I received hundreds of replies to my column from last week, “What to do when a spouse OKs sleeping around,” which addressed a man’s unhappiness with his wife’s offer that he discreetly sleep with other women, since she no longer has any desire for sex.
Clearly, people have very strong feelings about this. The subject of whether or not you are having enough sex within marriage is emotionally charged, as is the question of what exactly constitutes infidelity.
As you can see, opinion varies greatly. Here is a sampling of responses from TODAY readers:
- “If your wife grants you permission to get sex somewhere else, it’s because she is probably somewhere else too, and she doesn't want to feel guilty.”
- “This wife definitely does not want to own up to the communication [problems] in her marriage, but wants all the benefits of being taken care of without the participation. I call these kinds of marriages dead. She is married to an idea, but is not in a relationship.”
- “You should examine the wife’s issues more deeply. Maybe she is suffering from self-image issues. Could she be ashamed of her body? This could contribute to a constant fear of being rejected because of unattractiveness. Though it’s not realistic, she might feel as though allowing her husband to have anonymous sex will keep him from leaving completely.”
- “Sorry, but I don't agree with your advice. Some people just don’t have the sex drive of others, but really enjoy the companionship of their spouse. Some persons may be tired, in pain, etc., so that sex doesn’t play an important role in their lives. People can be normal and also loving, and not care to have sex. I think the wife is saying, ‘I love you and want to be with you, but I know you need more than [what] I can offer you.’ I think she loves him very much to make that sacrifice for him to find elsewhere what she can’t provide.
On the other hand, this guy might be really selfish or lousy in bed, and the wife might not want to seek counseling and end up embarrassing or hurting him. Still, I don’t think she has one foot out the door at all. I think she’s hoping this marriage can stay together. Different strategies work for different couples. I’m sure there are many men complaining of not getting enough sex who are sleeping around on the sly. It's the betrayal and lies that hurt those marriages.”
- “The answer from his wife isn’t ‘retro.’ I’m 41 and had told my husband when we were dating that if he felt the need to fool around, feel free. Just wear a condom and be honest that he’s married. My husband is free to do what he wants with his body. Life is short. Unconditional love is letting someone be who he is. Let go of the reins and you’d be surprised that they don’t take off. Hold too tight, and they’ll leave.
If this honestly feels OK with her husband having extramarital sex, then good for her. She's not saying she doesn't love him. On the contrary, she's saying, “I can’t give you sex but I love you so feel free to go out and get it. I trust you love me and will come back home.” If she doesn't really mean that in her heart then she shouldn't do it because in the end if he does fall in love with another she's in for a huge unprepared heartache.
The couple needs to be honest with each other. If the wife’s solution isn’t weighing well on the husband, then they really need to discuss their marriage further. You are making people feel bad for giving unconditional love. Your idea of marriage is obviously ownership, where to love means to obey. If you are happy that way, great. But it’s time to change marriage by letting couples make the rules for their own marriages.”
- “I don’t believe the wife is unreasonable. If she is tired from work and you are asking for sex every night, it gets really tiresome. I have a man in my life and he wants sex every day. It is tiring and most importantly it hurts. The husband should get a grip of your sex drive, and make it enjoyable for her at all times.”
- “What you say may be true for some but not for all. I have a medical condition that has caused a total lack of sex drive. Before this condition there wasn't a night my husband and I weren't intimate. I know how sexual he is and how much my rejection hurt him. I told him over and over to get a girlfriend. I didn't care who as long as he is happy. It took him about two years of me telling him this before he accepted my reasoning.
Now he has a girlfriend who is a very good friend to me. We all go camping and on trips together and everyone is very happy. I have no regrets and couldn't ask for a better situation. I still have a partner and now a good friend. We openly discuss any issues and work them out together. I won't lie and say there haven't been moments of jealousy. We are human, after all. But we work it out as adults. Open relationships can and do work as long as all involved are honest about how they feel.”
- “He better start wondering if she isn't already doing the same thing — seeing someone else. This may be a way for her to feel like it is OK.”
- “Obviously, you are a very closed-minded person. I have this same agreement with my boyfriend because he has a much higher sex drive than I do. I told him that as long as he is open and honest about the sexual relationships with others and is safe about it, I have no problems with it. I do not think that there is anything wrong with this solution. He has never used this solution but if my low sex drive ever gets to an unbearable level for him, at least he knows he has this option.”
- “I believe that the wife simply has lost her sex drive, which happens sometimes, especially when a person is depressed. It's less about her doing something deliberately or having a motive such as wanting out of the relationship, and more about her not knowing what else to do. She is desperately telling him to try to get the pleasure he wants by any other means — a selfless thing to suggest, difficult as it is.”
- “There may more sinister forces at work. You correctly determine that the woman has one foot out the door. It is possible that she is encouraging him to sleep around in preparation for a possible divorce. Courts still consider infidelity when deciding whom to award and how much, and I think in the back of this woman's mind that's exactly what she's planning. The marriage is dead. If I was the husband, I'd acknowledge this fact — and ask for it in writing!”
- “Some couples have open marriages and swinging relationships, and gay couples seem more open-minded on this subject than straight couples. Is it possible to acknowledge that no individual can fulfill 100% of everything that another individual may need in order to live? After all, even married, it is healthy for most men to have male friends and most women to have female friends to complement the things that their spouses provide. Why can't physical sex with others be a healthy complement as well when both parties have set-upon ground rules? Wouldn't the key be if the relationship is strongly grounded in love?
I do agree with you that this is playing with fire, and will add that the wife may have a motive of her own, but I am just not so sure to reject this idea for everyone. I believe it is possible to love without sex. Just because a spouse is given permission to have sex outside of the relationship doesn't automatically mean there is no love.
What should people do if their spouses have needs that they cannot satisfy? If I or my wife gets sick, for example, and can no longer have sex, does the other partner have to be penalized too? Does the love automatically end? It sounds like she may perceive this as a marriage-saving gesture. Maybe it is a rejection of his sexuality, maybe not. But I am not so sure that is a rejection of their marriage. Otherwise, she would pursue divorce on her own rather than remain in the marriage, wouldn't she? Unless her motive involves her own cheating.”
- “The solution is indeed strange, but then again, we do not know all the factors that have let her to make this choice of opening her marriage. This is one of those triple-edged swords in life. Men as a group tend to think this would be a gift. It indeed is a gift, but some gifts aren't without dangers. STDs are rampant, prostitution is more covert than even the men that patronize them know. And there is always that ‘I've found someone else’ thing.”
- “You are policing an unrealistic standard for a good marriage on all couples, ignoring the way that time changes situations and marital contracts for people. You're imposing this monogamous model of marriage as a rule that should apply to everyone when this is clearly not true. How could you possibly know what all couples need at all times? Marriage is a social institution that is changing. It serves different purposes for each couple. Love and commitment appear in different forms for different couples.”
- “There are hundreds of people who have open relationships with marriages that work. As long as there are boundaries and understanding between the couple there should never be a problem. If everything else in the relationship is fine, then seek sex elsewhere. It seems to me that the wife simply does not want a lacking sexual life to interfere with the relationship they have outside of the bedroom.”
- “Your wife is having an affair. After you start having sex with other women, it will indemnify her from culpability for her own moral vacuum. The real question is whether it is simply more sex that you want, or more sex WITH YOUR WIFE. The thought of having a free ticket to boink at will and still have a monogamous wife at home is the stuff of adolescent fantasy.
I guarantee that after a few months of your ‘dating’ other women, your wife will want her own bedroom and she will become totally off limits to you. Shortly thereafter she will tell you that she has a lover of her own. She will want separate vacations, separate credit cards, and suddenly you have a chick for a roommate who doesn't pay rent, doesn't make your bed, doesn't sleep with you, and has somehow even wrangled the good bathroom because the small bathroom isn't big enough for all her billions of bottles of bathroom stuff. Don’t take the bait. Prepare yourself for bad news.”
- “Given the words that this man's wife used, she sounds like she is not as committed to the relationship, and therefore you make some valid points in your response to his letter. But just because this woman may have given up on her marriage on some level, that does not mean that anyone who grants his or her spouse permission to seek sex elsewhere does not want their marriage to work. There are many couples who have open marriages, and who still have healthy marriages.”
My husband and I, for example, practice polyamory, and believe that it is possible for one person to love and be committed to many different people. Real love is unconditional, and because we know the depth of love and commitment we share, both of us are free to explore other relationships. There is no danger of either of us ‘leaving’ the other for someone else, because we accept that it is possible to love each other as much as we do and to love other people.
After all, most women already love their husbands, their relatives, their best friends and their children very strongly, but those loves cannot be compared because they are inherently different. We have been happily married for nearly 10 years, and polyamory has only served to bring us closer together.
I am not saying that this lifestyle is for everyone. It requires a lot of maturity, communication and willingness to grow. Many people are too possessive or too bound to society's rules to live as freely as we do — but we find the freedom in our love rewarding. There is absolute trust and openness. I can definitely say, beyond a doubt, that it is possible to be in a loving, committed marriage where one's spouse grants permission to seek sex and even intimacy elsewhere.”
- “You are right on the money. I had this happen to me and the relationship ended. There just isn't enough love to go around.”
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .