Word of infidelity travels fast. Sandra Tsing-Loh, a writer I have long followed and enjoyed, confessed to an affair and impending divorce in her latest essay in The Atlantic ("Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," July/August 2009), but I didn't even get the magazine in the mail before I was reading reactions to it in the Wall Street Journal ("Losing Confidence in Marriage," July 3-5, 2009). How sad.
I don't want to bust Sandra's chops just yet, because the tone of her essay captures enough pain and regret to engender my sympathy, if not my understanding. She uses words like "horror", "emotional pain", and "humiliation" to describe the experience. She consistently expresses her concern for the well-being of her children as her primary and overriding goal – good. I feel almost exactly the same sadness for her that I feel when a personal friend goes to splitsville. And yet, bust her chops I must. If she decides to write a think-piece in a national magazine questioning the sensibility of lifelong monogamy, then she is quite literally asking for it.
Sandra is well aware that a recently-divorced adulterer is not exactly a credible witness when it comes to questioning the value of marriage. I credit her with a writer's courage to put it out there, anyway. Still, what comes out is neither a tell-all confession nor a robust argument for why marriage is a failed institution; underneath her mea culpa is a stubborn attempt to find justification for her actions. Rather than divulge the raw details of her own situation, she lays out her critiques in the confessions of her girlfriends, who tell a consistent tale of career women marooned in sexless marriages. For instance, Rachel, a successful environmental lawyer, is married to Ian, a work-at-home freelancer, who is to all appearances a model husband: he remodels kitchens, cooks gourmet food, takes the kids to soccer practice. Yet he allegedly refuses to have sex with his wife, because she is too fat, sloppy, and undisciplined. Evidently internet porn is a sufficient outlet for him.
As far as I can tell, this doesn't prove that marriage is broken – just that Ian is an asshole. I think anyone who enters into a contract of sexual exclusivity can rightfully be expected to put out on a regular basis. That's part of the deal. It used to be that everyone knew that, too. Withholding sex is about as destructive and hurtful as infidelity.
Sandra seems to be slyly implying that she, also, was stuck in a sexless marriage, presumably due to an unreasonable and/or unlovable husband. Yet, based on her essay from two years earlier, "She's Just Not That Into You," in which she confessed to preferring food to sex with her husband, it seems she was the one refusing sex. At that time she was arguing for the normalness and acceptability of low libido -- hey, c'mon, it's not that important anyway. Now that she's found a man who can make her engine race again, sex is suddenly too important to override her concern for her family. Either way, she implies she is powerless to resist her biological urgings or non-urgings, and in fact morally obliged to accept them as they are. If he doesn't thrill me anymore, and someone else does . . . well, what do you expect me to do?
Interestingly, very similar observations are made in other Atlantic essays that she references . . . but which come to the exact opposite conclusions. In "The Wifely Duty" (January/February, 2003), Caitlin Flanagan also explores the phenomena of undersexed marriages, and finds, not the irreversible wilting of desire due to age or familiarity, but rather overworked career women too tired to feel amorous and too resentful of their clueless husbands, who once again failed to notice the house is out of toilet paper. Flanagan's advice, echoed by lots of therapists, is that regular sex, whether you feel like it or not, is the cure to lots of marital ills, and that (gasp) it's actually fun for everyone once you get going.
Another essay, "Of Sex and Marriage," by Cristina Nehring, points out that all the things that create good marriages – communication, equality, monogamy, honesty, security, harmony – are also often the things that kill libido. We are attracted to the unattainable, the wild, the uncontrolled, interloper – everything marriage isn't. And yet again, the conclusion is not that something is wrong with marriage – rather, something is wrong with our understanding of sexuality. Her prescription is not to bemoan the loss of sexuality – after all, there are more important things in life – but to take responsibility for it and "remystify" it. In other words, to work at it. She advises a more subtle and artistic approach, rather than the tedious regularity of the "wifely duty," but still, the direction is the same: happy marriages can and do find ways to have sex.
So, in the end, I can't make any sense of Sandra's arguments. Men unwilling to have sex with their wives? I confess, I have never heard of such a thing, outside of a few closeted gay men. Women might complain about men's promiscuous and seemingly undiscriminating sexual nature, but it has one advantage: men are ready to have sex anytime, anywhere, and with anyone – even their less-than-svelte wives. If women find themselves unable to sexually enjoy their husbands, the condition is not incurable. It certainly doesn't have to prevent sex. It definitely doesn't signal the end of a marriage. Why did Sandra do it? All I can say is: no good reason.
I don't know quite how to respond to this one without falling into the dreaded sin of TMI, Too Much Information. (It seems like everybody started using that phrase about 5-10 years ago. What did we say before then?) So warning, don't read if you don't want to find out more about Kenny Felder than you probably wanted to know.
I have never quite gotten the sex thing.
Like any normal heterosexual male (I think I'm supposed to also use the qualifier "red-blooded" here but I'm not sure why), I think about sex a fair amount. I enjoy looking at pretty girls who are not my wife, and I would enjoy it even more if they would just lose all those pesky clothes that are in the way, and I like naked girls on the Internet but I would really rather see more of the girls I actually know.
So, fine, OK. I also spend an embarrasing amount of time thinking about chess, especially if I recently won a good game. And to-do lists, I spend way too much time thinking about them. There are lots of things I think about more than I should.
But none of these things is a flaming passion. When I think about how things are going in my marriage, there are a dozen things that I think about before I think about our sex life. It isn't one of the most important parts to me, and I don't think it is to Joyce either. That's what I mean when I say I don't get the sex thing: I can't imagine up-ending my life for it, any more than I can imagine up-ending my life for a reall, really good Hostess Ho-Ho, and I like those a whole lot, especially the kind they used to make with caramel that you can't get any more.
Anyway, when I hear stories like this, I tend to assume--and maybe this is the classic mistake of assuming that everyone is like me--I tend to assume that it really isn't about sex. Sandra Tsing-Loh was unsatisfied with her marriage, and Mark Sanford with his, for deeper and more important reasons that they are not willing to face. Like the protagonist in American Beauty, they are using sexual fantasies as surrogates for the real emptiness they feel in an emotional or spiritual realm. And in that sense, the more graphically they "tell all," the more they are actually hiding what's really going on.
The alternative is that sex is like classical music: I enjoy it, but I just can't imagine how awesomely awesome it is to the people who really appreciate it.
I mostly agree with you. I know that sex is not the most important thing in life, and certainly not something worth destroying a happy marriage over.
I also accept that lots of people genuinely don't feel that way. And I can relate to them, too.
For my own part, I put sex in the same category as food, clothing, and shelter -- I am utterly oblivious to it the majority of the time, until I suddenly find myself without it completely. I hope I am not giving away anything remotely surprising or personal by saying that, in twelve years of marriage with three children, there were some periods of time without much sex. And even though I was formerly celibate brahmacharya with a low regard for bodily pleasures, those periods of time affected me . . . a lot more than I care to admit. I was as surprised as anyone to find out that sex DID matter, even though I thought it shouldn't.
So, maybe there's something more going on in these troubled relationships than just the sex . . . but then again, maybe not. I would avoid being dismissive of sexual issues because, from what I've read, that's the biggest part of the problem: one spouse pretending that another's needs and desires are not important.