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Friday, August 3, 2012

SL Letter of the Day: 50 Shades of Grey Syndrome

Posted by on Fri, Aug 3, 2012 at 10:49 AM

Hello Dan, big fan, long time reader, please keep up the good work calling out Republican hypocrites. That, sadly, is not the reason for my email. I am one of what I believe to be many victims of what I've called, 50 Shades of Grey Syndrome. I think most of us are suffering in silence but maybe with your help some light can be shed on our plight.

Some quick history, I've been married for 16 years, both my wife and I are in our early 40s, we have 3 kids. We went through more than a decade of vanilla sex with me being the aggressor and my wife being, at best a reluctant participant and at worse a manipulative partner who parsed out sex very rarely to get things she wanted and generally keep me in line.

We have talked about the toll that child bearing and rearing took on her and our marriage but, suffice to say, it wasn't a good situation. I should mention, she was the opposite of GGG. If I dared share a fantasy she would call me a pervert or worse and so I learned to keep my thoughts to my self.

Ok, fast forward a decade, she gets into her early 40s, the kids are more self sufficient now and our sex life gets a little better. Then she discovers 50 Shades and everything is turned upside down. What's black is now white, what's up is now down. She has become completely obsessed with sex, completely obsessed. It's all that she thinks about, all that she wants to talk about. Our sex life goes crazy, tons of toys, light bondage play, fantasies shared (although mostly from her). All is good right? Well, not entirely because soon, as she delves into more and more books of that genre, her level of obsession becomes such that my performance is constantly scrutinized (I am not now, nor will I ever be a troubled billionaire).

The rest of the question—and the answer—after the jump...

I don't measure up to the fantasies that she reads about constantly. Our relationship was always based on her being in charge by virtue of the fact that when she was upset she made my life miserable so I learned to keep my head down and defer. Now she wants to know why I'm not more of a dominant and keeps telling me that's what she wants. I have enjoyed spanking her, tying her up, all the new things that we've been doing lately and would like to think that our marriage is headed in the right direction. However, her appetite for sex in insatiable, it's all she wants and if I disappoint her she flies off the handle and gets crazy emotional (early 40s hormones?). I don't want to sound ungrateful and it is kind of a nice problem to have but it's very strange to be the hunted instead of the hunter and it's also becoming clear that at some point my perceived short comings are going to become too much for her to deal with and she will probably look else where. I'm not sure if I even have a question but I look to you for advice on all things relationship/sex related. Please let me know what you think. I'm hoping that you don't call me a whiner.

50 Shades of Confusion

I don’t know if Dan would call you a whiner or not (maybe), but he’s on vacation and I’m here and I’m not going to call you one… exactly.

I am going to say, be patient, though.

Unless your wife was a way early adopter of 50 Shades, this can’t possibly have been going on all that long. She may have downloaded a copy in March or bought a paperback in April. So you’ve been feeling like “the hunted” for, what, 3 or 4 or 5 MONTHS? After you hunted her, and maybe made her feel like the hunted one who was keeping sex from you, for some number of the 16 YEARS? That might be where the “whiner” part comes in.

But I get it.

Your dynamics have switched! It’s confusing. I totally get that. It’s probably confusing for her, too, to have gone from avoiding sex to insisting on it. It’s difficult to get someone to be more dominant if you’re brow beating them into having sex with you (sort of the wrong dynamic, right? Be dominant to make someone else dominant? Hm… she may want to switch up some of the fiction she’s reading).

If you know of a good sex therapist in your area (you can find listings at, that can be a great option. Every couple has a “system” of unwritten rules that govern how things work and it’s when things change—like when the kids get older or move away or one person starts/stops working or someone gets sick or reads a horribly written but runaway best seller erotic fiction book—that things can get messy. Sex is thrown. The relationship may feel a little thrown. And it’s all around you, and you’re thinking, “WTF? What do I do now?”

Except that’s the thing. It’s not what YOU do. It’s not what SHE does. It’s what YOU DO TOGETHER.

It’s how you look at your life, with older kids and being a bit older yourselves, a couple who has been together for 16 years, and how you ask yourselves, “What does sex mean to us now? What do we want now that we didn’t want before? How do we both get our needs met? How do we feel about sex toys now? About spanking? About tying one another up? How can we ask each other for sex without making the other person want to run and hide in the attic crawl space? How can we make each other feel sexy, and not inadequate because the other person isn’t _____?” (That blank could just as easily be “a troubled billionaire” as it is whatever she may have felt inadequate about for all those years—did she think she wasn’t young enough? Sexy enough? That she didn’t compare to women in porn, or a kid’s best friend’s milfy mom? Or that she just didn’t compare to whatever it was you wanted, which might have been a wife who was more into sex with her husband?”)

So you both have baggage. Everyone does.

You’ve been temporarily thrown by the introduction of erotic fiction, which she is going to have to face as fiction as you deal, together, with the reality of your marriage and your sex life.

A sex therapist might help. Reading about sex TOGETHER might also help – whether erotic fiction, sex guides (my latest is Sex Made Easy), or Savage Love archives—in the sense that reading about sex together gives you a chance to talk about things, what seems hot, what neither of you is into, what you can consider trying for the other one’s sake.

And, like I said before, patience might help too (again, 50 Shades is recent—it may spike her behavior, but she may regress toward the mean, as we nerdy scientists say, sooner than you think). A good, honest talk when you’re not likely to be interrupted might help—just remember to be kind and supportive, while still letting her know how it feels to be in your shoes, or chaps, or whatever she has you in at the moment. And pointing out to her how it probably feels good to her when you indulge in her fantasies and how it feels (frustrating? Sad? Disappointing?) when you don’t, and how you’d like the same consideration going forward with her being GGG from here on out (without trudging up the past in a way that creates distance between you two).


Comments (26) RSS

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Matt from Denver 1
I question whether any of that is possible in such a short period of time, at this age. I question the veracity of the whole letter, actually. But, assuming it's true...

DTMFA. His wife sounds like a nasty piece of work.
Posted by Matt from Denver on August 3, 2012 at 10:54 AM · Report this
"We have talked about the toll child bearing and rearing took on her and our marriage..." That's the problem; the wife is a bigamist.
Posted by Subdued Excitement on August 3, 2012 at 10:57 AM · Report this
Pull a Romney and get your 16 years ago self to retroactively DTMFA.
Posted by MR M on August 3, 2012 at 11:04 AM · Report this
Fake. This is the same kind of letter men wrote ("My wife has become so difficult!") after Eat, Pray, Love came out. Then, and now, I thought those letters were written by single, undersexed trolls who prefer uncomplicated women, hold a grudge against feminists, and dream of a compliant, mail-order bride.
Posted by mitten on August 3, 2012 at 11:06 AM · Report this
The problem isn't the sex, its the (lack of honest) communication. She is still holding him hostage to her wants and demands. He is still unable to tell her what he is thinking and feeling because he is afraid of her reaction. Yes to a good sex counselor, yes to reading books and Savage Love archives together, yes to everything that will get them both talking honestly to each other.

Until they can both trust that they can be open and vulnerable to each other without worrying about retaliation, this will not get better.

I have found that a really good way to open communication with your spouse, is to write a letter. You can work on it until it is just right. Then you can get it to your spouse in a way that he/she can read it while alone. That takes all the defensiveness and knee-jerk reactions out of the equation. Good luck. Marriage should be a supportive partnership, not a hostage situation.
Posted by SeattleKim on August 3, 2012 at 11:11 AM · Report this
It sounds like you guy really need to work on your emotional dynamics now that the stress of high intensity child-rearing is over. The resentment of your wife just OOZED out of your letter (she's manipulative, crazy emotional, etc.). Considering the comments you mention from her about you being a perv or the complaint that you don't measure up to an erotic fantasy character, I'm guessing that's a two way street. You didn't have a single positive thing to say about her or the relationship. Maybe this letter was written in the heat of the moment, but if it reflects how you really feel about each other than you have a problem that extends beyond your sexual connection. You may still love each other, but if you like each other I couldn't tell from what you wrote.

In parallel to the relationship counseling and figuring out what you want from each other sexually, I'd work on finding non-sexual activities you enjoy together (travel? cooking or dining out? sporting events or concerts?) and renewing that side of your bond as well. Basically, you need to start dating/hanging out for fun again. It's going to be a lot easier to navigate figuring out the terms on which you're going to interact sexually if you're each negotiating with a friend rather than the bitter enemy you've tolerated for the last twenty years.
Posted by Beguine on August 3, 2012 at 11:20 AM · Report this
I agree with 4. The letter struck me as kind of just odd and had a sort of "flip the gender" feel to it. It sounded a bit too much like letters when women complain about a middle-aged husbands getting too deep into porn showing unreal acts and hard-body teens, then expecting surprised wives to suddenly measure up.

If the letter is sincere, however, and the husband did have to languish in 16 years of relatively unfulfilling marriage, and now finds himself set against romance novel standards, well, #5 kind of covers it. That post is more concise and action-oriented than the meandering response from the columnist.
Posted by Snowguy on August 3, 2012 at 11:25 AM · Report this
sasha 8
4 words:
50 shades of Chick'Fil'a
Posted by sasha on August 3, 2012 at 11:28 AM · Report this
Wow. Dan would've accepted at face value the husband's characterization of his wife's selfish and domineering behavior, and probably would've advised DTMFA. It's nice to see Dr. Herbenick recognizing the wife's humanity and questioning the writer's vitriol. But I do wish Dr. Herbenick wrote as well as Dan does.
Posted by dchari on August 3, 2012 at 11:41 AM · Report this
Amazing to hear all these experts who have never experienced or even studied heterosexual marriage.

The closest (albeit) exaggerated truth is Who Is Afraid of Virginia Wolfe. It is an endless chess game or dance of power relationships, money extortion, verbal parries and sex trading.

Fifty Shades, which I did not read, is just one more shovel of coal in the hopper, one more card to play.

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on August 3, 2012 at 11:48 AM · Report this
treacle 12
I'm with SeattleKim @ 5... If the letter is real, the issue is honest, open communication, as opposed to emotional manipulation and co-dependent relationship dynamics.

Since "black is now white" and the shoe is on the other foot, he is now in a position to hold the reins back a bit and demand counseling. She wants intense sex and a dominant partner? Well, hold on missy! Let's review the interactions of the past 16 years and the dynamics the two of you have set up. She may well need to concede some serious issues and look at your partnership as one of equals, and deal with you honestly... instead of living in a fantasy world.

It may be a few sessions of MDMA-powered honest conversation (perhaps initiated with some letter-writing) would help, as it does allow some pretty profound emotionally intimate conversations to occur without the typical defensiveness that such conversations can raise.

Anyway, at root the issue is really poor interpersonal communication styles and a lack of honesty.

work on that.

or DTMFA, as she sounds rather controlling. Although that may take some spine.
Posted by treacle on August 3, 2012 at 11:50 AM · Report this
Foggen 13
Nothing has really changed. She's holding him hostage with emotional abuse, just as she has forever. The only difference is that she wants something now.
Posted by Foggen on August 3, 2012 at 12:12 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 14
I'm going with fake too.

His wife has been using sex to get what she wants for 16 years? I understand there are women who do that (I've personally never experienced it, but then I'm not a man), but that detail along with everything else just screams fake to me. He didn't have a problem with effectively paying to have sex with his wife (or characterized normal give-and-take within a normal relationship with that) but he does have a problem being compared with a romance novel?
Posted by keshmeshi on August 3, 2012 at 12:14 PM · Report this
balderdash 15
I want this letter to be fake, both because it's so ridiculous to impute so much power to a shitty, shitty book, and because of the problematic way it portrays the dude as just a normal guy, and the wife as a batshit, controlling, emotion-driven harpy. It really does read like the kind of vindictive, wish-fulfillment fake that @4 was talking about.

That said, while I'm leaning that way, I'm not wholly sold, because the way he describes his wife acting matches up pretty closely with my experience of how repressed people who suddenly discover and open up to something new can act.

Yeah, sorry, guy, but if this is real, you're on the heartbreak highway. Get yourselves into some marriage counseling. I don't know if it's possible to cram 16 years' worth of communications skills in a few months in counseling, but if you don't learn how to talk about this stuff honestly and manage it sanely she's gonna leave you for a bad boy; and if half of the resentment you put in this letter is apparent in how you treat her, then who could blame her?
Posted by balderdash on August 3, 2012 at 12:17 PM · Report this
Alicia 17
As a romance novel reader and author, let me jump on the train to Faketown, whence this letter clearly originated.

I'm not saying nobody's ever gotten a sexy idea from a romance (who hasn't?) but the story that romance novels turn middle-aged women into nymphomaiacs whose poor schlubby hubbies can't live up to their sexual demands is well-worn bullshit. The commenter above who mentioned Eat, Pray, Love got it right: these stories crop up every time a book with a primarily feminine audience sells a ton of copies. Shake your head and let it pass.
Posted by Alicia on August 3, 2012 at 12:27 PM · Report this
Count your blessings. She could have read a travel-porny memoir and decided you two had to move to a sheep farm in Provence. As phases go, it could be a lot worse.
Posted by Prettybetsy on August 3, 2012 at 1:36 PM · Report this
please. shades is hardly the first soft-core porn of it's ilk out there and how often is it that women are constantly subjected to the outrageous and unrealistic expectations men have in their head from watching too much hardcore porn. this reads as a big fake and if it's not the guy really needs to talk to his wife instead of writing a whiny letter to dan savage. ugh.
Posted by xina on August 3, 2012 at 1:50 PM · Report this
Wow, blame the victim much people? Sure he COULD be an asshole, but it seems like most of the commenters are automatically assuming he is, and I just can't believe that would be the case if the genders were reversed. Based on the letter it seems the wife is a controlling bully that has found a new agenda. That happens. She is still using their sex life as a weapon. Standard Dan would be to offer advice based on the reality presented in the letter and a reality check. Sad that Debby can't admit the wife might be an unreasonable asshole.
Posted by Spike1382 on August 3, 2012 at 2:04 PM · Report this
seandr 24
Is it just me, or does this guy's wife sound kind of bossy?
Posted by seandr on August 3, 2012 at 3:00 PM · Report this
Demanding bottoms can be challenging for even the most experienced tops. Here you've got a novice top dealing with a new sub who is topping from the bottom, and neither one really knows what they're doing.

In ADDITION to Dr. Debby's advice I strongly suggest getting in touch with your local BDSM community. You two have become BDSM players, & you need to learn from those who have more experience with both the psychodynamics & the physical mechanics of the sex play you are engaging in now. I'm pretty sure Dan would have suggested this also had he taken this letter.

Doesn't seem fake to me at all ...
Posted by Robby on August 3, 2012 at 3:11 PM · Report this

BTW - I suspect that "50 Shades" will bring a lot of new players out just like "9 1/2 Weeks" did back in the day ...
Posted by Robby on August 3, 2012 at 3:14 PM · Report this
MarkyMark 28
Hopelessly pussywhipped
Posted by MarkyMark on August 3, 2012 at 4:49 PM · Report this
seandr 29
@22: women are constantly subjected to the outrageous and unrealistic expectations men have in their head from watching too much hardcore porn

I call bullshit on this.

How do you know what men are constantly asking of women? What exactly are their expectations? Who is to say they are "outrageous and unrealistic"? And for those men (and women) who never seem to be satisfied with their partner, are you sure porn is to blame for that, and not, say, an abusive personality or the fact that one of them is a genuinely shitty lover?

I will grant you that expectations have risen as our culture has become more open to sex (and porn is one manifestation of that openness). Increased expectations would suck if you just aren't a sexual person, but for rest of us, it makes good sex easier to find and all the more fun to have.
Posted by seandr on August 3, 2012 at 5:55 PM · Report this
Canadian Nurse 30
@30: I'm voting for not fake. 50SoC needs to deal with the relationship before they deal with the sex. The sex is a symptom, not the problem.
Posted by Canadian Nurse on August 4, 2012 at 6:22 AM · Report this
I don't see a lot of value in calling fake. May as well treat it as hypothetically true and discuss it in that light.

First: Dr Debby, don't quit your day job. Or maybe, please quit your day job if that's the sort of advice you dispense in your practice. Time for him to be patient? Are you fucking kidding? PATIENT? He's been being patient for SIXTEEN FUCKING YEARS, you idiot.

Second: So, she wants a dominant. Fine then, lay down The Law. Item Number One of The Law shall be that there will be no unfavorable comparisons of her husband to fictional characters. The next time she brings up Grey, she gets tied to the bed and then treated to a tirade of all of her shortcomings as compared to Tera Patrick. Subsequent infractions will result in burning her copy of Grey.

Third: Submissives exist to please their top. Not the other way around. (Yes, I know it's a dynamics game, but she is playing it all wrong.) She isn't a submissive, she's a spoiled brat who is mewling that she isn't being serviced the way she wants. It's high time she starts servicing HIM. She can fucking start pulling her weight in that department -- sixteen years of "I don't feel like it" is a lot to make up for -- or she can expect to not be indulged. She is basically giving you carte blanche to stop being so damned accommodating, and start making demands of her. If she goes ballistic at your demands, then she clearly doesn't actually want to play the submissive, so call her on her bullshit.
Posted by avast2006 on August 6, 2012 at 5:18 PM · Report this
My advice to this guy is to read Passionate Marriage and Intimacy & Desire, both by David Schnarch. Some of his key topics:

- normal marital sadism (married people should admit that sometimes they cause their spouse emotional pain on purpose).

- how both spouses should take responsibility for their own shit (he calls it "differentiation," which is basically the opposite of co-dependency); and

- that the spouse with lower desire controls how much marital sex they share. (Also, the spouse who likes romance less controls how much romance they share, and so on...) It's important to accept that that's normal. It's not your partner's evil scheme. And if you married someone else (someone with higher desire), you might be happy at first, and then not so happy if you found yourself to be the spouse with lower desire. People can come up with creative solutions (monogamish, anyone?) but only if they get past the blame stage.
Posted by EricaP on August 7, 2012 at 12:48 AM · Report this

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