A Matter of Personality

From borderline to narcissism

What to Expect From Your Marriage

In marriage, if you always do the same thing, you'll always get the same thing

"In relationships, if you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got." ~ advice columnist Amy Dickinson

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A common complaint in letters to advice columns is that a spouse is chronically neglecting various needs of the complainer, or refuses to do something that the complainer fervently desires. Sex is one frequently “missing” element described by people who write this type of letter – and women complain about the lack of it at least as often as do men – but it can be anything from refraining from swearing and rude behavior to refraining from describing embarrassing or quirky attributes of the complainer to outsiders.

To me, sexually frustrating one’s spouse seems to me to be the most strange of all such complaints, because it would be so easy and take so little effort for one spouse to give the frustrated spouses what they say they want. Do these spouses really care that little about keeping the other spouse happy?  That would seem really mean if not vicious.

After all, sex doesn’t take all that much effort, especially if you are not especially concerned about your own pleasure. Why not make the other person happy occasionally even if you don’t enjoy it yourself? A mere half hour every week or two might be just the ticket. 

You say it’s a chore?  So is going out and buying your spouse gifts on birthdays, Valentine's Day, and Christmas. A lot of people seem willing to do those things. How about meeting all of your responsibilities at your job and at home? Chores all, at least much of the time. And most people?  Willing!

Even if the man is completely physically impotent and incurably so? There's no G-rated way to say this... let’s just say his tongue probably works OK, doesn’t it?


Annie's Mailbox
Here is a typical example of a letter from a sex deprived wife, from the column Annie’s Mailbox from March 10, 2012.

"Dear Annie: "John" and I have been married for 15 years. He is a wonderful person and a great father...Our relationship is fine on the surface, but it's emotionally empty. There is little intimacy, which has been an issue throughout our marriage. It manifests itself periodically in arguments that never seem to get resolved… He wonders why I cannot "just be happy," because from his perspective, everything is fine. I have told him clearly that I need more attention and affection, but I have come to the realization that he is "just not that into me.

… Annie, I love my family. I am not asking for a magical romance. I don't think it's too much for a woman to need occasional loving physical gestures from her husband. I can't figure out why it's so hard for him to express his love if he cares for me as much as he says.

I don't want to leave, but things could be so much better if John would only put a little more effort into our marriage. Any suggestions on how to improve things? Or am I just destined to have an emotionless relationship?" 

The Annies answer: "There is a variety of reasons why a man may not show any interest in his wife: He could be gay, asexual, not attracted to you or having an affair. He could have low testosterone or other medical or emotional issues. The real problem is that he refuses to address it…"

Well those are certainly all possibilities, but why would she have married someone like that in the first place if she craved affection so much?  It sounds from the letter like she just thinks hubby might just an A-hole, does it not?  I mean, she seems to think that he is someone who is depriving his dear wife of that which she craves, for no apparent reason.

But is that what is really happening? Could be, but I have another, more common and likely explanation. The writer starts by saying that they have been married for fifteen years. It doesn’t sound like this is a new problem, so what that probably means is that she has been putting up with this treatment for fifteen years. And, after she mentions that, she praises the guy for being a “wonderful” person. What, you may ask, is so wonderful about a guy who is more than willing to almost totally neglect your needs just because he can? Why on earth would she want to stay with a man who literally does not give a you-know-what about whether she is happy in this regard or not.

I find the husband’s response to be telling. He asks her why she cannot "just be happy, because from his perspective, everything is fine.” She also says that she has made it clear that the lack of intimacy bothers her a great deal. So why would he think everything is just fine? Why wouldn’t he already know the answer to the question of why she just “can’t be happy?”

Well, unless the guy has the IQ of a turnip, the only reasonable explanation for his apparent obtuseness and confusion is that he doesn’t believe her when she say she wants more intimacy. Remember, she has been putting up with this for fifteen years. In her letter she says he is wonderful and that she does not want to leave.  If we are hearing this in a letter she writes that is up for public consumption, then the odds are extremely good that he has heard her say this stuff. Many times.

The much less obvious explanation for this state of affairs – and so often the less obvious interpretation turns out to be the correct one for patients who I see in therapy - is that he takes her passive acquiescence of the state of affairs as a signal that she actually prefers it!  So, when she complains about it, he becomes confused and asks her why she is not happy, since he is doing exactly what he thinks she wants. Maybe she really wants to avoid sex and affection, but also enjoys complaining!

He will never tell her about such thoughts because he knows that any such suggestion will most likely be greeted with great defensiveness, outright derision, or indignation from her that he is blaming her for his problem with intimacy. That will get him exactly nothing but grief, so why should he bother?

More important, he may very well be helping her to avoid facing her issues with sex and affection -through volunteering to take all the blame by pretending to be the bad guy who denies her.

So could she really be covertly avoiding sex as much as he is? And if so, why? Well, the answer to the first question is a resounding, heck yes. This does not mean that on some level she really does wish for more sex, but that for some reason she is more comfortable with the current state of affairs than with the “improved” version. The answer as to why might be a one of many possible issues between her and her own family of origin, but she does not give us any clues in her letter about what those issues might be.

And what happened to his libido? Again, we don’t know. Maybe he has a whore/madonna conflict about his wife being a sexual being. But it could also be many other things.

The point is, they are both avoiding sex, not just him. 


Dear Abby
A different letter writer in the Dear Abby column of 3/15/12, says that she has been married for 32 years, and for all these years her husband has lied continually. He fabricates the most outlandish stories, and the whole family knows it. Furthermore, he is said to never own up to anything he has done wrong, but instead blames the letter writer for his actions. If she confronts or challenges him, he gets defensive and says she’s "always" belittling or challenging him in front of others. 

The probably translation, according to my scenario, is that she covertly thinks that he has a need for continuous humiliation - so she helps out by humiliating him -  and he thinks his wife needs to humiliate him - so he gives her plenty of opportunities. After all, from the perspective of each, that is exactly what the other has always done. For 32 years.

This all reminds me of the wife of a depressed patient, who told me, “I can’t leave him when he’s down like this, but if he gets better, I’m out of here!” Again, if I’ve heard that, so has he. Is this sentiment supposed to be an incentive for him to get better or something?

 "In relationships, if you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got." 

David M. Allen, M.D., is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Tennessee and author of the book How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders.

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