Help! I Can’t Have Sex With My Wife Unless I Pretend She’s Someone Else.

Advice on manners and morals.
July 8 2013 2:57 PM

Georgia on My Mind

In a live chat, Prudie advises a man unable to have sex with his wife unless he imagines she’s someone else.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. Let's get going.

Q. Imagining Sex: My wife of seven years and I have an amazing life together. It's everything I could have dreamed of growing up. However, when we're having sex, I think of everyone and anyone but her. I imagine myself with past lovers, with friends and co-workers and with women I walk by in the street. I never think of her and am pretty sure I wouldn't climax if I did. Is this normal or a problem? Do I not love her, or not love her enough? Am I destined to cheat at some point?

A: Ever see your wife close her eyes during lovemaking? If so, don't ask, "Am I Channing Tatum now?" Thank goodness there's a hard, impenetrable case around the soft substance that produces our thoughts and our sexual fantasies. There's a reason evolution did not result in subtitles being projected across our foreheads so everyone can know what's really going on in our heads. You have a great marriage. And I think part of the reason your sex life stays so fresh is that you are able to imagine that affair with Scarlett Johansson or the woman in accounting while being faithful to your wife. Your fantasies don't mean you don't love your wife, that she's not enough for you, or that you'll cheat. They mean that you're alive. Be happy you've found a way to be a great lover and keep things fresh.

Dear Prudence: Raunchy Upstairs Neighbor

Q. Depressed Teen?: Judging by some things she has posted on line and said to me, I think my daughter's 13-year-old friend "Mary" is falling into a depression. Her mother is very controlling and expects Mary to be perfect. For example, an A-minus is not good enough. Mary has very low self-esteem. She seems to think that anyone who wants to spend time with her is taking pity on her. I'm worried about Mary and I'm not sure what to do. I told her the other day that if she ever needed a grown up to talk to, she could talk to me in confidence (that I would not tell her mother). She told my daughter later that night that she might have to take me up on the offer because she is really going through some things right now. I know Mary's mother and based on some previous conversations, I am afraid that anything I would bring up to her would fall on deaf ears.

A: Being 13 is "going through some things" in and of itself without the insane pressure of a mother who expects perfection and sees her child not as a human being but as a shiny little bauble to flaunt to the other parents. But intervening here is very tricky. The kind of mother you describe can do terrible harm, but it's generally not seen as abuse to have high expectations. Tiger Mother Amy Chua sold millions of books describing her formula for producing offspring who always gets A's. If you do talk to Mary in confidence, that circumscribes your chance to talk to her mother. Since you're an acute observer of what's going on, and have plenty of evidence that Mary needs a lighter hand and more understanding, I think you should try talking to Mary's parents now. You don't mention a father, but I hope he's around and maybe you can have a gentle conversation with both parents in hopes he's more sympathetic, but perhaps has ceded the bulk of the childrearing to his more demanding spouse. Just say you know that all 13-year-olds are melodramatic—you have one yourself—but when you monitor your daughter's social media you've seen some things that indicate Mary feels that she is inadequate and under tremendous pressure. You can say you've never talked to Mary about this, but you know how hard it is to sometimes back off the expectations—we all want our children to succeed!—but that these young teenagers can need a little room to make mistakes and learn from them. I know, I know, it probably won't make any difference, but you will have tried. Then since Mary is a friend of your daughter's (let’s hope her mother lets her remain so), without even having a private session with Mary, you can in passing conversation express some of these essential points, for example, that no one is perfect and no one is always No. 1.

Q. Hubby Halitosis: My husband and I have been together for over five years now. I love him with all my being, but there is just one huge issue I have with him: His breath smells horrible. I've tried both being nice and being blunt about it with him, but it just never really sinks in. He just pushes it off as me being mean to him. He grew up in a household where both of his parents have bad teeth and they never really made it a priority to keep good oral hygiene habits. I mean, he maybe brushes his teeth once a month. I realized what I was getting into when we were dating, but it's gotten to the point to where I can barely stand it. We recently had a baby and her teeth are due soon to be popping out. How can I make him realize that she will be seeing his lack of oral hygiene and may think it's OK, when it's really not? Is there a way I can show him this is not only hurting his own health, but could possibly hurt his child's way of thinking when it comes to her teeth?

A: Tell me you used assisted technology to produce this baby. Because I'm wondering about a woman who would be intimate with a man with overwhelming halitosis whose oral hygiene consists of a monthly swipe with a toothbrush at his decaying mess. Unless his work requires him to wear a gas mask all day, his co-workers must want to. Now that you have a child, his ability to function in the world is of major importance, and being able to smell his breath from 20 feet is not a career-enhancer. I hear from so many people who despite glaring problems go ahead and marry, hoping somehow that yoking yourself to someone for life will fix a problem. But since you say his teeth were rotten and his breath stunk while you were dating, I really don't understand how you managed to exchange at kiss at "I now pronounce you husband and wife." Your husband must be terrified of dentists, so you should research some who specialize in scared patients and who might even put someone in a twilight state during cleaning and other procedures. You should also show him some information about how parents with dental caries can pass those germs onto their babies through kissing. You have an obligation not to create generation three of the mouth of hell.

Q. Suffering in Silence: I have been married for 45 years and have three adult children. My husband has had a secret addiction to pornography all of those years and our intimate life suffered to the point where we have not had sex since the Reagan administration. For many, many years, I had no idea what was wrong, but assumed it had to be a fault with me, that my husband didn't find me appealing enough. I am sure I don't need to tell you what that has done to me in terms of self-esteem and intimacy. There is a Berlin Wall between us. I have come to accept it. My adult children wonder now at my apparent deadness of spirit and I simply say that I have my reasons. They do not need to know the truth about my husband's addiction. He is their father even though they are adults. Can you offer some counsel?

A: It's too bad your husband never learned the use of fantasy and ran some of these porn tapes in his head while he continued to make love to you. I know a lot of people felt things went wrong when Ronald Reagan left office, but your husband seems to have taken to an extreme. You say it's been almost a quarter-century since you and your husband had sex. But as the Bush administration became the Clinton administration became the Bush administration, with no intimacy from your husband, it's rather extraordinary you didn't decide to impeach this marriage and get out. Marriage is a partnership. Your husband profoundly withdrew from you, but you hung in and let him kill your spirit. The question is not what you tell the kids. It's what you want to do with the rest of your life.

Q. Should I Tell Him He's on Thin Ice?: About six months ago, I decided to assume that my husband will never change, and make the decision whether to continue with our marriage based on that assumption. (He's not abusive, just unreliable in a number of ways.) I didn't tell him this, I just did it. The answer was yes, it is better to stay married to him than be a single mom. That decision has been very freeing—I've stopped nagging and just acted on the assumption that I would take care of everything, so the help he provides is now a nice bonus. I've been happy, and he's been happy. But here's the problem—sometime in the future, probably when our son is older or has left the nest, I think that the answer to that question will turn to "no." When that happens, I know my husband will be shocked. Do I have any obligation to let him know my thinking? We're talking 8–12 years from now, and things could change in the meantime, so my first thought is that no good would come from telling him. However, I also feel in a weird way that I'm now using him as a convenient occasional babysitter/roommate/sex partner without giving him the full picture. What are your thoughts?

A: The decision you have made now, while it may feel like a permanent one, may not be. You've weighed your options and for now it is better for you and your child to stay in the marriage. But life has a way of intervening in our plans and you may find just a few years from now the burden of your marriage has become too much and you want out. It could also be that now that you've liberated yourself from trying to change your husband, your change in attitude prompts a change in him. So I don't think it's useful to begin a conversation with your spouse in which you reveal things are going to stay status quo until you get around to divorcing him sometime in the 2020s.

Q. Re: Depressed Teen: I was "Mary" growing up—if I brought home a 97, the question was, "what happened to the other 3 points?" If a friend's parent had talked to my parents like that, particularly my mother, it would have backfired. My mother would have come down on me and criticized me for taking "problems" outside of the family. On the other hand, I would have welcomed the ability to talk to another adult without fear that adult would go to my parents. Mothers like Mary's are extremely difficult, but I fortunately had other adults in my life. So should Mary.

A: Thanks for this perspective and I'm sorry you were another Mary. I only suggested the talk because lots of times no one is willing to broach things with the wrong-doers and the other mother can say in all honesty she's never discussed this with Mary—and again, there's a chance the father needs a reality check. But once that's done, I see your point about stepping up and being a confidante for Mary. You're absolutely correct that it does help just to hear, "This isn't right and I'm sorry you're going through this."

Q. Bring Up Dead Sibling?: I have been friends with a woman and her husband for about a year (we met through mutual friends). I recently found out, by way of reading a nonfiction book about the event, that her sister died tragically in a nightclub fire 10 years ago. My friend's name was published in the book which is how I figured it out. Anyway, I have been feeling like I should say something to let her know I care and how sorry I am for her loss. On the other hand, I know it is a sensitive subject, and she hasn't talked about it directly with me. We usually see each other at fun social events and I wouldn't want to bring something up that would cause her pain in any way. What do you think is the best way to approach this situation ... Should I say something or keep quiet and see if she decides to open up to me?

A: You've only known this woman for a little while and you generally see her at social events. It would be one thing if you had known this woman and her sister for years, and were moved to say, "I remember how much Natalie loved the Fourth of July and I really miss her." It's another to without any context or prompting from your friend reveal that you learned she suffered a terrible tragedy. I'd keep this to yourself. If you become better friends and she mentions her sister's death, you can say you remember that horrific fire and you're so sorry she lost her sister in it.

Q. Re: Depressed teen: My daughter happens to be 13 and has a friend very similar to the one in the OP's story. Only this girl is actually cutting herself and admitting she is very depressed and feels like she will never measure up. My daughter went to the school counselor and asked her to speak to the friend, who is 14. In this state, a person can talk to the counselor without parental notification at 14. Of course the hope is that the parents will get involved but at least for now this girl has a person she can talk to and trust who can offer some help. Maybe once school starts if nothing has changed for the girl in the OP, the daughter can go that route for her friend.

A: Good idea, but you don't have to put this on your daughter. If you're concerned about Mary's mental state and the pressure she's under, you can confidentially report this to the guidance counselor. Here's hoping it helps.

Q. Taking Care of Aging FIL: My FIL is getting older, and I am experiencing pressure from my husband and husband's family to have him move in with us. We have three small kids under the age of 6, and are barely making ends meet. My husband's two siblings are both empty nesters and financially better off, with larger homes. My FIL has lived all his life with one of these siblings, in return for rent, free child care, gardening, and help with other household duties. Now that he is less able to help out, my husband's siblings want to dump him on us. I don't want to be cold-hearted and turn my FIL away, but I simply cannot handle caring for anyone else, mentally, physically, or financially. I am an introvert, and my home is my sanctuary. We don't have an extra bedroom, so I would lose my home office, where I work multiple times a week. I am currently seeing a therapist for depression and anxiety, which is a secret from our families. My husband is starting to resent me from preventing him from fulfilling what he sees is his duty. I cannot take on one more thing. Help!

A: Stand your ground. Taking on the care of an aging in-law while handling three young children, a job, and dealing with depression is a recipe for collapse. It's good you're in therapy, so have your husband join you for several sessions. You're having a hard time standing up to the pressure, so having a professional help guide your husband to seeing the impossibility of this plan is a good idea. Then your husband and his siblings need to get together and come up with some alternatives for Dad. It could be that with some social service agency help, one of them would be able to continue to keep Dad in their home, once the complete burden of his care is lifted. It could be that they need to pool their resources and see if it's possible to get Dad in assisted living. What's not possible is that you take on this open-ended obligation and find yourself unable to function.

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