By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a woman in my 40s, and I’ve been happily married for 22 years. Unfortunately, my husband and I have never been very compatible sexually. I had read so much Cosmo in college that I believed sex was something we could work on. Well, he is quick in the sack and uninterested in my pleasure. It’s been two decades of “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am,” and our old four minutes of intercourse now lasts for about two. And yes, I have asked him to attend to my needs—for years. He just blows me off. He’s always been satisfied, so he is not motivated to change. After a particularly quick encounter this morning left me feeling used, my thought was that I need a divorce. I’m distraught to think this way. Is there another option?—Unsatisfied
A: Sex can sometimes be confusing, but timewise, it shouldn’t leave you wondering whether you’ve been having it or poaching an egg.
There is only so much room for improvement if, in bed, two people go together like peanut butter and an oar. Still, Cosmo wasn’t entirely wrong. Sexual technique can be tweaked at least somewhat by working on it—that is, if both partners show up to the office and admit that there’s a job to do. And then there’s your husband, dead set on continuing to have sex on the “success in bank robbery” model: In and out before anybody knows what hit ’em.
Though your sex face is obviously a frown, the big issue here isn’t bad sex; it’s bad love. You don’t seem to see it that way, perhaps due to “cognitive dissonance.” That’s social psychologist Leon Festinger’s term for the psychological discomfort of simultaneously holding two conflicting views—like the belief that you’re worthy of love and the observation that your husband’s about as attentive to you in bed as he is to the headboard. To smooth out an inconsistency like this, we typically grab for whichever explanation helps us feel good about ourselves—which is maybe why you describe yourself as “happily married” to a man who acts like the clitoris is a rare exotic bird.
If, outside of bed, he’s actually loving enough for you to want to fix this, you might say something like, “I love you and want to save our marriage, but I feel deeply unloved whenever we have sex.” Explain that if he isn’t willing to take steps to change, you don’t think you can stay with him. Specify the steps, like practice sessions in which you show him what you like and maybe some get-togethers with a sex therapist (a referee to call him on his sense of sexual entitlement).
Even if he were to agree to all of it, be realistic. Sex might start feeling more like being made love to than being bumped into by a naked man, but it’s unlikely to ever be mind-blowing or anything close. Still, you might be happy if you just see that he cares enough to make an effort in bed—one leisurely enough that you don’t expect it to be followed by “meep meep!” and a cartoon cloud of dust.
Q: This guy I’m dating had a mean, demanding girlfriend, and it left him kind of a relationship-phobe. He says meeting me two months ago made him want to change that. He is loving and seems excited to be with me, except for how he introduces me—as his “friend” or “ladyfriend.” Should I be worried that he doesn’t call me his girlfriend?—Irked
A: It’s easy to go straight to all the worst reasons for why he won’t call you his girlfriend, like that it would seem disloyal to that secret wife he has stashed away in the suburbs.
However, keep in mind that a label (like “girlfriend”) isn’t just a word. Labels actually have power over our behavior. Research by social psychologist Elliot Aronson finds that we seem to have a powerful longing for consistency—for things to match. So, committing to a label tends to make us feel obligated to follow through with the behavior that goes with it—and never mind figuring out whether it’s what we really want.
Give the guy some time. He’s (understandably!) slow to do a cannonball into a new relationship, but you say he is “loving” and seems “excited” to be with you. So, sure, he may be on the fence, but he doesn’t seem to be on the run. Until his answer to, “What are we doing here?” is no longer, “Not sure yet,” you might ask him to drop the likes of “ladyfriend” and just use your name—charming as it is to be introduced with what sounds like 19th century code for “two-dollar hooker.”