Dear Prudence,

I’m a 50-year-old professional man. I married my college sweetheart, and we’ve been happily married for almost 30 years. We have two grown children who are doing well.

About four years ago, my wife had breast cancer, a mastectomy, and chemotherapy. It was traumatic, and after her treatment she told me that she was no longer interested in sex. I figured the experience, understandably, might make her shy away from intimacy for a while. I’ve said that I still love her more than anyone in the world, and that she’s beautiful to me, which is true. From time to time, I’ve told her that I miss intimacy with her. She’s thanked me for the compliment, but it hasn’t gone any further than that.

One of my hobbies is photography, and sometimes I’ve been asked to take pictures of rock bands. Three weeks ago I was at a club and a twentysomething man walked up to me. He said, “This band has a large gay following. Are you gay?” I said, “No. I’m married. I’m just here to take photos.” He said, “Well, I think you’re hot. If you’re bi-curious, my apartment is nearby.” Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. He was young, and handsome. I thought, “Why the hell not?” We went to his place and had (safe) sex. I’d never had sex with a man before. I found it to be interesting and enjoyable, but not something I’d been longing for all of my life.

What I did I find that I longed for was the passion. Three times that night, he said, “You are such a sexy man.” No one had ever said to me before and I keep hearing those words in my head. Since then, I’ve had a bunch of conflicted feelings. I feel sad about betraying my wife. I also keep scanning crowds to see if I can find that guy again. I don’t think that it’s the sex that I want so much as the passion and appreciation. I would like to find some way to explain my feelings to my wife, but I can’t tell her about the one-night stand. She’s not homophobic, but the fact that I’ve strayed outside of marriage would be painful for her. Your thoughts?

— Confused

Dear Confused,

I think you need to stop looking for the young stranger, and instead focus on your wife. No, I don’t think you should tell her about your recent encounter. But that intoxicating and confusing episode should propel you to address the loneliness in your marriage. Your wife indeed went through a painful and frightening experience that seems to have left her with a sense of disconnection from her body.

Treatment also could have pushed her into an abrupt and difficult menopause. All of this could mean she feels both unattractive and uninterested in sex. But that doesn’t mean it’s fair for her to unilaterally announce (while both of you were only in your 40s!) that your sex life has ended with no chance for discussion or reconsideration. Your wife must have contemplated that her closing the door on intimacy would have a profound effect on you.

Surely, you never thought the result would be that you go off to have anonymous sex with a handsome young man. It doesn’t sound as if this is a readjustment of your sexual orientation — I’m betting you also would have gone off with an alluring woman — but instead about the desperate longing of a man who’s been in sexual purgatory.

So talk to your wife. You can tell her you understand that sex after cancer treatment can be a complicated issue. But for both of your sakes you want to reconnect physically and emotionally. Say that you are happy to go with her to a therapist if that would help. Advise that her gynecologist can address some of her physical concerns, which are discussed here. Suggest she may benefit from talking about all of this with a support group of others who have been there. Let her know you’re happy to go slow, but that you want to celebrate each other’s bodies and you think there can be an even more profound connection because of your joy at still having each other. Then see how she responds and give her some time.

If she again says she appreciates that you still find her attractive, but that the sexual chapter of your lives is forever closed, then she has changed the terms of your marriage. At that point you have to decide what your union means to you. Maybe you tell your wife you’re going to consider having discreet affairs.

Maybe you don’t say anything but just go ahead and do it. Or maybe you decide you can’t stay in a sexless marriage. Sex with strangers is fraught with peril, but you are entitled to acknowledge your needs and get them met.

— Prudie

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