Love and war: He's deployed, his wife is flirting

Is it a benign distraction or a sign of a marriage in peril if a soldier's wife flirts with someone else when he's deployed? And is it OK to go outside your marriage for sex if your wife tells you she's never sleeping with you again — and means it? Got a question? E-mail us.

Q: I am a 21-year-old male [in the military]. My wife and I have been married for about a year now. When I deployed, she messaged a guy and told him that if she were single she would have sex, cuddle, kiss with him. I was hurt when I returned and found out about this message. She continued to say it was just something they were talking about, that we are married, she loves me and no one else. Well, now our sexual life is down to about once, if that, a week. I have a fear of her cheating on me. I can’t talk to her about it. What do I do?

A: You have been deployed and you are afraid to talk to your wife? Buck up, soldier. It may not be as tough as you think.

The military has come a long way toward recognizing how marital problems affect the forces. Every branch now has an extensive network of counseling and family life centers. Many offer weekend retreats for couples, ongoing classes and private help. Fort Campbell, Ky., for example, offers a two-and-a-half hour seminar to boost communication skills. And most of the time your commanders need not know anything about it. See what’s available at your base.

Meanwhile, ask yourself what most civilian 21-year-olds are doing. Working or going to school, and flirting, dating and hooking up, right? Assuming your wife is your age, she's acting it. Whether that spells more bad news, only she can say, but, while it's over the line, flirty, sexy texting does not, by itself, mean your marriage is doomed.

You are going to have hard times. Everybody does, but you've chosen the military and early marriage so your road might be a little tougher.

How tough? Over the past couple of years I have interviewed young people in the military about their relationships and almost all of them say that keeping any relationship together — marriage or no marriage — is tough. That’s partly because many enlisted marry young, like you. A 2004 report issued by Purdue University’s Military Family Research Institute found that young military men and women marry at higher rates than civilians of the same age and divorce at higher rates, too — triple the rate, in fact.

There are also a lot of quick marriages in the military for a variety of reasons. If two dating partners are enlisted, they stand a much better chance of being assigned together if they get married, so it’s pretty tempting to jump. A Rand Corporation study issued last year said these reasons, among others, and not necessarily deployments, are what make for risky marriages.

There are a lot of people in your boat. There’s no shame in asking for help rowing.

Q: I’m 52 and my wife is 44. She informed me in no uncertain terms: no more sex. So far, that’s how it is. I’m not ready to end my sex life. Is seeking sex elsewhere acceptable in this case?

A: Some time ago, I wrote a magazine article in which I suggested that marriages ought to be more like baseball player contracts. You’d sign up for five years, there’d be performance bonuses (say, based on orgasm average, number of error-free cocktail party conversations, or total away games with in-laws) and then when the contract expired both sides could renegotiate. If you couldn’t come to an agreement, you’d shake hands then go into free agency.

While that’s partly a joke, this business of marriage being for life — no matter what — sets us up for failure. People change. Circumstances change. When the two sides can no longer agree on something so fundamental as sex, maybe it’s time to change teams.

I believe sexual expression is a human right. If your wife is not suffering from some disorder, if she just doesn’t want sex any more (at least not with you), you have the right to seek it elsewhere.

But you do not have the right to sneak around. You have an obligation to explain your position to your wife, perhaps suggest sex therapy. Or you can suggest an “arrangement” in which you stay married and see other people. If she won’t budge, a divorce sounds like your only option. Emotionally and financially painful, yes, but probably not as painful as sex on the down low. Walk with a clear conscience.

Brian Alexander is the author of the new book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction."

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