Married but Lonely
Dear Patrick: I always admired my dad for working so hard to support his family. I’m a carpenter, and I guess I thought when I got married, my wife would take care of me the same way my mom took care of my dad. They were always very affectionate with each other, she would give him a back rub every night while they watched television “to get the kinks out.” They would head off for bed together pretty soon after I went to bed, and long before I understood what sex was, I knew there was something physical about their bond with each other that was a good thing in a world full of ugly things. Well, my marriage is not working out nearly that well. I fell pretty hard for the woman I asked to marry me, and the first six months of our marriage were pretty happy. But then I started to want a little more variety in the bedroom, and I noticed that she never touched me. I mean, she won’t even wrap her arms around me when we are having intercourse. I don’t understand what is up with that. I started asking her for more reciprocity. I didn’t even start with asking for oral sex, I just started telling her I wanted us to embrace each other and I wanted the occasional back rub, I wanted to feel her hands on me. She burst out crying and said, “But I’m the girl!” Apparently, in her mind, being the woman means that you are the center of all attention. You shouldn’t have to do anything when it comes to sex. But I’m not even talking about sex. Or foreplay! I am just talking about affection. But that is part of sex, for me, and I don’t know how long I can stay interested in a woman who treats me coldly. She won’t cuddle with me, she won’t initiate making out or stroking each other while we sit on the couch watching television, she never pays me a compliment. She won’t hold hands when we walk down the street. I guess I feel like a delivery system for a pay check. Is there anything she needs me for that she couldn’t get out of a good sex toy?
Dear Married but Lonely: Few things are stronger than people’s beliefs about the appropriate boundaries of gender and sexuality. You are caught in between both of these fences. Your wife has probably gotten some very powerful messages from observing her own parents’ marriage, and this combined with her personality to create the woman who made you fall in love. Fortunately, people can change, and some of the most powerful learning and growing we do is in the context of a loving, committed relationship. The first thing to do is to find out if you can get your wife to buy into a process of change. In order for this to work, it can’t be one-sided. It can’t be a matter of her admitting she is wrong, and a bad person, who needs to do all of the adaptation so you can have what you want. It may feel as if that is an accurate description of the situation to you right now. But if you were presented with that situation at the bargaining table, would you want to agree to get on board with a proposal like that? Probably not. Opening conversational statements that might work are things like, “I want to stay married to you for the rest of my life. Is that what you want?” If she says yes, you can go on to say, “I believe that having a good sex life is one of the ways that people keep their marriages in good shape. How important is that to you?” She might list that as one of her priorities, she might list other things as being more important. Making a list of the things that each of you think are important to keeping a marriage healthy over the long term can be very revealing. So can a conversation about what each of you learned about marriage from watching your parents together. Someone who is unable to show physical affection may have been rebuked or neglected by parents who were quite cold to her. She may need reassurance that nobody is going to ridicule her for enjoying her husband’s touch, or for asking for it, in public. I don’t know why some couples won’t hold hands in public, but there are people who view this as almost indecent. They pride themselves on having so much “self-control” that they eliminate almost all pleasure from their lives. Is it possible that your wife is afraid that if she gives you pleasure she won’t get touched any more? I think a lesson many people don’t understand about sexuality is, “Give to get.” You don’t deny your little camp fire a twig because you are afraid it will stop giving you heat. You feed the fire, and it gets bigger and hotter. By touching your partner, by giving him or her exactly what they want, you increase the amount of sexual energy in the room, and that [should] motivate your partner to reach out to you and give you exactly what you want. Then the two of you are able to create a spiral of rising energy that results in bigger orgasms or release for everyone. The exact boundaries of a man’s erotic needs can be difficult to figure out. Some guys like to be stroked, others just find it annoying. Some guys like to be complimented on how they look while others might believe only women need to be flattered on their looks. (I don’t get this at all. Who doesn’t want validation that they look good to their significant other? But there you go!) But I haven’t encountered very many men who want their partners to keep their hands flat on the mattress during intercourse. Your desire to feel your partner squeeze you with her arms or legs is absolutely basic. Of course you want to know how she is responding. This is not just about you wanting stimulation, it is about communication. You want to know how she is feeling to be sure you are pleasing her instead of hurting her. One way to talk to your wife about touch is to describe it to her as a form of marital communication. I hope you can gradually get her to see that the rules have changed. She is married to someone warm, who has a giving heart, who is not going to ration out the goodies. Nobody has to do without. There is no competition here for the position of “the one who gets touched.” In fact, the more touching, the better. Then everybody gets pleasured more, not less. Her femininity is not being threatened by a request that she run her hands across your chest or squeeze your ass. In fact, it takes a very feminine sex goddess to know how to touch and please her man. I think there may, in fact, be a fear on her part that she won’t know how to arouse you. It’s much easier to lay on your back than it is to take some initiative and try to be the one who is giving stimulation. I found that taking a few classes on massage helped my self-confidence as a lover enormously. There are books and CDs available now for couples who want to practice this together. Best of luck to you in keeping your marriage happy and hot.