Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Is It O.K. to Find Sexual Satisfaction Outside Your Marriage?

posted by Joshua on October 9, 2016 in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Relationships
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Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Is It O.K. to Find Sexual Satisfaction Outside Your Marriage?

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I am married and have three children with my husband. For the most part, our lives are happy. My husband and I have a good relationship and are active in our children’s lives. However, I am utterly unsatisfied sexually. I need a bit more than occasional vanilla sex to feel content in that area (nothing too crazy, mind you). When my husband and I first started dating some years ago, I gently brought this matter up to him a handful of times during the course of regular conversation. His answers to me seemed to imply that he was the type who took some time to warm up to new ideas. With this in mind, I moved forward with him, believing that eventually our sex life would become more adventurous. It hasn’t. It has been seven years since we became a committed couple, and if anything, our sex has become more boring and certainly less frequent.

On top of this, although we are happily married as a general rule — we enjoy each other’s company, have similar senses of humor and many common interests — he has the occasional outburst. It’s never over anything serious, and I’m never quite sure why it is triggered. But when this happens, he goes from being a calm, caring person to being enraged and verbally abusive in a matter of seconds (thankfully it has not been in front of our children). He has said some truly terrible things to me when this happens, things that he is always apologetic for later but that I have a difficult time getting over. Because of this, I have largely lost confidence in his having my best interests at heart. I don’t trust him to care about my psychological or emotional well-­being. Because of this lack of trust, I am no longer in a place emotionally where I feel I can even bring up my lack of sexual satisfaction. I am at the point that when I think of attaining sexual satisfaction, the thought of attempting it with him is unpleasant to me.

Before my relationship with my husband, I had a very successful friends-­with-­benefits relationship with another man, which ended because I moved out of his area. We were exceptionally sexually compatible, enjoyed each other’s company and had a very clear understanding of our relationship boundaries. We have kept in touch just a little, and never in a sexual context since I began dating my husband.

I am no longer content to simply accept being less than satisfied in any area of my life, including sexually, and I know that this other man is able and willing to provide that for me. He and my husband do not know each other; he lives very far away from us, and I am in his area only once or twice a year. My husband appears to be both unwilling and unable to provide what I need sexually. However, our family functions well as a unit, and he is a good, involved father, and a generally decent husband, so the thought of breaking up our family is heartbreaking to me and seems very selfish. In addition, extramarital affairs are something I have never believed to be ethically sound decisions. As I see it, these are the options available to me:

I could leave my marriage, break up my family and pursue my own satisfaction, which feels like a blatant betrayal of my children and what I have previously thought to be my moral standards.

I could get sexual satisfaction outside of my marriage with a person I trust and have confidence in, but then have to hide that fact from my husband for the remainder of our lives together, which also feels like a compromise of what I have traditionally viewed as morally acceptable.

I could try to simply accept that I will not ever truly be satisfied in life sexually (or even emotionally, I suppose), which feels like an utter betrayal of myself.

I could try to persuade my husband to be accepting of my seeking sexual fulfillment outside our marriage, which I already know he will never be willing to do. (The suggestion might itself be enough to end our marriage.)

I could try to persuade him to seek counseling with me, which I know he will be resistant to, and try to repair the emotional damage that has been done to our relationship and hope that eventually this will lead to some sexual satisfaction as well. It is worth noting, however, that I am in a place where I do not have the desire to become emotionally close to him again or vulnerable (though he claims to be working on his anger issues). The thought of even trying to become emotionally open to him again is repulsive to me. But I do think that as a family we function very well together, and even for the most part in our day-to-day relationship.

Which of these options is both ethical and likely to lead to my happiness, or is there some magical alternate option I have overlooked? I am nearing the end of my rope. Name Withheld

My pre-response note: Again another clickbait headline!

My response: You paint a desolate picture of your situation and every way forward that you can think of. I suspect that writing this message came at a low point and that you had to work up the nerve to write some of it. If so, there are times you enjoy too, which you alluded to. Still, it sounds like it’s been deteriorating and you expect it will continue.

Anyone could write a book on each of your options. Woody Allen has done a few movies on each. As complicated as your options seem now, each explodes with innumerable new options after each step. You can’t predict how others will respond. We readers know the people involved less so we can’t help as much.

Since you asked about alternatives, I’ll suggest something I didn’t see. It’s not another option with external behavior. It’s an alternative perspective for your well-being. The main idea is for you to create a perspective that brings you as close to happiness or emotional reward as you can. Everyone has to figure out how to view their situation based on what creates what emotions they want in themselves. Man’s Search For Meaning describes Victor Frankl’s. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly describes Jean-Dominique Bauby’s. Buddhism is based on Siddharta Gautama’s.

Everyone has his or her challenges. This situation is yours, or one of yours. Even after you solve it, you’ll face others. Nobody escapes them. I can’t tell you what belief will make your situation seem best for you, but it exists. You probably won’t find it right away, but the more you search, the faster and more likely you’ll find something.

One day your kids will come to you with a broken heart, won’t have gotten into college, or the like. Things will seem as hopeless to them as this does to you. What will you say to them? Would that advice not also apply to you? You’ll know they’ll make it through even if they can’t see how. Your having been through it before allows you to see they’ll come out okay, and that everyone goes through something similar. Yes, it’s difficult but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Others have survived situations like yours and worse and still emerged happy. You can too.

The New York Times response:

If the choice really is among betraying your children, betraying your husband and betraying yourself, I’d be inclined to say that the good of your children has the greatest moral weight. We live in a world, I realize, that rates and ranks sexual gratification with Yelp-like avidity. (It’s all in that classic New York Post headline that trails our Republican presidential candidate like a tin can tied to a bumper: BEST SEX I’VE EVER HAD.) Yet there are bigger strikes against a claim to a well-­lived life than sexual disappointment. One is letting down the children you’ve brought into being and helped raise. Another is having an emotionally empty relationship that regularly degenerates into incivility or worse.

Still, I wonder if you’ve described your options correctly. Your letter doesn’t convey to me a coherent sense of your situation. You say you have a generally good relationship with your husband; yet you also say that you can’t communicate with him about your relationship, and you suspect that he doesn’t have your best interests at heart. That suggests a toxic marital dynamic, fueled by anger and resentment. Are your children entirely insulated from it? And are these home-front troubles really going to be improved, rather than compounded, if you have an extramarital affair to keep from your husband?

I also wonder what you really want from your former lover. Just a sexual adventure? Or a satisfying relationship, of which the sex would be only a part? And is this likely to make up for the fact that your relationship with your husband is deeply unsatisfying, again in ways that go far beyond sex?

You suggest that you’re reluctant to try to repair the emotional damage you describe, perhaps through counseling, because you don’t trust your husband and you think he’d be resistant. But wouldn’t it be better to find out how he would respond, rather than speculating? Suppose he knew what I know now. Are you sure he wouldn’t want to work to make things better? If that conversation really does go badly, however, you’ll know more clearly where you stand. And so, by the way, will he.

Our daughter is married to a wonderful provider who is a caring and compassionate father. In the past, he was an occasional smoker, but he had quit by the time they married several years ago. He is a responsible person running his own sole-­proprietor business. He has health insurance for the family and life and disability insurance for himself. On a recent visit, I smelled the distinct odor of tobacco smoke on him when he exited his car. I did not confront him or my daughter, but I am concerned that he has placed the whole family at risk in the event that he develops a tobacco-­related illness after having become insured at nonsmoker rates. What do you think is the appropriate course of action? Name Withheld

My response: “I thought I smelled smoke on you the other day. I didn’t intend to sense anything, but now that I did, I can’t help but feel concerned. Had you been smoking?”

I hope you value him beyond the material support he provides because your letter seems to value his providing over everything else, even after he dies. If so, and he senses it, he’ll probably grow to resent you for seeing him more for his money than his self. Maybe I misread you.

The New York Times response:

The questions about smoking on life insurance policies have to be truthfully answered when you apply. If the company can prove you lied, they can deny the claim or, more likely, pay out only the amount the beneficiaries would have received if the premiums were counted toward a smoker’s policy. But you’re not in violation of a regular policy — and the same goes for health and disability insurance — if you take up smoking later. (You are, of course, jeopardizing your health, which poses a more direct harm to your family.)

If it came out that your son-in-law deceived his insurance company, you might raise the issue with your daughter and express your concern. The chances of being caught, if he really is only an occasional smoker, are not high. But those who lie to underwriters impose a penalty on those who don’t.

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