I used to be a "frigid" wife.
I knew even before I got married that I wouldn't be able to keep up the
"schedule" of sex my husband and I had established during our
courtship, and once I even warned him that it was going to have to slow
down. But I think that went in one ear and out the other at supersonic
speed, touching nothing in between.
Sure enough, not long after we got married sex became a battleground
for us, and we struggled with the problem like two fish flopping around
next to each other in the bottom of an open boat: gasping for a natural
breath and injuring ourselves with every pointless, ineffectual spasm.
To me it seemed simple: he wanted me to be his sexual appliance,
a handy-dandy love machine that could be switched on and off at his
command. I felt no desire, and I didn't want to "submit" to being
handled and penetrated when I wasn't in the mood. If he really loved
me, this sex thing, this "merely physical" part of our lives, wouldn't
be such a big freakin' deal. And his pissy, furious responses to my
refusals only made me more sure that he didn't really love me. He just
wanted to use my vagina.
To him it seemed simple, too. If I loved him -- as I consistently claimed -- why didn't I want to make love?
These things always look absolutely nuts in retrospect. You wonder how
you managed to get through that crazy period in your life, how you
could have been so wrong, how you could have set yourselves up in such
a no-win situation. It looked hopeless at the time, a total impasse.
Yet we succeeded in overcoming it, and one of the things I discovered
in the five or six years since I started talking about our sexual
renaissance in public is that this kind of sexual recovery is not as
rare as I imagined. Being a writer by trade and a blabbermouth by
inclination, a blog like this was inevitable.
In March of 2003 I started the first blog devoted to this subject and
almost immediately, in between some positive, even enthusiastic
reactions from both genders, I started getting hostile email. Sometimes
very hostile email. When women
wrote to me in a negative vein, it was usually an objection to my
"cynicism" or "cold-bloodedness" about the subjects of sex and
marriage. But when men wrote in to disagree with me they seemed to be
pissed off about everything,
up to and including (it seemed to me) the fact that women existed at
all. As time went on I had to accept that the dominant emotion a large
proportion of men were feeling when the subject of marital sex came up
in the discourse was pure, unrepentant rage. You could power the Enterprise with the fury these guys were generating.
So men are angry. That's not a very original observation, of course,
but it is effectively the dark center of the problem we're talking
about in this blog. Here's another banal observation: American
intercentury culture has put some peculiarly frustrating pressures on
men and women alike, so we all have unrealistic and -- worse -- essentially non-negotiable expectations
when it comes to marriage and sex.
This is the rock: we all want Love, which we have redefined toward an
unsustainable ideal, and this is the hard place: when we feel we aren't
getting Love, we seek Power, which the culture has restructured in ways
none of us can any longer confidently use.
So I'm not going to blithely tell you to take Deep Cleansing Breaths
and chill out. You feel what you feel. Some of us obviously feel worse
than others. But even the most charmed, most actualized human being
can't feel Loved "enough."
Still, we can sometimes work it out. With effort and introspection we
can come to feel content enough to let go of desperate striving and
angry scrambling for ascendancy over other people and concentrate
instead on controlling the one thing we can ever really have power over: ourselves.
In this blog I've been telling my story, my struggle with Power and
Love within myself and my marriage, with a view to helping you examine
your own. I used this narrative method because the final chapter in the
saga of my sexual recovery involved a special kind of re-imagining of
my life story, so that in my own mind I became the odd, unusual
protagonist of a romantic novel of erotic renewal. Eventually I hope
you'll be "re-writing" your own history in a similarly heroic way.
This approach is not only an outgrowth of my own
experience, but has been guided by several discussions I've had with
academics and research I've done in my freelance journalism that talks
about the problem -- if you agree that it is one -- of sorting out the differences between
"femininity" and "masculinity" in a world that demands recognition social equality. I can promote the goals of
feminism and still recognize that there has to be an erotic difference
between men and women to maintain sexual chemistry and stave off
boredom (to the extent that's possible). If you want to have more and
better sex, the last thing you want to do is turn yourself into a
Unisexual Being (whose penis is merely an afterthought). Ugh.
What qualities make a man sexy, what makes a woman notice and respond
to him as a man? What kind of behaviors and attitudes make the
difference? I believe men should have "permission" -- sorry, that's the
only way I can think of to phrase the thought in this day and age -- to
develop their own vision of masculinity and sexiness without a lot of
fainting and hanky-wringing from people who seem to fear that adult,
intelligent men can't make responsible use of the feelings, images and
narratives of "heroic" art and literature.
This is also a way to help you see
your marriage as a major component of your Big Story, the moral narrative of your life, and not just a vexing little
contractual arrangement that you're going to cancel if you don't get
your way (and pronto). You'll want to strive for what I call
"intentional manhood," the kind of manhood that's action and not just reaction.
Because a man who goes through his life like a paramecium, recoiling
from one stimuli and caroming off the sides of his Petri dish into
another, is going to feel confused and frustrated about everything, not just his sex life.
In the old days most men had the mythology of religion to help them
frame their lives, their aspirations and their everyday goals. If you
had faith, you could pattern your life after Moses, Mohammed, or Mithra, follow the rules and expectations of your particular
tradition, and understand your little life as a part of some Grand
These days, most of us don't have -- or want -- that kind of
pre-packaged Big Picture. This is both bad and good. Bad in that it leaves us adrift,
existentially speaking, and good because it allows us to make use of
our individual human creativity and experience to create our own Big
Pictures. One size does not fit all, and it's usually best to let
people work things out for themselves -- as long as they can see the
full reality of their circumstances and relationships.
That's why I've been giving very up-front, very blunt
advice/analysis (see the long list of Stories in the sidebar). And a
lot of people of both sexes haven't liked it one. little. bit. But
here's the thing: American "self-help" literature is piled high with
boneless attempts by pop psychology gurus to address these issues in a
soothing, sweet-talking, I'm Okay, You're Okay kind of way. Not only is
their glib, bourgeois blandola the next best thing to useless, it's boring.
So while I can understand how you might not want to hear a lot of what
I'm saying (except for the sexy bits, maybe), being too careful of your
feelings would be the death of my ability to be honest with you.
Besides, I figure you can take it.
So what about this storied marriage of mine? I could paint it
as high drama, in some kind of classical story arc, a suspenseful
narrative driving to a stunning climax, followed by a satisfying
denouement. Unfortunately for my artistic instincts, the truth is
rather more prosaic. Our twenty-five-year marriage has been like most
other people's: a series of rising and falling waves of affection,
distraction, anger and happiness. In and out of love, convinced it's
not going to work, sure it's forever, not sure again. As the years
spooled out, though, the trust and sureness grew.
But there was a moment that might qualify as a Turning Point, when I
had my first glimmering of the central truths of this blog, so let me
tell you about it.
My husband had a bad habit in the first decade of our marriage of going
to some routine business function or some minor get-together by
himself, or just stopping for some after-work drinks with the boys, and
"losing all track of time." Not only would he not come home until hours
later, reeling, he wouldn't even call to tell me where he was.
Naturally, in the fullness of time came the day when, realizing at 11
p.m. that he was out on another of these toots, I literally packed my
bag, put my infant daughter in her carrier and picked up the phone to
call a cab.
So why didn't I? Why did I put the phone back into the wallset, sit
down at the kitchen table and cry (raging, pounding the Formica,
mopping my face with the place mats) before putting the baby back in
her bed and unpacking my bag?
I realized (somehow, in the flame-edged haze of my fury) that for all
my fussing and fuming about this issue, I must have somehow not been
able to get my husband to really understand how deadly serious it was
to me. He still didn't Get It, and there had to be a reason for that, a
reason I had to fathom. I
also knew that if these incidents continued -- or, heaven forfend, got
worse -- they were going to make me breaking-point angry again, every
single time. My resentment would grow with each event, and that would
increasingly poison each successive calculation of the tradeoff between
staying and going. (Sound familiar?)
So I couldn't just decide to stay; I had to figure out how to avoid wanting to leave in the future. I had to think it through,
not just react in the same tired, ineffective way every time it happened. I had to figure out what was going on inside him, not just
inside me. When I finally decided to use my brain on the situation
instead of my furious, resentful, self-righteous emotions and -- even
more challenging -- to allow that I might be doing (or not doing) something to make it worse, I figured it out.
He didn't call me when he was out on these little adventures because
they were expressions of his freedom to act as he damn
well pleased, without explanation or excuse: Look at me, I'm Baaaaad, baby. There ain't no jail in the territory can hold me.
The last thing a man wants to do when he is making that kind of
statement is to call his wife and get permission to continue being a desperado.
To me these hops off the reservation were slaps in the face, gestures
of contempt and dominance. I read each one as a big "fuck you!" to to
my needs and feelings. To him they were just expressions of manhood and
personal autonomy. He saw my "excessive" anger about these "minor"
incidents as a demand to toe the line of unnecessary marital rules, as
an attempt to assert control over him.
These incidents revealed that a subterranean jockeying for Power had taken over between us, a
vicious spiral of secret disappointments and unspoken demands on each
other that neither of us could fulfill because if we did, we would be
declared The Loser.
Realizing that ugly truth about us both -- and not just reflexively
blaming him for the entirety of the problem -- was the beginning of my deeper
understanding of many more of our issues, including the sexual one.
It's amazing what just accepting a truth of that caliber can do for
your attitude and actions in a relationship. No, it
didn't happen overnight -- that's just in the movies -- but as I continued with my committment
to facing the truth about our power relationships I came all the
way back to my husband, emotionally as well as sexually.
So why, you might be asking, since I was the one who made the first
move in my own marriage, am I talking to MEN in this blog? As so
many of those angry correspondents have told me, over and over again,
what I need to be doing is telling women to straighten up and fly
right. Women should be repeatedly reminded of
the "contract" they signed when they got married, in which the first
sentence is (apparently): "Give husband sex at least twice a week,
whether you like it or not." Women just need to come across
with the punani on a more regular basis, and then everybody would be happy. So why (these guys cry) are you talking to me when it's really her cold-ass selfishness that is the problem?
Because...listen carefully here...if I tell you that your marital
dissatisfactions are all your wife's fault, you are in a totally
helpless position. If she is the one and only, absolutely immovable
cause of all your sexual difficulties, you can do nothing to improve
the situation. You might as well give up, today, this minute, and go
out and get divorced.
Maybe that's what you'll ultimately decide to do. It's an honest
option. Sometimes wives turn out to be impossibly neurotic or
situations are so Fido Uniform that there's no hope. But if there's a
possibility of encouraging a
rebirth of your wife's sensuality and intimate affection, don't you
want to at least try it before you file the papers?
One of the useful concepts in that vast drippy body of earnest suburban
psychobabble I referenced earlier is that in any situation where people
are dissatisfied with the status quo, they are the ones who "own" the
problem, and they are the ones who must do the most to solve it. It may
feel unfair to you to have to make concessions or changes when the
problem, from your point of view, is really being caused by a partner
who refuses to fulfill your reasonable expectations.
But in my experience, standing on My Rights, insisting that other
people admit that they are the ones who are wrong in a given situation,
or deciding that they must make the changes I demand before I will change
myself, has gotten me exactly nowhere (or, worse, somewhere I really didn't want to go). This is especially true when it came to those
pesky unspoken contracts, where I was the only judge of what were "reasonable" terms and conditions.
I started out the blog talking about little things that men can fix
practically overnight, because sometimes that's all that's needed -- or
all a man has the stomach for. And when it comes to women and sex,
"little things" -- things you might consider irrelevant or
ridiculous or even insulting -- sometimes count much more than you
might have imagined. Does it come as a surprise to you that the sort of
romantic gesture many women yearn for isn't the presentation of
expensive flowers, but noticing that there's dog hair on the rug and
pulling out the vacuum -- without subsequent bragging of your martyrdom or demands for gratitude?
There are some things women feel that they just can't tell the men they
love. Things they can't say out loud, things they can't admit to
themselves or to you, and things they don't even quite understand in
their own minds. These are the secrets we're afraid to voice, the
dissatisfactions we don't verbalize for fear of slaughtering your ego
or making ourselves less desirable -- or more disposable.
Women might bitch and moan day and night about everything else in their
lives, yet never confess the most essential things, the things their
lovers really need to know.
Yeah, there were a lot of generalizations in that paragraph. I'm going
to be making a lot more. Generalizing has gotten kind of a bad rap
lately. People object to it when it's their
ox being gored and let it go when someone else's is getting the shaft.
But it has a long and respectable rhetorical history, for good reason.
It's true that our natural tendency to generalize can sometimes get us
into logical trouble, as when (to give the classic example) we assume
that because all we've ever seen are white swans, black ones don't
exist. But generalizing is also the only way we can "make sense" of
large bodies of data that can't realistically be considered otherwise.
While each person is an individual unlike any other and every marriage
is a unique experience for its participants, I've been discussing a lot
of things that I believe a significant number of people or marriages
have in common. So let's make a deal: when I use the
terms "women" or "men" or "marriage" or any other large category, you
will understand that I may not be talking about you or any other
particular man or woman. Don't take it personally. If it doesn't apply
to you and your marriage, it doesn't apply. You don't have to defend
yourself. You especially don't have to defend yourself with an email
screed that details my failings as a woman, human being and Internet
chatterbox. I believe you, okay? And anyway, why should my little feeeeemale opinion matter to a Big Strong Man like you?
So, are we cool? Excellent.
Over the last year and a half of thinking about these issues for
the blog, I've been developing a Man's Plan For Marital Action, and I
hope you'll come along while I flesh it out. It goes
something like this:
To recover his marriage sexually (and every other way), a Man will:
1) Face facts (obviously we're already working on that)
2) Fix "little things" first
3) Understand the emotional calculus of Love and Power in his relationship
4) Return to the basics of his own character and masculinity
5) Create his own solutions in his own context.
In the beginning of the earlier blog (reproduced in the sidebar stories
"Disgust," "Discomfort," etc.), I offered a few very basic practical
suggestions, little things you could do right away without a lot of
consideration and turmoil. Everyone would prefer to take simple,
concrete actions that have a chance of succeeding (or at least
improving the situation) before committing themselves to more
challenging efforts. It's perfectly okay to hope that those little
things will turn everything around for you, and it's certainly possible
that they will -- but don't count on it.
The more important part of this blog was / is / will be an attempt to
you tools for drilling down to your deeper personal truths, your
aquifer, the way you define yourself as an adult human of the male
persuasion in today's ambivalent and sometimes downright hostile
society. To give you food for thought on that vexed bit of business,
I'm advancing my own preliminary ideas about the masculine mystique.
In my view, a man -- I don't say a "real man," because there are no fake men, only boys--
* Knows who he is
* Knows what he wants
* Seeks the truth, and tells it
* Does the Right Thing
All well and good, you're probably thinking (rolling your eyes), but
didn't I promise not to purvey tired self-help clichés like "know
yourself" and "the truth will make you free"? Well, yeah, except that I
am talking basics here, after
all, and those apparently vapid bullet points are the chassis
supporting the most relevant characteristic, to wit:
A man also
* Uses his individual masculine mythos with intelligence and style, in bed and out
Your "masculine mythos" is essentially your personal erotic legend, the
story of Manhood Your Way. As a sexually aware adult exposed to the
seductions of your culture, you already have an erotic mythos, but
unless you frequent certain egg-headed halls of academe, you probably
haven't given it much thought. There's been a lot of snotty ivory tower
theorizing on this concept, and many of you have (in a sense) seen the
smoke rising over the ivied walls as they burn all that intellectual
lumber, but the ideas can also be really useful to
the ordinary guy.
But if the concepts sound like so much folkloric bullshit to you, don't
worry about it. Stick with things you can do by
rote, without the cogitation. Use them or lose them as necessary.
But how do you know if your marriage is worth even that much effort?
Two ways: first, determine whether there is still a reservoir of mutual
good will and psychological compatibility in the non-sexual side of
your relationship. On that question this is Julia Grey's Acid Test: are
you still laughing together?
Shared humor is a crucial bond. It signals fundamental, unspoken
agreements between people about how the world works and how they're
functioning in it. Once a sexual problem raises its head in a marriage,
your senses of humor understandably start dragging their feet, but if
you can't laugh together, ever -- even if it is only at a sitcom or a movie
you're watching -- you're pretty much doomed. Down the Irreconcilable
Differences river. On that Lonesome Train. Riding off into the sunset.
Lost in ... well, you get the picture.
The other way to determine whether there is still enough left in your
marriage to work with is to figure out, honestly, how much you're
willing to do to improve things in the absence of any effort from her.
Are you willing to be the sole active partner in solving your sexual
impasse, at least at first? Do you love your wife enough (or at least
value the marriage enough) to let go of your notion of Your Rights for
the time being and take up tasks that might be annoying, time-consuming
and open-ended, all without reaping immediate "rewards"?
As you've probably gathered, my thoughts on this subject could be rocky
going (and not just because they go interminably, like this post). This
is not your second nature sort of thing, and it sometimes goes very
much against the grain. Even having to consider some of these ideas
pisses some men off. A lot. Worse, when/if you actually try them, you
may NOT get the gratitude and Hot Wet Love you expect, especially short
In fact, I guarantee you'll wonder at some point why the hell you bother.
So. If after reading all this you decide that salvaging your marital
sex life is not worth the effort, that's fine. Click out of the blog.
Walk away from the computer.
Because the most important element in all this -- the one crucial,
non-negotiable thing you'll need along the way -- is to be
genuinely, brutally, consistently honest with yourself. No denial
Still with me?
Good. Let's go.
Introduction | Disgust | Discomfort | Distraction | Insecurity | Anger | Fat Wars | Misunderstanding | Boredom | Infidelity | Technique | Motherhood | Aging and Depression | Bad Company | Childhood Abuse and Sexual Fears | Counseling | When to Split | Being the Hero of Your Own Life
Why Does She Masturbate? | Lying and Power | Do Women Prefer Bad Boys? | Fiona's Story | How A Nice Guy Becomes A Dickhead | Ten Ways To Be A Lover | How It All Goes Wrong | Medicalizing Desire | Paul's Dilemma | Who Am I? | Should I Ask Or Just Go For It?