Misunderstanding

Kerry’s Questions

“Kerian” writes:

I just read your entire blog from start to finish — took me a couple of late-night hours when I should be working on my taxes, due no later than 23 hours from now. I’ve been married for 21 years, together for 25, and we’ve had one of the great love affairs of this era — except sexually. We are emotionally, intellectually and spiritually compatible, we are or should be the envy of all couples everywhere. I feel a closeness, comfort and safety with her that is astounding, and she with me. We love each other with all of our hearts.

But sex has been so screwy practically from day one. I have to admit, I do think it’s more her problem. As far as I can tell, she never has had an orgasm — not even from masturbating, even with some Mighty Wurlitzer vibrators she bought and some fancy slim Italian model she paid serious money for. And the truth is, I don’t think she cares all that deeply whether she has ever experienced to much degree this thing called sex.

A few years back there was an interesting study that showed that sexual activity among women was inversely proportional to their educational level, which led to a very funny editorial cartoon I saw of a woman telling her husband in bed, “Not tonight, dear — I have a Ph.D.” My wife’s a post-doc. Not only that, she’s a successful businesswoman, so she’s constantly thinking and planning, even though we also have two children ages 7 and 3 (and an au pair). She thinks she doesn’t want to work so hard, but she has a drive big enough for three or four people. Just not for sex. And maybe, given how much sex and attraction has screwed up so many people’s lives, maybe she’s better off.

I’ve given up initiating, almost. Generally, she either wants it or she doesn’t, and if she does, she’ll let me know. If she doesn’t, nothing I do will change matters, and I end up feeling rejected. I masturbate a lot. Sometimes she wants it more than others, and comes on to me to make love. But I have to admit, I feel kind of resigned and not that enthusiastic anymore about it all, though I don’t think she knows this.

We’ve both gained weight over the years and we’re both trying to take it off right now — I miss her beautiful flat stomach, and maybe she misses that in me. She never had an amazingly sexy body though — but I’ve always loved it, because I loved her. Sometimes our flabby, almost 50 y.o. bodies strike me as a turn-off, as kind of absurd, although I have no trouble getting aroused when the occasion arises.

What I’m asking here is, is there any hope? You seem to have done some homework, talked to some “experts.” Can we ever have a great sex life? Even though she seems, once in a blue moon, to actually really want sex — or else she knows that if I don’t have it, I’ll go crazy or get truly weird — I think I feel cut down, in some basic way, that I can’t ever satisfy her (and man, I’ve tried at times until my fingers were sore and my tongue was sprained).

At my worst moments, I think that this is basically my fate — I have tremendous love, but I will never know what it’s like to satisfy a woman sexually (I was almost totally inexperienced when I got together with her). Once in a while I fantasize about a shapely, younger, sexually excited woman. I wonder what it might feel like to be a little dominant, in control, successful, not to be always so equal or so one-down to the woman in my life (even though she will freely admit she emotionally needs me enormously and could never even function without me).

We still have little kids. Her career is especially intense right now. Maybe life might become a little more relaxing and conducive to better sex later on, but I have my doubts. We’ve been together for so long, through so many stages, I’m not confident that it’s ever going to change that much, and my low expectations stance seems to keep the sexual peace best. On one level, I shouldn’t complain at all; having such an amazing partnership should be enough.

I’ve never been able to share this stuff this intimately with anybody, not even my closest friends, so thank you for this opportunity, at least. What do you think of all this?

Thanks,

Kerry (not my real name) Now I better get my taxes done.

I replied:

Hey, Kerry, thanks for reading!

What I’m asking here is, is there any hope?

I want to answer “yes,” but I’m going to have to say, “It depends,” because of this part of your question:

Can we ever have a great sex life?

You know what I’m going to say, don’t you? I’m going to say that the answer depends on what you consider a “great” sex life.

I think there is considerable hope in your situation because she is still actually initiating. One of the things that struck me as very important was the orgasm question.

You said, “As far as I can tell, she never has had an orgasm — not even from masturbating, even with some Mighty Wurlitzer vibrators she bought and some fancy slim Italian model she paid serious money for.”

To me the crucial words were “as far as I can tell.” Could she be having orgasms in private masturbation with these sex toys? The reason I ask is that it seems a little odd to lay down serious green on vibrators if she didn’t get significant pleasure.

This is the possibility I’m turning over in my mind: that she is the kind of woman who cannot have an orgasm when she’s being “watched” or when the orgasm is being engineered by someone else — even a very very Beloved and Trusted someone else. It’s similar to not being able to pee when there are others around who might hear or see you, or stuttering when someone is waiting for you to speak but not when you’re talking to yourself.

Many women also can’t stop thinking about how long they’re taking to “get there,” how hard their partner is trying, and what an inadequate female they are if they can’t come even when he’s wearing his fingers down to the nubs or getting cramps in his tongue in the effort to “make” her come. If a woman needs really major and continuous clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm — and a certain percentage of women do — she will often “give up” on the idea of ever having an O with a partner, because she can’t stand the embarrassment of needing so much “work,” or being reminded over and over again in intimate circumstances that she’s a lousy excuse for a Pornobabe.

Thinking of these things is a very special kind of “distraction.” But when she’s alone with a vibrator, there are no distractions. She can concentrate on her fantasies and her pleasure without worrying about what her partner is doing or thinking or wanting. For many women, being able to disconnect from those concerns is sometimes the difference between coming and not.

And I don’t mean to be insulting, but have you actually asked her if she’s ever had an orgasm? Given the circumstances I suspect here (and let’s be clear it’s only a suspicion and I could be totally wrong), I wouldn’t ask this question during a sexual encounter. I’d take it completely out of a possibly “threatening” context, perhaps during a quiet private dinner or some other occasion when you’re both feeling more relaxed than usual, and preface it with something like, “Can I ask you a very difficult question, dear? I won’t be upset and I don’t want you to be upset that I’m asking, but have you ever had an orgasm?” You two seem to have a good enough relationship otherwise that this might not be the “pressurizing” question it might seem for other couples whose basic relationship is shaky.

You want to make it clear that you are not just asking for yourself. You would like to know her heart and her body and her needs and pleasures, of course, but not because you want to “get to work” on her, or “fix” her or anything. Heaven forfend.

And you also need to ask if your perception that she doesn’t “care all that deeply whether she has ever experienced to much degree this thing called sex” is correct. It may be. Far be it from me to say that women — or men, for that matter — should always care desperately about having lots of sex and lots of orgasms in order to be considered “normal.”

But again, the investment in vibrators indicates to me that there is some interest there, that she has a basic concern about finding or maintaining a sexual self, in being a sexual person. Whether any such concern is self-generated or the result of outside influences, I don’t know.

Even though she seems, once in a blue moon, to actually really want sex — or else she knows that if I don’t have it, I’ll go crazy or get truly weird

I would tend to think that a woman who doesn’t initiate sex often has a genuine desire for it when she does. “Duty” sex is not the sort of thing women volunteer for, generally speaking. And maybe now’s the time to say that even non-orgasmic sex can be very nice for a woman in a variety of ways. Just being held and penetrated, not to mention enjoying being able to give YOU such pleasure, is a lovely experience on its own for some women. At the very least it tells her you still love her and you can still get it up for her and all that validation jazz. So I’d advise assuming that she really wants you to make love to her when she initiates.

Which is what gives me hope. If she volunteers, even if it’s only every once in a while, she’s still in the erotic game. What would be good to know is what prompts her to initiate sex. When does she approach you? What are the circumstances? Is it after a movie, or after she’s been reading a book? Is it after a bath and a glass of wine? Is it on vacation or when the kids are out of the house? Is it when she’s finished with a work project (celebration) or had a bad day (comfort)?

I think I feel cut down, in some basic way, that I can’t ever satisfy her (and man, I’ve tried at times until my fingers were sore and my tongue was sprained).

Again, we need to know if this is true. Have you really never “satisfied” her? Try not to think of “giving her an orgasm” or “making her come” as the only definition of HER satisfaction. It might very well be YOUR measure of “success,” and be something YOU really would love to experience (because it would validate you and fulfill your fantasies), but it may not be necessary from her side of the equation. In fact, your painful and extended efforts to achieve the Goal, make the Score, get your peak experience of “satisfying a woman sexually” might even be distressing, pressuring or distracting her in bed.

Once in a while I fantasize about a shapely, younger, sexually excited woman. I wonder what it might feel like to be a little dominant, in control, successful, not to be always so equal or so one-down to the woman in my life.

You know what? She might be wondering what it feels like to be momentarily dominated and “taken over” a little bit herself. Right now it seems you’re sort of waiting passively on her initiative and fretting a lot about her satisfaction. This is muy admirable, of course, but maybe, just maybe, she’d like to feel that you’re so incredibly turned on by her, that her sexual allure is just so irresistable, that you just can’t take the time to work obsessively on her orgasm or Think of Her Needs. With your actions you might say, “No production number tonight, my love. You are too beautiful and too sexy, and I am too turned on. I Have To Have You Now.”

Get it?

I don’t recommend this approach as a steady diet, of course, because it’s, well, selfish, but it could be the perfect change-up in this situation. Just a thought.

Julia

The reason I thought Kerry’s questions would provide a good introduction to the subject of misunderstanding was because I thought they were illustrative of how often we make ASSUMPTIONS about our spouses’ feelings, attitudes and erotic realities, assumptions that we then act on as if they have been confirmed.

The most common mistaken assumptions with relevance to our subject have to do with our partners’ conception of the relationship between sex and love. This was how it played out between my husband and me:

When I lost interest in sex very soon after we were married and began to decline intercourse, my husband reacted very badly. He fussed, he huffed, he fumed, he pushed out his lower lip and sulked. I felt that he was over-reacting, and it pissed me off. Since (as I’ve since realized) simmering and mostly subconscious anger was already contributing to my loss of libido (among other things, as I’ll get into later), my further irritation at his inability to be the tiniest bit mature and gracious about not always getting the sex when and how he wanted it only made things worse.

I couldn’t see why it was such a frippin’ Big Deal, why he had to be such a damn Crabass about it. So what if I was tired or not in the mood? Did he have to throw such fits? I thought, “He doesn’t care whether I have any erotic feelings or not. With these punitive histrionics he’s essentially demanding that I just lie down and let him stick it in, my desire be damned.”

And (my train of assumptions went) that meant he didn’t really Love me. His desire for sex was obviously “merely physical.” He just wanted to Use My Body to get off on (or in). Naturally, I didn’t like the idea of being his handy-dandy sexual appliance or nightly sleeping pill, and the anger got worse. I would “give in” some nights just to avoid the drama, while literally gritting my teeth.

Meanwhile HE was terrified that I had stopped loving HIM. Most men assume that any “normal” woman who loves a man will want to have sex with him, and lots of it. In fact, according to one particular form of this idea, any woman who’s really in love will be practicallly insatiable. Given that this was my husband’s fervent belief, when I didn’t want to have sex with him he assumed that I didn’t love him anymore.

He couldn’t understand what had happened. We had been having some great sex before we were married, and in fact my free enjoyment of bedtime was one of the things that attracted him to me in the first place, because his first marriage had been something of a sexual wasteland. And now it looked like his second venture into matrimony was going down the tubes the exact same way. What was wrong? Why wasn’t I as sexually playful as I’d been just a few months before? Could I already be having an affa — no, better not think about that!

No wonder he was going crazy.

And the thing was, from his point of view I also refused to explain it to him. Whenever he demanded to know why I didn’t want to have sex the same way and in the same quantity as before we were married, I told him, “I don’t know.” And I DIDN’T. It was a real, complete, deep, dark mystery to me why my sexual gettupandgo got up and went.

There had already been times when we were engaged when I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic (blow jobs in particular had started to seem more painful to my jaws the more they were taken for granted), and as I noted in the beginning I had even warned him that we would probably have to slack off a little on the daily schedule when “real life” got under way. Even then I didn’t understand where my erotic self was going.

The sexual conflict spilled over into other aspects of our life. He got wildly cranky and extremely critical of me on other grounds. He blew up (I’m talking stratospheric here) at what seemed to me to be the smallest frustrations, disappointments or disruptions. The only emotion he seemed capable of freely expressing — and he expressed it very freely — was anger. He acted some days as if I was deliberately making his life miserable, and his apparent hostility and routine over-reactions were making me more and more furious. I thought he was childish, selfish and outrageous, but Nice Girl that I was I kept my mouth shut and tried to be a Good Wife anyway — because I was also feeling guilty and frightened about my inadequate sexual responsiveness. My internalized rage and guilt only made me less and less interested in sex as time went on.

So the cycle escalated and became a vicious downward spiral. I refused sex because he was cranky and irritable, he got more critical and furious because I refused sex. And so on and so forth.

So the moral of today’s story is…

Women don’t realize that a lack of sex reduces a man’s ability to be patient and considerate with a woman.

Men don’t realize that a lack of consideration and patience reduces a woman’s sexual interest in a man.

In other words, to put it very baldly (and speaking generally, of course) sex helps maintain a man’s Love for a woman, and Love helps maintain a woman’s erotic responsiveness to a man.

Some other more common assumptive misunderstandings between couples have to do with what I call “frequency and character” issues. Both husband and wife will make assumptions about how often the other partner “really” wants to have sex and what kind of sex it “has” to be every time.

In time, my husband and I established a kind of truce about sex. Neither of us was particularly happy with our sex life, but he was resigned to not getting as much as he wanted and I was resigned to having sex on occasions when I wasn’t interested. It had already stopped being a major battleground when my libido started to perk up again.

But then, even as my erotic self began to come back to me, I hesitated to let my husband know that I was interested in having sex with him. There was not only the by-now familiar sense that I would somehow be surrendering some kind of Power in the relationship if I began to ask him for something, especially something I hadn’t wanted in the past, but there was also a concern that if we began to have more frequent sex, he would expect it to continue at the same frequency, or that more sex might even — uh oh — accelerate his desires.

So I’d have these internal debates with myself before I approached him sexually. I’d tote up how many times we’d had sex lately and ask myself if he would be satisfied with three times a week, or would getting it that often “hop up” his drive and expectations to the point that he’d want it four times next week and then five times the week after that? How much was going to be “enough” for him? Was there any limit to what he might expect? And wasn’t it even possible that having sex “too often” would make it less powerful or exciting for me, or that I would get bored with it again as it got more routine? And what if my nascent sex drive suddenly disappeared again? If I established a three-times-a-week precedent now, would we start with those frustrated fits and household hurricanes again if I wanted to back off later? I sure as hell didn’t want to risk that.

Notice that I never mentioned any of these concerns or calculations to my husband. I didn’t say a word, I just determined how to “ration” my sexual approaches to avoid the problems I simply assumed were going to arise if I started coming on to him more often.

Another assumptive misunderstanding I’ve heard a lot about is the one in which one member of the couple (or both!) assumes that sex always has to be a certain way or some kind of full production number every time. This is an assumption that is partly informed by comparing one’s own sex life to one portrayed in the culture as “normal” or “right.”

Like “Kerry,” many men these days have absorbed the idea that “giving” orgasms to their wives or “satisfying a woman” is some kind of sexual Holy Grail. Many women, on the other hand, have been told that if they don’t insist on getting an orgasm with every sexual act, they are Bowing To The Patriarchy or otherwise Letting The Side Down. But hey, what exactly is wrong with a woman indulging her husband with an occasional non-orgasmic “quickie”?

One woman told me that she didn’t offer them to her husband (even though there were times she wouldn’t have minded “making him happy by getting it over with fast”) because she assumed he would be too likely decide her orgasm was always optional and he’d be “too tempted to skip it” when she DID want one.

Much the same kind of thinking goes into some women’s reluctance to do “special” things for their husbands or let them use mechanical toys or vibrators. Their assumption is that “he will expect [the special treat] all the time” or “he’ll get lazy about [giving me an orgasm] the old-fashioned way.”
Other common “assumptive misunderstandings” are that one’s partner always prefers sex at a particular time of day, or that he or she will always expect (or NOT want) sex whenever certain things happen or certain conditions are met.

Couples also often assume that negotiating or making any kind of articulated “deal” about their sexual activity (for example, “if we can have sex every Saturday, I won’t bug you during the week”) is somehow an admission of erotic failure and a lack of Love. They assume that the only worthwhile (or moral?) sex is “spontaneous” and mutually enthusiastic. Never mind that an explicit consideration of a partner’s need for touch, relief and reassurance would be an excellent expression of Love in most moral systems, many people think that if they have to work out specific verbal agreements regarding when or where or how, it’s going to be False and Ugly and furthermore, it will probably guarantee they’ll never have spur-of-the-moment sex again.

The common thread in all these problems is that the partners are forming and maintaining assumptions without ever entertaining the possibility, much less ever asking each other whether those assumptions might be incorrect. The best way to avoid misunderstandings of this kind, of course, is to open one’s mouth and SAY, “You may think this is nuts, but I’ve been thinking….”

Embarrassing? Difficult? RISKY? Maybe. But if you never ask, you’ll never know.

However….

Talking About It

Many women don’t like to talk about their sexual needs and responses out loud. Some of that reluctance might be because they feel that talking about it takes the “magic” out of the whole business. Talking about thaaat is crass, it’s ugly, it’s not romantic. In their dreams, their Hero knows what will perfectly satisfy them and doesn’t have to be told. We’ve also been taught since teenhood that men’s sexual egos are fragile beyond belief, that your penises and your masculine mystiques have to be coddled and nurtured and treated very, very delicately, or you will collapse, blow up, or leave us flat. *

Talking about sex also makes some of us self-conscious. Me, for instance. If I’ve recently talked about a certain act with my husband, about how I like some kind of touch or enjoyed a particular part of a recent encounter, when we do that same thing again, I’m likely to remember the conversation, and that can distract me from what’s going on in the present moment. Being one of the more distractable women on the planet (maybe I have ADD?), thinking about myself thinking about having a recent conversation about what I’m doing can be enough to derail a moment. I also feel that talking about sex with my husband tends to make him more of a detached “observer” of my reactions, and I am distracted by THAT image as well.

I usually don’t like to be asked directly about what I want, or what I liked and didn’t like. Yes, even now that my little red wagon is all fixed and everything. Heh. Conversation and direct inquiry still makes me uncomfortable. I remain a product of my upbringing and life experience. I guess you can get the frigidity out of the suburban matron, but you can’t get the suburbanity out of the matron. I will volunteer sexual information to my husband when I’m feeling sexy and comfortable, but he can’t give me the third degree (and I almost always remember the conversation the next time we do that particular thing…sigh).

I would also warn you that many, many women especially do not like to be teased about their sexual performances or reactions. If you are joking around about how hot you made her or the noises she made when she came, what you’re doing is beating your own chest at her expense. She might even smile or go along with it, because to be disagreeable when you’re bragging about your sexual prowess is Against the Rules. But that doesn’t mean she actually likes it. She might even HATE it. A lot.

* I liked how commenter Jeff addressed the “delicate male ego” mythology.

About this ego thing.. If there is any feature commonly found in women is this insistance on sparing our (my feelings). Nothing, and I mean nothing, enrages me more than being denied the chance to honestly react to reality, to *deal*, to feel the hurt and get past it.

The reason? It seems so selfish of them. Thats right, selfish. They don’t do it to make it easier for us to get through life, they do it to make it easier on themselves. So that our reactions don’t cause problems. I guess something happens to women, that they feel they have to manipulate men, even ones they care about. I suppose they think of managing them, but its basicly just aborting and denying the natural emotional responses of men for their own comfort.

Jeff, you’re right, but what you’re seeing is not something that only women do. Anybody does it who is insecure in their relationship or their place in the world. Men do it too. They don’t express certain things in order to save themselves grief from their wives.

Some of this interpersonal delicacy and reluctance is only right. It isn’t productive to air every little dissatisfaction and gripe we feel in life. Can you imagine the non-stop pissing and moaning if we all cut loose with absolute honesty? But in an intimate partnership there should also be limits on “being nice” for the sake of peace. When it gets to the point where you’re both limiting your communication so much that neither of you are really being honest about ANYTHING any more — or worse, the only thing you’re being honest about are the routine irritations of the daily slog — you’re in major trouble.

COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG POST:
I suspect that a lot of the talk of men’s “fragile egos” comes from women who never learned how to criticize without insulting, and then wonder why their men don’t want to hear it. In counseling, this is known as “negative honesty” – yes, it’s honest; yes, it’s the truth; but there is more than one way to say something, as anyone who has to tell his boss he is wrong will attest, and as most of the above-mentioned women will say whenever they find themselves on the receiving end of criticism.I’ve been explicitly and sometimes harshly criticized on many subjects, sexual and non-sexual, by many people, and only my wife’s criticism leaves me feeling both stupid and resentful. Everyone else’s criticism leaves me feeling like there’s real hope for improvement.

Raging Bee 11/12/03; 10:38:40 AM
Once again, PTW, you’ve said it clearly and concisely. Those who want to be brutally honest seem more interested in the brutality than the honesty. Is it because we are closer to these people, have more on the line, that we have opened up ourselves to them? Does that make us more vulnerable, and more sensitive when the criticism comes? Or is it just that, since they see us day in and day out, they are less likely to temper their criticism, and give it to us without padding the rough edges? I don’t know the answer, but I can relate to the feelings of stupidity and inadequacy, and the resentment that sweeps over me after my wife criticizes me for something I did or didn’t do, or did in a sloppy manner.

Harry 11/12/03; 11:47:49 AM
Harry: thanks for the compliment. I can’t come up with a precise answer to your questions. Part of it may be that women feel forced to be kind and tactful to others, and feel they have a right, or a need, to drop the tact and cut loose on their men. Another part – at least for some women – is pure fear: they feel they NEED their men to be a certain way, because the relationship is so close, and the stakes are so high, and therefore they use ALL the verbal force they can muster to get what they need, to be ABSOLUTELY SURE that their men don’t get complacent or confident enough to be able to stand up for themselves. (I admit I’m speaking from an extreme – sometimes abusive – personal experience here; but I suspect that my own experience is an extreme form of something present in most relationships to some degree.)

Raging Bee 11/13/03; 6:40:54 AM
Again, Pony, it’s not only WOMEN who use verbal force or attempt to intimidate their partners with whatever “weapons” they can get their hands on. Men do it, too.You are absolutely correct that fear is the motivator for all behaviors of this kind: fear that the relationship cannot be sustained by Love, therefore Power has to be used.

And of course, the more we use Power on our nearest and dearest, the more it HAS to be used and the less chance Love has to break the cycle.

Sad, isn’t it?

Julia Grey 11/13/03; 7:11:45 AM
>Talking about sex also makes some of us self-conscious. Me, for instance.This is interesting. It makes talking about not having sex easier than talking about having sex. One of those reasons I am all for “getting in touch with your inner slut”. Really, learning to revel in your responses and interests – even your reactions, is probably the greatest gift you can bestow upon yourself. Let the “observer” draw from your heat and feed it back to you; and get very used to it, so that revelling is a lot more normal than closing off.

Roy Kay 11/14/03; 4:52:37 AM
There is a great difference between knowing that one SHOULD do something and being able to do it.I think I’ve made great progress on this issue over the span of my sexual life, and I’m still making progress. Some things — especially relaxation and openness! — simply cannot be forced by merely willing them to happen.

I know you mean well, Roy, dear, but sometimes you’re a dreadful scold.

Julia Grey 11/14/03; 7:47:41 AM
I quite agree that willing something doesn’t necessarily make it happen. What I am noting is that this is a function of self-training. Presumably, prior to marriage, no such inhibitions were there. It is the marriage (or monogamy) that has triggered the “squelch” button.My thinking is that this is a function of the switching circuit and that the choice is to either chase the circuit down and rewire it, or replace it with something else. Yep. That’s a poly promo, though it may allow for a lucrative mono-engineering contract for someone if sold on a T&M basis. 😉

Roy Kay 11/14/03; 9:53:58 AM
Presumably, prior to marriage, no such inhibitions were there. It is the marriage (or monogamy) that has triggered the “squelch” button.You once again presume incorrectly. I have NEVER liked to talk about sexual specifics with my partners, before or after my marriage.

But it has become easier now in this “second stage” of my erotic life. So actually, in my case at least, working within this turrrrible constraint of monogamy (and the deep relationship of real trust that after all these years I could finally believe it afforded me) has begun a “cure” for a hesitation I’ve ALWAYS had.

Julia Grey 11/15/03; 3:04:03 PM

And speaking of ASSUMPTIONS…..

“Being Coldly Logical”

Here’s another email:

Julia,

I find your website interesting and even helpful. I hope this isn’t too weird, but I started to think about the battle of the sexes in logical terms – what I think is called game theory, although I’m not a mathematician. This may be the strangest email you’ve ever gotten on this topic, but give the following argument a chance…

Let’s consider the decision of whether or not a married couple will have sex – so you have 2 choices, as a couple, yes or no. Let’s assume, since they “love” each other, that the couple should choose the choice that yields the greatest amount of happiness for the wife and husband added together, as a unit. And let’s grade the amount of happiness that a choice brings to each person on a scale from negative 10 to positive 10, in which (-10) is extremely painful (say, breaking both legs in a car accident), (0) yields complete indifference, and (+10) yields extreme pleasure (say, the best meal you’ve ever eaten).

Suppose a typical couple in which the husband is a red-blooded male who loves sex, and the wife, although she has less interest, claims “no, really, I like it once we get into it, it’s just …” Let’s do the math:

Have sex?   Wife Happiness   Husband Happiness  Total Happiness

Yes          -2                      +5               +3

No            0                      -2               -2

Note, I’ve been very conservative in assigning happiness scores – I assumed the husband won’t have that great a time if he knows the wife isn’t enjoying herself, so sex is only +5; I also assumed the wife enjoys sex less than she claims, and actually finds it mildly unpleasant at -2; I assumed the wife doesn’t feel guilty (God forbid! Guilt is an instrument of oppression!) for denying her husband a good time, and so No Sex = 0. I did assume the husband is unhappy at being rejected, and let me assure you this score was quite conservative as well. But this calculation still suggests that the “rational” couple, functioning as a unit, would choose to have sex.


So why don’t wives see it this way? Are they irrational? Actually, no. I think the reasons people don’t behave this way are due to several errors in my model:

1. Some women hate sex (at least sex with their hubby) far more than they admit, even to themselves, so it’s more of a (-8) experience, not just (-2).

2. More likely, it’s this: “Wife Happiness” is more important than “Husband Happiness”, or even “Total Happiness”.

My big picture assumption, a few paragraphs above, that “the couple should choose the choice that yields the greatest amount of happiness for the wife and husband added together, as a unit” is not how people act – because PEOPLE ARE SELFISH. All that crap about “Love means it makes me happy when you are happy” is a big lie.

Pretty depressing … maybe I’m just naive.

First of all, this:

Let’s assume, since they “love” each other, that the couple should choose the choice that yields the greatest amount of happiness for the wife and husband added together, as a unit

is not the way most humans make choices.

It’s not just that people are selfish. It’s true that we all tend to value our own happiness more than that of others, and usually more than shared happiness, too. But a more important consideration for all of us is avoiding unpleasantness or pain or distaste of any kind. This is just the way we’re made as animals. Remembering and staying away from negative experiences is a hard-wired function of our brains, because it was essential to our survival in our evolutionary past. So avoiding pain or discomfort tends to be FAR more important to most of us than any positive considerations. It comes first in any calculation of choices. It’s the main reason why many people cannot or will not accept current pain in return for future rewards.

A tablespoon of bitter will ruin a bucket of sweet.

So (pretending for a moment that any of this can actually be quantified) the negatives in these calculations should probably be multiplied by at least 10 to be anywhere near a realistic look at the values that are assigned to them by people in everyday life.

There’s also a big difference between DOING something, putting forth a muscular, mental or emotional effort, and NOT DOING something. All other things being equal, our natural bias is toward remaining passive or actively deciding against an activity. So refusal is just easier in terms of our energy reserves.

The larger problem here, of course, is that this kind of “coldly logical” calculation is indicative of a hopeless, adversarial attitude, and constitutes a negative experience in and of itself. Looking at things in this light is likely to only add more bitterness to your bucket.

COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG POST:
So, the man’s allowed to get “brownie points” for feeling bad about his wife not enjoying it (the +5 score instead of a +10 for having sex), but the woman doesn’t get any “resentment points” and only feels that it’s “mildly unpleasant” to have sex when she just don’t f*cking want to have sex? Or, that NOT having sex is just neutral to her? Maybe not having sex is to her really a +10, and is tempered by guilt into only a +5? This guy may be conservative on assessing the man’s point of view, but I think he’s being extremely liberal with the assessment on her side.

catnmus 2/3/04; 2:00:33 PM
I guess I’m a bit baffled by this blog, which seems to be based on the assumption that men are ogres who want sex almost always, and women are prudes who want sex almost never. I’m a married woman who enjoys sex just as much as my husband does. When we have sex, it’s fun for both of us, and it’s never something we use as a bargaining tool. And we’re not newlyweds–we’ve been together for more than eight years, married for a little over three. Sex is a really great way to escape the outside world and have a good, loving, intimate, FUN time with one’s partner. Why must it be a battle? Isn’t this idea that women DON’T want to have sex and men DO want to have sex painfully outdated? Last time I checked, women enjoyed orgasms just as much as men.

michelle 2/3/04; 4:23:03 PM
Hmmm, I just read the What To Do piece posted on Nov. 21…maybe this is why I’m one of those women who absolutely loves having sex with her husband. My husband is funny, which goes a very long way, and he shows he cares about me in small ways dozens of times a day. But I do the same for him as well. We both work a lot of hours on the job, but I still find time to bake for him, for no other reason than the fact that it makes him happy, so why not? And he still finds time to pick up a little gift every now and then (I’m not talking expensive jewelry here, I’m talking a funny hat or something of that nature). And I buy lingerie pretty frequently because it’s FUN to have sexy new things to wear. I think a healthy sexual relationship within a marriage has to do with each partner really caring about the spouse’s happiness on an everyday basis, not obsessing over the ways in which your partner has failed you. Marriage does require one to be unselfish, but if both people are equally invested in the marriage, it shouldn’t be that difficult to put the other person’s feelings first, should it?

michelle 2/3/04; 4:34:29 PM
Back in the day when I was single, “having sex” usually rated far, far worse than a -2, and handily outweighed any positive to the guy I didn’t want to have sex with (even if I thought him otherwise a pleasant guy or even considered him a friend). So, I suppose I can see how something (whether it’s pain, utter fatigue, feeling humiliated about how you stack up in bed, or whatever) could make sex an unpleasant enough experience (whether for husband or wife) to outweigh one’s desire to please.

Lynn Gazis-Sax 2/3/04; 7:05:19 PM
Like Michelle, I don’t particularly relate to the experience of being any less interested in sex than my husband, but on the other hand, I do find some of what Julia says on target as far as the kinds of things which I need to make sex work for me, or the kinds of things that would make my sexual interest less. I could imagine being the wife who doesn’t want to have sex under other circumstances; as it is now, though, in sixteen years of marriage this has never really been my worry (though I still enjoy reading this site).

Lynn Gazis-Sax 2/3/04; 7:51:55 PM
It seems from the formula the writer describes winning and losing. He plays tug o’ war with the final goal of pulling the flag to his side. I am a man that can only ask: “Why play the game?”

Genuine 2/3/04; 8:33:12 PM
For Michelle and Lynn: The name of this blog says it all. The people who are interested in this are, for the most part, males who are married to women with low or no sex drive. If you are in a great marriage having great sex, why are you here?As for the calculator method in the article, the woman’s number ends up being the significant one, because she is, in essence, the gatekeeper. If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Harry 2/4/04; 9:52:45 AM
Amen Harry!

Genuine 2/4/04; 5:20:53 PM
After lurking on this blog for quite some time, I have to come out and say that I agree with Geniune. Men have a tendency to “keep score” by mentally — or literally! — tallying how many times they have wanted to have sex and wound up not getting it, or tallying the times they *got* sex, but she wasn’t “into” it. This tallying in the Sex-I-Got-This-Week(Month/Year)-And-In-The-Manner-I-Desire column automagically creates a column called What-I-Give-Her-In-Order-To-Get-Sex column. If you are keeping tabs on the first column, I guarantee that your wife knows about it, that she knows about the other column, and RESENTS the fact that either exist.

I know, because I did it for years. You will never win this game. Ever. EVER. EH-VURRRRRRRR.

Does this change the fact that sex is, for many men, their number one need? Of course not. But if this results in a husband’s behavior that says “You aren’t meeting my need!” the wife sure as hell won’t respond. It’s like the argument between the Sun and the Wind. The Wind says, “I bet I can get the coat off that old man down there.” The Sun says, “You’re on.” The Wind blows and howls, but the man pulls his coat tighter and tighter around himself. The Wind gives up and the Sun beams brightly on the man. Of course, the man starts to get warm, then begins to sweat and eventually takes his coat off.

I’m learning the hard way that the whole point is to bring something valuable to the table EARLY and OFTEN. Not *in order to get something* but because you love your wife. End of story.

Duke 2/4/04; 8:07:13 PM
I guess my comment came out differently from how I meant it, Harry. What I meant was that even though I am not, now, in the situation of having a lower sex drive than my husband (I’ve been the one not wanting sex, but it was premarriage, and not with the man I wound up marrying), and so can understand where Michelle is coming from, I still see this weblog as worthwhile for people who are in that situation.I agree with Michelle that husbands don’t always want more sex than wives, but so what? Julia never says that what she writes applies to all marriages; she says it applies specifically to the ones where the husband wants sex and the wife doesn’t. I can even see myself in some of what she writes; I’m not a constant sex drive, always up for sex no matter what kind of person, but I have a husband who doesn’t need that from me.

I’m here because this is the one blog I’ve seen that talks about marital sex and communication at all, and so, even if it doesn’t directly address my own marriage, it still interests me. Who knows, I might even run across something that’s useful. But if I don’t, I won’t blame Julia for not writing for me; no one can write for everyone’s marriage.

Lynn Gazis-Sax 2/4/04; 10:45:11 PM
Lynn: I wasn’t trying to scare you and Michelle away. I’m glad there are all types of people here and, like you, am trying my best to glean information that I can use in my own life. Sometimes that information comes from Julia. Sometimes it comes from other men in similar situations. And sometimes it comes from people like you.Duke: I really enjoyed your post. No doubt those columns exist and that my wife knows they exist and resents them. But you’re right, it’s a game I will never win. Of course once you do something nice, for whatever purpose (e.g. the laundry, cooking dinner, etc.), it seems to become your job FOREVER. Then, you stop getting any recognition at all, except for when you screw it up. That really stinks.

Harry 2/5/04; 6:01:54 AM
Harry, I know exactly how that process goes and so does the rest of America. After all, it’s the premise of at least one episode on every sit-com ever made, right?This is where the importance of communication comes in and it’s harder than anything else that talked about on this blog. If the situation exists that you feel slighted because you’re not getting the recognition (i.e., sex) for “bringing something valuable to the table” then it needs to be discussed. *How* you discuss it is key, right? How many times have you tried to bring it up and it blew up in your face?

Clearly, I’m not bringing any answers to this forum (yet?). If I had the answers, I wouldn’t even be here.

But, you see my point…

Duke 2/5/04; 6:57:18 AM
Like Lynn, I read this column because it’s interesting, and it has an eye-catching title. And I think there’s loads of good stuff here, Julia’s take on things being very well-written and thoughtful.The point of my first post was simply that we hear so often in our culture about men being more interested in sex than women, and I think the battle lines are too simply drawn. I know many women who are just as sexual as their male partners, or moreso.

What I liked about the Nov. 21 post was that Julia nailed what a good and loving husband is. It was all really common sense stuff, but it’s sad that so many husbands, apparently, need to be told this, because one would think that a man who really loves his wife would simply know to be kind and caring, just as a woman who loves her husband would know to be kind and caring. Sounds simplistic, but it all comes down to what a marriage is for the two partners: is it a battleground in which each person fights the other one in order to get what he/she wants? Or is it a haven from the outside world?

As a woman, I certainly wouldn’t want to be married to a guy who isn’t sweet enough to show affection and tenderness outside of the bedroom. But I also wouldn’t want to be married to a person who thinks of sex as a commodity to be traded for good behavior, rather than as an enjoyable form of expression.

I guess I’m a little starry-eyed and simplistic, but we get married for a reason, right? At some point in our lives, we look at this person and think that he or she is so wonderful, so much a part of who we are, that we want to spend our lives together. They make us happy, and we want to make them happy. What happens, then, that turns sex into a battle?

michelle 2/5/04; 7:13:44 AM
This game theory-like matrix makes no sense. It’s self-justifying and thus has no value except as a tool for arguing the point of view it “proves”. The values assigned are totally subjective. This isn’t a model, just a way of making an argument look “scientific”.

jonathank 2/5/04; 4:55:26 PM
When Courting, it never was a game to win or lose. I had no “columns” or objective signs or negatives or positives. It was all positive. Then the marriage line is cross and things change. The surroundings are changed. The outside world works its way in to begin chipping away at the sexual foundation formed prior to the marriage. I remember a story or possibly urban legend of taking a jar and beans before marriage, and each time you had sex, you put in a bean. The process after marriage is taking a bean out each time. I have been married 5 years now and I could feed the homeless a good dose of bean soup! Does the ring finger trigger a response? Of course in my case, you throw in a 4 year old girl a 2 year old boy, and a hat trick due in July, and… Nevermind, I answered my own question. Is this myth or is it something that is triggered by a chemical reaction? I hate to get legal here, but isn’t this some sort of material misrepresentation of the marriage contract I entered into?

Genuine 2/5/04; 6:39:11 PM
Actually, the game theory-like matrix isn’t too far from how I felt about people pressuring me too much for sex before marriage, only in reverse. My point of view was, hey, having sex with me under these circumstances can’t really be more than a +2 for you, and missing this one sexual opportunity can’t really be worse than a -2, whereas me having sex when I don’t want to is much worse than a -2. Anyone who really understood the situation, I figured, would know that having sex when you don’t want to is worse than not having sex when you want to, and anyone who respected me ought to respect that.Of course, you’d hope that when you are actually married, and presumably at one time actually both really liked the idea of having sex with each other, that it wouldn’t turn into this kind of battle. But, jonathank is right, once it does turn into a battle, the values on that game theory-like matrix are pretty darn subjective.

Lynn Gazis-Sax 2/6/04; 11:33:15 PM
You know, stuff like this matrix gives science a bad name. The conclussions drawn by the author are inappropriate and it has nothing to do with sex. This example is like saying that if someone has to undergo mild electric shocks to make another person very happy, they should do it. Or if a group of 100 people get a really big kick out of killing a single individual, that should be okay. This isn’t the society I want to live in, thanks all the same. This is just plain flawed logic.Most normal men would not want to have sex with a woman who was doing it solely out of sense of obligation, that is without pleasure.

Jimoak 2/8/04; 3:42:25 PM
I’m with Jonathank and Jimoak; this game-theory matrix contributes nothing at all to the discussion. That is, unless the two partners can sit down together and negotiate what “scores” to put into the matrix. But if you can do that, you probably don’t have much of a problem, but you soon will if you’re this concerned about the score in the game.

Ted 2/8/04; 8:41:28 PM
Another thing I wanted to say was that Julia’s quite right about the subjective weighting of avoiding potential near-future pain. I think most people would probably rate the pain they fear much worse than the same experience after it’s done.And pleasure and pain certainly don’t belong on a symmetric scale. That’s evident in the examples originally given to calibrate the scale. “The best meal you’ve ever eaten” is nothing but a memory the next morning, but breaking both your legs is weeks or months of painful recovery.

Ted 2/8/04; 9:09:17 PM
I’m the guy who submitted the original “game theory” post, which seems to have been taken way too literally. I did not mean to imply that it is healthy for people to “keep score” with regard to anything, whether it be sex or housework. My point was this: if you really, truly love someone in an emotionally mature way, YOU should get pleasure out of making THEM happy. And if you don’t, maybe you should reconsider whether you really love them after all. I mean, okay, maybe pleasing your partner is not enough to offset something you find unpleasant, i.e., it does NOT mean that you should therefore “lie back and think about England” whenever the old mans wants it. But that the other person’s feelings should at least be considered. For example, I didn’t really want to take my 3-year old son to the zoo yesterday in 20 degree weather. But he wanted to go, so I did it, and seeing how much he enjoyed it definitely made it worthwhile. Why can’t marriage be more like that?

Patrick 2/8/04; 10:54:47 PM
Hey Patrick,Sorry I dumped on your use of game theory as a tool to better understand marital discord. It was just another case of my misplaced anger arising out of sexual frustration.

And besides, you did stimulate some good discusion.

Jimoak 2/9/04; 8:04:57 PM
Patrick, your “game theory” post was spoken like any other man. We all certainly knew from where your argument originated. I have had that discussion in my head a number of times. It spurred some good comments that caused more thought. For that, thanks. Keep those ideas coming.Getting to your analogy of the 20 degree day at the zoo, would you like the zoo very much if your son wanted to go everyday and the weather was still 20 degrees, everyday? After the second or third year, somehow zoos don’t seem to get the same result.

Genuine 2/9/04; 8:44:50 PM
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One Response to “Misunderstanding”

  1. SaneHubby Says:

    Julia Grey writes:

    “When I lost interest in sex very soon after we were married and began to decline intercourse,…”

    “And the thing was, from his point of view I also refused to explain it to him. Whenever he demanded to know why I didn’t want to have sex the same way and in the same quantity as before we were married, I told him, “I don’t know.” And I DIDN’T. It was a real, complete, deep, dark mystery to me why my sexual gettupandgo got up and went.”

    Ms. Grey, your word choices are telling. “When I lost interest” … you write as if you’re talking about something external over which you have no control, like the weather, or the economy.

    But that’s bunk, because this was internal to you, you’re an active participant in charge of your own life, not some innocent bystander. In short, you retain full agency over yourself, in all your life’s aspects.

    So let me suggest what might really have been going on. (I don’t know you, or your husband, so this might be complete bunk. Or not. Your mileage may vary.)

    The root cause appears to be that you bought into the old fashioned notion that sex is a commodity, and that the wife is the gatekeeper who controls it.

    Evidence: Just look at your internal dialogue after your libido came back:

    “There was not only the by-now familiar sense that I would somehow be surrendering some kind of Power in the relationship if I began to ask him for something…”

    “I’d tote up how many times we’d had sex lately and ask myself if he would be satisfied with three times a week…”

    “I just determined how to “ration” my sexual approaches to avoid the problems I simply assumed were going to arise if I started coming on to him more often….”

    Your word choices here again are quite telling. The assumption underlying these words and phrases appears to be that you have sole agency, that you are the gatekeeper who will dole out sexual favors to your husband, at a time, place, and frequency of your choosing.

    So we have gone from your initial words above, where you wrote as if you have no agency, to a perspective that is 180 degrees opposite, where you have sole agency.

    My point is not that you’re being inconsistent, or manipulative, or bitchy or a bait-and-switch saleswoman, although your husband, especially at that time in your lives together, could be forgiven for thinking all these labels might well apply. After all, who among us (certain masochists excluded) would like to be treated like a pet, being forced to beg for favors and scraps, which are then handed out when the owner/gatekeeper feels like it?

    Rather, my point is that the real truth is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes: You do have some agency in the matter, but it is limited.

    So for example: There were (and are) probably hormonal factors at play that affect your libido, many of which you have little control over, hence some portions of your comments resembled you talking about the weather or the economy.

    But even though you could not articulate why your libido failed shortly after your husband put a ring on your finger, you also retained some agency in the matter: You loved your husband and made the effort to bridge the communication gap, to understand his needs and your fears, and to take action together with your husband to help reach a mutual, if initially awkward, compromise that allowed your relationship to continue.

    For me, that last part is key: You wanted a mutually fulfilling relationship with your husband, and you and he then talked and took steps together to build and sustain that relationship. I applaud that, and I salute you for it.


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