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When Spouses Live as Siblings

Hara Estroff Marano gives advice on sexual and emotional abandonment, the thrill of sex in secret places, and how to get the respect you deserve.

When Spouses Live as Siblings

I met my wife 27 years ago, when she was 24 and I was 44. I had never met a woman so smart, goal-oriented, and beautiful. She asked me out, and ours was the most wonderful relationship I'd ever had. I thought our marriage was going well until 1995 when she told me, "My feelings have changed. It's nothing you did; don't take it personally." That's all she would say, and rejected our seeing a counselor. Since then, we've lived like brother and sister. We work well together, rarely argue, and have raised two children. But there is no physical affection. I've always resented that she's never been willing to talk about her "change of feelings," particularly since she's a very detailed, thorough person and excellent therapist.

It seems clear that your wife has always set the terms of the relationship and counted on your compliance. It's definitely time to reveal to her the resentment you have been hauling around for 13 years. Most women (and men) do not like being in the driver's seat of a relationship; they prefer a true partnership of equals. Perhaps you have let your wife down, and she, too, may be feeling deep resentment. But how could you know, since an unspoken rule of your marriage is to avoid conflict at all costs.

It was extremely unfair of your wife to unilaterally change the terms of the relationship and foreclose any possibility of discussion or remedy. Why did you not speak up for yourself as husband and insist on a discussion at the time, even if it meant—oh, horror—ruffling your wife's feathers? Disagreement is inevitable in any relationship; it's every couple's obligation to set up reasonable rules for airing concerns, making requests for change, and jointly designing solutions to problems.

If nothing else, how did your wife expect you to meet your needs for physical affection all this time, after sexually and emotionally abandoning you? Or doesn't she care? And haven't you wondered what she's doing for physical affection? It's more than ironic that she rejected seeing a counselor. Was there something she did not want to disclose? Have you considered the possibility that she is having an extramarital affair, living peaceably with you while conducting a separate romantic relationship?

You and your wife are about 13 years overdue for a real conversation. You both need to air your disappointments in each other and in the relationship. Confrontation doesn't have to be nasty; it just has to be honest, no matter how unpleasant the truths. You might start by telling your wife how much pain you've been in the past 13 years. If she can't empathize with your hurt feelings, then even "brother and sister" doesn't capture the frost in your household.

Sex in High Places

My boyfriend of two years is obsessed with joining the "Mile-High Club." Lately he's been pleading with me to sneak off to the toilets during flights. It really isn't my thing and I have told him so, but he says he just wants to experience it once—and if I loved him, I'd do it. Should I just do it to satisfy him?

Sex aloft is highly overrated. If you meet someone on a plane and get on very well, there may seem to be no alternative to consensual fly-by sex, especially if you're going separate ways on the ground. Even then, it's a matter of cramming two bodies into extremely limited space. Or corralling a couple of blankets while hoping that Bruce Willis is distracting everyone else. Pretty, it's not. You can't confuse membership in the MHC with affection, romance, or respect; it's all about the thrill of secret sex in public places—like a guilty teenager hoping to score before mom and dad get home. In other words, it has little to do with you; it's mostly the situation. Consider yourself forewarned.

But there are much more disturbing elements to your beau's request. He's looking for excitement in all the wrong places—not by deepening the emotional connection between you, but by souping up the surroundings. What's really worrisome, however, is that your discomfort doesn't even register on him. Don't buy his argument that if you love him you'd do it, blah blah blah; that's the kind of emotional blackmail you should have left behind in high school. He's blinded by his own needs. It's his disregard for your expressed discomfort that's noteworthy. No relationship can thrive (survive, yes—but thrive, no) without mutual consent. Acceding to demands, especially ones that disturb you in some way, only stirs resentment. That, in the long run, will eat away at the good feelings for him you now have, as well as your own respect for yourself. Don't you wonder why your needs aren't getting as much consideration as his? It looks like at least one engine of your relationship is already conking out and the whole thing may be about to lose altitude. Before you sneak off to the toilets, you'd be better off bailing out.

The Trouble with Tarzan

My late husband and I were married 10 years and spent all our free time either together or pursuing separate hobbies within the same house. We cuddled and shared private jokes and code words, but had few common interests, little to talk about, and no sex life. Caring for him in his final illness was a great source of comfort, but even then we never opened up to one another. While we seldom had open conflicts, he was controlling, I was compliant, and his preferences prevailed. Now I can acknowledge my resentment, and I have no interest in being the junior partner ever again.

It seems, though, that the men I date still cling to a cultural norm of "Me Tarzan." Before long, they feel entitled to interrupt me; judge my personality, appearance, and home; and imply that their careers are more demanding, successful, or important than mine. Behaving rudely seems prevalent among men whose intelligence and achievements match my own. It seems that any relationship will involve struggling to earn respect from some self-appointed male arbiter. Is this a clear-eyed analysis of the situation, or a side effect of the depression for which I'm successfully undergoing treatment? Should I opt out, move on to some other dating pool, or keep kissing frogs?

It's really stunning the degree to which we are the architects of our own discontent. There's no question that you have to kiss a lot of frogs, but you shouldn't be struggling over these issues. You seem to think it's always arduous to earn respect, but it's not if you kiss the right frogs and if you know how to assert and express your needs gracefully—and believe it's OK to do so. I hate to break it to you, but not all the successful, attractive men out there are rude, dismissive Tarzans. Maybe not even most. It's just that you have finely tuned antennae for spotting them, and more to the point, a belief system that fundamentally endorses them. Somewhere you bought into the idea that success entitles men to any behavior they damn well please. And perhaps you are so ambivalent about your own success that a subordinate role in relationships, no matter the other costs, assuages deep doubts about your femininity or worthiness.

Of course, having to constantly subordinate your own needs to a partner's will foster resentment, but becoming the junior partner cannot happen without your knowledge or consent. One of the basic rules in life is that we are all responsible for ourselves. Relationships don't mitigate this responsibility, although in the best of them, individuals advance their partner's well-being as much as their own. But you keep ceding responsibility for your own needs to avoid open conflict, perhaps because you sense that disagreement with a controlling guy would be unpleasant. I'm sure it is, and so you'd rather appease and suffer a lifetime of resentment. Such powerlessness is a passport to depression. You definitely need to learn ways of expressing your opinions and standing up for your needs that are matter-of-fact and not confrontational. Perhaps you need to learn what your own needs are and how to ask for what you want. It's also time to figure out why you find mean men so appealing.

What makes you so averse to conflict? Did you grow up in a household where a woman's perspective was devalued, so that such a pattern feels "natural"? Or did constant conflict make life unpleasant or unpredictable? Perhaps you are averse to conflict because you have never seen good ways of working out the differences that are inevitable in any relationship. There are many ways of negotiating those differences without setting off a war. You may not always get what you want, but being heard and respected will preclude resentment over being stepped on.

How do you get power back? You ask for it in a way that raises the odds of getting it. "You know, I really enjoy discussing lots of things with you, but I don't like it when you interrupt or dismiss me; it makes me feel like you don't value me. I promise to listen to you without interruption or put-down if you promise to do the same for me." Your partner will likely have sudden respect for you.

And if you don't get it? You have to be willing to demonstrate how important respect is to you. "You're terrific in many ways, and I would love to keep seeing you, but I can't be in a relationship without some simple demonstration of respect. Unless we can fix it, this interruption and put-down thing is a deal breaker for me."

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