Jonas and Marge have been married for 17 years.
This week they had sex for the first time in 10 years.
They had stopped when she found out he had been seeing prostitutes all over the country while he travelled for business. She was too angry and hurt to let him touch her.
He said he would stop, and he did—for almost a year. Then he started again, and eventually got caught again. Marge was bitter. “I don’t know if we’ll have ever sex again,” she said.
He kept travelling, she kept saying no to sex, and he settled into a routine of masturbating—with porn, of course—every morning after she left for work. Then he started doing it at his office. Then it was with camgirls, young women who danced naked on the internet just for him while he masturbated.
HER NOT-SO-SECRET WEAPON
The distance between Jonas and Marge grew. It didn’t help that they quarreled frequently—about her mother, about her volunteer work, about their inept housekeeper. The fight was always the same: he was always feeling bossed around. Micro-managed. Unappreciated. She felt he was unreliable. Unimportant to him. And whenever she wanted to, she’d pull out her not-so-secret weapon: how he had “traumatized” her with his repeated infidelities.
Each fight would re-set their marital recovery clock backwards by months. Seven years later, they had made virtually no progress in reconciling. Sex? Forget it.
Eventually, all that masturbating with all those camgirls—combined with the coolness and barely-hidden disdain of his wife—made him decide there was something wrong. He got into therapy with someone who believed in sex addiction. And before you could say “sexaholics anonymous,” there he was—in Sexaholics Anonymous. This therapist was a perfect example of “when your only tool is a hammer, all your problems look like nails.”
Jonas eventually washed out of SA. They seemed almost anti-sex (certainly anti-lust), and were too rigid. And if he felt bossed around at home, he REALLY felt bossed around at SA. When his therapist told him “recovery” required him to tell his wife about every camgirl he’d ever stroked to, and every porn film he’d ever watched, he quit both SA and the therapist.
He floundered around for a while, periodically going to this or that massage parlor, although his heart wasn’t in it quite as much as before. Eventually he came to see me, days before the COVID lockdown of 2021.
“My wife won’t have sex with me, and I can’t stop seeing prostitutes,” he said at our first meeting. As it happened, it was the only time we met in person. “I’ve tried therapy, SA, a self-help book, and will power—not to mention reasoning with my wife—but nothing works,” he said. “You’re supposed to be the best. What can you do for me? And how long will it take? And why are you so expensive, anyway? By the way, I’ll probably be late for some of our sessions, I’m very busy.”
He was already showing me how he thinks about relationships: let’s get this project moving, and here’s how it’s going to be. I sat there thinking, ‘I’m minding my own business, and he walks in here demanding to know what I can do for him, and telling me his terms. No wonder his wife doesn’t want to have sex with him.’
DISCOVERING A DIFFERENT KIND OF THERAPIST
And so our dance began. He wanted to tell me his story; I said I first needed to know what he wanted from the therapy. He wanted a quick fix; I said there wasn’t one. He wanted to know why he couldn’t stop paying for sex; I said I’d help him find the answer to that. He wanted to know why he had to stop paying for sex; I said that I’d help him to decide if it were necessary.
“Maybe you’re not the right therapist for me,” he said in frustration. He’d say it again in the following session, and in the one after that. “I’m very sympathetic,” I replied. “You’re shopping for a product that’s totally intangible, from a vendor you don’t know, with no guaranteed outcome. And I don’t even answer half of your questions. Who would buy such a thing?”
He was intrigued. I sympathized, but never apologized. I was warm but firm, firm but relaxed. I didn’t push him to hire me or continue with me. “You’re not what I expected,” he said. “What did you expect?” I asked. “Someone who would give me advice, tell me what I had to do.” “Would you accept such advice?” “No,” he smiled. “Then I guess it’s good that I didn’t do that.” He smiled again. “OK, what is your therapy like?” For the first time he seemed genuinely curious. I told him so. “Yes,” he said, a little abashed—caught at being an ordinary human.
“You’re a lot more interesting when you’re curious,” I replied. And then I told him a little about what we were going to do. “Mostly,” I said, “we’ll talk about how you feel, what you want, and how you deal with not getting it.”
“No questions or lectures about sex? Isn’t that why I’m here?” “We’ll know why you’re here in just a few sessions,” I said. “I bet the reasons will be much bigger than sex.”
We wrestled every week for months, getting to know each other. In the rare moments that he didn’t try to impress me, he was actually quite likable. Every session he’d veer off into some long story or other, and I’d interrupt and bring him back: “Jonas, what question were you just answering?” He usually had forgotten—that is, he wasn’t really listening, to me or to himself. He eventually noticed the pattern, and began to apologize when busted. I interrupted this, too—“that’s not necessary,” I’d say. “I’d rather you be curious about what you’re doing.”
And gradually, he did become curious. That’s when the work accelerated.
BECOMING CURIOUS–A CRUCIAL STEP
One day he was relating yet another story of hiring gorgeous young women for sex when I asked, “Jonas, what were you wanting when you hired Linda and Juana?” Startled, he looked at me, a bit impatient that I didn’t seem to understand. “They were call girls,” he said. “We were, you know, gonna spend a few hours having a good time.”
“Yes,” I said. “As you were booking the evening, exactly what were you hoping you would feel during and after the event?” Apparently he had never considered the question. He took a while to answer; when he did, he seemed surprised. “I wanted to feel special,” he said. “I wanted to feel liked, and attractive, and like they were glad to be there with me.”
“Hmm, no huge orgasm, no world-class blowjob, no hours-long intercourse. Right?” “Well,” he answered, “I sure was planning on enjoying myself.” Yes, I said, of course. “But let’s notice how you described that—feeling relaxed and enjoying some attention, with no concern about disappointing anyone or having to apologize for being greedy.” He found my description interesting.
The following week, he said “I thought about last session all week. I don’t know why, but every time I did, I got sad.” “That’s great,” I said to his surprise. “You let yourself be touched by our talk. You recognized your own neediness—and the other side of that, the pain of your unmet emotional needs.”
This launched a series of sessions about that neediness: feeling insecure and wanting reassurance; wanting touching for its own sake, not just for sex; feeling isolated, unable to speak to his wife or friends about aging, money worries, or various kinds of loss; fantasizing about being forgiven for all his deceit.
I was sympathetic, and kept gently returning him to his various uncomfortable feelings. His long stories came less frequently, and he often interrupted himself. Several times he said he felt embarrassed by what he was learning about himself. I was sympathetic about that, too. He started saying things like “I don’t want to need to go to prostitutes,” and “I want my wife to know how I’m changing.”
We talked about resolving his insecurity—feeling “secure,” stable, adequate, attractive, and most of all, relaxed. “This is the scariest stuff we’ve ever done,” he said.
“One more thing I’ve learned about sex with prostitutes,” he said one day. “I don’t worry about them getting too close to me, wanting to know everything about me, becoming dependent on me. That’s how I am with Marge,” he said. “I guess you’d say I’m afraid of getting too close to her.” I smiled. “You’re getting good at this therapy thing,” I said.
Meanwhile, he started talking to his wife differently—like a companion, rather than a bully or a performer.
To their mutual surprise, she melted a bit. Little by little, they became friends again. We talked about him feeling nervous about getting closer to her, and he bravely marched straight toward her.
With the occasional (and predictable) clumsy misstep, they gradually got closer. They sat together while watching TV. They held hands while walking. They said good morning and good night to each other.
A JILLION AWFUL CONVERSATIONS
And his serial infidelities? Over the years they’d had about a jillion awful conversations when she would demand to know how he “could do such a thing,” and he would either defend himself or admit he was the scum of the earth. Either way, they’d get nowhere, setting the stage for the next ritualized, unproductive talk.
One day, for the first time ever, he asked her if they could please talk about it—“the scariest thing I ever did,” he told me later. He told her he felt terrible about when he’d done, about having felt both justified and out of control at the same time. He talked about feeling like he was getting old, losing a step both at work and on the softball field. He talked about using sex workers to get himself through one more lonely day on the road—“a sugar high followed by a crash, with no one to talk to about it.” And he talked about his own discovery in therapy that sex with prostitutes was about way more than sex—in fact, not about sex very much at all.
To Marge’s credit, she listened. She was angry, she was surprised, she was sad. Oh was she angry. But she listened. She met him—wary at first, of course—in this new place of vulnerability. “It sounded so different from all our other talks about this,” he recalled her saying. “It sounded real.” And it was.
That launched a series of conversations in which Marge talked about the pain of being betrayed by someone she loved. In contrast to previous conversations, she talked very little about him. She mostly talked about her disbelief, her grief, the destabilizing effect the repeated infidelities and their emotional separation had had on her. And he listened, letting it in. “And feeling like total crap,” he later told me.
One day he came in and told me “We did more than hold hands this week. We, y’know, made out. Kissing with tongues, hugging each other, smelling her hair. Does that sound lame?”
“How do you feel about it?” I asked. “It was great,” he smiled.
The next week they made out again. But he was grumpy. “We’re still miles away from sex,” he said. I sympathized and reviewed some of his terrific progress. “But this is taking forever,” he complained. “Yes,” I replied, “which seems to be the perfect pace.”
In the next few weeks I reminded him of what I’d been saying for over a year: when he and Marge do re-engage sexually, it won’t be like a porn film, like being with a hooker, or like when they were newlyweds. At best it will be pleasant, friendly, and arousing, along with scary, confusing, and clumsy. “Hopefully, you’ll laugh once or twice, too,” I added.
“I didn’t really believe you when you started saying this last year,” Jonas recalled. “But I do now. I really want it, but I’m also scared to death that we might actually do it.” I underlined that after a ten-year hiatus, and all this buildup and hope and fear, sex might be anti-climatic.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” he said with a tone of wonder, “but in some ways I hope it is.”
And when he came in the following week, he reported three things: they had sex. It was warm and scary and all the other things we’d talked about. They had indeed laughed not once, but twice. “And you know what,” he said just a little proudly, “it was slightly anti-climactic.”
“Great,” I said. “Have anti-climactic sex a few more times. Relax and get to know each others’ bodies some more. Then you two will be ready for, well, ordinary sex.”
“Ordinary sex, with someone who I know loves me,” he said, “with or without laughing. Sounds great.”
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