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"I'm outraged!" said Mia, 29, a former book editor who quit her job when her son, Jason, was born four months ago. "Carson has been visiting online pornography sites -- and it's not the first time. Three years ago I noticed a credit card charge I didn't recognize. When I called to check it, I discovered he had joined a service that allows you to instant-message someone with whom you have the online equivalent of phone sex.
"When I confronted him, we had one of the ugliest fights we've ever had. He promised to stop, but then he blamed me! How's that for taking responsibility? He claimed he looked at porn because I never wanted to have sex, even though back then, before the baby, we had it a lot -- though never enough to suit Carson.
"Things were tense for a few weeks, but eventually the crisis blew over. We were busy: Carson had just started at a new real-estate firm, I loved my job, and on weekends we went antiquing to furnish our condo. We were very happy, or so I thought. Carson was thrilled by my pregnancy, though we didn't have much sex after the fourth month. I felt huge and gross, and he worried he would hurt me or the baby. Now, with a 4-month-old, all I want to do in bed is sleep!
"Still, I trusted him not to go back to the online smut. Then last week, I walked in as he was downloading some X-rated photos -- and my heart stopped. We are so compatible and have so much fun together. But clearly something is very wrong.
"We met three summers ago at a friend's party. Carson was cute and athletic, with a great smile. And he had charm to spare. I've always been shy, but he made me feel like the most scintillating woman in the room. And we had a lot in common -- sailing, hiking, even politics. Before long we were sharing an apartment in Providence and planning our wedding.
"All that charm, though, has a negative side: Carson is an incorrigible flirt. It makes me crazy. He doesn't just say hello to a woman friend, he wraps her in his arms and gives her a big hug. In restaurants, he chats up waitresses to the point where they pull up a chair and sit down. He says he's just being friendly, but there's such a thing as too friendly. I'm embarrassed to be there when he behaves like that. He says he has always been this way, and so has his father -- as if that makes it okay.
"The first time I met Carson's family we went out to dinner, and his father ogled every woman in the restaurant and called them "Honey." I found it obnoxious, but nobody else batted an eyelid, including Carson's mom. Last summer we visited his family at their time-share in North Carolina, and his dad would sit by the pool with binoculars looking at the women on the beach and making racy comments. I was flabbergasted!
"My own family is totally different. My mom was a homemaker and Dad owned a jewelry store. My three sisters and I often marvel that we never saw them fight. They were very New England proper. If they even had a slight disagreement, they would retreat to the bedroom and close the door. So you can see why I was so shocked to discover that my husband was into this sordid stuff.
"Maybe I'm naive, but the Internet scares me. You never know who you're dealing with. But most of all, I'm scared about what Carson's behavior says about our marriage. He may not be seeing another woman, but I feel every bit as betrayed."
"I feel awkward talking to a stranger about my sex life," said Carson, 30, a real-estate agent with an easy smile. "But if we're going to resolve this, I have to be honest, so here goes: I often feel sexually rejected by Mia. We clearly have different sexual needs. I don't like upsetting her, or fighting, so I did what I had to do. I know she has trouble understanding this -- she gets very dramatic and turns molehills into mountains -- but looking at porn is a purely physical thing for me. It has no bearing on my feelings for Mia. I don't even have a special 'cyberpartner.' It's just your garden-variety porn. When I'm sexually frustrated, I turn on the computer, go to some provocative site, do my thing, and feel better.
"It's not that I don't have mixed feelings about this, but frankly, since we hardly ever have sex anymore, I feel I have no other choice. It's a lot better than having an affair, isn't it? Some wives would be grateful that their husbands find release on the Internet, and not with another woman.
"Let me say it again: I love Mia and want to make love to her. I would never have an affair -- ever. But she doesn't make it easy. When we do have sex, it's great. But she says no more often than yes. When she was pregnant, we tried a few times during the middle months, but it was uncomfortable. Now she's so tired that she never wants sex. I know she needs time to recover physically and emotionally. But how long do I have to wait? She's so wrapped up with the baby that we barely talk, let alone make love. Can a guy be jealous of a 4-month-old?"The Tension is Unbearable"
"I was wildly attracted to Mia from the moment we met. She's beautiful, sexy, and funny. We never used to argue, except for her complaints about my supposedly inappropriate flirting. But my interactions with women are perfectly innocent; Mia has nothing to fear. I've always been a people person, and I make my living by getting along with others. I don't drool over women the way my dad does.
"As a kid, I was sometimes mortified by Dad's lewd remarks, but to my mom they were no big deal. I don't see why Mia can't adopt that attitude.
"Our fights just rip me apart. Mia gets so nasty, going from zero to 10 on the anger scale in record time. Often she ends up screaming and cursing. I can't take it. Last week, after we had this big fight about the porn, I threw some clothes into a suitcase and stormed out, with no idea where I was going. I drove around until I cooled off and then went back home. But the tension is unbearable. We have so much together, and I'd never jeopardize that. I promise that I'll stay away from the porn sites -- if we can find a way to be close again."
"What you find on the Internet today is not your father's Playboy," said the counselor. "The proliferation of Web sites, chat rooms, and Webcams offering instant fulfillment at the click of a mouse has taken pornography to a whole new level of accessibility. Mia isn't the only wife to be upset by her husband's interest in all this.
"Mia and Carson clearly loved each other, but their relationship had hit a rocky patch. Just as an affair can be a wake-up call, Carson's need for Web porn (which he admitted predated his marriage) indicated that they needed to find a way to communicate lovingly about sex. 'Try to turn this difficult situation into a catalyst for positive change,' I advised. Since Carson's tastes tended toward fairly standard sexual situations, I reassured Mia that his interest in porn was normal. 'Try not to take this personally,' I urged her. 'It doesn't mean he doesn't love you or find you attractive. Nor does it mean he intends to have an affair or wants you to look or behave like the women on the screen.'
"That said, I also told Mia a blunt truth that many women don't want to hear: 'If you reject a man sexually, he's eventually going to go elsewhere.' I know this sounds like marital advice from the 1950s, but that makes it no less true. 'For a man,' I explained, 'sex is the greatest index of love. When Carson's physical needs are met and he feels desired, his confidence will skyrocket and his need for pornography will diminish.'Sharing Responsibility
"As I expected, Mia took umbrage. 'Doesn't he have some responsibility here?' she demanded. 'Why should I be the submissive maiden? Besides, I have an infant and just brushing my teeth takes every ounce of my energy.'
"'Yes, he needs to be responsible, and yes, you're exhausted,' I agreed, 'but if your marriage is to improve, you can't hold sex hostage. I'm not advising you to morph into a Stepford wife, but remember, your sexual responsiveness is the most powerful way for him to know that he's loved.'
"Essentially, this couple's power struggle over sex stemmed from two sources: Carson's flirting and new mom Mia's overwhelming exhaustion. Mia had always felt uncomfortable with what she considered Carson's overly friendly attitude toward other women. He minimized her feelings, insisting it was 'no big deal.' Unconsciously, a furious Mia used sex to get back at him. Over time this cold war abated, but the underlying issues were never resolved. So when Mia discovered Carson was visiting porn sites again, she pulled away sexually and exploded in rage. Mia was raised in a home where anger was rarely expressed, so fighting frightened her. She had no idea how to temper her negative feelings or settle quarrels calmly.
"'You have to stop denigrating her emotions,' I told Carson. 'Your actions deeply upset her, and for that reason alone, you have to stop.'
"Hearing all this, the couple realized they needed to make changes. The two of them had fun one day in my office brainstorming ideas to pump up the passion: taking a bath together when the baby is asleep; buying essential oils and giving each other massages. To keep the sexual energy flowing, they started paying attention to simple gestures -- holding hands, putting an arm around the other's waist -- that often fall by the wayside once a baby arrives.
"They also arranged for a local college student to babysit once a week. 'We really look forward to that evening just for us,' Mia said. She also promised to let Carson know, kindly, when she's not in the mood, but agreed to give him a rain check. Carson was fine with this. 'I like looking forward to sex with my wife,' he said.Seeing the Other Point of View
"This couple found that the more they were able to see a contentious issue from their partner's point of view, the easier it was to defuse its volatility. To keep fights from escalating, they established fair-fight rules: no yelling, no cursing, and time-outs when they're getting nowhere. 'But in truth, we haven't had to use the rules much,' said Carson.
"Once he understood how much his dabbling in online porn upset Mia, Carson stopped. As their sex life has improved, he said, he feels less and less interested in visiting porn sites anyway. And he has made a Herculean effort to curb his flirting, to Mia's relief. At one of their last sessions, he told me, 'Things are great! Mia is much more into sex than before, Jason is thriving, and the tension in our marriage has disappeared.' His wife enthusiastically seconded that verdict."
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Joyce Dolberg Rowe, LMHC, a marriage counselor with offices in Quincy and Hull, Massachusetts. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2005.