HER: While surfing Twitter, I came across a TED Talk by Michele Weiner-Davis. In her presentation, she talks about what happens when people’s sex drives are unequally matched. She seemed to so perfectly describe your previous situation in her video ‘The Sex-Starved Marriage’.
When couples are unequally matched in their sexual desire, you would assume some kind of compromise would result –that each partner would make concessions and they’d meet in the middle–but the opposite tends to happen. Based on her 30 years of counseling experience, Weiner-Davis says the low-libido partner almost always dictates exactly how much sex there will be: they become the gatekeeper (or the troll under the bridge). Accustomed to being turned down, the high-libido partner eventually stops asking. It’s easy to see why this would be a recipe for relationship disaster.
HIM: That’s exactly how it was for me. In my 26 year marriage, our libidos were so far apart that the distance came to dominate my emotional life. It colored every thought and feeling I had about my marriage and my own desirability. You know I think a good relationship is about a lot of things besides sex, but when the sex is not working, it’s a big deal. It’s not about either side being wrong, it’s just a mismatch. It’s bracing to hear Weiner-Davis lay it out so bluntly: “When this disconnect happens, intimacy on all levels goes out the window… and it places the marriage at risk of infidelity and divorce.”
From the beginning, my ex-wife had a very intermittent interest in sex, not to mention a definition of what constituted ‘acceptable activity’ that was narrower than mine. I ended up making all kinds of desperate attempts to bridge the gap between what satisfied her and what satisfied me. And yet, I never complained to my wife about the lack of sex.
HER: That’s the part that bothers me. I’m sometimes worried that you’re so good at keeping secrets and avoiding conflict that you’ll keep things from me too. How was she supposed to guess that you needed more sex if you never told her?
HIM: It’s a legitimate question, but you have to understand what I was looking for. I didn’t want a woman to have sex with me because I complained about the lack of it. I didn’t want her to comply as an act of matrimonial discipline. I wanted a woman who really wanted sex for her own reasons — a woman who really wanted me sexually.
HER: Ok. I understand that. I had conversations with my ex that were along the same lines: “I don’t want to have to ASK you to clean up; I want you to WANT to help me.” But at least we did have those conversations — many times. I told him clearly what I wanted. With you and me, though, communication is the key to our success as a couple. I’ve often wondered why you couldn’t employ those same powers of clear, open communication with her.
HIM: I’ve come to feel that open communication isn’t something you demand, it’s something you earn. I am open with you because you listen non-judgmentally and make sometimes extravagant efforts to act on my concerns. To put it simply, I make the investment because I believe the exchange will be productive. In my marriage, I knew after years of having my approaches rebuffed that my ex-wife would respond negatively to any request for more sex. In fact, there would be a price to pay: lots of negative emotion and, in the end, no change. Still, it doesn’t matter if I expected a negative response. I owed her a clear message about my concerns. That’s on me. But let me ask you: did your ex-husband’s behavior change at all after you expressed your wishes?
HER: Not really, but at least no one could accuse me of not trying. I see your point, though. We fought almost every day about almost everything. Ultimately, I ended up just as divorced as you.
HIM: There was more to my silence than wanting to avoid fights, though. I had built a parallel life for myself – porn, strip clubs and, eventually, affairs – where I at least tried to get my needs met. But I felt that if I betrayed the enormity of my dissatisfaction my ex-wife might wonder how I was managing my frustration, and this might make her more vigilant. To lead my secret life I needed her to NOT be vigilant, to NOT pay attention to where I was every minute of the day. I felt the best way to do that was to pretend that her lack of interest didn’t bother me. That was the gigantic lie that eventually blew up the life I lived with her for nearly three decades.
HER: Wow. That kind of deception takes so much energy! I still don’t understand why you didn’t just leave her as soon as you knew she could never fulfill your needs. It would have spared everyone a lot of time and heartache.
HIM: I could say that I stayed for the children, and that would be partly true, but there was more to it than that. I thought of myself as the kind of person who could rise above unhappiness by sheer willpower. I hate to admit it now, but I looked down on people who divorced as weaklings who lacked fortitude. That was, of course, a very simple-minded perspective. Ultimately, I figured out that marriage was not supposed to be a feat of endurance.
HER: Did you ever try counseling?
HIM: We did but, in the end, I don’t think our marriage was meant to be fixed. She is a lovely person, but my ex-wife and I are just fundamentally different people.
HER: So was counseling just a waste of time?
HIM: No, not at all. Before pulling the trigger I wanted to make sure I had listened intently to the best arguments against divorce from an impassioned advocate for staying together. We actually travelled to Colorado to have an intensive 3-day session with Michelle Weiner-Davis, whose video we linked above. She was a smart woman who emphasized the importance of sexual connection and open communication. While it was too late for my first marriage, I came to my relationship with you more determined than ever to get out of the secrets business.
I did have one great fear, however: I didn’t know if the craving for sexual variety I had felt was due solely to the privations of my marriage or if it was something I would eventually feel in every relationship. I had to face the possibility that I was a chronic philanderer. For that reason, and because I never wanted to lead a secret life again, I knew I needed a woman I could be completely honest with. At the very extreme, if I woke up one day with a desperate desire to have sex with someone else, I needed to be able to express that to the person I was with.
Notice I didn’t say I needed a woman who would let me have sex with other women. I just needed someone to whom I could freely disclose that feeling if it came up. Then we could address it together, which might only involve her wearing a wig and learning to say “fuck me, baby” in Slovakian. I remember explaining this to you in our early days and realizing from your response that you were the woman I could have that conversation with.
HER: Hearing that you might need more excitement than one woman could provide was a little frightening at first. I’m open-minded, but I couldn’t forgive a cheater. But in our more than four years together, my fears have been set to rest. You’ve made me feel confident that I provide you with what you need: you get ten times as much sex as you were having before, you’ve never asked anything of me sexually that I wouldn’t try, and I think you know how desired you are. You seem pretty happy with this one woman. But, part of our thinking as we embark on this journey into consensual non-monogamy is that we’ll head off any desire either one of us may have for variety before it can become a source of dissatisfaction, conflict, and secrets.