In this first column, Penthouse’s new advice columnist Mandy Stadtmiller explains the meaning behind the name and answers her first reader question about a sexless marriage.
Here’s the main lesson I learned from writing my memoir Unwifeable: If I had not done all that painful work to ultimately “own” everything I feared made me unwifeable, I never would have been able to—in the end—find the partner of my dreams.
This archetypal go-to-battle-with-your-demons lesson is called by many names. There’s “lean in” and “the hero’s journey” and “phoenixes rising from the ashes.” In the book The Gnostic Gospels one particularly illuminating passage reads: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
It’s one of those universal truths that intersects with all the great stories. The darkness you fear most will often present you with the Battle Of Your Life. Confront it valiantly, and only then, can you achieve far greater freedom than you ever imagined.
Consider the very first episode of Game of Thrones, for example. A series-defining moment occurs when the “imp” Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) tells Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to stop protesting when people call him a “bastard.”
“Let me give you some advice, bastard,” Tyrion says. “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”
Truly, there is so much vulnerability and power in confronting ourselves. Scared you are unworthy? Nervous you are unsuccessful? Afraid you will be forever unlovable? Well, that’s why I’m calling this advice column “Un Yourself.” Let’s turn the paradigms upside down, inside out and confront it all.
If you have a question, I would sincerely love to hear your query, which you can send to me at [email protected].
But now, let’s go forth and tackle the first question to UnYourself. And boy is it ever a doozy.
Sexless In Not Really Seattle writes: “I haven’t had sex with my wife for ten years. I’ve given up that it will ever happen again, and I do admit that my resentment seeps into our relationship. What can I do?”
Dear SINRS (amazing acronym there, by the way):
Most people will not admit it, because this is one of those insidious plagues that is simply not discussed in polite society, but your challenge is more common than you may think.
Marriage is one of the hardest—and some evolutionary biologists would argue “most unnatural”—institutions in the world. There are so many damn advice books out there (Men Are From Dickbags, Women Are From Cuntfucks, etc.), but not to worry because—guess what—I have read them all! “Why?” you may ask. Well, two reasons, really.
1) As a “sex and love” reporter, I have been forced to read more of them than the average person just on account of it being my dumb job.
2) Honestly, I just really love self-help.
For a taste of exactly how science comes into play in the studies he’s done, I recommend this extraordinary segment on This American Life.
In the episode, the researchers at the Gottman Institute are able to predict, with almost total accuracy, which marriages will stay together and which will not. How do they do it? Easy. The study participants are asked to discuss a sensitive topic of disagreement. As they either bicker and escalate or quibble and calm one another down, the researchers take to coding all of their interactions (an eyeball or a sarcastic sigh, for instance, might be marked as “contempt”).
What they find is that you don’t actually need to agree with your person about everything. Because everyone disagrees. Some marital researchers even posit that the No. 1 predictor of divorce is conflict avoidance. Until that wondrous day when we are able to clone a version of ourselves just to fuck over and over again as our AI-Me sycophantically agrees with every word we say, cheering us on and on as we bad-decision-it-up into personal apocalypse, we will always be forced to deal with—contemptuous sarcastic sigh here—other people.
For the longest time, do you know what grudge I nursed above practically all others?
I was so pissed at men who did not follow to a T the imagined script I had set out for them.
Men were terrible.
More often than not, this irrational resentment decreased my sex drive.
Like your wife, I did not start out this way.
To get my sex drive back, I needed to confront severe, deeply buried issues of incredible contempt and resentment simmering beneath the surface.
Similar to my eventual realization that other people are not actually disappointing or offending me by failing to follow some imagined script I wrote for them in my head, sometimes your wife’s issues of contempt and resentment might be illogical.
But oh my God how deeply it is in play.
And if you love her: It needs to be honored, respected, and validated. Because, like you, she really is doing her best with what she has. She’s not trying to be unreasonable. She’s just trying to protect herself.
You can only understand, to use a Jaws metaphor, what size boat you’ll need (therapy, a divorce, or a sort of modern understanding wherein your wife agrees you can meet sexual needs and desires outside of the marriage) when you accurately understand just how big the damn shark is in the first place.
This means ignoring Mayor Larry Vaughn, dude.
Or in this case, all the terrible advice pushing you to either cheat or take the seething martyr route and suck it up as a consequence of A) you cheating years ago, B) you traveling too much for your job, C) forgetting her birthday this year, or D) whatever ingrained self-loathing from your childhood you’ve projected onto your wife and circumstances.
The reality is that the only way you can figure out the root of the problem and develop an informed plan for what to do is to uncover the true nature of what caused your marriage to break in the first place.
Because a sexless marriage is a broken one.
Now I have several friends who are the smartest individuals I know who are just dead-set against therapy, so I know exactly how difficult it is to convince someone to see a shrink. In fact, for many years it was impossible to convince me to see one. But then I discovered something that shifted my whole perspective: Seeing a shrink is no different than going on a first date.
As in, check this out, you can just make up an excuse to leave. So many people feel like because they’ve had one or two or 29 bad experiences that all psychiatrists are worthless. Interesting fact: Not true.
The secret is to develop a litmus test and do research as if your mental health life depends on it. Because it does. My favorite strategy: Ask for recommendations from smart folks who you know do not tolerate fools.
But first let’s validate your concern: Yes, many shrinks are drawn to the field because they are indeed bat-shit crazy themselves. However, there are just as many who have done the difficult psychotherapeutic work to slay their pesky, meddling egos in order to best help you learn how to slay your own.
The speech I was given that finally got me to go see a psychiatrist came from a doctor friend of mine.
As I told him about all of my bad experiences with shoddy therapists who had given me awful advice or whom I simply did not think were smart, he listened patiently. “I don’t need to see a shrink,” I protested. “I write morning pages every day, and I have some great friends who I can talk to about my problems.”
“Mandy,” he said, “your writing can’t talk back. And your friends don’t have the training.”
What do you know: The doc was right.
Eventually, when you really do the work to find the right marriage counselor and/or personal therapist to unravel what shit is going on in your sexless marriage, you’ll be able to develop a tactical plan to what you can do in the future.
When you have that, then you can start communicating in terms that will not be alienating, resentment-filled, and cruel, as so many (and definitely me) often resort to because abuse and trauma and resentment shaped our internal roadmap.
Here’s the carrot I can promise you, too.
Life—and sex—gets ah-fucking-mazing when you start the journey. Trust me on this one.
To even bring up some of these incredibly sensitive topics with your wife, I recommend a book that was a game-changer for me.
It has a weird name, but the principles are revolutionary. It’s called: Nonviolent Communication.
If you want another reason to read it, consider this: The very sexy Manhattan Madam first recommended it to me when I was in the initial stages of courtship with my now-husband and she was in prison, and we emailed every week about what the hell was going on in our vastly different life situations.
“Read that book,” she said, and holy fuck, the Manhattan Madam was right.
It teaches you how to communicate in a way that strips most of our natural instincts to condemn, brutalize, blame, and be wantonly cruel by bringing up are always at the ready Wrongs That Have Been Committed Against Us That We Can Use Against Another Person So As to Justify Whatever Shitty Thing We Have Just Done or Said.
Because once you start to chip away at all of the bullshit that has created a sexual ice block in your relationship, you can actually figure out how to start fucking again.
The principles of nonviolent communication break down to a four-step process which is: observing what is going on without judgment, clarifying the feeling this situation creates, identifying what need this triggers for you, and then, in a kind and positive way, formulating your request.
If you want some sample scripts (and good advice), read this
Kiwi husband’s tale about how contempt eroded his wife’s ability to feel like she could enjoy sex, and he was trying desperately to use the principles of NVC to save their relationship. The Reddit community chimes in with an array of helpful sample scripts he might be able to use, including this one:
“It sounds like you are really scared to just talk about your needs such that it is easier for you to say ‘sex just isn’t who I am.’ If that’s the case, I feel sad because I want to meet my needs and your needs as well.”
To even broach the topic initially, certified sex coach Hillary Berry gives this terrific template example:
“Honey, when I noticed that you froze and withdrew from me last night when I tried to initiate sexual touch, I felt discouraged because I enjoy sharing touch and I want to connect with you intimately. Can you let me know what was going on with you in that moment?”
Of course, if you haven’t had sex in a decade the script would likely read more along the lines of:
“I love you so much, and I feel so discouraged by what’s happened between us over the years. Being physically close to my partner is an important need for me, and I’d love to start the process of talking so that I can be meeting your needs as well.”
Now, let’s just say that you’ve done all of this already and the issue that is at play is an age-old predicament when two people who have been fucking each other forever simply get sick of each other and fall into a routine. The wife is upstairs with her vibrator, you’re on PornHub, and the emotional disconnect is as wide as the Grand Canyon.
Well, I have good news for you.
All hope is not lost!
A whole new world of discovery exists out there for you if you can keep an open mind and be kind to your wife as you bring her into the process as something that can benefit you both.
If you don’t write about sex regularly, it’s easy to not be aware of how much progress has been made in the field of re-invigorating sex lives that used to be considered DOA.
Sexual doulas and sexual medicine and sexologists and sex coaches and female-vetted tantric practitioners. Orgy domes and sex clubs and kinky play parties. Chakrubs and secret favorites and utterly innovative new robotic devices like the Osé that mimic the sensation of a blended orgasm.
Say your wife has trouble orgasm-ing. Consider finding a specialist who can assist in ways that will likely turn both of you on. The practice of “orgasmic meditation” is trendy AF (and totally cult-ish), but like most organizations that advertise “you too can attain a level of higher consciousness if you spend enough money,” there are some great core lessons about how to stroke the clit that are gangbusters effective.
Visit women-friendly sex shops like Babeland and make your wife a co-conspirator on a journey of re-igniting your love life together. Talk to people who make you feel safe and get their tips for how they get turned on and how they come.
Here’s a for-instance. Several years ago, I mistakenly believed butt plugs were only meant for gay dudes until some sweet bisexual girl told me that nothing increased her orgasm like a butt plug—and boom, pop, she was right!
Really talk to your wife, make her feel safe (using those sample scripts or some authentic variant thereof), and no matter what, try to be aware of all those little things that men do that make women feel like shit—and don’t fucking do them.
I’m talking about the little emotional affairs with hot chicks. Nothing turns off a woman like making her feel like shit. You may not even realize you are doing it. Find out. Ask her. Actively try to make her feel special and safe.
Because I promise you: Make your wife feel like it’s the two of you against the world, and pretty soon, the world of sexual miracles will come to you.