Dr. Albert Ellis: 'Sex Is the Worst Reason to Marry—or Divorce'

In the early 1950s, when Dr. Albert Ellis first began to write about sex, no one wanted to publish his work, so extreme were his views. With the publication of Sex Without Guilt in 1958, he moved into the forefront of the sexual revolution. Today, many of his earlier critics concede that his blunt, nonmoralistic advice helped to free the discussion of sex and put it in better perspective. At 60, Ellis is the author of 30 books, including several bestsellers. He has written over 200 professional papers, founded institutes for study and research in a dozen major cities and is in constant demand on the lecture circuit.

From his home base, The Institute for Rational Living on Manhattan’s East Side, Ellis conducts a flourishing private practice, and oversees a children’s school, workshops and seminars on many aspects of sexual behavior and theory. There Sally Moore of PEOPLE questioned the still controversial Dr. Ellis on his views of the sexual revolution—views which some of his fellow therapists continue to find too free-wheeling.

What first led you into the field of sex research?

I was a marriage and family counselor and was publishing papers on subjects like homosexuality and masturbation. Then the people I counseled began to ask questions, things they were upset and guilty about, and I began to answer them, both in the sexual and nonsexual areas.

Are your attitudes a result of your own sexual history?

Yes. I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 24 because I felt inadequate, ashamed and shy. I was certainly very sexually neurotic then. I don’t think I am today.

You used to be a traditional Freudian analyst? Why aren’t you any more?

While I was doing marriage and sex counseling, I took my Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Columbia—because I thought psychoanalysis was a deeper method, had deeper answers. But I found that was completely wrong. It didn’t work. Despite the insights and understanding my patients acquired, they didn’t get any better, at least fast enough. So I began to experiment with other methods.

How do your methods today differ from the Freudians?

The Freudians are deterministic, they believe you got where you are because of what you did as a child. I think that you can change at any time, that a person can make himself the way he or she is by the way he thinks, that a person has many more choices than the Freudians believe. I encourage people to change their behavior, to force themselves to try new things.

What are the most common sex problems you see as a counselor?

The same as in nonsexual areas. People starting with perfectionistic and idealistic goals. People feeling they must be very orgasmic or sensuous and feeling inferior if they’re not.

Can a couple learn to communicate a change in such goals?

They can, but most of them don’t. What they have to learn to say to each other, and it’s hard, is that one partner doesn’t have to be the greatest in bed ever and satisfy the other completely all the time. One should say, “I’d like you to try, but you don’t have to be perfect.”

Is sex, in your opinion, one of the major causes for divorce?

No. Just because 80% of the divorce cases have sex problems doesn’t mean they began with one.

What are the major problems?

Personal relations with self and others: hostility, in-laws and money. Sex is likely to stem from the general problem. People think they would get along only if their sex lives were good; that’s not true. Many people love each other and don’t get along sexually; many people get along sexually and hate each other.

You’ve been an advocate of sex outside marriage in many cases, haven’t you?

I advocate what is called open marriage. People should face the fact that they’re not monogamous sexually and have desire for all kinds of sexual adventures outside the home. I think you can allow this openly and still have marriage, but it should be on a better basis than we have now.

When do you advise couples to have extramarital sex?

If one partner wants it—and especially if the mate can take it.

Do you consider it necessary that both partners consent?

It’s preferable that way. I believe in what I call “civilized adultery,” rather than hiding and sneaking. That’s when you get into trouble. But no system—complete honesty, lying, or fidelity—works for all couples all the time.

Aren’t extramarital affairs destructive to a marriage and don’t they cause most marriages to break up?

No. They can, but they usually don’t. People shouldn’t leave each other for sexual infidelity—that’s crazy. They usually have much more in common together than estranged. Extramarital sex is only destructive to a marriage when the people involved really don’t like each other and aren’t having good sex. They stay together to maintain a poor marriage and don’t have the guts to make a break. Then the children suffer, because they’re living with anger and jealousy.

You’ve said that you had two wives, a couple of long-term paramours and a number of casual bed-mates. Did you practice open marriage with your wives?

My first marriage was very short: after it was annulled we lived together, and she had relationships outside. With my second wife, we were faithful for a few years, and then she had extramarital affairs at the end.

Did that upset you?

It did at first, but then I thought, Hell, I believe in this kind of thing anyway. So we talked about it, and I said, “OK dear.”

Do you think there would be fewer divorces if people lived together first?

Yes. People should live together at least a year whenever possible to see if they have the same values, including sex values.

What’s the basis for a good marriage? Is sex a reason to marry?

No. Sex is the worst reason to marry—or to divorce. The main thing is that both people have a convergence of values, of beliefs that they share.

Are men getting more liberated and do you approve?

I’d say they’re getting less fascistic. More liberal and tolerant toward their wives, more interested and helpful with their children. And they should.

Why are so many women unhappy in their current marriages?

Women married originally because they were taught that they had to be married to gain status. They got status and sometimes even security. They found that what they really wanted was to be individuals and marriage didn’t include that.

Are women learning more to accept sex for sex’s sake?

Some are; probably most are not. Most women who have affairs outside marriage usually don’t have them for sex but for love. Men are more prone to have affairs for sex. It’s insane to think women don’t have sex desires like their mates. But women are raised to need a greater reason; they need to tie sex up with an emotional relationship.

Dr. Ellis, you have been accused by some of your colleagues of having sexual relations with patients. Is that true?

In a few cases. A lot of my female clients have proposed affairs. Even though I was attracted to them, I told them it was unethical without two conditions: that the patient was cured (not quit) and that a year had passed after therapy was finished. If we had a sexual relationship, it could only be on that basis. Virtually none of the ladies called back.

What do you think of group sex and group marriage?

It’s OK occasionally, but I don’t think many people will get addicted to it. Group sex is sort of low-level sex satisfaction without relating, without the emotional elements. Group marriage will only work for a few people, not because it’s hard to get attracted sexually to, say, four people, but because it’s so difficult to get emotionally attached to even one person.

What sexual trends do you see for the next ten years?

More people will live together without legally marrying; there will be a little more homosexuality, gradually more adultery and much more acceptance of it.

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