Is sex causing problems in your marriage?

If you can relate to any of the following, your marriage is probably in trouble:

You want sex twice a week but your spouse wants sex twice a year. You can’t remember the last time you had sex. You forgot what it feels like to have sex. You are starting to think about having sex with your co-worker. You are becoming more and more preoccupied with porn. You’ve started an emotional affair. Or, perhaps you’ve already crossed the line and you’re involved in a full-on mental, emotional and physical affair.

Whatever the specifics of your situation, when you and your partner are not on the same page in the intimacy department, one of the most pleasurable aspects of a relationship—sex—can become one of the most painful. In fact, the very thing that may have brought you together is now threatening to blow apart everything that you’ve worked so hard to build.

As potent as sex is in relationships, what makes it more challenging is not being able to talk about it freely with others. It’s embarrassing and humiliating for most to admit that things are not good in the bedroom. Yet, dissatisfaction is much more prevalent in couples the longer they are married. As Eli Finkel states in, The All-or-Nothing Marriage, How the Best Marriages Work, it’s really hard for couples to maintain the same level of interest and excitement with one person for years on end.

Vicki and I are not researchers, but based on responses to posts we have gotten to our articles (See “Why is Sex in Marriage Such a Big Deal?” and “Sexless Marriage or Cheating Spouse—What’s Worse?”), it seems that the subject of sexlessness in marriage strikes a painful chord for many.

Here are some responses we got from men:

  • “[Anyone] who knows both of us thinks we’re a normal married couple because this is something that you hide from people like you are living a lie. Basically my life for the last 20 years is a lie. I might be married on paper but not in reality.”
  • “[The] baby was born healthy beautiful and all was well…she was 41 and I was 37… That was the end of our regular sex life.”
  • “When I try [to initiate sex], she pushes me away, making that go-to excuse ‘I have a headache’ or ‘I’m tired.’ So I’m lucky if I get it once a month.”

And then there’s this, from “Sad in PA”:

  • “Well, I ended up in an affair and caught, too. Unfortunately it seems this is headed to divorce. Even though I want to fix the mess. All I wanted was to give my [loving] to MY WIFE.”

There is no shortage of men feeling rejection from their wives, but at least as many women feel spurned by their husbands. In fact, most of the responses to Vicki’s article were from wives who wanted more sex:

  • “I’d like sex 3 times a week, but I’d kill for twice a month.”
  • “It is awful. You go through a daily barrage of emotions that you feel are strangling the life out of you. You feel neglected, ignored, dismissed, alone, frustrated, tempted, beaten down emotionally, you feel like roommates instead of spouses. Then you see their wandering eye. Another slap in the face.”
  • “I’m 33 and my husband is 32. We haven’t had sex in over a year. I’m desperate for human contact. I initiate it all the time and am turned down. Otherwise we have a great relationship. Kiss, hug, laugh. I’ve told him many times I want sex he says, ‘[yeah], we need to work in that,’ but it never goes anywhere. Now I’m fantasizing about our male friends. So horrible.”

Recently, a man named “Ben” responded to my post with:

  • “Withholding sex seems to be incredibly common, according to my research from both men and women. I’m more and more convinced that a long-term monogamous relationship just isn’t possible. I mean, how can it be really? Just because society somehow wants it to be like that, it clearly doesn’t work for most couples.”

Can the past predict our future?

Marriage in the Western world has only been based on love for about the past couple of hundred years. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the primary purpose of marriage was to procreate (legitimately) and to fulfill financial, political, or social expectations. Monogamy probably wasn’t as important to these married couples because they joined families based on a purpose, rather than an emotion.

While social scientists continue to search for answers to what’s “natural” for us, and how we operate best in relationships, marriage and relationships continue to change, and rapidly.

Because of technological advances, we no longer need marriage—or even coupling—to survive. We base the impetus for so many of our actions today much more on what will bring us happiness and fulfillment. (This relates not only to if and how we partner, but also where we live and work.) If marriage doesn’t fulfill us, why marry? This is the question many Millennials are asking—and likely a big factor in our declining marriage rates.) Is it time to revisit purpose-driven marriage, such as a “parenting marriage,” in order to raise kids together, or even a “safety marriage” to build financial resources together?

What’s the real issue?

What seems obvious to me is that, while we say affairs are not supposed to happen, they do—a lot. With so many unfulfilled sex lives out there, and so much cheating going on, it begs the questions: Is monogamy outdated? Could marriages that are otherwise good and healthy actually find hope in becoming open? Could those with a higher sex drive have permission to have sex outside the marriage from the less-sexual spouse?

Esther Perel, noted therapist and author of Mating in Captivityoffers an important observation that monogamy and love don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other—and that it’s not always unhappily married people who cheat. Happy people cheat, too, she finds. Monogamy used to mean one person for life. Today, we define monogamy as one person at a time. We used to have to seek love in adultery but now, because we have love in marriage, adultery can destroy the marriage.

Infidelity has probably always been painful, but today, Perel says, it’s traumatic because it threatens our sense of self:

“Romantic ideal makes us rely on our partner’s fidelity with unique fervor but we are never more inclined to stray because we are more entitled than ever to be happy.”

In her recently released book, The State of Affairs, Rethinking Infidelity, Perel examines the anatomy of an affair from all angles—the person having the tryst, the one being cheated on, and from the vantage point of the “other man” or “woman.”

Just as Vicki and I conclude in The New I Do, Perel concludes that one of our greatest impediments is that we keep trying to make blanket rules for every couple but, it simply doesn’t work. Because each couple has its own unique needs and desires, any rules of social order are little more than a set up to fail.

What would happen if we left it up to each individual couple to have open, honest conversations about whether they want to open their marriage, and if so, just how open they’d like it to be? Would all hell break lose? What would happen if we could talk more openly and honestly about what’s working in the bedroom and what’s not?

There’s no question that sex and monogamy are tough subjects to bring up, that there are taboos against non-monogamy, and that some spouses just “don’t want to go there.” But if couples don’t have important conversations about exclusivity and expectations about fidelity, the door to greater fallout remains open because they will undoubtedly default to dishonesty, which, as Finkel points out, is almost always a worse betrayal to the jilted party than the cheating.

Like most challenges we face in life, avoiding the topic or wishing things could be different doesn’t make problems go away.

What are your thoughts? Should we be able to talk more openly with others about our sexual frustrations or let-downs? Should we be more open to opening up our marriages? What would happen if we had more options than simply staying in a sexless marriage, having an illicit affair, or divorcing? 

 

Is it true that men want youth, women want money?

You know the drill — men want to date and marry a younger, beautiful woman and women want to date and marry men who have money and status. Is that still true today? Well, yes and no. In an article originally published at Aeon that has been republished under Creative Commons, professor of psychology Marcel Zentner writes that attaining true gender equality might change all of that. Might.

Here’s what he has to say:

On their first date, Mia and Josh talked as if they’d known each other for years. Josh loved Mia’s wit; Mia delighted in Josh’s warmth and ready smile. Their relationship blossomed, but doubts crept up on both of them now and again. Josh was the primary caregiver for a child from a previous marriage, and his financial prospects were dim. That didn’t really bother Mia, since Josh’s personality more than made up for it. Still, he wasn’t her usual ‘type’ – the type that was much younger than her, plus athletic and handsome to boot. Josh, meanwhile, had been dreaming of a cashed-up woman with high ambitions, status and education, ideally with a PhD (or two). Mia’s mere MA was a bit of a sticking point. It was the norm, after all, for men to be the ones to ‘marry up’.

This scenario probably sounds strange, and it should: I’ve invented an anecdote about how the heterosexual dating scene might look 100 years in the future. Currently, the desire for a young, attractive partner of the opposite sex tends to be more prevalent in men than in women. Women, meanwhile, are more likely to prioritise money and status over youth and beauty. Why?

Many evolutionary psychologists put this trend down to the power of innate biological drives. Their argument is that women have a primeval urge to hang on to wealthy men to provide for their children during the long period of pregnancy and childrearing. Men, meanwhile, are mostly concerned about a woman’s fertility, for which beauty and youth serve as helpful cues. In the distant past, this behaviour was adaptive, and so evolution selected and encoded it in our genes, forever. Sure, the rituals of modern mating look very different to those of our ancestors. ‘Nevertheless, the same sexual strategies used by our ancestors operate today with unbridled force,’ as the psychologist David Buss put it in The Evolution of Desire (2003). ‘Our evolved psychology of mating, after all, plays out in the modern world because it is the only mating psychology we mortals possess.’ (There’s little historical or intercultural research on LGBT mate preferences; such questions are clearly important, but sadly there isn’t yet sufficient data to examine them properly.)

However, there has been a tectonic shift in gender roles over the past 50 years. As recently as the 1980s, female flight attendants in the United States could be fired if they got married, and women’s right to vote wasn’t universally enforced in Switzerland until 1990. Wouldn’t we expect these changing relationship mores to make a dent in the mating preferences of straight men and women? Or are we still at the mercy of our biological destiny, as evolutionary psychologists claim?

Read more here.

Esther Perel on how infidelity can make a marriage better

Your spouse had an affair — can that benefit your marriage? According to renowned therapist Esther Perel’s new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, maybe.

Perel explores a lot in her book — much more than I can address here — but I was particularly drawn to her exploration of why more women are cheating nowadays, and we are.

Why? When women had few choices, we played it safer. Now that we are often financially secure on our own and expect a lot more from our marriage, we struggle with what domesticity and motherhood does to us — what Perel calls the muting of eros. Hubby thinks that his wife isn’t interested in sex — she keeps rejecting him, after all, or when they finally get around to having sex, she’s hoping it’s over soon — and so he’s stunned when he discovers she’s been having a torrid love affair. What the heck is going on?

As Perel writes, “Home, marriage and motherhood have forever been the pursuit of many women, but also the place where women cease to feel like women.”

Sound familiar? It does to me. We go from being a desired being to a domestic one.

To read more, go here.

Iceland doesn’t need marriage — does anyone else?

Do we need marriage? The answer to that question might be found in Iceland.

For much of history, marriage mattered. It was a way to make sure property could be passed to heirs, alliances could be forged (often to avoid wars), children could be reared, society could be assured that caregiving would be taken care of and a lot of other practical matters, as historian and Marriage, a History author Stephanie Coontz has extensively detailed. And it’s true that marriage matters today in the U.S., because it grants those who tie the know more than 1,100 perks and protections — and that’s just at the federal level. But what if marriage didn’t matter — people could be romantically partnered or not, have children as part of a couple or not, and still be accepted by society and set up to succeed. Enter Iceland, where more than two-thirds of babies — 67 percent — are born to parents who aren’t married. And no one is freaking out about it. Would we still need marriage? Good question. Iceland

I recently stumbled upon the setup for an episode of CNN’s The Wonder List, which sent reporter Bill Weir to the country to explore its many charms. Among them was the progressive way of thinking about how people can raise children without being married to each other.

OK, marriage is not just about having kids, so we need to be clear about that. But the belief that marriage is exactly about that — which means marriage must involve sex — creates a very narrow view of marriage, and thus a very narrow view of family. Which is probably why, in the U.S., single moms are blamed and shamed, and seen as a problem to be fixed.

But in Iceland? As one woman who has has three kids with two partners “and not a drop of shame or regret” tells Weir:

You have this horrible term in English, ‘broken families,’ which basically means just if you get divorced, then something’s broken. But that’s not the way it is in Iceland at all. We live in such a small and secure environment, and the women have so much freedom. So you can just, you can choose your life.”

Women having freedom to choose their life. Boy, doesn’t that sound good?

Since few Icelanders are religious, “there is no moral stigma attached to unwed pregnancy,” he writes. And that’s a huge difference between Iceland and the U.S. — as well as the fact that Iceland guarantees some of the most generous parental leave in the world. To read more, click here.

How Facebook perpetuates a gendered view of marriage

It’s your anniversary (Aw.) You buy your spouse a card, a gift, make plans for a special getaway (and if you have kids, you arrange for someone to care for them for the dinner/weekend away) and that should be it — right? Well, it used to be all that was needed. but nowadays you have to take it one step further; you have to profess your love for your spouse on Facebook, and you have to provide photos of your special day and love online because …

Because, well, why? I don’t know.  

At the risk of sounding like a social media curmudgeon, I have a love-hate thing with social media and there are some things I just don’t understand about it. Mostly the way married people feel compelled to present an idealized version of their lives online. Not to say that they aren’t blissfully happy — I sure hope they are. But I think it’s more about the pressure couples feel to present themselves that way.

Our spouses are a reflection of us, and to present ourselves as other than happy isn’t good for our personal “brand.” Facebook is “a place for good news, not the place where you talk about your most vulnerable self,” says psychologist and author Sherry Turkle. “Marriage lies so close to the raw bone of who you are, so I think people need boundaries and privacy to feel a certain integrity to maintain the relationship.”

Still, we are sending out messages about marriage we may not be aware of. Which is why I was intrigued by the findings of researchers who looked into what they consider the “performance of unattainable marital ideals on Facebook.” In examining postings with hastags of #sadwife, #happywife, #sadhusband and #happyhusband, they discovered that — happy or sad — they represent the same thing: the “performance of an ideal spouse where the inconvenience of everyday chores (laundry, dishes, childcare) and stresses (fiances, marital disputes, familial relationships, resentments) are absent from the rose-tinted world of marital performance on Facebook.”

It’s disturbing to think of marriage — or any relationship — in terms of being a “performance,” although it’s true that, married or not, we often put on our “best” selves to influence how others view us. Social media just amps it up, encouraging and rewarding us for it. Still, the way we talk about our romantic relationships is a form of storytelling and that’s powerful, as Mandy Len Catron details beautifully in her book How to Fall In Love With Anyone.

Facebook just takes it to a weird level of storytelling.

To read more, click here.

Why your partner can’t fulfill all your needs, and that’s OK

Should your spouse be your everything and fulfill all your needs — be your best friend; passionate lover; devoted parent; soul mate; great communicator; romantic, and intellectual and professional equal who provides you with happiness, fulfillment, financial stability, intimacy, social status, fidelity … ? That’s what marriage has become, as my co-author and I detail in The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, and what Eli J. Finkel addresses in his just-released book, The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.

That’s a lot to ask from a relationship. Can we do it?

Yes and no. But the better question is why do we want marriage to do that? It’s certainly not how marriages were throughout history, and while I’d be the last person to get all rose-colored glasses nostalgic over the way marriage was, there were historically some things that actually worked for couples —  they relied on people other than their spouse to fulfill some of their needs.

I think it’s time to revisit that.

As we write in The New I Do:

Rather than expecting one person to meet all your needs, you might ask a spouse to meet a few, and you’d be encouraged to get other needs met in other ways or with other people or in some combination. Maybe you want to partner for the sole reason of having children and co-parenting, and have passion and sex outside the marriage. Maybe you prefer to partner for companionship instead of expecting a spouse to support you financially. Maybe you want to partner solely for financial security and enjoy social activities and vacations with family or friends.

Claire Dederer does, too. As the author of Love and Trouble writes in a recent Modern Love  column:

The world is divided into two places: home and away. At home, I’m married to my husband, Bruce. Away, I am married to Victoria. She’s my travel wife. … My husband and my travel wife are both generous: He lets me go; she lets me come along. I’m not sure I could have had one marriage without the other. There’s a lot of talk about open marriage and polyamory lately, but marriage can be customizable and nontraditional in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with sex. Marriages can include other spouses who provide other functions. Maybe they need to.

Wow — “Marriages can include other spouses who provide other functions. Maybe they need to.” That’s exactly what we propose in the book (although we don’t call them “spouses”); it takes the pressure off your spouse — and you — to be the everything. And, by viewing a partnership that way, more people might see each other as marriage material; we just won’t have as many demands on each other as we do now.

Still, what about our needs? How can we get what we want while offering the same to our loved ones? To learn more about what needs can be met by whom, click here.

Do you want a happy or meaningful marriage?

What do you want out of your marriage — happiness or meaning?

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Eli J. Finkel’s The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, which comes out this September. I’m excited about it for a few reasons, one because The New I Do is mentioned in it — thank you, Eli! — but also because it expands on the Northwestern University professor and head of the Relationships and Motivation Lab’s provocative New York Times op-ed of the same name a few years back.

In that op-ed he wrote:

Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.


I’ll talk much more about Finkel’s book when the book comes out, but one thing stuck me halfway through it — a discussion on research about those who seek happiness, defined as having a life that’s easy and pleasurable, and people who seek meaning, defined as those who think a lot about the future or who have strong tendencies to be a “giver.” It relates to how you view your marriage.

As he writes in his book:

In short, whereas the happy life is characterized by ease and pleasure, the meaningful life is characterized by generosity, deep engagement with difficult pursuits, and a coherent sense of how the self develops across time.

I hadn’t really thought about that before, so when I was on my annual backpacking trip with some of my dearest friends, book in tow, I asked them, “What matters more to you — happiness or meaning?”

I was surprised by what they had to say. Read more here.

What’s more romantic than a renewable marriage contract?

Whether or not you said “until death do us part” in your wedding vows, and an increasing number of couples don’t say it anymore, most of us believe marriage should be lifelong even if they don’t always end up that way.

Of course when the words “until death” were added to the wedding vows, in the 1500s, average life expectancy was 38 years and marriages didn’t last all that long. Interestingly, there were about as many remarriages then (thanks to high mortality rates), one out of every four, as there are now, four in 10 newlyweds in 2013 (thanks to divorce).

Maybe “until death” made sense when marriages lasted an average of 12 years or so, as marriages in colonial days did, according to historian Stephanie Coontz. But do they make sense now?

Would it make more sense to have renewable marriages of certain lengths based on a couple’s needs — say two to five years for 20-somethings who want to experience married life before they start having children or 18 years for couples who have made that leap and wish to raise them to adulthood?

The idea of temporary marriage has been around for a long time, which I document in an article in Aeon, and was even in practice around the world centuries ago. It’s understandable why temporary marriage might have seem attractive to the West in decades past, when sex and having children outside of marriage was shameful, and when women relied on marriage for financial security. That’s not the case anymore, of course. So why have a temporary marriage when cohabitation can serve the purpose of a trial marriage?

Because cohabitation is not the same as marriage, which I’ve already detailed.

Millennials seem to be open to a beta marriage, at least in concept. Still, time-limited renewable marriages won’t necessarily give them what they want unless they know what they hope to achieve in their marriage beside longevity — our only marker of success. That’s why I believe in marital plans.

But a renewable marriage contract is attractive for a number of reasons. To find out, click here.

Is sex really essential for marriage?

Back when my Susan and I were doing research for our book and interviewing engaged couples about why they wanted to wed (most were already living together), one groom-to-be mentioned sex among the many reasons.

“You want to marry for sex?” his fiancee asked, somewhat horrified.

He immediately got sheepish as he defended himself: “Well, they asked us to check off all the reasons, so, um, yeah …”

I’m with him; most of do expect sex with some sort of regularity to be among the many perks of tying the knot — or any monogamous romantic relationship for that matter. Unless you have an open relationship or an adulterous one, monogamy typically limits who we can sleep with.

But is sex a marital requirement? Does sex really matter all that much?

It clearly does to those spouses who want it and don’t get it, or not enough of it, as so many have written to my personal blog and The New I Do blog. And marital expert after marital expert, and couples counselor after couples counselor will likely tell you the same thing. According to the National Marriage Project, sexual satisfaction is even more important than kind words and acts in a marriage. When I reported on its findings, I basically agreed: “This is a no-brainer, too.

But, what if sex doesn’t matter?

For one couple, it actually doesn’t. Married for 25 years, the couple hasn’t had sex for 20 years — and they’re OK with it, or at least that’s what they told the Guardian.

According to the husband, “we’re very cuddly and close to each other and still as interested in each other and do as much together as we ever did.”

Well, OK — who doesn’t appreciate “cuddly” and “close”?

The wife, however, as content as she was with the arrangement, had moments of wondering if she was missing out on something, but not because she believed she was; she was just concerned about what others thought.

To read the rest of this post, go here.

 

The romance and danger of our love stories

Perhaps you grew up loving fairy tales, where the beautiful princess ends up living happily ever after with a handsome prince. Maybe you watch rom-coms where the guy and girl end up together despite impossible odds. Maybe you’re addicted to The Bachelor or The Bachelorette and what happens to the lucky couples. When love stories end predictably, how does that make you feel? How do you feel when they end unpredictably, like last year’s La La Land?

Maybe you’ve never thought much about it. Mandy Len Catron has. The English professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., loves love stories. Throughout her life, she especially loved the love story of her parents, a meet cute between the new football coach and a cheerleader asked to interview him for the school newspaper. So when they divorced after three decades of marriage, when Catron was 26, she began to look deeper into her own nearly decade-long relationship, which was faltering, and what she thought she knew about love. In 2015, she wrote a Modern Love essay for The New York Times, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” — one of the most-read of the series — and now has a just-released book, How to Fall in Love With Anyone, part-memoir, part exploration about the love stories that we absorb and perhaps allow to dictate our ideas of what love “looks like.”

As she writes in her charming and engaging book:

For most of my life, I’d conceptualized love as something that happened to me. It isn’t merely the stories we tell about love that encourage this attitude, but the very words themselves. In love, we fall. We are struck, we are crushed. We swoon. We burn with passion. Love makes us crazy or it makes us sick. Our hearts ache and then they break. I wondered if this was how love had to work — or if I could take back some control. Science suggested that I could.

One thing she noticed when her Modern Love story, based on research by psychologist Arthur Aron, went viral was that people were eager to discover a “secret” to finding love:

[W]e prefer the short version of the story. My Modern Love column had become an oversimplified romantic fable suggesting there was an ideal way to experience love. It made love predictable, like a script you could follow.

Even Catron didn’t come to love her current partner until months after they tried Aron’s research themselves, when they’d gotten to know each other better. (As an aside, Catron and her partner used the questions posed in The New I Do to create a relationship contract that, she writes, “gave us a sense of control” as they merged their lives; Thank you, Mandy!)

We do, of course, have a love script of sorts — meet, date, fall in love, live together, marry, buy a house, have kids. It’s an outdated script; nowadays, many couples have kids first, or buy a house first while living together or apart, or never marry, or never have kids. The romantic script isn’t guiding us so well anymore — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is, as Catron beautifully explores in her book, we still buy into it. Our view of love is limited, something that her fellow UBC professor Carrie Jenkins explores in her book, What Love Is and What It Can Be.

To read more, please click here.