I’ve been with my wife for ten years, married for two. About a year ago, I cheated. I felt so guilty, I decided she should find someone else and filed for divorce. We separated for five months, and I realized I couldn’t live without her. So I asked for a second chance and we started seeing each other. We put the divorce on hold and started working things out slowly. I asked her to tell me if she was seeing anyone else—I noticed she was always checking her phone. One day I showed up at her place with flowers and found her with another guy. I was heartbroken, but long story short, we moved back in together. That was a year ago, and we still haven’t had sex. I’ve been a good husband, helping with housework, giving her massages, buying her flowers. She’s told me she will initiate sex when she’s ready. I don’t know whether I’ve hurt her too much or I am too impatient or if she’s seeing someone else. She occasionally sees in passing the guy she slept with at work, though she tells me she doesn’t speak to him. I find that hard to believe. I stopped all communication with the woman I slept with. I’ve planned a birthday trip for my wife soon and we’ll be renewing our vows. The only thing our relationship is missing is sex. Am I on the right track?
He Said: We get variations of this theme all the time, so let me be perfectly clear: Since we no longer live on farms with the closest neighbor thousands of acres of corn away, big-city life offers a lot of temptation, and little price for straying, for even the most committed couple. Anyway, it would be a failure of the imagination to not yearn for more, whether you are in a happy relationship or not. Thus non-monogamy is something that that every couple should discuss, at length and in great detail, before the start of any serious relationship. The term "cheating" should not be part of your vocabulary, since you ideally would work out your intimate sexual boundaries from the start. At any rate, you seem to have blown past this stage with nary a concern, and now you are paying the price. It seems your wife is passive aggressively punishing you for your "transgression," when in fact she should only be disappointed at you utter failure to communicate with her honestly about your human wants and desires. And she with you. It seems late in the game to create an atmosphere that encourages open communication, but I would take the initiative and start talking honestly, and right away. Anything is better than the strained silence you describe. A good couples counselor would help create the safe place for this conversation, if you cannot muster it yourselves.
She Said: No, I don’t think you and your wife are on the right track. And I don't think sex is the only thing missing from your relationship. I don’t know whether she’s sleeping with someone else, but even if she isn’t, she’s acting out an extreme passive-aggressive form of revenge. What strikes me most about your letter is your statement that after cheating on her, you filed for divorce because you decided she should find someone else. Is that the honest truth? I wonder if your reasons for filing weren’t more complex than that. At any rate, wasn’t that really your wife’s decision to make: whether she wanted to file or forgive? Perhaps the combination of betraying her and then filing for divorce, instead of leaving it up to her, has her feeling so abandoned and powerless that withholding sex feels like her only form of control, much like anorexics withhold food to exert control not only over themselves but their loved ones as well. Another possibility: You really did want to stay together after the affair, but filed solely because you couldn’t handle your guilt. In this case I’d say you have an extreme reaction to guilt, which would also explain why you’re putting up with your wife’s revenge now.
Either way—whether she’s cheating, using sex to exact a shred of power in the relationship, or whether you are too afraid to make boundaries or reasonable demands because of your guilt—I agree that this is a case for the couples’ counselor. Even a few sessions could put you two back on track. Take her away for her birthday, but I’d refrain from renewing your vows until you two have talked through the feelings behind your affair(s) and are relating to each other again as husband and wife—that is, speaking the truth and sleeping together.
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