Dire straits

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUN 25, 2003

I view affection as a remedy for stress. My wife views the removal of all stress as a prerequisite to affection.


Dear Cary,

I have been married for eight years now and my love life is in dire straits. When I say “love life,” I mean the whole package, not just sex. Hugs, kisses, casual brushes, smiles, compliments. When I look back, I wonder if I ever should have gotten married in the first place.

Our relationship was always on and off while we were dating. That was my doing. I was not ready to make any long-term commitments. My wife was never happy about our many breakups, but she is the type of woman that can get a date by merely walking out her front door. A knockout. I eventually realized that different women were just that, different, not better. Whenever I had a dream about my life in the future, her face was always in the dream, no matter who I was dating at the time.

The problems started right after I proposed. She turned off like someone closed a spigot. At first it was just sex, but it quickly morphed into all forms of affection. She admitted her shortcomings (in writing) and explained that the stress of our wedding plans was making her lose interest in affection. In fairness to her, my parents were complete A-holes and nearly boycotted the wedding (they were too “tired” to make the reception). Like I said, A-holes. Yes, the wedding planning was stressful (though I did an equal share). However, I reminded her that when that stress went away, it would be replaced by a new and improved stress, and the process would repeat over and over again.

We now have four beautiful children. But to say they are stressful is an understatement. Plus, I have my own business and I worry about the next dollar all the time. I am still in love with my wife. The fact that she is still gorgeous after four kids makes her more attractive than before.

I used to want to have sex every day, but now I am happy to have sex once a month. But when it happens, so much energy has built up that it is anticlimactic. My wife does not voluntarily kiss me. About 90-95 percent of the time that I approach her for affection, she rejects me.

Have you ever kissed someone and could tell from the tension in their jaw that they were doing it just to get it done and could not wait until it was over? That is what it is like kissing my wife. Zero passion. I probably rank around the twenties in terms of her priorities. I think our philosophies do not match, though it could be a gender thing. I view affection as a remedy for stress. My wife views the removal of all stress as a prerequisite to affection. When things get tough for me, I turn to my wife. When things get tough for my wife, she turns to the kids, or the vacuum cleaner.

Before we got married, our church required premarital counseling. It was fun. The counselor told us that we must make each other our first priority and that would make our marriage stronger than any amount of money or fame. We were told that by making each other our first priority we would be showing our children that our bond is important and leading them by example as to what a healthy marriage looks like. We are getting an F in that department. It is so bad that our children, who are all very young, get uncomfortable and sometimes upset when we kiss (or try to kiss) in their presence. They have already gotten the impression that the only form of acceptable affection is that which is directed at them. I do not know what to do.

I have told my wife all this so many times, I am a broken record. I look at pornography to relieve some stress. My wife knows about it and of course is not happy about it. I would agree with her if I showed a dropoff in desire for her, but no amount of looking at other women, clothed or non, decreases my desire for my wife or changes my belief that she is a raging hottie. I look at those pictures wishing my wife would do that. The nice thing about pictures is that you cannot get rejected. Bear in mind that my wife also used to be incredible in bed. I do not ask of her anything she did not willingly do before and in fact express great enjoyment doing. I do not ask her to swing from a chandelier, but when she does not even kiss me while we are making love, that is not only troubling but also hurtful.

I will never leave her, though I threatened to do that in the past. I will never make my children live in a broken household, except that it already seems broken. I am afraid that if I am caught at a weak moment, I will have an affair. I figure I am a duck circling a depression in the earth where a pond used to be. At some point I am going to get tired and have a heart attack or see a real pond in the distance and go there. How long can I be expected to circle in a holding pattern? I am sure I would enjoy an affair for a while, but I would enjoy my wife more. I give flowers, I write my own cards, I shower her with compliments and affection. Is there any hope?

Am I Missing Something?

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Dear Missing,

Thank you for your brutally honest, intelligent and moving account. I can imagine seeing this in a movie, or reading it in a novel, and wondering, “What happened? What is she thinking? How did they end up this way?” I have the feeling that many things have happened to hurt your wife, little things that she can’t explain but that she adds to the account of your faults every morning in her little counting house of resentments. The things that have happened to her are probably real and not really her fault, but if she could have expressed them along the way, if she could have processed them with you, together, perhaps you would not be so starkly shut out now. At least you would know what she’s thinking, what your crimes were, how long your sentence is.

It might not be anything you did wrong, aside from doing your duty as a husband and giving her all those kids. Bearing four children in eight years sounds like enough in itself to overwhelm a woman. Think of it: For almost your entire marriage she has been pregnant, nursing or both. As someone who can barely imagine raising even one or two children, I would think that the demands of bearing and raising these four children would consume so much of her spirit that you would naturally find yourself sitting on the back steps smoking a cigarette while the loud, bright laughing and crying of children and mother buzzed about your head like bees.

And while you’re sitting there bereft and alone you know she’s working with the children, needing your help and resenting you for taking even this moment to yourself because she does this all day long every day and you only flit in and out to lend a noble hand when it’s convenient for you blah blah blah.

You need to hear her story, how she got this way, what you did. But she may be so overwhelmed that she cannot even tell you the story; to tell you the story she might need first to hike for days into the mountains until her mind is clear and she’s high enough that she can sit on a rock and look over the entire county and then maybe the story would unspool, beginning with your first injury so slight she would have felt foolish to even mention it: Perhaps you didn’t compliment her on a pair of earrings. Perhaps you didn’t jump high enough with joy when she first told you she was pregnant. And then the second injury and the third, and her panic, her sense of entrapment, her worries about the business, her thoughts that perhaps she could have done better, the guilt she feels because she’s not erotic with you, her fears that because of her coldness you will leave her and the children. Perhaps she has had a lover or two and hoards the secret under her dress like a guilty girl. Perhaps you never take out the trash.

You need to hear her story, whatever it is, so you know where you stand, but she may not, on her own, become ready to tell it for years. How can you get her to tell it? Could you track down that premarital counselor for some postmarital counseling? It’s possible she would say no to all of this. It’s possible you couldn’t get across to her how grinding and oppressive is the incessant rejection. But you need to find out what happened to her, what you did, how she changed, whatever it was. You need to find out so you can bag it up and tie it off with a narrative string, so you can carry it around slung over your shoulders, not eating away at you in your belly.