Q: I’m a 56-year-old married woman, and as far as I can tell, I’ve been happily heterosexual all my life — until recently. For the past year, I’ve been thinking about a woman until I can no longer think about anything else. I have such powerful and authentic sexual feelings that I feel compelled to reveal myself to her, but I think she’d probably knock me out. We’re both married to men, and she’s a pretty prominent member in our community whom I’ve long respected, so there are also elements of danger and hero worship here. There are other reasons to leave this alone, but I’m having a hard time doing it. I just want her so desperately. I should add that I haven’t been in an intimate relationship for a long time, as my husband was an alcoholic who’s now recovering. But, when my desire returned, it wasn’t for him; it was all for her! I have no idea what’s happening. ARGGGH! I think I love her!
A: Too bad you aren’t 19 and in college. You’d be free to take a little tour of the Isle of Lesbos, change your ringtone to “I Kissed A Girl,” and come out to your parents (then maybe take it back a week later to date the cute guy you met at the GrrrlPower Rally). Unfortunately, once you’re married, “experimenting” with somebody who isn’t your spouse is called “cheating,” regardless of whether you’re “Chasing Amy” — or in your case, Chasing Amy’s Mother.
I’m sure this woman is all that and a bag of Indigo Girls CDs, but she’s also a convenient distraction from your difficult marriage already in progress. Adding to the fun is the drama: Your crush is smalltown famous, married, and has shown zero interest in you, women, or becoming a divorced woman with a girlfriend.
Of course, getting high on the prospect of forbidden love beats getting over to a marriage counselor: “It’s raining, it’s pouring, my marriage is boring!” Every time you moon over this woman, you’re giving your brain’s motivation and reward centers a hit of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. In doing that, you’re the cartoon horse with the carrot in front of its face, repeatedly engaging your brain in reward-seeking without reward-satisfaction, and revving an attraction into an obsession. Anthropologist Helen Fisher explains in “Why We Love”: “When a reward is delayed, dopamine-producing cells in the brain increase their work, pumping out more of this natural stimulant to energize the brain, focus attention, and drive the pursuer to strive even harder to acquire a reward.”
You get out of a habit the same way you get in: through repetition. Every time you don’t let yourself think about this woman, it’ll be a little easier to not think about her the next time. Of course, you can’t just say “I’m not going to think about her.” When you start, you need to shove the thoughts out of the way by engaging your memory and your speech (when you’re talking and remembering, you can’t also be obsessing). Have a substitute program at the ready: Recite the Cyrillic alphabet, run through the 50 states and their capitals, and move on to Canada if need be…whatever it takes to pry your mind off how dreamy her varicose veins look when the sun hits them.
This brain retraining will be really hard at first, and seem stupid and futile, but it should eventually take if you keep at it. And you do need to keep at it. Only when you stop being the lab rat pushing the little bar for the hit of middle-aged married woman will you have clarity on why looking at your husband sends you into a heterosexually vegetative state.
Now, maybe you are a lesbian late bloomer, bi-curious, or just bored-curious. But, it’s possible that you’re simply angry and resentful and maybe worried that your husband will go back on the sauce. While men can have sex without an emotional connection, women generally need to feel emotionally close to their partner first. You won’t figure out what your deal is by chasing this woman around the hors d’oeuvres table but by taking a hard look at the man and the marriage you still have. You may need to forgive him in order to want him again. You may need more proof that he won’t rekindle his affair with Jack Daniel and Mr. Cuervo. Or, you may need him to be a chick. In which case…sayonara. As successful as many people are in going to A.A. meetings and “humbly asking God to remove their shortcomings,” it’s best if those shortcomings are things like impulsivity and anger issues — not testicles.