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.



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.

“Being Coldly Logical”

Yes, I’m still desperately busy here, but I just had to show you this email I got today.


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.     … continued …

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Misunderstanding: More on Kerry’s Questions

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.     … continued …

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Insecurity: What is her PROBLEM??

Here’s a common situation “Steve” outlined in the Comments sidebar to one of my earliest posts:

Man wants sex more than woman. Man seeks to find occasional sexual release in masturbation to pictures of other women. Woman throws giant fit, throws out magazines etc. Man feels woman is trying to completely control all sex by setting herself up as only provider, sees masturbation as harmless. Woman feels jealous, hurt and betrayed; feels threatened by masturbation. Man feels he has lost all control of sex life with woman completely in driver’s seat. Sex between them deteriorates.

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: as much as I understand and sympathize with what’s going on in this woman’s head (something similar having gone on in mine once upon a time), she is not behaving well. At all. She has unreasonable expectations and is making unfair demands. She is W.R.O.N.G., and that spells “stoopit.”

There you go. Do you feel better now? I’m glad.

Now the less happy news: knowing that the woman is wrong in this situation might make the guy feel deliciously righteous and nobly long-suffering, but it does absolutely nothing … zero, zip, zilch, nada … to solve his basic problem. Let me repeat that in starker terms (because it can’t be over-emphasized): sitting around seething in virtue and moaning about how unfair women can be has never, ever in the entire history of the universe gotten a man laid.

So the guy’s strategy has to be to think the situation through and decide on something to DO rather than simply feel sorry for himself. The thinking part is crucial, because a (justifiably) angry person who is not thinking is likely to respond to this complex and hurtful situation with impulsive, destructive, counterproductive crankassity hostility. He might even throw a “giant fit.” Or several.

But as satisfying throwing fits might be to any done-wrong guy’s immediate feelings, a steady diet of hostility + reaction to hostility + more hostility is not going to improve his sex life. You may already be seeing the results of this kind of vicious cycle in your own marriage. Like it or not, and as much as it might interfere with your idea of What Should Be, breaking these kinds of emotional spirals requires ONE of you to use adult and disciplined brainpower in the struggle against furious emotion. Guess who it’s gonna have to be? (At least at first.)

Steve has offered a couple of places to start the thinking process. One is to acknowledge that the man’s sense of control over his own sexual enjoyment and expression is a fundamental part of the impasse: “Man feels woman is trying to completely control all sex by setting herself up as the only provider” and “Man feels he has lost all control of sex life with woman completely in driver’s seat.” Another place to start trying to analyze the situation is the man’s knowledge that the woman is acting the way she’s acting because she’s feeling “jealous, hurt and betrayed.” Why she should feel that way about his merely recreational jerking off while looking at pictures of women who are utter strangers to them both is what has him puzzled — and severely annoyed.

Human beings, living as we do in sentient appreciation of the uncertainty of nature and the randomness of our fate, have a very fundamental, irresovable existential problem: we are hag-ridden by insecurity. The thing we hate most of all is admitting that we cannot, in fact, make the universe do our bidding, or worse, that someone else can make us do theirs. As a result we, all of us, male and female, put an extraordinary premium on feeling some sense of control over ourselves, our environment and — most unpredictable and dangerous of all — other people.

The only thing on earth that can diminish this grasping, desperate and constant need for some sense of control (over something, someone, somewhere, somehow) is… you guessed it … L.O.V.E. Love, giving and receiving, soothes the essential ache of insecurity. So now it’s time to put the big, face-smackin’, outrageously obvious point on this post: what Steve’s man and woman are really responding to, in their own peculiar and roundabout ways, is a sense that their partner no longer loves them. Because it is only when we start to give up on love in a relationship that we begin to seek power.

Now when I say people seek power when they become unsure of love (and a guy can become very unsure of love when a woman doesn’t want to have sex with him), I don’t mean that this is a conscious process. Nobody in Steve’s scenario is thinking, “By golly, I’m gonna get OVER on that bitch/bastard!” If we could all recognize our instinctive motivations that clearly and admit them to ourselves that frankly, life would be much easier for all of us — albeit also a lot less interesting. Where would art be without repression?

So that’s what we’re dealing with here: two people who are hurt and feeling betrayed because they suspect that the person who was Supposed to love them forever doesn’t. Two people whose natural “background” level of existential insecurity has just taken an enormous jump into high-blood-pressure territory. It’s “fight or flight” time, and humans, whose personal pride is an essential bulwark against their knowledge of uncertainty, are notorious for choosing “fight.” So the woman has a fit (demonstrates aggression) and throws out the dirty magazines (disposes of the threat).

But this is the mystery to you: WHY do these magazines threaten her? You could understand it if she was jealous in regard to a real-life woman, who might actually succeed in seducing you away, but what the hell is the problem with a little porn? It’s not like you’re having any kind of genuine relationship with those glossy pictures, is it? You’re not going to leave her and go live happily ever after with a photograph!     … continued …

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THIS is why

Here’s another letter from one of my “fans.”

What a sad article you wrote.

And yes, I am bitter and angry, but more importantly I’m ready to tell it like it is to anyone willing to listen.

No, I’m not a beer swilling, football watching, fat lazy lay-around-the-house-and-pass-gas kind of guy. Quite the opposite. Not trying to brag through the anonymity of email, but I’m a good looking, college educated enterpreneur that is able to pretty much do whatever I want and when I want to, at least for the last few years. That goes for my wife as well.

By that, I mean she benefits enormously from my success. She doesn’t have to work, she refuses to work in the yard, she does minimal housework/cooking, leaving her only real responsibility in life to care for our 6 yr old daughter, who incidentally, is in pre-school the better part of the week. What a life she has. If only I could have achieved our level of comfort by doing what little she has had to do.

And there are many women in her situation, or at least in part. They have a man who provides a life of luxury (or at least extreme comfort) for them. Yet they refuse to have sex with their husband. Or at least they complain, or find an excuse, any excuse, not to satisfy their husband sexually. We’ve all heard the stories you alluded to in your articles, the jokes about how your sex life goes down hill after marriage etc. It is all true to be certain.

And the fact of the matter… women owe it to us. They owe us sexual satisfaction. Especially the women I described above.     … continued …

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Comments on “Anger”

COMMENTS from the original blog on the “Anger”post
Before you can get to “why your wife won’t have sex with you” you have to find said wife, and before you can do that there’s courtship rituals and mating dances and meeting in-laws and writing pre-nups, and before you can get to that, there’s dating and talking to women and meeting girls, and long before any of that happens or is even possible there is this extreme physical need, every day immediately upon waking and lasting until I finally get to sleep, to sink my aroused phallus up inside some female flesh; it’s usually always on, roaring and ready to go, and easily reinvigorated just by looking at pretty faces and breasts poking out from under cloth. I am man and this is what it’s like. So while you’re crying, cry for me too.

Apologist • 4/5/03; 8:05:00 PM

extreme, yes.

Apologist • 4/5/03; 8:19:34 PM

Very interesting. I haven’t read all of it yet, so this might be covered, but does it make any note of the evolutionary reasons for women’s control of sex? It’s generally the same in the lower animal kingdom: males seek, females choose.

The basic reason is because the potential costs for each sex act are far greater for the female of the species.

Will try to read more during the next few days.

Julia Grey • 4/5/03; 8:38:06 PM

P.S. I ain’t cryin’.

Julia Grey • 4/5/03; 8:41:07 PM

Over my nearly 50 years on the planet I have seen numerous examples of what you have described here from both sides of the equation. The two things that have surprised me the most are: the number of women who put up with the situation and the number of men who have been led to expect such a division of labor by their mothers.

A bizarre combination of these that I have seen over and over is the wife and mother who is running a constant battle with her husband over the household chores while requiring her son to do next to nothing, thereby perpetuating the problem. Another generation of young men are produced who see cleaning a toilet bowl as woman’s work. 

Steve • 4/7/03; 4:56:55 PM

 What’s almost worse is the woman who resents having to do all the daily crap, but in her secret heart doesn’t WANT him to do anything because then she won’t have the moral advantage.

Again, having the moral advantage only becomes that important to a woman when she thinks the love is going or gone. 

Julia Grey • 4/7/03; 5:18:44 PM

Interesting series so far. As a single male, it behooves me to pay attention to these sorts of things before they’re an issue. A useful look at what the years to come may bring.  On the flip side, it makes me want to go hug my computer and sign up for *those* channels on cable, then never leave the house again. 

Thank you for sharing your perspective and thoughts on these matters, Julia.

Groovy Dave • 4/7/03; 9:28:21 PM

Regarding the husband’s impression that things “just got done”: Men and women have different messiness tolerances. For example, cleaning bathrooms doesn’t strike most men as a necessary “daily task”. Once a week or even once every couple of weeks would be fine. So there’s probably a big gap between the amount of work the wife actually does and the amount of work the husband sees as being /necessary/.  If a man chose on his own initiative to wash the car and trim the lawn for an hour EVERY SINGLE DAY and then went around complaining about how hard he has to work at home, people would think he was being a nut. They’d ask, why don’t you cut back a little? So I have to take issue with the claim that the “daily drudgery” is all work that MUST be done and the only solution is to share the fixed amount of work “more equitably”. A little expectation adjustment is probably in order as well.

My best suggestion is to hire a housekeeping service to come in and give the house a thorough cleaning once or twice a month.

Whether it needs it or not. 🙂

Glen • 4/9/03; 12:33:52 PM

Wow, I really find you incredibly insightful. I am not married, but I will be in 33 more days. Fortunately my fiance reads this blog. I just hope he is taking notes and not just being entertained!

April • 4/8/03; 10:52:27 AM

Interesting. I haven’t read the other parts of this thread but I fear you are generalizing from your particular situation. We have a 5 year old son. My wife took the first year off with my blessing, as she felt strongly that she needed to. I committed to supporting the family financially.  After the first year she went back to paid employment half-time, two days a week. Again, this was her decision. I changed jobs, giving up seniority for a more family friendly workplace (telecommuting options, flexible hours, etc). In the four years since she returned to paid employment I have supplemented her income with three infusions of cash, paid the entire mortgage, all insurance, 75% of utility/ telecom bills which are in my name, and paid for 80% of the groceries. I won’t even go into the inequities of gifts except to say I’d estimate the ratio at 50:1 cost-wise. I also pay for daycare on the two days per week I work from home. I cover the annual vacation costs and one-time expenses like new computers, appliances, and furniture.

Lest you think I’m a cash-only-kinda guy, I cook three-quarters of the meals, clean the house between maid service visits. It’s also my job to give our child his bath, and always has been. I take care of him when my wife is out of town, at least once a week for a whole day, and once every three months overnight or longer. I haven’t been out of town solo in five years . . .

Not only does my wife not even ~offer~ to help with the mortgage or childcare costs, I recently got the word that “we” needed to save more for our son’s education.

Sooo . . . while I can understand your reaction to your husband’s fiat, I must tell you that in some situations it *IS* “my money”.

P.S. As for why my wife won’t have sex with me I suspect it’s because she only wants sex for one reason – to have another kid. No thanks, I’m tying a knot in it.

Can we change my name to something else? • 4/9/03; 8:19:15 AM


I’m struck by the very precise “accounting” you’re doing, and how resentful you sound.      … continued …

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