Dilemmas: My sexless marriage is driving me to despair

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PATTERNS OF relationship run deep. I have a friend who was married to an alcoholic and then fell for a teetotaller. She thought she had something different, but alcohol still played a huge part in her life, one partner being for, the other totally against.

I suspect Erin has married someone very similar to her first husband but who deals with aggression very differently. Her first husband let it all hang out - disastrously. But this one bottles it up - also disastrously. If you are harbouring a terror of letting go of anger all the time, it is difficult to enjoy sex.

So it is small wonder that Erin's husband found it a chore. Or perhaps he didn't actually find it a chore, and Erin was wrong. Perhaps he was absolutely furious at his wife's idea that they "satisfy themselves". His lack of cuddles sounds like the behaviour of an angry man, and I would be surprised if Erin wasn't picking up on his fury and feeling fury in return, but suppressing it, which is why she wakes up feeling so edgy and frustrated. I have to say, at the risk of sounding like a counsellor, that having one-night stands seems also like an angry move, but one that she carries out in secret, rather than declaring it.

A partnership that is "grey" - unmoving, dull, going nowhere and generally static and stagnant - is usually one that is far from "grey" underneath. It is often red, purple, orange, black and fluorescent green, with loads of flashing lights and dazzling strobes thrown in. The "greyness" is painted on top to stop tumultuous feelings becoming out of control. I am not knocking "greyness". If it is painted on thickly enough, so nothing shows through, and if neither partner minds a hum-drum relationship and they are not after sparks in bed, it can be a perfectly adequate, if dull, way of living.

But once the flashes of colour show through, or if one partner wants sex badly, the trouble starts. It is so easy to advise "sitting down and talking it over". It is hard to broach partnership difficulties with a man at ease with his feelings. But if it is with a man who is alarmed at the idea of any conflict being aired, because he is frightened of his huge feelings of rage, it is almost impossible.

After all, at some level, Erin, too, is probably aware of those feelings, growling away between them all the time like the rumble of a mountain bear. That is why seeing a third party can help - simply because the presence of a stranger simply makes everything less frightening. But talking it over does not necessarily mean the marriage will work. From personal experience, I would say that eventually this relationship will spontaneously combust, probably with Erin's husband discovering about the one-night stands and going berserk, or otherwise with one of them - probably Erin - becoming extremely ill. She will find it harder and harder to work, her body will not be able to stand the stress she is suffering, and she will collapse. A "grey" marriage, however safe, plus a constant feeling of frustration and resentment, is no way of living. Erin could suggest they see a sex therapist, who, if they were good, would spot the stresses in the marriage immediately and deal with them first of all. Or she could discuss an amicable separation. Or she could just wait.

Erin should also remember that the neighbours of lots of murderers are often quoted as saying: "But he was such a quiet man."

And I'm afraid that if Erin waits, there won't be a happy ending.


Mend it or end it

The alternative to Erin's making it work with "this lovely man" sounds pretty bleak; so why do they not explore the time when sex became "a chore"? Was he under pressure? "Highly sexed" is a demanding description to live up to, or was it she who first conveyed the sense of "a chore"? To find out where they are both coming from, what they expect of their relationship and how they could change to ensure success, they should hire a couple counsellor for a few sessions, who should help them to either mend it or end it.


Sutton, Surrey

Thrash out problems

One thing Erin must learn is that one partner cannot be entirely to blame when things go wrong. Why does her man no longer cuddle her? Shouldn't she find out? Hating conflict is one thing, but she ought to point out to him that it's only in engineering that friction is bad. In social intercourse (I use the term in its widest sense) friction, sensitively handled, can be very productive.



Pull yourself together

Like caviare, sex is a treat: don't spread it around like marmalade, Erin. It may be that you expect to be in a perpetual state of tingling excitement, despite being,presumably, well past the early, stimulating stages of your relationship. Has free access to unlimited sexual gratification become too much of a good thing? For some of us, that kind of partnership (limited to the bed) becomes jaded, diminished and unrewarding. I think you may have swallowed the weekly magazines' tripe about the ideal lover, hook, line and blinker. There is no such thing as the ultimate lover, Erin, and you'll not find anything other than trouble if you have loads of casual sex with your fellow workers. You'll just become 'Orizontal Erin, the office tart. If you can't see past the next bed, I imagine your partner may find you boring and demanding. Enjoy and appreciate what you have: don't grumble about what's missing. More important, look for some other outlet that makes genuine physical and emotional demands on you and that will scare and thrill you. Try skydiving or paragliding, snowboarding or white-water canoeing. Get off your back and do something!


Woodbridge, Suffolk

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia, one of my son's schoolfriends has the most terrible table manners. I was horrified when this 12-year-old visited, to see him leaning on his forearms, spoon and fork held in his fists. He's got nothing wrong with his hands, by the way, as he plays the piano quite nicely. He also holds a knife like a pen. He got down from table immediately after finishing, before we had, and never said `Thank you'. He's an only child, but surely his middle-class parents are aware this is not the normal way to eat or behave? Is there any way to introduce the idea of table manners to him or his parents?

Yours sincerely, Marie

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside at `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; or e-mail dilemmas@ independent. co.uk, giving a postal address