Being The Hero of Your Own Life

“Dennis” wrote to me in email:

I am in a similar situation as “Darby”, i.e. my kids are the same age (actually I have 3 in stead of 2) and my wife’s libido is zero too – when we do “do it” it is about once every two months or so. We don’t have as much money, as I don’t make as much, but I do work five minutes away so I am there for my family – my father was a traveling salesman and was not home very often – I try not to replicate that.

When we do talk about sexual frequency (or the lack of it)she says that she is too tired; her sister and her friends (who also have small kids) are the same way (or never have sex at all). She also assures me it has nothing to do with me technique or style-wise, etc.

Your blog does have some interesting suggestions – the body odor/farting issue is an important observation and needing to get away from it all, say to a bed and breakfast is a good suggestion as well.

A contributing factor is that my wife is on Paxil; I know this has an effect.

Finally, I also think that our marriage has settled into a pattern in which my wife is perfectly comfortable. One of my problems is that I try to avoid conflict at all costs and I think if I move my wife out of her “comfort zone” it will cause of great conflict.

My question is: how do you break the routine?

You are looking at your wife as if she and her emotions are chess pieces you could move around on a board of your devising if you just knew the rules of the game or the “tricks” to try. But the answer is that you don’t “move your wife out of her comfort zone,” you move yourself out of YOURS.

Your comfort zone is the one where you”avoid conflict at all costs.”

Maybe in some part of yourself you LIKE being a quiet, self-righteous sufferer, clutching your virtue to your bosom and resentfully telling yourself how your spouse is so awful to you, how her behavior or personality limits you so fatally, how she makes it just impossible for you to…(fill in the blank).

You break the marital routine by breaking your own routines, especially the routines inside your head, the main one being the childish fantasy that if the other person would just straighten up and fly right –“flying right” defined as behaving in consonance with your pleasure — you would finally be happy in your life. Meanwhile, YOU don’t have to do squat. You can wash your lily-pure hands of the whole thing and sit back, secure in the knowledge that The Problem of the Marriage is the other person and their failings.

Cushy gig, huh?

Being afraid to cause conflict is a big part of the problem, of course. But you also don’t want to just go out and start breaking things before you know who you really are, what you really want and the right way to get it.

So ask yourself (ideally you’ll sit down and write the answers, or at least make a few notes to yourself):

What kind of man are you?

What kind of man would you like to be?

What is the most ideal man you COULD be?

How did you get to where you are and who you are today? What is your family and romantic history?

How would your enemies turn your life story into a movie? How could you turn your story into an uplifting movie, with the happiest ending possible? (No fair saying “a fairy godfather makes me rich” — the story has to be driven by YOU and your character.)

That imaginary movie is your personal myth, the one you’ll base your ethics and behavior on in the future.

But be careful: you don’t explore your history, your “story so far,” to make yourself unhappy or to give yourself excuses for failure. You’re looking for (a) the real, live truth about yourself — as brutal or ugly as it might be — and (b) the basis for your future story, the one in which you become your best possible self. The one in which you become a Hero.

The Heroic You is defined from within, by examining your own reality, not by comparison to other people.

So you don’t say to yourself, “I’m okay because other people are worse.” But you also don’t say, “I’m terrible because other people are so much better.”

You don’t restrict your adult self, going forward, to what Mommy or Daddy did/didn’t do to shape — or “ruin” — you.

You don’t define yourself by what other people might think of you.

You don’t define yourself by what other people will “let” you do.

You don’t define yourself by measures like

how much you have,

how you got it,

what you can’t get,

why you’re not able to get it, or

what other people won’t give you.

This is dangerous territory, of course. When you first start thinking in this new groove, of your new self, emotionally independent of others’ opinions or demands, it will be tempting to believe that you can chuck realities you don’t want to face and dismiss responsibilities that you think are interfering with your ability to Be All You Can Be. But the inconvenient thing about being a hero is that they always fulfill their commitments in life, one way or the other. Dealing with their their personal demons and their tough situations — in a forthright, proactive way (not just suffering through them) — is what MAKES them heroes.

Heroism starts within you. It’s not a product of your situation, your opportunities, or the people you have to deal with. It’s inner strength and quiet assurance without any taint of “Look how much I saaaacrifice! Look how much I suuuuffer!” Wanting people to notice how good you are, demanding to be admired or rewarded because you’re Such A Nice Guy (or having tantrums to make sure they know you’re baaaad) are some of the ways you enslave yourself to them.

The above was the final WYW post on the old Salon blog, so I thought I’d make it the final post here, as well. To see the very interesting commentary that followed, please see the corresponding Page.

I’m finished with the task of moving the posts and stories over here to WordPress. Everything that I thought could be of any value (and a lot of bullshit from a few commenters) is here. As always, take what you can use and toss the rest.

The Salon blog will go dark on December 31, 2009, but I have essentially abandoned it as of today. I will be stopping in here from time to time to maintain links, pick up suggestions, see what’s happening in comments, etc., but I won’t be here to respond on a day-to-day basis. However, as often occurred over at Salon, the comments threads can become their own independent conversation areas to share ideas on these issues. Please feel free to use them as such.

Thanks for reading.


Upcoming Subjects

I’m slowly but surely plugging away on migrating the old Salon blog into archive Pages in WordPress. In the meantime here are some links if you can’t wait for me to bring these discussions over.

More possible reasons your wife may not want to have sex with you:

Motherhood   New Link

Aging and Depression  New Link

Bad Company   New Link

Childhood Abuse and Sexual Fears   New Link

A couple more contributor stories:

Paul’s Dilemma New Link

Ten Ways to Be A Lover: A Man Looks at Romance Novels   New Link

More direct commentary/advice on

The Question of Counseling New Link

Medicalizing Desire New Link

When to Split New Link

Being the Hero of Your Own Life New Link

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The Crimson Petal and the White

Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is a novel worthy of the term “Dickensian,” but without Dickens’s moral strait-jacket or his stifling sentimentality. The main character is Sugar, a steely 19-year-old prostitute who has become so renowned for her graceful compliance with any requested perversion that she is featured in a “gentleman’s guide” to London bordellos. Sugar has been the star attraction in the house of the morally hideous Mrs. Castaway since she was sold to her first “nice gentleman” at the age of 13.

The Crimson Petal and the White

The only way Sugar can vent the rage that boils behind her expensive acts of submission is by writing a novel about a prostitute practicing inventive tortures upon her erstwhile customers. It’s a book that will rival the shocking works of the Marquis de Sade — if she ever finishes it.

Sugar becomes the sexual obsession of William Rackham, a supremely selfish plutocrat who can’t imagine that he is being manipulated by a a mere woman. He thinks that Sugar anticipates his every need and is always willing to do anything he wants because she loves him with the perfect and sacrificial love his culture has taught him to expect from “truly feminine” women.

Sugar and Rackham are surrounded by a familiar cavalcade of Victorian characters that are nevertheless anything but “stock”: Rackham’s mad wife Agnes, a delicate, convent-raised dreamer whose romantic ignorance was shattered on her wedding night; a pious but somewhat sensible widow who attempts to “rescue” London’s prostitutes by placing them into nightmarish physical drudgery as scullery maids or factory workers; a tormented cleric who is horrified by his own unstoppable sexual fantasies — especially those which feature the woman he genuinely loves; venal servants, conniving socialites, cynical dilettantes, drunken slumlords…the whole breathing world of the 1870s — but portrayed with a depth of feeling and emotional realism Dickens and Trollope could never dare.

Victorians didn’t want to hear the truth that Faber so robustly reveals: that their own attitudes toward women and sex warped the human beings of their day, male and female, into even more grotesque shapes than they ordinarily take. But there is no preaching here, only an exquisite, heartbreaking sympathy, even for the confused and monstrous character of William Rackham.

If small bubbles of human hope and love rise only sluggishly to the dark surface of this novel, eventually there is some desperate — if perhaps misguided — heroism, a rocky sort of justice, and, in the end, even a glimmer of the half-forgotten glory of Eros.

HIGHLY recommended.

Maybe it’s because she’s cheating?

A few years after we overcame our sexual problems, my husband told me that from the moment we first started having trouble with each other, he was sure the reason I wasn’t interested in having sex with him was because I was having sex with someone else.

Read here about my reaction to this revelation and other thoughts and discussions having to do with Infidelity.

Are Online-Only Relationships “Cheating”?

In preparation for the upcoming migration of the “Infidelity” topic from the old Salon blog over here, I have republished  Fiona’s Story: A Tale of Online Love, which actually made its debut about 10 years ago on a now-defunct discussion board.

The story touches many of the issues we have been talking about already, like boredom and disgust with fat, but to my mind, re-reading it today, the most interesting questions to ask about it have to do with how people might view Fiona’s never-consummated, now-ended relationship on the continuum of “cheating.”

Personally I don’t think there’s any question that she “crossed a line,” in the infamous words of SC Governor Mark Sanford. The downright pornographic transcript of Fiona’s IM sex with her computer lover is proof enough of that. But Fiona, as shown by her answers to reader questions about her story, is essentially unrepentant and even claims that it might have helped her marriage. Is she fooling herself? Check it out.

The Attraction of the “Bad Boy”

One of my readers asked:

Thus, the eternal question: why do women go for jerks? Or another phrasing: why do women go for men who treat them like shit? For every woman who wants to be on a pedestal – note the intentional use of cliche – another wants to be under the heel. Good looking, bad looking, fat or thin, rich or poor – doesn’t matter, you can find a million women who want a man to tell them what to do.

That’s a VERY interesting question. To see how I answered, visit the Page: Do Women Prefer Bad Boys?

Boredom: A Biological Imperative?

Here’s an excerpt from my discussion of the all-too-common phenomenon of boredom:

The initial Power of Eros tends to be short-lived. You both have sexual energy and affection to burn in the beginning, so it’s easier to remain on your best behavior for a while. Things are very exciting while your infatuation is at its height, but familiarity and certainty soon take the sharp edge off the experience of relationship. This has nothing to do with character or intention or any kind of moral failing. It is simply a physiological fact of life: any repeated stimulus eventually evokes a reduced response. So there is no way in this world to sustain the energy and romance of a new relationship at its most thrilling pitch.

Everybody knows this, of course. Or perhaps I should say that everybody “knows” it. Because it is easy to pay lip service to this truth while not really  believing it, down at the center of our most emotional and irrational selves. We can (and very often do) intellectually acknowledge life’s limitations while still craving the impossible.

There may be actual biological reasons for our all-too-common loss of interest in long-term partners. As I discuss on the Page, nature wants us to spread our genes widely and recombine them with a variety of partners…and yes, this applies to women as well as men. So although women’s sexual desire can more easily be subsumed into things like infant care (which is part of the way she ensures her genes survive into the next generation), they can also be revived by a new man. (And yes, I will be talking about Infidelity soon.)

For more on this, and an introduction to what might be done about it, see the Page: Boredom.

In Which Henrion Asks For a Hug

“Henrion” wrote in email:

My wife has been sick the last two weeks with the flu, then a cold, so I have tried to give her some room. We had a nice day yesterday…painted the living room, went on a walk, had my mom over for dinner. Then, I was on my way up to bed and walked up to her (she was sitting in a chair, watching television) and said, “Can I have a hug?” She looked at me with what I would almost call disgust. You see, when I ask for something like this, she says I use a “whimper-y” voice, and it really turns her off. Of course, I think I’m asking in a normal, modulated voice. But why should this make a difference anyway? I am asking for something I want, and is it so hard to provide a hug?

I said this (among many other things):

One reason Mrs. Henrion might hear these requests as “whiny” or “childish” is because this is common manipulative strategy in children. They will ask for hugs in order to get attention when they feel their parents’ interest has strayed, or to reassure themselves of their parents’ continued love after an angry incident. For most kids it’s enough that their parent dredges up an outward expression on command, no matter how reluctant or perfunctory it might be. Just getting the parent’s compliance with their request is reassurance enough, because they know that they still matter enough to the parent to at least be able to make them go through the motions of love.

But putting up these kinds of performance hoops for our partners, adult to adult, is usually viewed (although not always consciously) as a childish demand for attention. That may be why Henrion’s wife always hears his requests as whiny or whimpery, no matter what actual tone of voice he’s using. What she hears is, “Stop what you’re doing and show me that you love me. Right. Now.”

Although Mrs. Henrion is couching her objections in terms of the tone of his voice, it’s probably because she cannot face or express the fact that it’s not the way that he asks, it’s the fact that he asks at all. Like a parent who is faced with a kid who constantly uses his vulnerability as emotional blackmail, she “hears” it in a way Henrion claims he doesn’t intend, but I don’t believe she is misunderstanding the basic dynamic.

Commenter “Harry” (who admitted in open forum to being “Henrion”) contended that although I might have a bit of a point  here and there, the way I expressed it to him was “indelicate.”

I shared this story with you in hopes that you could provide some constructive criticism, not castrate me and treat me like a child.

Find out how I responded to this charge in Are You Acting Like A Child?

The “Dickhead” Testimonial

On the old blog a reader who called himself “Steve” wrote to me with what amounted to a testimonial regarding the efficacy of my advice. His is an unusual story, but given how much unceasing misery I was privy to via email at the time, I was grateful for any ray of sunshine.

An excerpt:

Over a period of time patterns of behaviour that would have appalled me at the start became quite acceptable.  I could wake up in the morning and decide I wanted her to shave.  Nothing less would do and the argument would rumble on through the month until BINGO! She presented a shaven fanny as ordered.  She would immediately be shagged and forgiven and normal life could resume.  Next, I might decide I wanted her to go bra-less and wear a sheer top for an evening in front of my mates.  On and on it would go like a runnaway train and the more she gave the more I wanted.  If she tried to reason with me it just made things worse.  I might say something as a joke and if her reaction was not correct – in my view – I would demand it for real.  Sorry to go on but I’m hoping that some guy will read this and recognise the type of behaviour I’m describing.

Now, the really dumb thing about this is I knew the damage it was doing all along.  I could see the way it was affecting her and through it all she offered me nothing but love and compromised as best she could.  I lived in fear that one day she would wake up and realise she didn’t love me any more [as happened to a friend] yet still I carried on.  I was aware of all the barriers, boundaries and taboos as I crashed through each and every one of them.

Although (as I mention in comments) I at first wondered if “Steve” was for real, I eventually came to believe that he was. He participated in the lively discussion that followed and even stopped in several years later to see how things were going, but by then I had essentially abandoned blogging.

Some of the late comments on the thread are sadly incoherent and (to put it delicately) not at all on point, but I left them anyway, to demonstrate one of the reasons I stopped keeping the Salon blog. Just too depressing.

And for the record I also deleted about a dozen spammed offers to have sex with my readers. Also depressing.

Here’s the whole story: How A Nice Guy Becomes A Dickhead.

Lying and Power: The Discussion

Another lengthy discussion we had on the old blog began with yet another question about masturbation (yeah, I know, but I’ll get back to the more straightforward blog posts eventually). “Ricky” wrote:

My wife of almost 17 years, who has always denied that she masturbates, seems to do just that with her vibrator about twice a month. I too am crushed. Even though I know that she masturbates, she continues to deny it! (I notice her vibrator moved and cleaned in the bathroom vanity, and I have caught her once when I inadvertently left an audio recorder running in a dresser drawer. She at first denied that she masturbates and then finally said it was the first and only time.) She explained that she was embarassed, that she feels masturbation is cheating. However, she continues to masturbate and lie about it. I am more crushed that she lies about the masturbation, than the fact that she does it. Also, even though we continue to have sex, she never cums and it is always vaginal. I cannot rub her clitoris, nibble her breasts nor perform oral on her. Will her masturbation lead to cheating? Why does she continue to lie? Why won’t she let me help her reach orgasm? She seems to prefer masturbation. The deceit is the most painful.

I answered:

Hello, Ricky? You “inadvertently” left a tape recorder running in your dresser drawer?


I think the major problem here is that your wife DOES NOT TRUST YOU. She doesn’t want to let you “do things” to her body, or have any “control” over her erotically, or let you “make” her come. She doesn’t want to open herself to you or “confess” anything about her inner life and responses because she knows [you’re the type of person who would] put a tape recorder in a dresser drawer to catch her masturbating.

I’m sorry to be so blunt, but you need to be told the truth about this situation. That was really, REALLY dumb.

I can understand why you feel so desperate. You feel unloved. You feel that she is witholding her sexuality from you for purely mean and selfish reasons, and not because she’s desperate, too. But you really need to ask yourself why it is so enormously important to you that she admit her masturbation to you. Why do you think she has to “confess” and “permit” and “allow” certain things to you?

Is it because you want to exert some kind of POWER?

And we were off….!

One of the interesting things I discovered, both on that comment thread and via the email I received regarding it, that when it came to the question of whether it was right for a man to actively (and sneakily!) seek evidence of his wife’s masturbation so he could confront her about it, men thought it was just fine, and women (the actual women, that is — this was the point at which I decided that commenter “Lynn” was a man after all) thought it was appalling.

To me this was the gender-reversed flip side of the story told in Insecurity. As I said of the wife’s reaction in that case, I believe that Ricky’s subterfuge was understandable but wrong. In Ricky’s case, it was also massively counterproductive. His hysterical, invasive attempt to “get the goods on her” was likely perceived by his wife as an attempt to power trip her, to penetrate her psychological space, and she was fighting back by literally refusing to allow him “in,” sexually or emotionally.

We cover other issues, too. Check it out.