making a declaration of devotion to another person, and asking that society recognize your devotion. So if someone tells me that he doesn't want to be burdened by being devoted--and working through the challenges that come with this--and still for whatever reason he doesn't want to divorce, then I would ask him, why?
What is gained by remaining married while you're cheating and lying? If marriage does not mean devotion, then what does it mean?