Thursday, December 28, 2006

Same as it Ever Was

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful Wife
And you may ask yourself - well... how did I get here?

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the moneys gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

-- Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime", Remain in Light

A couple of regular readers have asked me to write about how my wife and I came to be together.

The Short Answer: We were fixed up on a date by a mutual friend over 14 years ago.

Now for a more detailed answer, which I have been glacially slow about writing because it keeps degenerating into a biography. This post is awfully long, but I think it paints a pretty accurate picture of how things have evolved over time.

Before We Met

My wife and I grew up in the same town. She is a little less then two years younger than I am. We knew of each other when we were in high school because a friend of mine was dating her best friend, but we had no formal introduction prior to our first date.

Neither of us had much experience with dating, and we were flying blind with respect to physical affection, let alone sex. I was certainly curious about sex. Neither of my parents wanted to talk with me about sex, but my mom did give me the book Love and Sex in Plain Language just about the time I was in sixth grade. I learned about masturbation from that book and experimented with it on and off the next couple of years, having my first orgasm 24 years to the day yesterday. It scared the crap out of me when it happened, and I recall feeling very embarrassed.

I accumulated a lot of bookish knowledge during my adolescent years. I recall secretly listening to Dr. Ruth's radio call in show on Sunday nights. I also read a lot of advice articles and columns in my mom's Cosmopolitans. And then there was porn. After my parents divorced, I found my dad's stash of magazines and used them to accentuate the masturbatory experience. Over the next 12 years, masturbation would become my primary means of coping with stress, sometimes reaching compulsive levels.

I had friends in my school years, but I never had anyone I felt safe enough to talk about sexual matters with. I think this had something to do with shame because I was teased and even bullied when I was young for being both overweight and studious. I don't think I ever came to terms with my own masculinity. Disparaging comments about my father from my mother post divorce and then my own anger at him for remarrying a woman much younger than he made me think that men were primarily scum.

I went on a few dates during my high school years, but female friends tended to keep me at the "just friends" level. I had the curse of winning their mothers' approval, which probably meant that I was perceived as "safe". Girls trusted me to listen to their venting about other guys, but for the most part there wasn't any chemistry there. If there were vibes being sent my way, I wasn't picking them up. If I managed to work up the nerve to ask someone out, I usually got declined.

There was one exception. A girl whom I met in a community theater workshop that professed to have a crush on me, but she had some issues (crazy family, ill temper) that made me keep my distance except for a couple of weak moments. We wound up making out one night in the summer before my junior year, something I regretted immediately thereafter. Then later on when I was just about to graduate from college, we had an awkward attempt at a one night stand which flopped because I had performance anxiety.

Perhaps one of the most damaging things I did to myself socially was the decision to go to an all-male school for my undergraduate years. I initially chose the school because it had a sterling academic reputation and had a smaller student body. I wanted to avoid the feeling of being lost in the shuffle. Although I did well academically and grew intellectually, I had zero personal growth in opposite sex relationships. At the time of my graduation, the economy was in the midst of a recession, and hiring for B.S. degree holders in my field was very scarce. I chose to continue my studies and work toward a Ph.D.

I developed a social life with a core group of friends during my first year of graduate school, but had no success in developing chemistry with other women. The closest thing was a female classmate who offered to be "my first" while she was in a drunken state at a party. I didn't take her up on the offer, but the experience put more cracks in an already fragile sense of self.

I found myself spending my alone moments trying to avoid anxiety through masturbation. Now on my own with my own apartment, I turned to phone sex services for company. As I have mentioned in prior postings, I now realize I chose this medium because it gave me a (albeit fake) sense validation from feminine approval without the fear of rejection. In many instances, about 3/4 of the time I spent on these calls did not involve explicit sexual language. Rather, it was an attempt to forge some sort of connection with the person.

Dating and Cohabitation

As I was finishing up my first year of graduate school, the woman who would become my wife was finishing up her third year of college. We were both still in close contact with the mutual friend, and because both of us had complained that we were not having any success in the dating world, the friend offered to set us up on a date. The downside of the date was that it would entail a long-distance relationship. She was spending the summer in my hometown, while I was still in graduate school doing research. The trip home was over 200 miles, but I decided to give it a go anyway.

The first date was dinner and a movie. We had a good time, and we agreed to set up a date a couple weeks later. Over the course of the summer we were seeing each other about every other weekend and talking nightly on the phone. I think that the joy of just finally having someone to spend time with overrode any real quest to find things in common.

Still having little experience at the time, I was a slow mover when it came to displays of affection. The first kiss was a goodnight kiss at the end of a date about a month into the relationship. It was a quick peck on the lips, and it took me every ounce of fortitude I could muster to risk that.

It took several more months for the relationship to become more physical, and that was not without anxiety on her end. The first few times that the making out started to get intense, she got sick to her stomach, something she finally resolved by taking motion sickness pills.

Things started getting more serious as the holiday season approached. By this time, we were engaging in sexual activity (me giving her oral, she masturbating me). We didn't have intercourse until around six months into the relationship. It was the first time for both of us.

The intensity of the relationship made the four hour drive back home tolerable, but I knew it was not sustainable. I also knew she was having financial troubles and still wanted to go back to school. Her other best friend had just moved several hundred miles away, so she was feeling very alone. So in the spring of 1993 (about nine months into the relationship), I asked her to move up with me. She did just that.

I took care of the day-to-day expenses with my stipend, and I had her channel her paycheck into paying off her credit cards. Then in the fall of 1993, she enrolled in some courses at the regional campus of a state university so that she could resume her education. She got better grades and was enjoying the personal attention of the smaller campus.

We were having sex two or three times a week at the time. In addition, I was masturbating daily and still used porn magazines as part of the activity. She did not know about the phone sex activity, which had become rare after we started dating.

As the year came to an end, my Ph.D. candidacy drew near. I was very stressed about this because it involved drawing up a proposal and defending it. The pain level wasn't quite that of a dissertation, but it was much more involved than a master's thesis. Since she was at class and work most of the time, I had time to myself, so I started turning to the phone sex services again.

Even after I passed my candidacy, I continued to rely on the phone sex services, racking up a few thousand dollars on my credit card. In the fall of 1994, shortly after we moved to a bigger apartment, my wife found the credit card statements, and she burst into tears. I went into therapy and a 12-step program for sexual compulsion.

I ratcheted back on my sexual activity in a major way. At this point, I was refraining from any solo sexual activity, and my wife became understandably quite icy for a few months, but it looked as if healing was taking place.

Just before Christmas of that year, I proposed to her on the snowy shores of Lake Michigan at sunset, one of the romantic places we liked to go together. She accepted enthusiastically. We set a wedding date in the spring of 1996. Sex started to return to our lives, happening three or four times a month. At the time, I was so scared of my eroticism that the sex became very bland. Moreover, because I was no longer masturbating, I wasn't as desensitized, so I reached climax very quickly. My wife seemed relieved at this because said she didn't like having long sessions of intercourse.

I achieved nine months of sexual sobriety and learned some things about myself from the therapy. But as I drew near to the end of my fourth year of graduate school, I had another onslaught of anxiety.

First, I had a setback in my academic work. I was beginning to believe that the thrust of my work, using a particular area of mathematics to solve certain types of equations, would not yield the results that mathematicians had speculated. I wrote a paper that tried to make the case for my point, but it was rejected for publication.

Another problem was that I was worried that my thesis adviser would cut me off from funding. Over the years I had worked under him, I had seen how he had mistreated other students, and I was fearful that I would fall on his disfavored list.

Finally, I saw that classmates were having troubles finding jobs because of a Ph.D. glut. The wedding date was about six months away, and we were going to pay for it by ourselves. She wanted a big traditional wedding, so the bills were starting to rack up.

I kept a lot of the stress inside, and I didn't handle it well. I had a relapse and started calling the phone sex services again. In December of 1995, I decided to cut my losses and take a job with a software company a few hours away. My fiancee moved with me and wound up getting a job with the same company a few months later.

Marriage and Children

Phone sex and porn usage aside, the next biggest stressor on our sex life was the struggle over whether to have children and then the quest to have them.

We were married in the spring of 2006. The wedding went off without a hitch, and it turned out to be a pretty good time, even if it was expensive. The honeymoon, a cruise in the Bahamas, was enjoyable, but the sex just wasn't there. We had intercourse once, and she wasn't really into that.

My wife worked in the company's customer service department and had a lot of interaction with the sales department, both of which had a large population of child bearing age women. A good number of those women either got pregnant or gave birth during our first year. My wife, who was 25 at the time, started to get the maternal urge.

During pre-marital counseling, we had talked about whether we wanted children. I was against having them because my own experiences of having to raise my brother after my parents' divorce biased me against wanting to go through something like that again. She said that she did't want any, either, and was happy being an aunt to her two nephews.

Upon hearing that she had shifted her position, I resisted. With the news of coworkers and then friends having babies, she started to get more emotional about the issue. She went off the pill. Even after she found out about my relapse from a couple years earlier, she remained steadfast in her desire to be a mother. Her comments became increasingly spiteful of me. Sex dwindled to once or twice a month, and I refused to do it without protection. That made her angrier. By the time that her best friend had her child in the spring of 1999, she was saying that she was thinking about divorcing me if I remained steadfast over not wanting to have children.

We did both joint and individual counseling on the issue. I was already back in therapy anyway for my relapse, anyway. I agreed to reach a decision by the end of 1999. During those six months, I went into a period of self-confrontation, probably something similar to the crucible that Schnarch describes. I faced down my anxieties over parenthood and came to terms with the fact that I couldn't not eliminate the uncertainties that came with the role. At the beginning of 2000, I agreed to start trying once we finished paying off the debt management program (a combination of my phone sex charges, the cost of the wedding, and her student loans). That would be May of 2001. In reality, we started having unprotected sex a few months before that.

My wife was 30 by the time we started trying to get pregnant, and she was on a mission. We had sex a couple of times a month, namely when the fertility monitor said so. We did this for about a year with no success. Her gynecologist suggested that I have my sperm count checked. The results were shocking. My count was about 1/20th of a normal male. We got referred to a fertility specialist, which thankfully enough was covered by our health insurance.

The fertility specialist determined that we would need to do in vitro fertilization with ICSI. So we proceeded with that in the spring of 2002. We harvested and fertilized a batch of eggs and did two transfers that did not take.

By the summer of 2002, my wife was desperate. She decided that we should go the adoption route, so we got in touch with an agency in town. We did a home study and went on the active list. The plan we signed up for left us was one of the least restrictive with regards to race, so the waiting time was much shorter what most people wait for a birth mother lead.

She targeted her expectations toward the shorter period of the waiting range described in the literature and was convinced that we'd be getting a phone call any day then. It was hard to see her go through the emotional ups and downs, and I tried to gently temper her expectations by saying that things might not always proceed as swiftly as she imagined. Her responses ranged from irritable to hostile.

In reality, it took us more on the longer end of the waiting period, which was six months. The birth mother who picked us wasn't due for another couple months. Again, my wife was just certain that she would deliver early. In reality, our first daughter was born on the due date.

About nine months after our first daughter was born, she started talking about wanting to try IVF again. We still had some attempts available on our insurance, so we decided to give it another try. We did another batch of eggs and this time the first attempt worked. Our second daughter was born in February 2005, a couple weeks early, but healthy nonetheless.

The Growing Sex Debate

As 2001 passed, I held out hope that our sex life would go through a renewal. I had been free of sexually clandestine behavior for over five years. The financial aftermath of that activity was finally cleaned up with the completion of the debt management program. We had achieved closure on the issue of children, and we were making progress toward having them. I held out hope that her interest in sex would renew with the onset of her 30s. One of her friends, who was approaching 40 herself, said that she had gone through a similar awakening. Yet, it wasn't happening.

We took a vacation at the beginning of 2002, and it was a nice getaway. Time alone like this has a way of rekindling passion, but we had sex only once during that trip. She resisted a second attempt later in the week and when I asked her what was going on, she said that she felt like she was being pressured. At the end of the conversation, I told her that to relieve the pressure, I was going to refrain from initiating. I held true to my word, not once attempting to start intercourse over the passage of four years.

When I entered into that moratorium, sex was happening about once or twice a month. This was after she had found out it was darned near impossible for us to conceive by regular means. By the time we started doing the second round of IVF, sex was a quarterly offering. The quality of the act had regressed, too. Not only was it as bland as ever, it was absent any emotional presence from her. She didn't want foreplay and just laid there. Pregnancy just made it worse. How bad? I couldn't sustain an erection and would eventually give up out of frustration. Between June 2005 and January 2006, the only orgasms I had were from rare solo activity in the shower.

During this time, I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. We had been through an emotional meat grinder with the IVF and adoption. We also had gone through several losses between 2001 and 2005. Just after we finalized the adoption of our first daughter, her brother died from a rare blood infection. She also lost two aunts, one in an SUV wreck and the other from a heart attack. I lost relatives on my side of the family, too, including two grandmothers and a stepgrandfather. For several months, we had provided lodging for her financially troubled sister and her son as they tried to make a new start in town. Her best friend had a miscarriage. I could see where she might be stretched thin.

However, I was neglecting my needs by trying to rationalize this away. I still had lingering shame about my sexuality. I felt resentment towards my wife and began to wonder if she was really in love with her best friend, who lived just five minutes away. We had moved to that area in 2000 and picked the location because it was so close.

That move really signified the beginning of distance between us because she was starting to do everything with her best friend. Moreover, we did so many things with her and her husband (e.g. dinners together several times a week were the norm), it almost seemed as if we were one family. I remember feeling this very strongly when my wife sent me an e-mail saying that she wanted us to consider moving to a new subdivision where her best friend was planning on building.

For much of 2005, I was starting to think whether I should just look elsewhere while still maintaining the semblance of a marriage. I tried telling her about my unhappiness, but she thought it was because I was depressed. When she offered her quarterly duty sex in October 2005, I was so angry with her I turned it down.

I made one final push to rekindle things in 2006. By then I had changed jobs from my five year telecommuting position to a real office job, so we weren't around each other all day. I took weekly ballroom dancing lessons with her. Sex reappeared, and it started to happen every few weeks for three months, but then it dwindled again with the onset of summer. When we had intercourse only once during our kid free vacation at the end of May, I realized that things were heading for the worse. It seemed like she was starting to get herself involved in other things just to avoid being available. A couple months later, the initial posts on PForum started to appear. The rest of the story is chronicled in this weblog.
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