Is It O.K. to Find Sexual Satisfaction Outside Your Marriage?

The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on whether adultery can be a moral choice and on starting to smoke after you sign up for insurance.

Comments: 176

  1. That's a lot of background coming to the fact that she is generally unhappy, despite her claim to the contrary. It might be beneficial for her to seek some therapy before trying to engage him in therapy. Even if he is the supposed 'cause' of the unhappiness, she is the one who is experiencing it and needs to find a way to handle it, and that can include staying, leaving, having an affair. Her lack of sexual fulfillment sounds more like an additional symptom rather than the main problem, although it is no less real.

    The son-in-law may have been able to answer the smoking questionnaire honestly at the moment it was presented -"I have not smoked in the last 12 months". I have known people who smoked one or two cigarettes a month. It absolutely never made sense to me, but it seemed to be part of a weekend thing. It is unlikely that this will rise to the level of a health impairment, and when/if someone has a heart attack, they don't rush in looking for traces of nicotine. An occasional cigarette is not going to cause emphysema. It's probably no more unwise than walking around in a city with car exhaust and pollution.

  2. Many, many years ago my now-ex husband was a smoker of about a half a pack a week, and sometimes no cigarettes at all for several weeks (no parties), for a number of years. He easily stopped smoking altogether when he started working for an environmental advocacy nonprofit. Apparently there is the very rare individual who can occasionally indulge in nicotine without becoming addicted, but I certainly would not recommend doing the experiment to see if you are one of them.

  3. The woman who is sexually unsatisfied by her husband should try practicing masturbation.

  4. Like a previous comment, the yearning for fulfillment might actually be for affection and sensitive understanding. The do-it-yourself approach won't take care of this! Unless purposefully trying to procreate, physical intimacy expresses tenderness, love, and mutual caring. Perhaps this is where the longing is situated.

  5. It's not okay to cheat, but it's also not okay to superficially pass over the destruction of a person's sex life that monogamous marriage frequently wreaks simply because exiting the marriage may adversely affect children. It may, but it also may not. That depends on how the parents conduct themselves after the divorce. The point, however, on which I could not disagree more with this writer is that sex is unimportant enough that it is something to just work around doing without. On the contrary, to many people, sex is fundamental to living fully. Many have been locked into monogamous marital arrangements without having had a real opportunity to understand what they were getting into sexually, and without there having been a timely, socially acceptable way to satisfactorily raise the issue of sex with a prospectively exclusive partner before the marriage begins, albeit inroads are being made on this unacceptable situation caused by monogamy’s social hegemony, thanks primarily to the polyamorist movement and its thoroughgoing critique of this longstanding institution with vast, hitherto unquestioned limitations. I myself have experienced the hell of protracted sexual deprivation within monogamous marriage – because of the mores of monogamous marriage, it is one of the reasons I divorced - and so know quite well whereof I speak. I feel deeply for the woman who wrote the letter that prompted this inadequate, though intelligent, response.

  6. It's fascinating how, for some people, a brief physical sensation becomes the overwhelming focus of their lives.

  7. This is part of the problem wih Appaih treating all relationship issues as ethical questions. Relationships have additions nail dmensions and one size does not fit all.

  8. How do many get "locked into monogamous marital arrangements without having had a real opportunity to understand what they were getting into sexually" in today's world?

    They married someone without making sure they were sexually compatible, which is a choice?

    They married someone knowing they were not sexually compatible, as did the letter writer, which is also a choice?

    Or is it that people are no longer responsible for any of their choices, even in a spouse?

  9. RE letter #1, In Andrew Solomon's book, The Noonday Demon, he tells a story of a couple who each separately confide to him that they're taking Prozac, but the spouse doesn't know. They're both depressed and medicating, but hiding it from each other.

    As a first step, I think you should talk with your husband about your dissatisfaction with your sex life. You say you know how he'll react, but there's a chance you don't - in fact, it's possible he's having similar feelings and would be very open to exploring an open relationship. You'll never know unless you discuss it with him.

    Bringing up this topic may be difficult and he may react just as you expect. Perhaps it will lead to the dissolution of your marriage. None of it will be easy.

    But imagine how difficult a lifetime of dissatisfaction will be.

  10. It would be interesting to hear from the husband; maybe he's thinking the same way.

  11. yeah, remember the pina colada song?

  12. And bet he has a very different take on the "occasional outburst" that the wife is "never quite sure why it is triggered".

  13. Feels like this has become a relationship column...and it's decently done as relationship columns go, but it's not very true to why I have always enjoyed reading The Ethicist. Addressing how to live an ethical life requires looking to some principles that go beyond the quotidian details of a particular situation. The advice here is solid but mundane and not focused on the ethics of the situation.

  14. Relationship problems really cannot be dealt with optimally by one letter to a newspaper columnist - who evidently has no experience as a therapist. People in troubled marriage (and this one is VERY troubled!) need to work with a skilled & well trained therapist to explore their options & their feelings. This question certainly has ethical dimensions, but exploring them is not going to resolve the problem. What is more, the ethicist has not identified even half of the ethical issues!

  15. LW1, these are issues to take up with a therapist not the readers of the NYT. You got marriage issues and you're trying to make it into something else.

  16. no relationship has everything right. You get to decide how much of a value you put on the physical aspects of your relationship when you weigh it against the totality of what you have. I don't know what's right for you, and neither does anyone else. I would just suggest you consider what you have to lose compared to what you will gain. I am not sure that your only option is to cheat on your husband. I would strongly suggest that you try other things like going to counseling with him before going down that road. Secret relationships rarely remain secret.

  17. I wonder if a female responder would have given letter writer 1 a more encouraging answer. (letter writer could be me)

  18. I'm a female who responded to comment. Sorry I couldn't write you a recommendation to sow your wild oats. It's not even an ethics question. "Can I cheat because my husband kind of sucks? Oh and we have two kids." Doesn't matter if you're male or female or what the justification is. If you want to have sex with someone else, end your marriage and do so.

  19. What do you want to be encouraged to do?

    You are married. Presumably your vows included something like "forsaking all others." Focus on your marriage and exhaust every means of fixing it. If you give it every chance but find you can't work it out, leave him. Staying married and having an affair is just nowhere.

  20. 1) find a good therapist -- and perhaps also a divorce therapy group. They are very helpful for decision making. She wants to have her cake & eat it too. Not possible.
    2) She doesn't mention her financial situation. Recommend she find & talk with a good divorce attorney -- who won't push her in any direction but who lets her know what her options are.

  21. The first letter writer is equivocating. Either she's in a good relationship with her husband, or she's not. And if she's not, she has an obligation to her family, and to her marriage, to try to work whole-heartedly on those problems with her husband. But her letter indicates that she is not thinking of the family, she is thinking as more a free agent:

    1. Full sexual satisfaction doesn't trump honesty, loyalty, and family stability. Sorry, it just doesn't.

    2. The letter implies that she is withholding herself emotionally from her husband as well -- she hasn't broached the subject of sex, but claims that her husband is both unwilling and unable to improve sexually. From what I read, this is more an issue about emotional intimacy and erosion of trust than about the specifics of sexual performance.

    I would like to share the experience of a married couple I knew. The wife was dissatisfied with their level of intimacy. She put an absolute ultimatum to her husband. He didn't take the bait, and so they divorced. She was devastated. She never thought he'd follow through with her ultimatum! And now, both financially and emotionally, she has much less than she did before.

    I would recommend that the letter reader do a life assessment, with all pros and cons listed, to give her some perspective about what there is to lose, as well as gain, from having an affair. Is she ready to lose all to get what she wants? Is she ready to do that to her children? Proceed with caution.

  22. I would recommend that she go for counseling by herself. Don't expect her spouse to do so. She needs some help not only for the marriage, but to make a decision & corresponding with a newspaper columnist is NOT going to do it! A good therapist will help her explore her options -- and identify just what she truly wants. She doesn't really know yet. She might also talk with a good divorce lawyer -- who can perhaps even suggest a good therapist if she doesn't know where to start with that. She needs to know what her options are for child support & spousal maintenance. I expect her husband will, in fact, resist cooperating even with a court order. Does she have income resources?

  23. The wife does sound like she is the problem...funny how the person who complains the most usually is!

  24. yeah, FSMLives! .... Exactly like how the complainant in an assault and battery case, bruised and bleeding is often the problem.

  25. Interesting 1st question - it mimics much of my own life. In my case, the dilemma has been whether to stay in the marriage or leave it. Despite feeling like I am clawing myself away from the door, I've stayed. The times that are good are fine; the times that are not are less, albeit nearly unbearable. It's a tough decision. I don't think I could ever have an affair, either. It's highlighted to me the importance of choosing a spouse that is not rigid in his or her behavior, open to change, and mentally well.

  26. The husband in question #1 may have a 'high-functioning borderline personality disorder"' Sadly, this condition often produces the emotional dynamic that is described in this family. bpdfamily.com is a very helpful website. Sending wishes for strength to all who discover too late that their spouse has BPD.

  27. NW: If you have rejected the idea of ever being emotionally open to him, you don't have much of a marriage. It will end some day. Pick your day. If he is a good father, he will still be a good father after you separate. If you wait until the children have graduated college, that will take a long time. Don't delude yourself that your children won't notice the lack of emotional closeness. Perhaps it would be better to seek counseling than some limited sexual encounter.

  28. Letter writer #1: There are only two possible outcomes in your marriage. Either you're going to stay married or you're going to get divorced. Why complicate either circumstance with an extramarital affair? The Ethicist has given you excellent advice, you need to lay it all out for your husband and see what happens. He may be generally resistant to marriage counseling but willing to go if he is made to understand the gravity of the situation. And if he still will not go, then you have your answer.

    Side note, you have two kids who you hope are blissfully unaware of the current situation (but, coming from a household where the same outbursts were happening, I doubt they're unaware) but they are going to get older. How do you want them to view you if you pursue an extramarital affair that ultimately plays into the destruction of your current marriage? You'll be the "bad guy" who broke up the family to pursue your own sexual escapades. If I were you I'd keep my hands clean.

  29. If a man were to ask about seeking sexual satisfaction outside his marriage, people would be waiting with flaming pitchforks outside his home. If a woman asks this same question, the answers no doubt would be "you go girl!" and "eat pray love!" Regardless, talk to your spouse about your concerns, what can the rest of us tell you? This is not an ethics issue.

    Question #2 - your daughter must speak up about the hazards of secondhand smoke. No one else can do this for her. Are we women equal or what?

  30. I think that's absolutely inaccurate. Men's infidelities are historically better and more calmly received than those of women. Why, in some places (Brazil, for example) it is actually legal to murder your wife and her lover if you find them at it. No, historically, no pitchforks for male adulterers, but plenty of scarlet letters for women, even unto today. And boy howdy, if like Hillary Clinton you actually stay with an adulterer, they'll get you there too!

  31. " the answers no doubt would be 'you go girl!' and 'eat pray love!'"

    Lynn, it depends entirely on who you ask. Kwame didn't answer that way. I wouldn't either. Neither would anyone with any kind of character and integrity.

  32. Strange as it may sound, sexual satisfaction while good, is not the meaning of life. Given today's media hype, however, (hype is also high on Life's Most Important values list), that's a hard sell to the average person. "There is no dictatorship as strong as the prevailing orthodoxy" (in this case, re: sexual satisfaction), someone said.

  33. Get It While You Can
    Janis Joplin
    In this world, if you read the papers, darling,
    You know everybody's fighting with each other.
    You got no one you can count on, dear,
    Not even your own brother.
    So if someone comes along,
    He gonna give you love and affection,
    I'd say get it while you can, yeah,
    Honey, get it while you can, yeah,
    Honey, grab it while you can,
    Don't you turn your back on love, no, no, no.
    When you're loving somebody, baby,
    You're taking a gamble against some sorrow.
    But who knows, baby,
    'Cause we may not be here tomorrow.
    And if anybody comes along,
    He gonna give you love and affection,
    I'd say get it while you can, yeah!
    Honey, grab it when you're gonna need it!
    Yeah hey, hold it while you can,
    Don't you turn your sweet back on love,
    No no no, no no no no no!

  34. Lust (a/k/a sexual attraction) is not true love.

  35. Not written by Janis but by Jerry Ragavoy and Mort Shuman

  36. The ethical problem for the woman who wants another relationship outside her marriage is this--she has set herself up as the only one to make decisions that impact herself, her husband, and her children. In a truly ethical situation, both spouses would discuss the issue and make the decision together. It is not ethical to set yourself up as the sole arbiter of decisions that deceive the other party and cause them to live or make decisions without full disclosure.

    Unfortunately, the children, as minors, do not get a say in this matter; therefore, both parents when discussing this issue, should put the interests of the children at the forefront of the decision as much as possible.

    The OP details reasoning for many different paths, but ultimately these are not the crux of the matter. Taking informed choice away from another equal party is the real problem that must be addressed.

  37. Maybe we all need to get over the idea that secco is something that is only allowed with a spouse? Hook up with your old friend. If he provides more than great sex for you, then maybe he is really your partner. Then get divorced from this sort of alright "do it for the kids" guy.
    But don't settle for a mediocre everything.

  38. Good to know you're a cheater, and you used your full name! Future spouses beware...

  39. Only 16 comments? I can't help thinking that if this was a man in the exact same situation asking for advice on committing adultery, there would be 16,000 angry vitriol filled barbs aimed at him for even considering these options

  40. It sounds like the marriage is over.

    It's wrapped up pretty here and there, but the basic fundamentals are shot through. She doesn't trust him with her emotional or mental safety, he's lousy in bed and won't change.

    He's angry and mean sometimes, knows she's unhappy, but he will not work to make things better or go to counseling. He repels her.

    The question, to me then is, how long to stay?

    The cheating - no. The woman will simply be breaking - by her own admission - her ethical and moral codes and she'll feel awful, then and in the future. Plus, if her dense and insensitive husband does find out, or she tells him, you can bet that he'll tell the kids. The marriage will end and the kids will blame her.

    Kids do not have the emotional capacity to say, "Well, gee whiz. Dad was mean and unresponsive to mom. He said horrible things to her that were abusive. She was lonely for a long time and reached out to someone who would finally treat her kindly. Dad pushed mom into the affair because of his neglect and anger management problems."

    No. They will simply take dad's side as he manipulates the whole situation. She will lose her marriage, and her kids.

    Try staying and make yourself as happy as possible. Look for fulfillment with the kids, friends, work and volunteering. Accept that the marriage is done. Plan for leaving.

    When kids are older, hopefully out of the house, or at least at a place where they could better handle a divorce, and you won't lose custody, then go.

  41. The woman who wants sexual satisfaction outside marriage may wish to read "The Ethical Slut" by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy. Caution: don't be fooled by the book's tagline about polyamory, 75% of the book is fundamentally about the emotional honesty needed in ANY intimate relationship. Good stuff.
    One surprise was that their report that children seem to tolerate such parental relationships well and even appreciate having an extra uncle. The authors have lived their words.

  42. To letter writer number 1: I would suggest an option that you may have not considered: seek counseling for yourself alone. Please consider this option carefully. Your challenging dilemma cannot and should not be answered in a newspaper column. The purpose of counseling would not be to "save" your marriage; rather, it would be to help you find your own answers.

  43. It seems to me that Letter Writer #1 wants to have her cake and eat it, too. No marriage is perfect: it takes a lot of compromises to make it work. You have a choice: what is more important, your sexual satisfaction or keeping your marriage? Planning to cheat and lie to your husband for the rest of your life is not going to end well for you, your husband or your children, regardless of how hard you are trying to justify it.

  44. The first LW has difficulties in this marriage, yes, but also has (since this is The Ethicist) an ethical duty to do everything possible to remove this, before a divorce or affair.
    They've had 3 children in 6 years. That alone impacts sexual satisfaction, stress, fatigue, economics, social activities and everything else. This couple are in the toughest and most stressful years of child raising. Of course, it can give a sense of general dissatisfaction / "is this all there is?" Likely, her husband feels that also.
    A FWB occasional encounters of sex and conversation is not reality. Everybody is freshly showered, rested and dressed well. He doesn't help bathe,feed and support 3 kids, argue over the Visa bill, pick you up when the car gets a flat, see you in your sweats, etc, etc.
    Your husband has your back on all that. He's not perfect and there are valid issues.Get yourself into counseling alone first, to figure out what your priorities are, and how willing your are to compromise on what issues, because there are always compromises. Then counseling for both of you.

  45. First of all I apologize for reading and responding very quickly in a matter of minutes, but there are so many red flags beginning at the very beginning. "Friends with benefits" is the name of a movie not a real life category. A person who has raging outbursts and apologizes afterwards has deep and permanent character traits. Expecting sex to get better after finding it to be ho hum during the dating period is unrealistic. These things alone add up to this marriage not being worth saving.

  46. So in your world the three children just don't even rate a mention.

  47. 3 kids are not necessarily better off with parents at war.

  48. Um, the woman who says she isn't having sex with her husband a lot and that he verbally abuses her at times -- honey, I think you need to investigate if your husband is having an affair. Or if he is gay. I had been married to someone who hid the fact that he was gay. Before we got married, he told me that he had a "low sex drive." This was in the '70's when women still were pretty naive about stuff like this. If you want to stay in this for the kids, fine, but counting the days till the youngest turns 18 might be torture. I got out of the marriage after 6 years and he went right back with the guy who he had been with before, apparently. My only regret: that I couldn't make it to ten years to get his social security. On second thought, no regrets at all.

  49. Wow, another stunningly obtuse privileged soaked answer from Mr. Appaih. Never mind that this woman has said, quite directly, that she doesn't want to patch it up with her troubled and abusive husand. Nevermind that she feels so betrayed and burnt by him that she fears him. She should nevertheless try to make a life with this man.

    I guess there is a reason they call it the Ethicist and not the Therapist. Total fail at basic psych and rudimentary listening skills. I so miss Randy Cohen; this column has fallen to such depths.

  50. Regarding the first letter -

    "I am no longer content to simply accept being less than satisfied in any area of my life..."

    Hmmm---Isn't there something about eating one's cake and having it too -?

    There are many other people - such as corporate one-percenters, certain politicians, criminals - like scam artists who bilk the life savings from the elderly - bank robbers, identity thieves, college students who cheat on their tests, athletes who use banned substances, etc --- who would probably agree with that philosophy...

    But to speak to the point - "Is it okay for me to cheat on my husband and three children just to satisfy my unfulfilled desire for better sex?"

    Ummm.....no.

  51. "I am no longer content to simply accept being less than satisfied in any area of my life..."

    Yeah ... that really struck me too. This is a person with a lot of life lessons ahead.
    '

  52. I had an extramarital affair and wound up leaving a sexually unsatisfying marriage even though I loved my husband. The man of my affair and I are now together for 30+ years and loving every minute of it. He's still the cha in my cha cha cha! My ex and I are the dearest of friends!! Go figure how many variations on a theme can turn out happily.

  53. LW1: You say the idea of seeking sexual satisfaction from your husband is "unpleasant," and and the thought of being open to him emotionally is "repulsive."

    You find a lot of fault with your husband, but what exactly are you bringing to this event? Your husband has a wife who finds him unpleasant sexually and repulsive emotionally.

    Your husband may have anger issues, but you have significant limitations of your own in the spouse department, beyond thinking about having an affair.

    You say you've been a "committed couple" for 7 years, and you have 3 kids. So presumably you had the children pretty quickly, and they are all young.

    For all your sakes, I urge you get get counseling alone and / or with your husband.

  54. LW1 - like others, I'd say she needs counseling/therapy to get her own head straight, and then take steps to end the emotional limbo in her marriage. Meaning either deal with the problems with the husband or leave with honor. From what she says, she could never carry off an occasional tryst "just for the sex" - otherwise why look ask someone else to give an OK? I actually wouldn't automatically condemn someone if this was really what they wanted, was the only viable way to survive and care best for the children, and took responsibility for it. But she doesn't respect her husband now - so either she must forge ahead and deal with him, or lose self respect and be miserable. Having an affair would be distressing if the children found out - and they will find out.

    LW 2 : mothers in law should not confront sons-in-law unless it's about something life threatening. If he was smoking around the grandchildren, that would be an ethical issue to me. If he was smoking in his car, there's also no way the daughter wouldn't know this, but it might be safe to ask her. I would leave the questions about his insurance to the married couple.

  55. RE LW2: If he's smoking in the car, the daughter (his wife) does know it by the smell, but may not want a confrontation. His clothing would also smell.

  56. First letter - something is missing here, or something is really disturbingly wrong. Absolutely seek counseling. There's this huge disconnect between the la-la tone of "We actually have a good marriage and get along great" and "He occasionally becomes abusive and the thought of intimacy with him is repulsive." Whaaaat? There's more to this story.

    Second letter - can't see how it's remotely any of the in-laws' business if the guy smokes or not.

  57. About the son in law who smells of smoke, the LW should consider that he might have been with a friend/coworker/transit passenger who smoked. As a nonsmoker, I hated coming home from restaurants where smoking was permitted, reeking of the stench of tobacco.

  58. To letter writer no. 1: I would get on the (proverbial) therapist's couch-- with or without your husband-- before getting in your ex-lover's bed. Give peace a chance!

  59. LW 1, you are in an abusive relationship--absolutely. The withholding of sex/physical affection is part of the cluster of behaviors used by the abuser. It's his way of keeping you "hungry." This is why dialogue with your spouse over the issue will not work. It is a control issue.

    Please do not think your children are unaware of this situation. Even if they are now, they won't be for long...and you will be setting the example for them that abuse is ok. They will feel the stress, and eventually they will witness Dad's abuse.

    The fact that he has never had these outbursts in front of the children--and I'm guessing no one else--is no coincidence. He has control over the outbursts and they are designed to intimidate you and keep you in your place. All the while the rest of the world sees a "really nice guy."

    It is widely accepted among marriage therapists who deal with abuse that marriage counseling DOES NOT WORK, and in fact will only make matters worse. He will only prey upon the vulnerability you will bring to the session.

    You must immediately seek therapy for why you have allowed yourself to be abused. Alone!!! Your desire for sexual gratification is way deeper than just physical. Your heart is aware of the lack of love from your husband.

    This is not a matter to be taken lightly. Abuse, even non-physical abuse, will escalate if unchecked. Please get help soon.

  60. I was in the same predicament as letter writer #1: married to a good man with low libido. We got together under circumstances which allowed him to think I was equally asexual, and allowed me to think he was just being thoughtful.

    Two years in, I explained that I was not cut out for celibacy. Three times he repeated, "I don't want to get divorced."

    Was it ethical to interpret that as license to supplement my marriage? I did. Over a dozen years, I had vivid sexual liaisons with a dozen talented lovers, and I glowed. We used condoms. We did not speak of our spouses.

    Result? I was in a much better mood at home--my husband enjoyed my good spirits, and I felt happy to treat him well.

    I'm glad I didn't throw away a good relationship because it wasn't perfect. I'm glad I didn't have to endure celebacy, nor continue to make my husband feel bad with my demands.

    In my case, there was no discovery, no comeuppance, no acrimonious division of assets. Nightly, we snuggled in the same bed, until I cared for him at home through his death from cancer. We nearly made our silver anniversary. I mourned his passing.

    Writer #1, yes there can be pitfalls, but they are not impossible to avoid. It can work just as you hope it will if both you and your other partner have the balance (sangfroid?) to pull it off. If it will make you treat your family better to allow yourself, intermittently, to flourish, do.

  61. Unexpected result that the discrete sexual experiences of one spouse allow for release of resentments that results in greater appreciation and deepened caring for the other spouse to the benefit of both and children. Go figure. Most comments here seem like over simplified grinding of axes and lacking in appreciation of the important nuances. Lots of levels to this onion.

  62. Ewwww.

  63. I think the ethicist missed the most significant problem that Letter Writer #1 has: her husband goes from "calm, caring person to being enraged and verbally abusive in a matter of seconds". This is the core of problems in the marriage. It is the reason she cannot address the problem she writes about, sexual dissatisfaction. It is the reason she cannot discuss things with him and the reason she does not trust him. But, more importantly it is a big threat to her safety and that of the child. She really needs to deal with this before it gets worse. If she cannot, she should leave him. In my opinion the sexual discontent is a symptom, the violence is the underlying source.

  64. LW#1

    These rage episodes your husband has - nobody finds that sexy.

    Recommended for you - therapy.

    While the 'friends-with-benefits' setup sounds manageable to you, yr husband's an explosive rage-filled guy who'll punish you severely if he finds out. Consider the effect his rage episodes have on your & your children right now - rather than focusing on a sexual outlet (only a temporary 'escape' for you rather than a life solution for you & your kids).

    Seek therapy & discuss how your spouse's psychological abuse is affecting yr marriage & yr children. This sounds like a cold, remote & even abusive marriage. Your kids are already affected, thinking an angry explosive dad & frightened unhappy mother is 'normal.' It's not. That trumps your "he's a good father" argument.

    Seek therapy & learn if you could safely exit this marriage & take care of your kids alone. Don't leave them w/ yr angry spouse.

    People castigating LW about looking for 'permission to cheat' are missing the subtext -- an angry, emotionally abusive spouse LW says can't be emotionally trusted. Whether an explosive angry abusive spouse is really a 'good father' is highly unlikely - he's not a good husband & she sounds frightened. & if she's frightened, so are her children.

    LW - If you have an affair & your spouse catches you, he may hurt you - & your children. His rage problem is very serious. Immediately to someone who can help you, like a counselor.

    Big fail by the ethicist on this one...

  65. LW #1 has presented this as though this is a sexual issue, but it's not. It's easy to focus on that & miss her description of an angry, explosive partner who's been raging & emotionally abusing her - repeatedly, for things she says she doesn't understand. He always apologizes, is always sorry, is 'working on' his anger problems. How exactly is he working on these issues? She states she is now so exhausted by his rage issues that he 'repulses' her & she can never trust or be close to him again.

    A man who's privately raging at & denigrating his spouse isn't a 'good' husband & odds are someone this angry & controlling isn't a 'good father' either. Saying she should 'talk to him' seems ridiculous. He sounds like the odds of him listening calmly to any of her issues is zero - he's already not doing that, raging at her, insulting her & blaming her.

    Her antennae need to be up that she's in a highly volatile abusive marriage which may eventually escalate into physical violence toward herself or her children.

    She needs better advice than 'cheating is immoral and selfish, think of your kids.' She needs help focusing on how dangerous this whole situation is & a way to take her children & leave. It's not her job to fix this angry rageful man - nor should she be subjecting her kids to his anger, no matter how much she thinks his anger is 'concealed' from their children. From what she's described, it won't stay that way forever.

  66. Thank you so much for this response. I wrote a similar comment but it was not published; you are spot on. I was married to an abusive husband for 34 years and left finally when I was near suicidal.

    The lack of sex is part of the abusive pattern. He is withholding physical affection to enhance his control. You are right; this is NOT a sexual problem.

    She needs help, and fast. I hope she's reading, and for other spouses trapped in this situation (and it is a psychological trap which is very difficult to get out of)...a great, free, anonymous & safe place to start is the Domestic Violence Hotline.

    The children absolutely are affected. The longer this situation persists the more indoctrinated they become to believe that abusive treatment is normal and acceptable, regardless of what she thinks they "see."

  67. RE #2- it's possible that he was around someone who was smoking. I doubt he was in his car smoking as the smell gets into the upholstery. Where is the benefit of the doubt for such a wonderful, compassionate person? I would recommend the mother-in-law keep her nose out things, for starters. If he is really smoking again, the wife will figure it out. Or how about, if it happens again, say "wooh, no offense, my dear, but you reek!" and see how he responds.

    RE #2: This letter should have been sent to "Dear Sugar" --- the response would have been more adequate...

  68. I appreciate the multitude of excellent responses to LW1. I endorse the notion that she needs to be honest, which I consider should start with herself. Having called out her husband's problems, she may find it useful to work with a therapist to explore her own issues and how they contribute to the situation. That will better place her for the inevitable stay or go discussion she will have with her husband. Ultimately, she made choices and needs to make more to improve upon the original set.

  69. Staying together for the sake of the children can have bad effects, even if they never see their father's outbursts: Their parent's cold relationship can be the model they learn for their future relationships. The LW should try to get her husband into counseling. There's no guarantee it will make her husband a better lover, but it should show her what is her best option.

  70. If I live to be 110 years old, I will NEVER understand why some people make sex so damned important especially when these same people put it above the family, your spouse and kids. If you're one of those people, you should not be married and if you are married, you should get a divorce. No spouse should have to deal with such a selfish attitude and let's not forget about STDs!

  71. If I live to be 110 I will never understand why some people think sex is so unimportant that they dont rank it above family, spouse and kids.I guess those people just never had great sex.

  72. I recommend you read Sex at Dawn. A research book on human sexuality.

  73. A very sad situation that goes far beyond a mere ethical quandary.

    No matter what or who is to blame, Name Withheld has far too many serious problems in her marriage -- and therefore it's certain that, no matter what her intentions about renewing her previous friends-with-benefits-only/relationship-boundaries-understood connection, she'll soon look to her lover for emotional fulfillment, even more than sexual.

    Having this secret extra-marital relationship won't only be unethical. It simply won't work. And it won't be fair to her, her husband, their children -- or her lover.

    It's time for intensive psychological therapy to explore NW's marriage issues and her options. If her husband won't join her, she still needs to proceed, on her own and immediately.

  74. Writer #1 has crafted her letter in such a way as to make an aggressively (almost) persuasive case for fulfilling her needs through deceit. While she says her only need in an otherwise satisfactory life is better sex, she then goes on to reveal that her husband is prone to angry rages and has told her things which have destroyed her desire to be emotionally open to him.

    But it's clear she likes the extra hands to keep the house and the kids and the comfort of a "helpmate", so if she could just get some sexual release on the outside she could hang in there with a pretend marriage because she doesn't want to break up her family.

    First, I'll bet the kids are not fooled and will appreciate the relief of a divorce so long as both parents remain devoted to the children, which can be done.

    Second, the honesty of divorce seems the only ethical way for this woman to behave, given her feelings, so long as she has the courage to give up the relative "safety" of her current unhappy life.

  75. I have hormonal cancer in remission. Ergo, estrogen is my aarch enemy. menopausal, I can't enjoy any kind of medicine that is hormonal. So some will know where I'm going yes, it's paiful to have penetrative sex and I would be devastated if my husband started sneaking around as a result. I would also be sad if he dumped me for that reason as well.

    And I'm sure the "You go girl" brigade would be right with me.

    We have not heard the husband in this scenario. They had 3 kids in rapid succession. that's a lot hormonal activity and physical changes. Women's magazines are finally being more honest about what reall y happens to the body in aftermath of a birth. not only does it not always snap back into place, even young women and first times can be left incontinent.

    She thinks he gets angry over nothing. I wonder what his opinion is.

    She suggests recalling an FWB that was "successful" before she met her husband. What is a successful FWB. What are the criteria?

    Relationships are dynamic. Any FWB may want more.... or worse, may just want to F--- with his/ her partner by dropping hints to the other partner.

    In other words, either ask for an open marriage or just get a divorce.

  76. "...With this in mind, I moved forward with him, believing that eventually our sex life would become more adventurous..."

    My sympathy goes to the man, who married a woman who knew what he was like and then expected and pressured him to change AND had three children with him, bringing innocent beings into the relationship.

    And no, an "occasional outburst" is not a good reason to end a marriage. We all have bad days and if apologies are made, we move on. But this women painting herself as an innocent victim is suspect, as it appears what she wants is justification to break her wedding vows because her spouse did not change his personality to suit her.

    Poor guy.

  77. the ethicalist dodged the actual iossues. first, whether or not it is o.k. to seek physical satisfaction outside her marriage. that obviously is a choice that relative to each person's values. but there is another, equally important issue.
    that is, whether the choice to leave the marriage really is a choice about harming her children.

    does it really harm children for a loveless marriage to end? is it really harmful for children to have two separate loving homes rather than growing up learning that love, communication are not part of a true loving relationship?

    and, what about her needs? she is also the child of two parents who sacrificed so that their daughter could have the best possible life. she should live that life and go on to show her children what a loving relationship is.

  78. I believe this is the first mention of "love" in any of the comments up to now, and it wasn't in the letter. And what is invoked here is "loveless."

  79. To the sexually unsatisfied woman: you cannot have the cake and eat it too. No one is perfect, Mr. Right is never mister right. Seeking sexual satisfaction outside of marriage is not going to end well. I am sure you know how he would react if he found out you are having sex with another man, and he will, regardless if you feel guilty for the family or not. If you think he's a good husband (sex aside) and a good father, and you value your family and kids, you have to sacrifice your sex drives with your ex-boyfriend, and you can even work things out with your husband in bed. Nothing is impossible if you have the desire to. After all these years, how do you know your ex-boyfriend is still the same in bed? Will you not have emotion attachment when you have this extramarital sex? How would you feel mentally when your sex drive is satisfied each time with your ex? Let alone moral or not, can you take the subsequence?

  80. There is another option for Letter Writer #1: Divorce your husband, but do it when the kids are in college or have moved out of the house for good. She doesn't say how old the kids are but if she doesn't want to upset them and yet also doesn't want a "lifetime" of bad sex, waiting a decade or so, while not ideal, could be the compromise. Many women who ARE divorced wait until the kids are grown before introducing them to a man other than Daddy so as not to complicate an already tough situation (especially if Daddy has a girlfriend or new wife). It's not the end of the world and the sex is likely to be better when there are no children in the house anyway.

  81. Staying in a dissatisfying relationship long enough for the kids to leave doesn't leave the kids unscathed. It'd be better to commit wholeheartedly to making the marriage better, or get divorced ASAP. Teens have more trouble adjusting to a divorce than do little kids, and kids can tell when one parent's heart is longing for the exit.

  82. No, no, no. How are the kids going to feel later, knowing that you were living a lie and keeping everyone miserable. Because trust me, they will know that you waited til they went to college.

  83. To the first letter writer: No one else will say this but if your marriage is mostly civil, your children will be better off in every way, emotionally and financially, if you stay married. Do what you have to do to make your marriage work, including setting up a friends with benefits situation. Life is too short to go without good sex. I think the current cultural practice of ending a marriage over sex is a mistake.

  84. I agree completely with Floramac. My wife and I have been married for over forty years and sex is the only thing missing from our relationship. In fact, sex was never the fulcrum of our wonderful friendship. When we married and made the standard promises, we were both much more religious than we are now; I was even in an evangelical Christian ministry. At the time I saw my friend and wife's lack of interest in sex as a virtue that I should emulate.

    I am now an atheist and she's still spiritually inclined but totally non-dogmatic. It took me years, but I finally came to positive, exuberant terms with my sexuality while she has remained true to herself with regard to disinterest in sex.

    We've tried now and then to amp up our sex life, but I am loathe to have her "service" me out of duty, not only because it "isn't her," but also because a huge part of my sexual enjoyment derives from pleasuring my partner. So...

    Divorce over the lack of sex? Are you crazy? But go my whole life without experiencing such a great way to give and receive incredible life-affirming pleasure? No. Way. Without going into all the frank discussions and negotiations we've had over the years, in the end, cultivating a secret friend-with-benefits situation with a married woman in a situation like LW1 (but 30 yrs into the marriage), was the best option. The deception is bothersome but tolerable; certainly more tolerable than ending a long marriage and longer friendship over sex. Life is complex.

  85. It does seem insane to end a marriage when a deep human need for passion is really all that is missing - getting that filled can improve how she learns to talk to her husband and even improve the marriage.

  86. It's no just the sex, it's the emotional distancing/betrayal that an affair brings. But if she can pull it off, we just can't judge.

  87. The first letter writer reminds me of the woman who wrote to Dear Abby. (This Abby"s mother) She needed advice about how to get her boyfriend to pay half of her monthly birth control expenses. Her problem was that she didn't know him well enough to have that conversation.

  88. I also wondered if there could be a medical reason for the husband's occasional outbursts - if they are truly occasional and as out of character from his usual personality as she implies. It isn't clear how long this has been going on, or just how occasional it is - or when she says he has said some "truly terrible" things to her, it's not clear what sort of thing that means. It's a strange picture she paints, overall. But maybe a complete physical examination is a place to start, including reporting these apparently unusual outbursts.

  89. The first letter sounds like it's asking for relationship advice. But she wrote to the Ethicist. From an ethical point of view, the question is asked and answered easily: no, you may not cheat on your husband just because that seems easier to do than to talk to him openly about your sexual dissatisfaction.

    Everything else on that question is window dressing, from an ethical point of view. She isn't trapped, she doesn't indicate she's in danger (that would change things), she just doesn't want to have awkward and vulnerable conversations with her husband. Which, from an ethical point of view, is Too Bad. Being ethical is rarely about doing the easy, fun thing.

  90. Thank you for this perfect answer. Maybe you should take over the column, because the current ethicist missed it.

  91. The first letter-writer was once me. Bottom line is, if he's angry and verbally abusive, there is no way a mutually satisfying sex life is going to happen, period. Who on earth can even pretend to want to be intimate with that kind of damage?

    P. S. If you split, your children will be far less surprised than you think. They might even be relieved. Kids are aware of much more than we'd like to think.

  92. Angry outbursts and low sex drive are the symptoms, not the problem, here. Possibly porn addiction or affairs of his own. Regardless, being sexually starved and devalued through anger may suggest a fundamental lack of respect, the earmark of a marriage not worth saving. Therapy provides marginal improvements, not magic cures. Kids do best when they have happy parents, and the letter writer seems understandably miserable. Get out!

  93. My boyfriend from years ago contacted me and confided that his wife denied him intimacy for over a decade.After 7 or 8 years, he stopped asking for sex. But he would not seek therapy. After we became close again, emotionally, she found out and he won't talk to me anymore. He said he wanted to be with me "forever" and he was miserable, waiting for his younger child to graduate high school. Some people are too afraid of leaving, even if the marriage isn't what outsiders consider worth saving. A willingness to be platonic partners is enough for some people, I suppose.

  94. Sneaking and cheating is sneaking and cheating, no matter how vigorously the sneaking cheater tries to defend her/himself and/or proclaim the essential goodness of the betrayed spouse. Give it a rest. If your spouse is so loathsome s/he "deserves" to be betrayed, have the spine to initiate divorce. If your spouse is so wonderful, you should be able to negotiate at least a quasi-collaborative divorce. Because, sneaking and cheating speaks to the essence of YOUR character; who your spouse is or isn't has NOTHING to do with your choice to lie, deceive and cheat. Speak the truth and live honorably with the consequences of doing so. Sneaking, cheating, lying and deceiving in a marriage are all punk. These pathetic attempts at justifying duplicitous behavior are not persuasive. You find your husband repulsive as a lover, but good at diapering. Fair enough. You don't want to have sex with him, but want to sex it up with Mr. Sexy. Fair enough. Tell the truth and live honorably with the consequences of doing so. All this nonsense justifying lying is just more lies. Doesn't being an adult mean we get to live in reality? Tell him you don't want to have sex with him and want to have sex instead with Mr. Sexy. If he agrees, swell. If not, you can decide what to do about your sham marriage. Lying is detestable.

  95. Sounds like this hit quite close to home for you.

  96. To the second question: whether or not your son-in-law is smoking is none of your business. He's an adult, your daughter is an adult. No smoker in the history of the world ever quit because their in-laws told them to. If anything, that kind of pressure is what makes a person want to smoke more. Hold your judgment and trust that they will resolve the situation when they are able to. In the meantime, and I mean this very genuinely although it will sound snarky, your energy may be better spent addressing your underlying anxiety, which manifests in the need to control and correct the behavior of those around you.

  97. Exactly. The Ethicist's response totally missed the mark. It is none of the letter-writer's business if her son-in-law smokes, and that should have been the response.

  98. The Ethicist is now the place where people in unhappy marriages go to seek permission to cheat on their spouses. Wow, it's time to get rid of this column, it's had a good run but it's over. Life is about making the hard choices, but this women wants approval to avoid the hard choices. Maybe just another sign of the narcissism which now is the norm in our society.

  99. Er, how is staying with your abusive husband who will not accept counselling so you can maintain your marriage for the sake of your children not a hard choice? And if that's the easy way, what do you think is the hard way?

  100. I agree. Dear Abby and Ann Landers both thoroughly covered this territory years ago. This column really doesn't cover ethics as such any more - it's an advice column, all gussied up with pompous rhetoric and devoid of a sense of humor.

  101. The root of the word "libido" is very closely connected to the root of the words "life" and "love." Without that creative, erotic, loving, and yes sexual, life force working in you, you aren't as good at being a parent, because you aren't fully you.

    Therefore, we have a responsibility toward our sexual fulfillment EQUAL TO that of taking care of our children (or any other of our responsibilities). We should not martyr our own sexuality in order to achieve an ideal of happiness for other people, in particular our children, because what our children need the most is precisely our vitality and love, which are deeply connected to sexuality.

    This framework is a wholly different moral calculus than Appiah and many of the comment writers. "There are bigger strikes against a life well lived"? I don't believe that, not for a second. There are different strikes, and some must be dealt with first, but sexual fulfillment is not a lesser ethical category.

    Don't rule out ethical non-monogamy. It is not as black and white as some readers suggest: if you both agree that there are enough reasons to stay together, then therapy could happen around the topic of opening the relationship. The outbursts your husband has may be from repressed sexuality on his side, and opening could really benefit him.

    Lastly, LW1 should be praised for taking the time and having the courage to write. There are many more people who face this kind of situation than are willing to admit publicly.

  102. I guess this may more common than one knows. People live long lives these days and may be this type of set up was more suitable for shorter lives.

  103. My wife found me sexually boring. (She still does). She didn't say so, because she didn't want to hurt my feelings, but I could tell. We went through the usual experimentation that couples do, which helped for a while. Part of the problem was that I don't like kissing and I've never been very good at it, although, believe me, I have tried and tried. I also dislike oral sex, both giving it and receiving it. In fact, I have never allowed anyone to give me oral sex.

    I concluded that the sexual problems were mine and mine alone. We had two kids. So, rather than end our marrriage, which we had endlessly discussed doing, I encouraged my wife to have an affair with my best friend. He was and still is a talented lover, a real heart throb and very good looking. He is also an extremely nice person, far nicer than me, but not so bright.

    My wife's affair went quite well. It lasted for a couple of years, until we emigrated from the country we were living in. We left my wife's lover and my best friend behind.

    There were complications as well. This included my wife getting pregnant, likely his, having an abortion and now years later regretting it.

    I think my wife fell in love with my friend quite deeply. Not just because of the sex but because my friend made her feel optimistic in so many ways. I think she would have liked to have left me and moved in with my friend, but he didn't want this. How much this was out loyalty to me I don't know.

  104. Wow. Your story didn't go where I thought it would. I can't help but be curious as to how it all continues to unfold. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  105. You and your wife were sexually incompatible. It sounds as though the two of you did not discuss this issue before you married, surely you were intimate before saying "I do?" Please stop treating this as solely your fault.

  106. I commend you for your realistic approach to an eternal problem.

  107. LW1 realizes that having an affair or getting a divorce will not lead to happiness for herself or her children, therefore her only option is to try to work on her marriage. Yet she seems unwilling to. She won’t express her unhappiness to her husband and assumes without asking that he won’t go to counseling. I wonder whether it’s actually she who won’t go to counseling, because she realizes that it will bring about change, and perhaps threaten the benefits that she does get from life. She wants more, but is unwilling to give up what she has. She’s stuck.

    Satisfaction is a journey, not a destination, and it continues throughout life. She needs to take the first step.

  108. I think she knows in her heart that her husband is unwilling. She's unwilling to break up her marriage to find someone more compatible than a roommate/companion.

  109. LW1 is an an abusive relationship. LW2 should mind their own business.

  110. "LW1 is an an abusive relationship."

    We don't know that. We don't really know what she means by "outbursts" or what "terrible things" he says to her. What one person considers a terrible thing, to another person is just a little grumpiness or obnoxiousness or a bad mood. The story is notably odd and lacking in details. The comment about not accepting anything less than total satisfaction in all areas of life suggests grandiosity.

  111. Anyone in a relationship is participating in that relationship, so of course both parties bring their own story, but that doesn't mean that maybe this is not abuse.
    'What one person considers a terrible thing, to another person is just a little grumpiness or obnoxiousness or a bad mood.' Are you suggesting she brings this story to a panel of experts to get a ruling? He's apologising. He knows what he's saying is hurtful.
    Your reply is textbook vicitm-blaming.

  112. Maybe not "ausive," as such, it's certainly dysfunctional. They should probably split up, as the dynamic is a recipe for disaster down the road.

  113. LW1 has only been with her husband for seven years, so her three children must be very young. I'm just amazed she has the time and energy to even think about an affair.

  114. ...Or that she thinks her options and potential lovers are the same as seven years ago and before she had three children. I recommend a nice lunch with a single-mom friend of the same age for a reality check. Then get some counseling, preferably alone first.

  115. Note to the ethicist : there is such a thing as not speaking when you have nothing to say (or as Wittgenstein put it: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent). Better to abstain than to provide lame comments and pseudo-rhetorical questions. Let the lady make her own decisions (although is seems that they have already been made, and she is looking for some kind of absolution. My advice to her: never try to find absolution from anyone but yourself)

  116. mother-in-law needs to butt out. literally. unless she's the insurer, she's demonstrating an unhealthy interest in controlling her daughter's marriage.

  117. The first advice-seeker shouldn't have married a man in hopes he'd change. That's a recipe for marital unhappiness.

    Now that she's married, and has three kids, she should get some solo counseling, and clarify how she sees her situation. It seems like she feels powerless to change things for the better, and counseling could help her determine how to improve her life in accordance with her values.

  118. On the first item, the mention of his anger triggers my comment. Does this man have anger management issues? Am I the only one wondering if he's a rage addict? I think his anger issue is tied to being extremely reluctant to trying anything new.

  119. I think most insurance companies test for nicotine when you apply for life insurance. Unless there is a rider to the effect the insurance is voided if you begin smoking, I am not sure the insurance could be voided. But it would obviously better if the man didn't smoke or only smoked minimally, at the least for the benefit of his family. The wife should begin this discussion not the mother-in-law

  120. All I can say is that it is not surprising that there are outbursts of rage in a home where there are three small children all born in less than seven years.

  121. An odd statement. Why would there be rage for that reason? Extreme anger is not a normal reaction to raising small children. Please explain your point better.

  122. The married woman may think she's providing a good stable home for her children, but she's teaching them what to expect in a relationship: functional on the surface but cold, empty, resentful, and angry underneath. Don't think they won't learn that lesson, even if they never see a fight or a blowup. Kids are sponges. They soak up the energy of a household and are likely to recreate it their whole lives.

  123. '...But she's teaching them what to expect in a relationship...' The energy of that relationship is on both of them. Yes, there are things she is teaching their kids and there are things he is teaching them too, like withholding intimacy and being critical and abusive, regardless of whether or not they witness the abuse. There is no abusive relationship in the world where the dynamic is entirely hidden from view.

  124. The first writer should be applauded for her openness and honesty. Her letter demonstrates an understanding of the complexities and nuances of the relationships within her most intimate orbit; she seems to be analyzing (with some clarity) multiple perspectives of the situation with empathy. She seems mature enough and sensitive enough to explore this other relationship on a periodic basis as she describes without anyone being hurt. And yet, given what she describes as her moral standards and ideas about marriage, there does not seem no way for her to do this ethically within the marriage, especially given her feelings of disdain towards her husband and real uncertainty about the future of their relationship.

    Generally, people are usually not expected to sacrifice their fulfillment in life in order to 1) protect the expectations of others and 2) fulfill the terms of a marriage contract or other societal expectations. Clearly, the writer could decide to leave her husband and pursue other relationships with no ethical consequences. While she worries about betraying her children, the fact that everything were transparent and honest (and hopefully compassionate) would avoid the distrust and distance that an ongoing or long-term deception would potentially create. As usual, the choices that most reflect our values involve making difficult choices, communicating clearly and compassionately, and being accountable for our actions to those whose lives we touch. You can do it.

  125. I didn't think she was analyzing, but rationalizing.

  126. they dont love each other yet they have 3 kids.....bla bla bla its called being ungrateful there are worst relationship than this

  127. Piffle. They should split up. Period.

  128. She has a difficult dilemma. She should tell her husband all about this with courage. It's far better than not telling him.

  129. I do not think she should tell him this without her own preparation through counseling, preferably. She seems to identify (and Appiah's headline goes along) her biggest issue as lack of sexual satisfaction and idealizes a person and relationship from her past as the solution. Sheseems to be diverting all of her dissatisfactions and real concerns onto the avenue of sexual fulfillment without real acknowledgement that this relationship--whatever the ethics of engaging in it--cannot possibly bear the burden of all of her other issues.

    She has a real problem if her husband is as verbally abusive and angry as she says. However, it is not clear if he was this way earlier in their relationship and the behavior has gotten worse--perhaps exacerbated by the stress of child-rearing. Were she to consult with a professional she might receive guidance as to how to encourage her husband to be thoroughly checked out phyisically and hopefully mentally. He may have health problems which are amenable to at least some amelioration through treatment. Rather than jump to the conclusion that he has intractable BPD, as a few commenters have, a good diagnostic workup might identify a treatable disorder--such as bipolar II, which can manifest in part as mood swings and rages.

    She also needs to consider how to do all this safely especially her husband is as angry as she states.

    A no holds barred revelation of her seeming dilemmas may be irreversible and not yield a good solution.

  130. The first question seems to be couched as an issue of sexual satisfaction, but that seems a red herring. The writer describes a marriage which is empty, though she keeps reassuring that it is a good marriage, they get along well (except when they don't), her husband is a good man (except when he is not), and a good father (except when he is not - demeaning and yelling at children's mother is not a quality of a good father, even if the kids don't hear - and it is unlikely that the kids don't know what is going on on some level). I think she has two options 1) walk away; 2) get the two of them into counseling pronto - and, if that does not work, walk away. This is not mainly about sex.

  131. Except, it IS about sex (not just the act, of course, but sexuality). That's the presenting issue driving the other issues. Saying it is not mainly about sex is like saying to a hungry person, "this is not mainly about food." Of course there may be a host of other issues going on with why a hungry person isn't eating, but the presenting issue remains: lack of food.

    I feel this needs to be pointed out again: sexuality is not a lesser ethical category, second to marriage and motherhood and work and so forth. Why? Because it is of the body. Like food, sex is a central act in the body. Our culture has a hard time understanding how the body and its' pleasures can be appropriated ethically without the charge of narcissism (as some comment writers so eagerly are doing right here in this column.) The body has signals that tell us about the health of ourselves, our family, our earth, our children. We need to listen to it, and not marginalize it, as western culture has tended to do since Descartes said "I think therefore I am."

    Krista Tippett has a remarkably good discussion of the body and pleasure in her latest book, Becoming Wise. I highly recommend that chapter to the readers of this column.

  132. The first letter writer: Is she for real?

  133. LW 1: The lack of intimacy in their marriage probably helps fuel the husband’s massive relationship insecurities with the wife, which could be the basis of his outbursts, which he needs to get under control, most likely with the help of counseling/anger management. Having three kids clearly doesn't help either of their situations and must be a huge stressor for both of them.

    She needs to first masturbate and her herself off (I can't believe only one other commenter suggested this), then seek counseling alone, then seek counseling with her husband. She deserves to be happy and so does her husband.

    An affair would merely be a stopgap solution at best and sooner or later the kids would definitely find out and it would cause more problems than it was worth.

  134. Smoking a cigarette is putting a whole family at risk? Who knows maybe he just had one cigarette or was going through an extra stressful time at work. Whatever he's doing, don't see it being any of his mother in law's business.

  135. LW 1 sounds like the female version of Donald Trump.

    Which, I think for most of us who view marriage as something a bit more than a having a relationship of convience, find that sort of attitude quite repugnant.

  136. Who knows? Perhaps bill Clinton was like letter #1? He needed to seek outside alliances and his wife knew about them.

  137. To the woman considering the fling: build your finances. Do you have a decent enough job to support yourself, and a nest egg of your own? While you might decide to take a step outside the marriage now, or wait until the kids are grown, or if he makes a move too, don't let whatever happens impoverish you.

  138. Adolescent narcissist. Adolescence: The time of life when you fervently believe that you should have everything you want always and everyone should give it to you, immediately, without consequence. Narcissism: When it's all about you, always.

    Deadly combination.

    Maybe the husband's outburst are rooted in his dismay at having booked himself on a one-way flight to you.

  139. On the first writer: her desire for another man, and the fact that she doesn't feel emotionally safe talking about her feelings and needs with her troubled partner, aren't peripheral things. Together these are an alarm bell about a crack in the foundation of the marriage. Her needs aren't being met, and she is approaching a crisis moment. The ethical responsibility is to be truthful and respectful to those we have bound ourselves to. What lesson should her children learn: that it's possible to respectfully and considerately address one's needs and if need be, end an unhappy relationship? or that they should suffer stoically and passively when they're trapped with someone who is verbally cruel? That sex is something to be dealt with secretly and with shame, or that it's a fundamental force that binds two loving people together?

  140. Everyone knows what she will do. many marriages break right around the 7 year mark. if she had put others before herself, she would not have tis dilemma. the children will eventually choose their father

  141. Stay in the Marriage - Take Satisfaction where you find it. A relationship cannot be everything for every body and this one has more pros than cons. (PS Stay away from other types of Pros & Cons.)

  142. The first writer:

    That was a lot to read and it could be paraphrased as follows. "I'm not happy in my marriage and unwilling to talk about it to my husband. I am a selfish and weak person. Is it ok to pursue what I need elsewhere so I don't have to do the work at home? It won't hurt anyone, right? Me me me me me."

  143. Couples therapy should be the first step. If he won't agree to talk openly with a therapist, that's another clue: This marriage is in serious trouble. Running off to have an affair won't make things any better; in fact, she'll probably feel worse because she will long for her lover. I don't believe any person should be denied intimacy. True, there are some people who do not seem to crave it. That's fine for them; let them live as they like. But most of us want to be close -- sexually and intimately -- with our partners. If we cannot, and if there is also anger and verbal abuse in a marriage, how can that be tolerable? I am not a therapist, but I would advise this woman to try therapy and if her marriage does not change, I would advise her to seek divorce. She sounds miserable, but she's pushing it all down in order to preserve the status quo for the good of her kids. Does she really have to give up on her own happiness? What I'm about to say is a cliche, but it's true: You only live once!

  144. To the first question, we are obviously only hearing half the story. It sounds like he is not entirely happy or satisfied with your marriage either. The question is, is there enough there to continue? If not, having an affair would be the worst answer because a betrayal of trust will lead to an ugly end to the marriage. You also have to be ok with him sleeping with other people as well if you're doing it, in which case, again you have to question whether it is worth being married in the first place.

  145. To the first writer, Put your children first by living a life of authenticity. They are aware of the discord between you and their father. Believe me. By "sticking with your husband" while you have such differences is tantamount to a living a lie. The problem is, you are making your children a part of that lie. They will resent you in the future for "using" them as the reason you stayed in an unhealthy relationship and they will not respect you for lying to them for years on end.

    Yes, a break-up is almost always difficult in the beginning while new adjustments are made, but that passes. Establish a relationship based on honesty and truth with your children, it will result in a lifelong bond with them that is far more valuable than great sex twice a year. (Besides, if you live your truth you might meet someone more suited to you and great sex could be part of your daily life!)

  146. The lady in the first question was given a very very lousy answer by the advice columnist. In fact she was given no answer at all.

  147. The best gift you can give your children is your happiness and a happy relationship.
    They will sense the lack of emotional closeness and this will influence their decisions regarding choosing a life partner. If they see a happy relationship, they will want one.

  148. Yeah, sounds like a happy marriage, all right -- characterized by verbal abuse, a lack of caring about psychological and emotional well-being, and a physical attraction that has eroded to the point of repulsion.

    If this woman really thinks the problems in her marriage are only about sex, she's deluding herself.

  149. You are being selfish if you think this is all about you. I did not see you wonder anywhere in your text about why is your husband not approaching you sexually. And also, you are being dishonest when you say that you knew about it from the start but you kept going and now that the marriage is boring you started noticing it as a problem. Sit down with him; talk. Its not about yourself; its about you as a couple.

  150. Approximately one out of four to one out of five adults in this country smoke, as did FDR, Churchill and some of the greatest men who have ever lived. The writer seems to regard smoking as tantamount to near murder, even though the question is couched in terms of life insurance policies, effect on the children, etc. Hasn't this attitude gone a bit far? I find smoking reprehensible, but when I was growing up, just about everybody I knew - adults and teenagers and girlfriends - smoked, and I never even thought about
    overlooking that fact, because the fact was so common that it never even occurred to me. My mom and dad smoked about five packs between them every day, and they were the best parents in the world. Now it seems they'd be one step from having me taken away from them for child endangerment. Oh, yes. I grew up in the late 1940s and 1950s. My God, even Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn smoked back then. Of course, both of them were filthy and perverse human beings who should never have been allowed within five miles of any healthful-minded self-preservationist. Come on, folks, lighten up a little. Jeez!

  151. *Sigh.* I miss the days when the Ethicist(s) actually answered these questions on the basis of actual ethics. "The good of your children has the greatest moral weight," that's a terrific start. But the rest of the column degenerates into Dear Abby meanderings: "I wonder what you really want from your former lover."

    She's here for ethical guidance, not marriage counseling or finger-wagging about how society puts too much emphasis on sexual gratification. Why not start with the premise that the good of the children is the highest ethical priority, and then explore the actual question she poses: is an affair ethical if it delivers that good?

    It's fair to question her assumption that staying together with her husband is what will provide the highest good for her children, or to argue that her ethical duty is to explore that question before starting an affair. But please, please, answer the ethical questions posed. The world has thousands of domestic advice columns but only one Ethicist.

  152. To the first writer: While sex is not your only problem, I'll focus on it since that's how you have framed it. Your situation is exactly why I think people should have plenty of sex, and sex partners, before deciding to commit to someone. Sex is important, and not every duo is compatible. Perfectly wonderful people can have very different sexual appetites. Don't commit to someone until you know you ARE sexually compatible. The old "save yourself for marriage" advice is great for avoiding pregnancy and disease, but too often leads to bitter disappointment in the marital bedroom. My advice to you now--and it pertains to all areas of discontent in this relationship--is to honestly tell your spouse exactly what you want and all the options you are considering. Be prepared to hear his honest response (including all that he is dissatisfied with), and to consider the options he proposes. Then make your decision(s). But you'll always regret it if you don't do this honestly.

  153. Friends with benefits type occasional sex enjoyed when formerly single is a difficult standard to expect when married with three young children. Lot of anger here, not clear what she is missing sexually. Counseling might help clarify the complex issues she expresses as a purely sexual issue. It is much easier to try then an affair or a divorce.

  154. Am I the only one who finds it unsettling that someone refers to her son-in-law not as a wonderful person but as a "provider?"

  155. 1 of 2:
    I first want to thank the woman who had enough courage to write down her words and feelings. Leaving oneself open to ridicule and judgement takes a lot of courage, especially when there is so much stigma attached to infidelity, especially if committed by the wife. Reading this post was cathartic to me and as I type my own words I'm overcome with emotion. I would wish this situation on no one. The guilt, shame, longing and lonliness is crushing.

    I have an almost identical situation, I've been married 19 years and have 2 beautiful school aged children. My husband and I are great friends, he loves me very much, I believe romantically still, however I no longer have those feelings for him, and I haven't for over a decade. I have not spoken those words to him for fear of hurting him, but I'm certain my behaviour has done a well enough job, we have sex very rarely, and anything sexual performed is devestating to me both physically and mentally.

    Despite what I am sharing my family is fairly happy and we are very close, always doing things together. I am a product of divorced parents, and I am still restful today, 20 years layer as both parents have remarried and moved out of state. They are tied up in their new lives, and while I know they love me and my children, they now have other priorities and all have suffered for it. Divorce is not pretty.

  156. 2 of 2:

    I do worry about my children growing up in a "different" type of environment, and I do my best to show affection with my husband, but I have been open with my 16 year old, sharing that ours is a different relationship, and the love between mom and dad is not necessarily the right kind of love a married couple should have. I don't know how else to make it healthier but to bring it to light and acknowledge it.

    My husband is not good with words. I have explained my unhappiness many times, however he chooses to continue to press on. Life is hard. Practical things need to be done. Living is expensive. Kids need parents. So we plug away, going through the motions as best we can, choosing I guess what may or may not be, the lesser of two evils: choosing to stay in a loveless but friendly marriage rather than break up the family.

    The only problem is, I crave intimacy and connection, and when I do it comes with a hefty dose of guilt, shame, and lonliness.

  157. Inadequate sexual relations in this case seem to be only the main symptom of a suffering marital relationship. She describes anger, verbal abuse, but otherwise the marriage and family are fine? Doesn't make sense. First order of business is marital counseling.

    Using an outside partner for sexual satisfaction is like having make-up sex with someone outside the relationship to feel better about yourself.

  158. The writer in the first question should be offered a little more understanding from those telling her to be open and honest with her husband. She maintains her children and the quality of life they have are important to her. With that said, her dedication to living a happy life would be fundamental to their happiness. She knows her husband well enough to see what outcome is waiting for her if she pushes the subject of open marriage. I think it's a shame we have sold our sexuality to others like a piece of property you can never reclaim without judgement from friends, family, and society. It is unfortunate that we force the mindset of monogamy for the basis of love. When the children are grown up, she may opt for a new relationship if she feels that it may be healthier for her. Until that time comes, she would like to have satisfaction in her sex life because the emotional connection she makes during sex is important to her. The husband would be hurt emotionally if he found out, but that is symptomatic of how he registers love. If he loved her unconditionally, he would respect her sexuality and not claim it like a piece of property. He has the opportunity, everyday, to check in with his wife to see what see needs in her life. If he fails to do that or accept that he isn't able to provide the happiness she needs, then he is willfully ignoring her right to be happy.

  159. I would strongly, strongly advise this woman to look closely at her marriage. I was in a similar situation - good partnership, spouse who appeared to be a good father, mostly stable home with occasionally aggressive flare-ups. (Those flare-ups of name calling, yelling, throwing items and threats I now know were abusive.) I thought I could muddle through my spouse's temper because everything else was functional. It turns out, those outbursts were the result of a spouse who was hiding a sexual addiction, using escorts and putting our young son at risk. He admits now (in the midst of divorce) that his outbursts came when he felt his lies were threatened. The lesson learned for me: One behavior begets another. An out-of-control temper doesn't just happen. I'd encourage her not to focus on sex drive but instead focus on what's going on at home. I'd assume there's more to the story than she sees.

  160. LW1 went on and on and on in a me, me, me sort of way. I lost interest. Sorry, but the parents of three children under the age of seven can't expect to have much me time, even if one in the parent partnership has the energy. Kids come first. If you can't be the sort of parent you would want your children to become as adults, separate or get a divorce. If that isn't financially feasible, get counseling, focus on the kids, and start a rainy-day fund.

    LW2: MYOB

  161. No one ever died from not having sex,
    let alone great sex.

    Reconcile with your husband in your heart and count your blessings
    of family, children a husband who loves you.

  162. Writer 1 needs therapy herself, she sounds confused, angry, repressed and is kidding herself to think her kids don´t notice. If you are confident he does not have your best interests at heart how can it be a good marriage? If his angry outbursts upset you to this point that you don´t even feel it will ever work you should figure out how to leave. Perhaps its best to take former lover out of the equation till you get more clear about your life and marriage and parental responsibilities - husband might be better living apart from you and sharing kids.

  163. Sounds as if she just needed to get all those thoughts and feelings out in paper. Thank you, The Ethicist.

  164. i love coming here. such a relief from the problems of my world.

    live it up, people.

  165. To the first one: I think this marriage is deader than it might seem at first blush. Sounds like they're going through the motions of a marriage pretty well, but there doesn't seem to be any affection. The husband isn't really interested in sex, and now the woman no longer is. He appears unpredictable and given to bouts of rage. She's lukewarm and unhappy. The only hope is to get to the bottom of it all is couples' counseling....find out what's eating him, and let him know what's eating her. There's probably a lot there for both of them to say. He might well think things are fine, since it doesn't sound like there's much communication, which isn't fair to him. If the unveiling of the truth in counseling goes well, they might save the marriage. If it doesn't, it probably wasn't worth saving.

  166. Her husband may be gay. CHeck that out before proceeding/

  167. The wife who seeks permission to have occasional extramarital sex is underestimating the impact of the lack of emotional connection on the relationship and family. The anger outbursts and emotional withdrawal suggest that her husband is depressed. This is actually about him and the kids, as well as about her. A counsellor who can help her ask a very different question- how do I make the best of the good and help the kind but troubled, isolated man to who. I am married? - could have huge long-term benefits for all concerned. Including the friend-with-benefits whose presence in her head could lead her down a sad pathway.

  168. The letter writer needs to get some therapy to sort through what the real issue in her marriage is. She might realize that the dullness of "plain vanilla" sex is a smokescreen. Seems to me that her husband's losing his temper is the real barrier to intimacy. Verbal abuse is as serious as physical abuse, and just as manipulative of the victim. She should not stay in a bad marriage. The children will be fine.

  169. Both LW1 and The Ethicist miss the critical option, though a few commenters have hinted at it: make an appointment with a counselor and go -- inviting your husband, but going in any case. You doubt he would go, but it's universally recommended that the best way to get a reluctant spouse into joint counseling is to go alone. This is not an ethical issue but a human behavior issue, and counseling is the place to find help.

  170. LW1: I hope you're reading these comments. I am. Because I could have written the exact same letter as yours 6 years ago. Except I have two kids, not three. And I didn't have a FWB waiting around. But the emotionally abusive outbursts: the same. The resulting lack of trust: the same. The longing for better sex: the same. The "generally good" relationship/good father thing: the same.

    I started an affair. I fell in love with affair guy, wanted to leave, but didn't. It was crazy for a while...but now we just have sex without too much emotional drama. I'm happy, I think, that I didn't leave. Happy that I maintained the stability for everyone, especially kids. But now I'm further--much further--from ever being emotionally satisfied in my marriage because I've lied for so long.

    What I wish now is that when I was at your decision point...I wish I had leaned in, or just left. Made one of the hard choices. I know it seems impossible...but look at me: although my day to day life is still ok, I so long to be with someone I'm in love with.

    Good luck.

  171. The word "love" is nowhere to be found in the first letter. Does this woman "love" her husband or her kids? The language is very telling: "Our family functions well as a unit" — as if it were a factory line. But how can a family function without love? Everything she describes, except for the kids, makes the situation sound hopeless and irreparable, especially her unwillingness to get emotionally involved with her husband again and her emphasis on sex as her primary priority. It sounds like there's really no there there. She should share her thoughts with her husband and ask for a divorce. He may be bored with her and that's why their sex is lousy to nonexistent.

  172. The first writer is over analyzing things and consistently painting herself into a corner. It seems that sex is an issue and that lack of sex and lack of intimacy leads to all sorts of other problems and possible misinterpretations.
    Counseling is a good idea but I would suggest masturbation to take care of the need for sex---it's not everything but it certainly is something and at least satisfies the need for the moment without being unfaithful providing release without racking up a great deal of guilt and complicating things by bringing another person into the relationship. This suggestion only buys time because there are definitely underlying problems but it does take care of the need. The plan is buy time by releasing frustration and get counseling ASAP and stick with it.

  173. Having read the writer's list of complaints, and many comments about her situation, I'd be very curious to hear the man's point of view.

    Because in some ways this was me.

    No, we didn't have extramarital affairs. But I was under constant pressure at work, pursuing a masters degree at night. I was still very involved with the kids, and believe it or not, did the grocery shopping, laundry, and vacuuming.

    And on the rare occasions where I had a moment to myself, I wanted to relax. She wanted to go out dining and dancing, and especially visit her family via a long drive to another state. And I would verbally lash out. She couldn't see my viewpoint - that I was exhausted - and I thought she was oblivious to my challenges.

    We tried counseling. It didn't work. She walked out with the kids.

    They always say, it's better to come from a broken home than to live in one. Baloney! Our kids have paid the price, trying to balance their love for both of us, feeling that their lives changed forever.

    No easy answers. But I'd like to hear the husband's opinion. I'm sure he's got some interesting things to say.

  174. We as a culture have gone off of the deep end when someone is willing to destroy an otherwise happy marriage and ruin her children's lives over sex! Lady, load up some porn on your computer, buy a vibrator and stay married! What is wrong with people????

  175. I feel sorry for the poor shlub married to this woman. She's a fifth column in their marriage - dreaming about her "friend with benefits", pretending for the "sake of the children" that their marriage is good. She blames him for all their problems. Is she really the saint she professes to be? Or does her dissatisfaction create the lousy dynamic they seemingly "enjoy" together?

    Just what does this woman think will happen when her husband inevitably finds out she's been cheating? He'll drop her like a lead weight, take the children and boot her from her comfortable (but "boring") life. I suspect she'd be better off meeting him once a week in lingerie and high heels at the front door, hand him a glass of wine and lead him to the bedroom than go seek a marriage counselor...