Better a marriage made on earth than in heaven

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This week's problem: When Gwen got married she thought the love she had for her husband on a spiritual and emotional level could balance the fact that sex wasn't great. Fifteen years on, and with a nine-year- old son they adore, she now doesn't fancy her kindly husband at all; they haven't made love for two years. He feels rejected, psychosexual counselling hasn't worked and, frustrated, she wonders whether to leave him, settle for a sexless marriage, or find sex elsewhere.

What turns a woman who settles for a marriage in which sexual satisfaction takes a back seat into a horny and frustrated lady? And does Gwen believe that her non-existent sex life is a sign of the aridity of the emotional relationship? Or does she believe that sex is a completely separate issue, something, like petrol in her car, that she can just get outside her marriage?

If she sees sex as a crucial part of a loving relationship, then going outside for sex isn't going to work. It would be like wanting mayonnaise, finding your partner could provide only the raw eggs, so going outside to drink cups of olive oil. Each ingredient on its own would be fairly disgusting; it's only when they're mixed that something delicious is created.

But if she sees sex, as some people do, as a purely mechanical act to release feelings of physical frustration, if it's really just sex and orgasms she is after, what is wrong with masturbation and a vibrator? The truth is that she wants more than just sex. Something other than a sexual spark is missing from their relationship.

From the way she wrote about having been drawn to her partner "spiritually and emotionally", it sounds as if there was a strong element of fantasy in their original relationship. I suspect she married her husband because he was like a father to her - and that something in her naturally rejects being turned on by a relation. And I suspect her sexual feelings would eventually go dead in other relationships, too, if they were based on her "spiritual" attachment. In other words, you rub two sticks together to make a spark, not one; she perhaps she must take her own share of the blame for the lack of fire.

Theirs sounds like a marriage made in heaven - in other words, a disaster. A marriage must be made on earth, and she has to try to see her partner as an ordinary, sexual man, rather than some kind of soulmate.

Only by talking this all over, discovering how her husband would feel if she took a lover and, more important, discovering how she would feel if he took a lover (that would surely bring her down to earth) can she sort out what action to take.

However, the fact that she would prefer to discuss her future options with an agony aunt and Independent readers, rather than discuss it with her husband, shows what little trust she has in him, and how she treats him more as an idea or a thing, rather than another frustrated, sexy human being like herself.

The wife who fell in love

I was in this situation, and after 10 years fell violently in love/lust.

I found that the long bond of love and respect for my partner couldn't withstand the part of myself that craved a strong physical bond as well.

We talked deeply and at length about this one subject we'd tried to avoid. I've come out the other side respecting and loving him even more.

We no longer live together, and I have had to accept that we are committed friends - not lovers - much as I wish that it could be otherwise.

Gwen may wish to consider other reasons besides those she mentioned for staying with him - fear (of hurting him, of failure, of the unknown, of being alone), habit and a need to be loved.

Anon, London

The woman in need

I'm full of sympathy for Gwen, as I'm in a similar situation. Our relationship started pretty well, but my husband is much older than me and he gradually lost interest in sex.

In other respects we get on fairly well, and I wanted to keep the home together for the sake of our children, but I no longer feel physical attraction to him. I do feel frustrated and would dearly love to meet another man, perhaps in a similar predicament, with whom I could enjoy a sexual relationship, but I meet very few compatible people in the course of my work, and as I get older I wonder how I shall ever find another partner.

It would be useful if there was some kind of club or dating organisation specifically for people in this painful state to offer each other comfort and a boost to self-esteem.

Anon, London

The 'cruel-to-be-kind' adviser

Gwen seems to be saying that all depth of feeling she has for her husband has diminished through the years. A relationship can never remain the same. She must discover why she feels differently. To put it all down to not "fancying" him is too simplistic.

Where does love figure in all this? Her description of a "basically kind man" could be hiding a plethora of reasons why she can no longer have any depth of feeling for him. She must consider why she married him and whether he still meets her spiritual and emotional needs, for if physical attraction was not a primary reason, then why is it necessary now?

If she has genuinely given up on the relationship after addressing the only problem she can see, namely the sexual one, then she should be true to her own feelings and separate with as little hurt as possible. Relate can help her to do that.

The real answer to her dilemma is to go to Relate to help her to explore her feelings in depth and be brave enough to make the decision to put herself first for once while considering what this will actually mean to all those involved.

At least then she can hope to meet someone who she does find physically attractive who may meet all her other needs. This is braver than living a lie. But before she makes this decision, she should consider what loneliness separation could bring.

Ann Lowe, Staffs

The communicator

You must stop letting the physical side of your relationship consume your thoughts. It is doing him, as an individual, an injustice.

And don't put so much pressure on yourself. Don't feel that just because the physical "thing" isn't there, the relationship is doomed. The spiritual link is incomparably more valuable, and will lead to a closeness that is bound in trust and love - much more long-lasting.

If it doesn't sound too cliched, think less about the "do I/don't I fancy him" question and look for the person in him. Get to know him. Realise that this is sacred, and that as you grow closer, you'll want to express this to him, with cuddles and kisses.

Don't give up if the first round of talks fail. Persist and keep on trying. This commitment to try will make you closer, too.

Caroline Lewis, London

NE X T W E E K'S D I L E M M A

Dear Virginia,

I'm getting to the end of my tether. My father is an alcoholic and has been ever since I can remember. Mum was always worrying about him - she'd throw bottles away, make excuses for his outbursts, she even took him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting by pretending they'd been asked to a party at the meeting's address. He makes desultory attempts at giving up but it never lasts longer than a couple of weeks. I've now left home and I'm at university, and I feel so guilty because Mum is left alone with the problem. She often rings me up in tears, begging for suggestions on how to cope. Very occasionally he loses his temper and is incredibly cruel, always apologising afterwards in tears, but usually he's just stupid and giggles all the time. I've even pleaded with Dad myself, and he's actually come to the doctor with me, but although he keeps making promises, nothing happens. What can I do to help my mum? The situation is breaking my heart.

Yours sincerely, Paula

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, the 'Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171- 293-2162, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share, let me know.

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