Help! My Wife No Longer Likes Sex After Her Mastectomy. So I Cheated. With a Man.

Advice on manners and morals.
Sept. 12 2013 6:15 AM

Desperate Liaisons

My wife hasn't wanted sex since her mastectomy. So I ended up sleeping with a man.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
I'm a 50-year-old professional man. I married my college sweetheart and we've been happily married for almost 30 years. We have two grown children who are doing well. About four years ago, my wife had breast cancer, a mastectomy, and chemotherapy. It was traumatic and after her treatment she told me that she was no longer interested in sex. I figured the experience, understandably, might make her shy away from intimacy for a while. I've said that I still love her more than anyone in the world, and that she's beautiful to me, which is true. From time to time, I've told her that I miss intimacy with her. She's thanked me for the compliment, but it hasn't gone any further than that. One of my hobbies is photography, and sometimes I've been asked to take pictures of rock bands. Three weeks ago I was at a club and a twentysomething man walked up to me. He said, "This band has a large gay following. Are you gay?" I said, “No. I'm married. I'm just here to take photos." He said, “Well, I think you're hot. If you're bi-curious, my apartment is nearby." Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. He was young, and handsome. I thought, "Why the hell not?" We went to his place and had (safe) sex. I'd never had sex with a man before. I found it to be interesting and enjoyable, but not something I'd been longing for all of my life. What I did find that I longed for was the passion. Three times that night, he said, "You are such a sexy man." No one had ever said that to me before and I keep hearing those words in my head. Since then, I've had a bunch of conflicted feelings. I feel sad about betraying my wife. I also keep scanning crowds to see if I can find that guy again. I don't think that it's the sex that I want, so much as the passion and appreciation. I would like to find some way to explain my feelings to my wife, but I can't tell her about the one-night stand. She's not homophobic, but the fact that I've strayed outside of marriage would be painful for her. Your thoughts?

—Confused

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Dear Confused,
I think you need to stop looking for the young stranger, and instead focus on your wife. No, I don’t think you should tell her about your recent encounter. But that intoxicating and confusing episode should propel you to address the loneliness in your marriage. Your wife indeed went through a painful and frightening experience that seems to have left her with a sense of disconnection from her body. Treatment also could have pushed her into an abrupt and difficult menopause. All of this could mean she both feels unattractive and uninterested in sex. But that doesn’t mean it’s fair for her to unilaterally announce (while both of you were only in your 40s!) that your sex life has ended with no chance for discussion or reconsideration. Your wife must have contemplated that her closing the door on intimacy would have a profound effect on you. Surely, you never thought the result would be that you go off to have anonymous sex with a handsome young man. It doesn’t sound as if this is a readjustment of your sexual orientation—I’m betting you also would have gone off with an alluring woman—but instead about the desperate longing of a man who’s been in sexual purgatory.

So talk to your wife. You can tell her you understand that sex after cancer treatment can be a complicated issue. But for both of your sakes you want to reconnect physically and emotionally. Say that you are happy to go with her to a therapist if that would help. Advise that her gynecologist can address some of her physical issues, which are discussed here. Suggest she may benefit from talking about all of this with a support group of others who have been there. Let her know you’re happy to go slow, but that you want to celebrate each other’s bodies and you think there can be an even more profound connection because of your joy at still having each other. Then see how she responds and give her some time. If she again says she appreciates that you still find her attractive, but that the sexual chapter of your lives is forever closed, then she has changed the terms of your marriage. At that point you have to decide what your union means to you. Maybe you tell your wife you're going to consider having discreet affairs. Maybe you don't say anything but just go ahead and do it. Or maybe you decide you can't stay in a sexless marriage. Sex with strangers is fraught with peril, but you are entitled to acknowledge your needs and get them met.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Wicked Widow-to-Be

Dear Prudie,
Six months ago I landed a good job at a small but lucrative firm. There is one problem. My boss, who’s the highest ranking person there, decided to stick me in his office. I am 2 feet away from him at all times. There are other small offices in our suite, but my boss is notoriously cheap and the word is that he doesn't want to pay to rent extra space. Sitting in his office is unbearable. People are in and out all day to discuss things, and otherwise he is on the phone. It is totally distracting. If I print something while he's talking to someone, or drop something and make a noise, he will stop what he's doing and give me a look. If I’m searching on the Web for something related to work, he’ll peer over and ask me what I'm doing. If I put something in our shared trash can, he will inspect it. When I get up to use the bathroom, he asks where I'm going. He’s a nice enough guy, but it is just too much to have my boss breathing down my neck all day. I don’t want to quit, but I’m at the breaking point. Should I approach him about having my own space, or is this too pushy and demanding for someone new? Or should I suck it up and be grateful to have a job?

—Too Close for Comfort

Dear Close,
You have to speak up before you snap. I can just imagine the day you rise to go to the bathroom, your boss asks what you’re doing, and in response you relieve yourself in the joint trash can before handing it to him and suggesting he inspect the result. It’s not pushy and demanding to seek an environment in which you can do your work without having every movement and keystroke analyzed. Sure this is going to be awkward since he apparently likes your Orange Is the New Black cellmate situation. But if you’re miserable and unproductive, then something has to change. So first thing one morning tell him you’d like to have a conversation. Explain you’re thrilled with the job, are delighted to be at the firm, and hope he’s happy with your work. But you are requesting your desk be moved. Explain you’re one of those people who finds it hard to tune out ambient noise, so as he conducts his day you’re constantly having to try to refocus on your tasks. Say that you’re sure you’ll be even more productive if a small space can be carved out somewhere in the suite for you. If he adamantly refuses to consider this, then on your own time in your own space, polish up your résumé. Unfortunate things happen when people reach their breaking point.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My fiancé, "Greg," is estranged from his emotionally and verbally abusive father. Recently, after our engagement, his father found me on Facebook and sent me a message wanting contact information for Greg and asking to meet me. When I brought this up to Greg, he reiterated that his father was abusive and wants him to stay away from us and our future children. I don't agree with cutting out family indefinitely and now that we're getting married, I feel like I have more of a say in the matter. Should I keep nudging Greg to eventually contact his father? And what should I tell Greg's father if Greg keeps putting off contact?

—Wanting to Be a Go-Between

Dear Wanting,
I bet that you had a happy childhood. Even if it wasn’t perfect—no one’s is—you likely had well-meaning parents who put their children’s welfare first. As I wrote about here, it can be exceedingly hard for such people to understand what it is like to emerge from a painful and destructive childhood; to have a parent, or parents, who couldn’t even perform their most basic duties. Often people from normal families pressure their friends or loved ones who grew up with abusers to forgive, to seek “closure” (dreadful word), without understanding the emotional cost this might entail. It’s not unusual for adults who were abused to have never confided in anyone about what really went on. So instead of deciding that Greg’s conclusion about his relationship with his father is wrong, try to understand why he feels the healthiest thing for him is to sever contact. Tell Greg you agree to honor his wishes and not respond to his father. Say you don’t want to force him to relive his worst memories, but you love him and want to know what he went through, so you hope he can talk to you about his childhood. Maybe if you hear what happened, you will stop trying to engineer a reconciliation and instead understand why your husband-to-be can’t bear the thought of a man like his father having anything to do with your future children.

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
I am hoping that you can help solve a disagreement about the social etiquette of flossing. Since flossing is so boring (but also very important for dental health) I have developed the habit of flossing and using a gum scraper while I watch television. Combining my dental hygiene and my penchant for bad television has done wonders for my dental health, but there is one problem. My boyfriend finds it completely gross and rude. He's a great guy and we have been dating for over four years, so I am willing to compromise and refrain from my dental routine while he is in the room. However, is it really that gross to floss in the same room as my longtime partner? I'm flossing to get rid of the microscopic bacteria that builds up; there aren’t chunks of corn cob flying into my boyfriend's lap. I would never floss when we had company, but I feel as though the standards should be more lax with a live-in boyfriend. Am I in the wrong? Or, is my boyfriend being a neat freak? 

—Dental Health Enthusiast 

Dear Enthusiast,
You’ve made the right decision not to sacrifice your boyfriend’s mental health for your dental health. We all need to floss our teeth, clip our toenails, trim our nasal hair. But these acts required to make ourselves presentable can be repulsive when done in the wrong setting. Disgust is an emotion that has to be learned, and what is considered abominable in one culture is acceptable in another—this article says that in many Asian countries public spitting is fine, but the idea of blowing into a handkerchief and putting it back in one’s pocket is sickening. No doubt your boyfriend appreciates the results of your assiduous oral hygiene, but he is so discomfited by the process that it’s not in your interest to make him watch. My stance may seem hypocritical since I’ve defended romantic partners’ letting farts fly in private settings. But there’s a difference between having a laugh at certain inevitable bodily functions and being forced to sit through extended personal maintenance.

—Prudie

More Dear Prudence Columns

The Story of Oh, No: My boss walked in on me touching myself, and now he won’t stop flirting. What do I do?” Posted May 24, 2012.
A Touch Too Long: My mom let me play with her breasts for years after I stopped breast-feeding, and now she’s doing it with my sister. How do I stop it?” Posted May 17, 2012.
A Dirty Debut: My 19-year-old niece just confessed to me she's made a porn film. Should I tell the family?” Posted May 3, 2012.
Honeymoon, Interrupted: My new wife postponed our tropical getaway to comfort her “best friend.” What gives?” Posted April 26, 2012.

More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts

Backup Plan: In a live chat, Prudie advises a woman who just found out her fiancé originally wanted to date her best friend.” Posted June 4, 2012.
Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s in Her Bed: In a live chat, Prudie advises a woman whose nanny had an affair with her husband.” Posted May 29, 2012.
Don’t Feed the Baby: In a live chat, Dear Prudence offers advice on a vegan infant, a no-child prenup, and whether a brain tumor is a good excuse for adultery.” Posted May 21, 2012.
Guys and Dolls: In a live chat, Prudie offers advice regarding a boyfriend whose “other woman” is a mannequin.” Posted May 14, 2012.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column.