We live in a culture where sex is everywhere. It’s no longer a hush-hush topic, and it pervades the media. But when it comes to sex in our marriages, a lot of people feel alone in their experiences even though their experiences are very common.
Most couples who seek relationship help don’t tend to present sex as their main issue. Some do, but I would say, in general, issues initially fall under two broad categories: 1) too much conflict, or 2) we get along very well as friends and parents but feel that “something’s missing.” And I’m seeing more of the second. Either way, if the couple doesn’t bring up sex, I will, because it’s important to understand how the couple relates overall. And more often than not, they’ll have a lot of feelings about sexuality in their marriage but have had trouble talking openly about it at home, or have never even tried. In the therapy room, it’s a very different conversation from pure mechanics or just sharing fantasies.
It’s understanding a dimension of your partner that may get lost amid the discussions about work or family or who’s doing drop-off the next day or picking up cereal on the way home or calling the plumber for the leaky kitchen sink. And this dimension often gets lost because we’re running these well-oiled machines but forget to create a space for this other side of our partners. It’s what I quoted Pepper Schwartz in the piece saying about dynamics being so sibling-like. The erotic needs a place, too.
Common interventions with couples who want to reinvigorate their sex lives tend to involve “novelty.” You know, get out of the routine, don’t just go to dinner and a movie on date night, but do something active and maybe a little out of your comfort zone, like go salsa dancing together. That may work in the short term, but the reality is, married sex is still married sex. So then people come back and say, “We went salsa dancing, and things were really hot for a couple of weeks, but now it’s back to normal and, in fact, I don’t even feel like having sex because he didn’t clean up the kitchen or she doesn’t understand that I’m tired, too.” And then we get into the rebalancing of chores, and what my colleagues and I have discussed is our observation that this helps couples feel closer and increases good will and empathy but doesn’t do much about the sex. What many of us have realized is that in a monogamous long-term peer relationship, where so much is shared — from interests to feelings to chores — you have to create some space, rather than think the solution is to “connect more” or “increase intimacy.” Sharing every single thought or feeling that crosses your mind leaves no space for difference or mystery or desire.
Every sexual era has its own particular challenges and, of course, the one they share in common: Keeping long-term monogamy exciting. I was simply looking at what the particular challenges might be in the kinds of partnerships many people aspire to today. It’s tricky because by exposing some truths or limitations, whether it’s about how we choose partners in “Marry Him” or how our sex lives might be impacted by peer marriage — some people feel that this threatens the progress we’ve made. I happen to be a feminist, in that I want men and women to have equal opportunities, but that doesn’t mean I want sameness. Men and women are different, of course, but even saying that can get touchy. So I’m not trying to be controversial or turn back time. I’m simply saying, in both “Marry Him” and in this article, here’s the cultural landscape and we should talk about how it affects us so that we can understand it and find a way to feel more fulfilled within the reality of the modern world we live in.
The sociologist Barry Schwartz said: “Expectations are disappointments in training. . . . It’s so much better to be pleasantly surprised with realistic expectations than to be disappointed with lofty ones.” Part of what seems to be happening with egalitarian marriages is that we’re thrilled by their benefits — most people getting married today say they prefer this dynamic — and begin to expect that we can have it all: a best friend, co-manager of the household, entertaining playmate and passionate lover. In truth, we can have some of these things, some of the time, but to have all of them all of the time is impossible. Yet we live in a fix-it, improve-it culture, to the degree that testosterone is being marketed to the public along with Viagra and Estrace. Where does it end? All the sex toys in the world won’t change the dynamics of having sex with the same person for decades on end. Why do studies show that nowadays, people who say they’re happy or very happy in relationships cheat anyway? When you marry, you make all kinds of compromises — monogamy, putting up with each others’ habits, you name it — but expectations have gotten so out whack that many people see only what they’re missing, not what they have. As one person I interviewed put it so beautifully, We have to remember that the ‘what if’ will always be more appealing than the ‘what is’. And if you get the what if, that will become the new what is, and the cycle continues.
This is adapted from the New York Times. You can read the full interview here. Lori Gottleib is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, She is the author of “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.