February is the month that relationship books hit the bookshelves, and every day brings a new research study or feature article asking the question, “How can a couple best keep love alive?”
First came a piece in The New York Times Magazine, called “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?”
The article suggested that the very qualities that lead to greater emotional satisfaction in marriage—sharing of household responsibilities and child rearing along with having two breadwinners—may be having an unexpectedly negative impact on the sex lives of these otherwise happy couples.
In heterosexual marriages where men did more of the traditionally female chores, like laundry and dish-washing and preparing meals, they were not only having less frequent sex than those staying in more gender-stereotyped roles, but the women also reported being less satisfied with the sex they did have. In other words, things were sexier in relationships where men stuck to fixing the car, doing home repairs and mowing the lawn.
Despite the half-joke of my male client who insisted that his wife’s favorite form of foreplay was watching him vacuum, the cited research said the opposite — that while women felt emotionally closer to their more participatory husbands, no amount of dusting, folding, or dish-doing translated to their having more passionate sex.
Apparently, what drives happiness does not drive lust.
The day the article came out, I was at a friend’s birthday party, where a good number of guests asked what I, as a couples therapist, thought of the article’s premise.
I replied that while many of my couples report having little or no sex, and that almost to a one, they think that a cooling of their passion is a worrisome thing, I didn’t buy the main point the writer was making. “I don’t think that the problem is that men are now changing their kids diapers and folding the wash,” I said. “The thing that’s putting a damper on passion might have less to do with egalitarianism, than with the battles that end up being waged to attain it.
“Every day I see people obsessed with fairness and parity,” I said, “people unable to be flexible, unable to collaborate, many of them keeping close track of who does what and quibbling about the inequities.
“I’d say an even bigger libido killer would be the ridiculously high expectations that couples have about marriage, about what they should get from their marriage and how passionate they should feel— not to mention the sheer exhaustion of the high-intensity lifestyle so many of us lead.”
As we were saying goodbye to our hosts, my husband made this parting comment: “I’m going to go get the car, but first I think I’ll rebuild the engine,” he said, giving me a flirtatious wink and then slightly flexing his muscles, as if to undoubtedly assure hot sex once we got home.
Nothing about marriage is simple. Nor is there an easy answer about how to sustain sexual desire beyond courtship and on through the stress-filled years of child rearing… and beyond that. In my post about the 35 Things I Learned In 35 Years of Marriage, I said that a person’s definition of sexy will change over time. To me, sexy is my husband going out in the pouring rain to latch the slamming back gate. But equally appealing is seeing him in an apron making our dinner.
Next up in the series of articles was one that I found deeply depressing, a somewhat cynical piece in which the writer, the editor of the Times’ Modern Love column, claimed that couples address marital malaise in one of three ways: they sneak (as in sneak around and contact old flames via Facebook); they quash (as in accept marriage for the “limited” thing that it is, “running the gamut from the bitterly resigned to the appreciatively so” ) or they somewhat zealously aim to restore (as in consume self-help books, go to marriage enrichment groups and learn to tango.)
Sneakers? Quashers? Restorers? He seems to have left out one group. People who are satisfied and reasonably happy and don’t view their having come to terms with imperfection as resignation at all. A group we might call the Good-Enoughers.
Then came yet another New York Times piece, this time from Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. In it he raised the following question: “Are marriages today better or worse than they used to be?” No big surprise, his answer is both. Average marriages — the okay but not great ones — are resulting in more divorce and unhappiness than in times past. The best marriages, however, are stronger and are providing unprecedented levels of satisfaction.
While the article discussed various historical and socio-economic factors that explain this trend, a key point was that the happiest couples are those with high standards and a willingness to work hard to achieve them.
And some of the unhappiest are those who want what they want, at no cost.
Today, more than any other time in history, couples are expecting that their marriages will have it all. Passion. Eroticism. Shared interests. Companionship. We’re seeking scintillating conversation, and deep emotional connection. We want to grow and develop and we want our spouse to grow, too.
It’s no longer enough to be good friends or good parents, to be cooperative householders, to have sex that’s makes us feel closer but doesn’t send us over the moon. What used to be considered adequate or even better than adequate for our parents or grandparents has, today, come to be too little to ask.
Complicating all this is the fact that while couples are looking to get more out of their marriages than ever, they are putting less in. Less time, less less focus, less effort.
People are working longer hours, going to the gym after work, driving their children from one activity to the next, and then falling into bed with their nose in their iPad. Yet these same people are wanting deeper connection and high levels of personal growth and self-actualization. They’re finding their marriages less than satisfying, and to me the reasons are obvious.
As partners, I believe we’re left with a choice: we can lower our sky-high expectations or we can ask more of ourselves. A wise approach may be somewhat of a combo — to set high standards for what we put in, while accepting that marriage is imperfect, like all things in life.
Perhaps the key is to strive for good as opposed to over-the-moon, to take pleasure in the sweet things and know that all things are not sweet. After all, a good enough marriage is, in fact, a great thing.
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