What Did I Do that was Wrong? 01byohio©
I watched them as they walked into my office. A very attractive couple. They both looked unhappy, of course; couples who are happy don't come to see a marriage counselor.
But I watched their body language carefully, looking for clues to the specific nature of their problems. They settled into the two matching chairs across from my desk, and we made our introductions.
"Welcome--I'm Dr. Tom Everett--please call me Tom."
After a mutual glance at one another, the wife spoke first. "I'm Leanne Seidler."
She stopped, and after a moment her husband said, "and I'm Mark Gleason."
"Nice to meet you both," I said, and stood up again to shake both their hands. Then there were a few moments of silence.
Leanne was a striking woman, perhaps 5'8", with wavy black hair just past her shoulders and dark, expressive eyes. She was wearing a sweater tight enough to show that she had prominent breasts, and her legs were shapely as well--a lot of them could be seen with the relatively short skirt she was wearing.
I wouldn't have said Leanne was beautiful, exactly--not in the way that a model is--but she was very attractive, and gave off an air of sensuality. Beyond that, however, she seemed frustrated and defensive. The way she held herself, sitting there in my office, seemed closed and wary. Was she dealing with guilt or with rage? Or both? I couldn't tell.
Mark was a very handsome man, about 6'2". He had sandy hair and blue eyes, and a kind of rugged good looks that I imagined got him a great deal of female attention. He had a strong jaw and looked well-built in an athletic way. I wondered if he'd played tight end in college.
Unlike Leanne, however, his unhappiness manifested itself in a resigned, somewhat defeated look. His posture slumped, in marked contrast to Leanne's attitude of tension.
"Well," I said after a few moments, "let me ask you just a couple of questions to begin, if you don't mind. Mark, what kind of work do you do, and how long have you and Leanne been married?"
"I'm an architect--but also a builder. It's a little complicated. I originally got an engineering degree, then I worked in construction for a while, building houses. I went back to school for an architecture degree about ten years ago, and now I design houses, but I'm still involved on the building end as well."
He spoke without much energy, as though his answers didn't matter all that much.
"Leanne and I have been married just under four years. It's a second marriage for each of us. I was married to a woman for just a couple of years, right after college; but it turned out we didn't have much in common."
He stopped, and I turned to Leanne.
"Leanne, do you also work?"
She gave me a smile that would have been appealing had it not been so tense.
"Yes, I'm a real-estate agent for Century 21. I handle residential properties in the Evanston and Winnetka area, which is also where we live."
Then more silence. These first meetings with couples generally go one of two ways. Sometimes the husband and wife are bursting to tell their stories, and I have to slow them down and keep them from talking at once, or screaming at each other. Then there's the other way, as with Mark and Leanne--nobody wants to come out and say what they're here for, and I've got to drag it out of them.
"Okay," I said. "Well, as you know, I'm a licensed psychotherapist and my practice includes a lot of marriage counseling as well. I got my Ph.D. from Northwestern, and I've been practicing here in Chicago for about 15 years or so.
"I'll be happy to tell you more about my background if you'd like, but why don't we get to the reason you have come to see me. How can I help?"
There was an awkward tension, as Mark and Leanne glanced at one another. Neither seemed eager to speak.
Finally Mark said, "we're having...marital problems. Sexual ones, I mean. I've been having...difficulty performing." He was staring at the carpet in front of my desk.
"Lately I've been sleeping in the guest room. It just feels too difficult sometimes, being with..." He waved his hand vaguely towards Leanne but let his voice drift off without finishing the sentence. I looked at Leanne and saw that her tension had increased.
"Has this been a problem throughout your marriage, or is it something that started happening recently?" I spoke matter-of-factly, trying to convey the attitude that we were talking about something not particularly serious.
He looked up at me now. "Just recently. About six or seven weeks ago. I caught..." He stopped, cleared his throat and went on. "I came home early from a trip and saw... saw my wife with another man."
Leanne practically leapt from her chair. "We have an...arrangement. Mark and I. He knows that I...see other men, sometimes."
Again keeping my face bland and neutral, I nodded to Leanne and looked back at Mark. He looked even more pained, but nodded his head in agreement.
"Yes, we...agreed before our marriage that Leanne could.... But it's always been very discreet. I never saw it, never heard about it."
Again Leanne jumped in. "It was kind of a 'don't ask, don't tell'. I knew that Mark didn't want to...to know anything about it, so I made sure it never intersected with our married life at all."
Once more I looked over to Mark, to see whether this was his view of things. Kind of reluctantly he nodded his head.
"Leanne was...she's been very good about...keeping her other activities private and discreet. I never knew anything about...the specifics. Until that afternoon."
I waited for one of them to continue, but the silence returned. Mark looked deeply withdrawn into himself, while Leanne practically simmered with tension.
"And since that time it's been...difficult?" I prompted.
Mark just glanced at me and nodded, clearly not wanting to say anything further.
Leanne burst out, "I've done everything I can! I love making love with Mark, and I..." She stopped for a moment, looking over at her husband.
"I've been encouraging, I've been patient; I've...given him oral a lot. But sometimes it seems like...like Mark doesn't even WANT to..."
"That's not true!" Mark came to life suddenly, showing the first energy I'd seen since he entered my office.
"I do want to. I love Leanne, and I..." He stopped, and the energy seemed to leak back out of him. "I just keep...seeing them, and it...
"It just...takes away my confidence, I guess."
Leanne had tears in her eyes. She reached across to hold Mark's hand, but he gave his to her very unwillingly. After a minute or so she let it go.
While I prefer to work with both halves of a couple together, it already seemed clear that that wasn't going to work in this case. There were deep feelings on both sides that neither Mark nor Leanne felt comfortable simply expressing in front of one another.
"All right," I said, with what I hoped was a reassuring smile. " I think the best way forward would be for me to meet privately with each of you first, before we all meet together again." I spoke confidently, as though I used this procedure all the time.
"Would it be possible for each of you to schedule two one-hour meetings with me this week and two more next week?"
After a bit of hesitation they both nodded, Leanne more eagerly than her husband, and we worked out the details of days and times.
As they left my office I again studied their body language. Leanne reached briefly around Mark's waist to hug him, but he didn't respond. When they got to my office door he held it for her, but routinely, without any particular tenderness or attention.
Things were clearly in a very bad way. I was glad Mark and Leanne had come to me, but not at all confident I could succeed in helping them put their relationship back together.
MARK GLEASON'S STORY
In our private meetings without Leanne in the room it was far easier to get Mark to talk. He was still unhappy and discouraged, but his body language and energy level were less defeated. I was happy to see that he trusted me enough to tell me his story with what sounded like a reasonable degree of honesty. I could also see traces of the robust, healthy and strong man who must have attracted Leanne in the first place.
Mark grew up in Ohio, the oldest son of a carpenter and a school-teacher. He was always tall, athletic and good-looking, and had been something of a Golden Boy. As a midfielder in lacrosse he was All-State his last two years of high school, and went on to play lacrosse at Miami University of Ohio, where he was an All-Conference player for three years.
He was a good but not spectacular student, graduating with an engineering major and a high B average. He'd done construction work during the summers, so when he moved to the Chicago area after graduation he had no trouble finding a good job with a home-building company. His combination of practical experience and engineering training soon attracted the attention of the chief architect.
After six years with the company Mark went back to school for his architecture degree, then returned to work as a combination architect and construction supervisor. This mixture of intellectual and physical work suited him, and kept him in terrific shape.
And as for his romantic and sexual life?
"I always seemed to be attractive to girls, I guess. Even in high school. Being a lacrosse star helped, but there were always girls dying to go out with me. Even the cutest ones, the cheerleaders.
"I lost my virginity my junior year with Elly Harmon. She was my girlfriend for about a year, and we had sex together a lot. When we broke up, in the middle of my senior year, I played the field. I must have slept with nearly a dozen other girls by the time I graduated.
"It was pretty much the same in college. Sometimes I was in a relationship, sometimes just dating. But there were always women who wanted to have sex with me, and I was happy to take them up on it!
"I wasn't a Don Juan--I certainly didn't set out to seduce and abandon girls. But I loved girls and I loved sex, and if they wanted to go to bed with me I was ready, willing and eager."
In his senior year Mark fell in love with Catherine Kubek, a fellow senior, and they got married right after graduation. The marriage lasted less than two years, and Mark didn't seem to have much regrets about it.
"We just didn't have much in common, I guess, once the excitement and all the passion wore off. We didn't even fight much, just drifted apart. It was a friendly divorce, no hard feelings. She got remarried and moved to California, near San Jose I think. It was quite a while ago."
At the age of 25, Mark was a single man again, and he happily played the field in the big city of Chicago for a few years. As before, there were lots of interested women--some turned into girlfriends, others were just brief flings.
Here he stopped and looked at me. "It's ironic, actually. I've always had success with women, and always felt confident and in control in bed, you know, sexually.
"It's not that I'm some master of the sexual arts--but women I've had sex with have always acted as though it was great, and so I never worried a bit about whether I was a good lover. Just assumed I was.
"But now, with this thing with Leanne.... That's what's so hard, I guess. A lifetime of feeling confident about myself, and now...now it seems like it's gone forever."
"Tell me about how you and Leanne got together."
As he spoke about his wife, and their early days together, the energy and excitement came back into his voice a little. It was clear that he was remembering happy times--happier than the ones he was experiencing now.
They met, not surprisingly, because she handled the marketing of some of the houses his company built. The very first time they went out for an after-work drink Mark could feel the spark.
"She wasn't the most beautiful woman I'd ever dated, though she is very beautiful. But there's such an energy to her! Leanne is so full of life--her laughter, her gestures, the way she flirts."
He laughed, a little bitterly. "She flirts a lot--always has. And at the time it didn't bother me a bit. I was confident, as I told you, and it was kind of exciting to be with a woman who flaunted her sexuality a little.
"It was never over the top. I never ever felt she was coming on to other guys or trolling for dates while we were together--just that she knew she was sexy, knew that men wanted her, and didn't mind letting them see that she knew it."
Mark said he probably could have taken her to bed after their first date, but he held back. He already had a feeling that Leanne was special, and he didn't want to rush it. For their second date, on a Friday night, he made her dinner at his apartment.
"I pulled out all the stops--I'm a pretty good cook, and I really wanted to impress her, so I made some fancy stuff, had a nice bottle of wine, you know what I mean."
That date ended with snuggling together in front of the fire, then with a night of love-making in Mark's bed. Leanne stayed with him all the next day and night, leaving only to go home for a change of clothes. Almost instantly, he said, they seemed to be in the middle of an intense love-affair.
"I was just crazy about her--not only sexually, but talking to her, just holding her hand. Doing typical lovebird things, like wandering through antique shops or sitting in the park having a picnic. She was smart, funny, so sexy, and endlessly interesting."
Their sex life was terrific from the very beginning, according to Mark. Leanne was obviously experienced--which didn't bother him at all, since he was too--and she was eager and skillful. They made love gently, lingeringly, or at other times they fucked each other's brains out. Both of them enjoyed oral sex, either as foreplay or occasionally instead of intercourse. And Leanne was up for anything Mark wanted to try: unusual positions, making love outdoors one night in a local park, even doing it once with her sitting on his lap in an adult movie theater, while the dirty old men in raincoats looked on enviously.
They saw each other 2-3 times a week for several months. Always they spent at least one day and night of the weekend together, at her apartment or his; but when Mark suggested once that they live together, Leanne told him she wasn't quite ready for that yet, and he backed off.
"I knew she was the woman for me, though. I was 34, I'd been single for nine years, and I was ready to settle down for good with this incredible lady."
After eight months of dating, Mark took Leanne for a picnic one summer day in a park on the shore of Lake Michigan. After a leisurely lunch together in the shade on a blanket, he pulled out an engagement ring and asked her to marry him.
"She reacted so strangely! She looked at me in surprise, then smiled, gave me a huge kiss, then started to cry! She said, 'oh Mark, I love you' a bunch of times, but she didn't say 'yes'.
"And then, still crying, she said, 'let's get back to my apartment this second. I need you, sweetheart, and I don't want to wait another minute'."
So they returned to her apartment, and she made love to Mark with an intensity and tenderness that went beyond anything he'd ever experienced before. It was, he said, the most totally satisfying experience, physically and emotionally, he'd ever had.
"I'd never felt so close to her--to anyone. Never felt so completely loved. We fell asleep for a while in each other's arms. It was the happiest moment of my life, I think. Everything felt perfect, even though I vaguely remembered she hadn't agreed to marry me yet."
When they woke up they showered together, and Mark smilingly reminded Leanne of his proposal. To his shock, she got a serious look on her face and said they needed to talk. They dried off, dressed, and she led him to the sofa.
" 'Mark,' she said to me, 'this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my whole life. Please just listen to me, okay, before you say anything? God, I'm so afraid you're just going to get up and walk out of my life!
" 'I love you, totally--completely. And I want so much to marry you. But...but you need to know something about me first. And after you know it, I don't know if you'll ever want to see me again.'
"I had no idea what she was going to say, and I started to protest that nothing could change my feelings for her, but she cut me off.
" 'Just listen first, okay? I'm...I've... Jesus, I don't know how to say it.
" 'All my life I've needed...variety. Different people. Sexually, I mean.
" 'I learned a long time ago that complete sexual monogamy just...doesn't work for me. I've never cheated on anybody in my life--but the times I've tried to stay faithful to one man, to my high-school boyfriend and then later to Adam (her first husband), I was...I just found out I couldn't be happy that way.'
"I was staring at her in complete shock," Mark continued. "I was thinking, has she been sleeping with other guys while we've been going out? And I started to get furious--but I realized we'd never discussed it. I had never asked her to be exclusive with me or told her I was being exclusive with her, though I was. I hadn't even thought about another woman since our second date.
"Well, it turned out Leanne HAD been seeing--let's call it what it is, fucking--had been fucking other guys while she and I were having our love affair.
"She was very vague about it--no numbers, no specifics. It was clear that it was just for sex, just for the thrill of doing it with someone new. There had obviously been more than one during the eight months we'd been together, but I don't know how many. Five? Ten? Forty? I had no idea--she didn't say, and I almost instantly realized I didn't want to know.
"Leanne could see that I was stunned--and hurt. She repeatedly told me how much she loved me, how she'd never felt so deeply for anyone before. She explained over and over that her sexual encounters with other men were fun and exciting but superficial. They didn't connect to her emotional life at all, though they obviously did fill some important need for her. The need for excitement, I guess, or the need to feel attractive. I guess she'll tell you all about it....
"Anyway, she assured me that she would love to spend her life with me, but that she would need to have the freedom to continue to...fuck other guys.
" 'Only from time to time, baby!' she told me. 'Never anything ongoing, no love affairs, nothing serious. Just pure sex, pure physical sex.'
"I was just sitting there, stunned, you know? Probably looking at her like she had two heads. And she was crying a little, and holding my hand, and continually telling me how much she loved me.
" 'I would be totally discreet--just like I've been up til now, sweetheart. It wouldn't ever be anyone we knew socially, no one from work--just something private and separate from our life together. And you would never know a thing about it, never even have to think about it, unless you wanted to.'
"Finally she ran out of words, and we sat there. Her looking affectionate and incredibly anxious, me probably looking like a piano just fell on my head.
"When I pulled myself together to speak I probably sounded pretty stupid. I said something like, 'you mean you've been...seeing other guys since we've been together?'
"And she nodded and said, 'yes, baby. But you've never known, right? And you've never felt the least bit insecure about my love, or how much I want you? God, you must know how crazy you make me in bed!' And she leaned over and gave me a crushing hug, kissing me on the cheek and the neck.
"I was still in shock. I said, 'and you want... You want me to agree to let you...fuck other people after we're married?'
"She just looked at me, sadly, and then she nodded her head.
" 'I just can't...do the total fidelity bit, Mark. I know myself well enough to know I can't be happy that way.