[This is the fourteenth in a series of stories about interesting people or situations I’ve known, called “Lives”. I don’t know whether you would call it non-fiction, or fiction. I’ve changed the names, and enough of the details, so that the individuals are not identifiable. However, I think I’ve stayed true to the essence of what really happened. The point is what can be drawn from the story, and at least that part is 100% true.]
Brian and Sam (Samantha) just celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary, but it wasn’t much of a celebration. They are at a crossroads in their marriage and, try as they might, they haven’t been able to find a solution.
Brian, a family doctor, is 50. Sam, a nurse, is 48. Before you go leaping into your doctor-nurse stereotypes, though, you should know that when they got married, they were undergrads at University of Toronto. Neither expected they would be going into medicine. In fact, it was only when Sam decided to go to nursing school that Brian – who until that time planned to be an engineer – started thinking about medicine as a career.
Sam will say that it was her pregnancy, while still in school, that jump-started Brian’s ambition, and that might well be true. They had only been married a short time, and were still living a student existence. It was the anticipated arrival of Jennifer, their only child, that changed their trajectory. How many couples experience exactly that sea change? To all accounts, they managed it well.
Jennifer, now 26, is herself married and already planning a family. Sam and Brian are in the meaty part of their careers, and really living quite a good life. They think they’re too young to be grandparents, but they are looking forward to it nonetheless.
But that’s not their problem.
Recently, Sam had a heart to heart talk with Brian. She told him she doesn’t want to have sex any more. Her age, and the changes in her body that entails, have led her to the conclusion that she just has to stop.
To be fair, this is not a complete surprise. Sam says she has been thinking about this for several years, and Brian would admit that he has sensed more reluctance on Sam’s part when they are in bed. He has, in fact, tried a lot harder to make her happy sexually, even reading books on the subject and getting advice from other professionals (!) on what he should do to keep the flame going. Probably, he says today, he was fooling himself into thinking that was achieving the desired effect.
What Sam is saying to Brian now is that, while she recognized he was trying, in the end she probably never liked sex. Not really. When they were young, she had the same animal instincts as everyone else, but “The Joy of Sex” is never something with which she identified. For most of her marriage, she was – to put it impolitely – just faking it.
Brian’s friends often joke to him that he’s really too “woke” to be a doctor, so his immediate reaction to Sam’s declaration of celibacy is that it is her absolute right. She has, in his mind, no “wifely duty” to have sex with her husband. She is in control of her body. What she does with it, including her sexual relationship with Brian, is entirely up to her.
In any case, he would say, what is the point of a sexual relationship between them if she isn’t enjoying it? It is supposed to be an act of mutual intimacy and pleasure. Brian doesn’t see how he would be able to enjoy it if he knew the feeling wasn’t mutual.
So, looking at it from Sam’s perspective, there will be no more sex between Sam and Brian. That is a unilateral decision by Sam that she’s perfectly entitled to make, and she’s made it.
Ah, but like many things in life there is not just one perspective.
Sam and Brian are married, which means that their sexual relationship is exclusive between them. As Brian put it to me the other day, “Sam’s decision to end her own sex life means that I can never have sex – with anyone – for the rest of my life. It is the end to my sex life too. Forever. Wow.”
Brian analysed his options and said he really only has three. The first is permanent celibacy. The second is to end the marriage and find a new partner in his life. The third is to continue his marriage, but also find a second relationship that includes sexual intimacy (what used to be called a “mistress”).
Sam initially thought the first choice would be easy for Brian, but Brian says that even thinking about permanent celibacy is like being punched in the gut. As he has explained to Sam, it is not just about sex. There are lots of ways to release sexual tension. That’s not really complicated.
What is more complicated is that his self-perception includes being a sexual being. Since as far back as he can remember, being sexually attractive to women, and sexually active, has been a central aspect of his self-worth. He’s not so foolish as to think that the 50-year-old Brian is a chick magnet, but nor does he believe that he is “no longer man enough” to engage in mutual sexual satisfaction with women. Male-female sexual attraction and relationships is still part of who Brian is.
In this, Brian is probably not different from most other men, and maybe even most women. It may be true that women are more willing to end their sex lives while they are still fairly young, although many still feel devastated if their partners cease to have any sexual interest in them. However, it is the rare man that feels comfortable ending his own sex life. This is true even if it is largely non-existent. For someone like Brian, whose sex life has to him been consistent for many years, the thought of ending it is a shock to the psyche.
Is “You will never have sex again” a fate worse than death? You could argue that question until the cows come home, and not reach a consensus. [I can just see the scorn in readers’ thoughts now. On both sides of the divide.]
For Brian, as much as he loves Sam – and he does – he just doesn’t see how he can embrace permanent celibacy.
What about ending the marriage? Brian says that seems like overkill. There are a lot of very good things about their relationship. They have a whole life together that, for the most part, is a good one, and will continue to be a good one.
He is reinforced in that reaction by the thought that, if he told his friends that he was divorcing Sam because she wouldn’t have sex with him, they might think him petty. He would never tell people that, of course, but knowing how they might react if he did is still instructive.
On the other hand, it would solve the problem, at least for Brian. He would not have much difficulty finding a new partner who would spend the rest of their life with him, in bed and out.
Ironically, it would be a bad solution for Sam, as she has bluntly acknowledged. While Brian would find a new, long-term relationship with a woman, Sam would not find a similar new relationship with a man. Lots of men would probably be interested. Sam is an attractive woman. However, as soon as she made her no-sex declaration to them, they would be gone. A decision by Brian to end the marriage and seek a new relationship would, almost certainly, be a decision that Sam would live all or most of the rest of her life alone.
As much as you think a decision is yours to make, it is often also a decision about the lives of other people.
And what about just finding a mistress? Brian rejects that out of hand. That makes the discussion no longer about sex, he says, but about trust and honesty. He just doesn’t see how he could bring himself to engage in that kind of deceit, no matter what the so-called justification.
OK, then what about an “open marriage”? What if Sam consented to Brian having a relationship with another woman, at the same time as remaining married to Sam? Sam has, in fact, talked to Brian about that, as if it might be OK with her, but he thinks it’s a complete non-starter. If the other relationship is just sexual, that entirely misses the point of the personal intimacy that is the hallmark of a real relationship. Basically, the other woman would, in Brian’s mind, be like a prostitute, and he would be using her in a way that offends him and disrespects her. On the other hand, if the other relationship is real, in any way similar to his marriage to Sam, then he doesn’t see how Sam could accept it, or how he could handle two loving relationships like that at the same time.
Open marriage, says Brian, probably can work for some people. Not for him, or Sam.
So Brian, having rejected all three of his options as being fundamentally unacceptable, is looking for answers. As he and Sam both put it – in almost the same words (they have been married a long time) – it is not like this is a problem unique to them. Many marriages go through this exact challenge. Surely there are solutions?
Going back to the way it was is not feasible. Sam was honest with Brian about her feelings. That has the unintended effect that she can no longer pretend that sex between them makes her happy. Even if she wanted to change her mind, and maintain some form of sex life with Brian, he will know that she doesn’t like it. They have talked about whether the question has to be binary: their sex life has to be either fifty times a year, as now, or zero, as she has proposed. They explored whether there is a compromise “number”. The answer is that, as long as he knows she doesn’t enjoy it, any compromise is functionally equivalent to zero in his mind.
They have talked about going to sex counselling, to see if there are ways to change their sex life that would allow Sam to enjoy it. Both have expressed a willingness to try any change, even ones that today they would consider shocking. Most of the extremes are out anyway. Brian has a strong distaste for anything that connects sex and violence (bondage, S&M, etc.), and Sam has no real interest either. Sam is clear that her sexual orientation is and always has been heterosexual. She sees no likelihood that will change.
Maybe they could both learn to be better lovers. Neither thinks they are particularly good at it today. Just average, they would say.
On the other hand, neither thinks they will learn to be a lot better, either, no matter how hard they try.
The pragmatic truth is that sex counselling could open the door to going back to the way it was. If Brian is convinced (by Sam) that he has become much better, and is now making her happy sexually, she can resume faking it. That could work, but it would have two downsides.
First, Brian would always have doubts about whether he was really making Sam happy. He’s not a complete idiot, and in any case like all of us he is driven by insecurity much of the time.
Second, and more important, it means Sam gives up her original intention to end her sex life. How is that OK, for either of them?
Both Brian and Sam want to stay married. Sam wants to be celibate. Brian does not. Neither can see a way out.
And that’s where it stands today.
- Jay Shepherd, March 21, 2019