Another day, another dust-up about sex. This one is a little unusual, however, in that the controversy involves sex between married people.
Here’s what happened. A woman, two years married, went on a business trip. At the airport, she received an email from her husband containing a sarcastic note saying how little he would miss her. This was paired with an explanatory spreadsheet in which he had documented, for several weeks, all the times she had refused his request for sex, complete with her proffered excuse.
The woman posted it to Reddit asking for advice. This in itself is of course wildly inappropriate, but the resulting discussion was actually moderately interesting, as people discussed the scope of “wifely duties” and debated how much effort husbands should be obliged to make to facilitate marital intimacy.
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I agree with a fairly widespread consensus that 1) the husband should find better and less combative ways to address the problem, 2) the wife should be paying more attention to her husband and marriage, and 3) online forums are not the place for resolving concerns about your intimate relationships. Even more interesting to me was the fact that, in all the voluminous discussion of the case, no one else seemed to think of the question that almost immediately occurred to me. Is it possible that modern society’s contraceptive mentality is actually threatening marriage? Might it in fact be a bad thing when sex is too readily available?
When artificial contraceptives were first introduced, one of their greatest selling points was the promise that they would improve marital intimacy. Everyone knows, right, that sex is good for marriage? Even fuddy-duddy religious types have mostly come around to this view. But it’s hard for married people to enjoy one another when they are perpetually worried about another pregnancy for which they may not be prepared. Artificial contraceptives were supposed to clear that obstacle, leaving married people free to consummate their love as often as they chose.
It turns out that even within marriage, it isn’t always healthy to have constant access to consequence-free sex. This comes home to me every once in awhile when I wander into a liberal forum like the Huffington Post, and read agonized missives from women around my own age (mid-thirties), trying to figure out ways to revitalize their interest in marital relations. Apparently this worry is common, since pharmaceutical companies are searching for a pill that will enable women to artificially ramp up their sex drive.
To me, it just seems like such a weird problem to have. With three small kids, I see alone time with my husband as a treat to be savored. When we have a young infant, we do sometimes worry about whether we’re ready for another pregnancy. But preferring late-night television to my husband sounds a little crazy to me.
The obvious moral is that, within marriage or without, romance requires context. Nowadays this is a problem for young people, who have mostly rejected the traditional courtship “script,” and who consequently find themselves befuddled about when and how to get married. (The result being that many never do.) For young people, the key is to make them understand that their amorous impulses are naturally ordered towards a particular kind of shared life.
Once you get to that point, though, stage-setting is still needed to keep spouses excited about being together. However much you like each other on the day of the wedding, it’s impossible to sustain that exact same pitch and tempo for decades on end. Life keeps moving, and you want it to move in such a way as to make marital intimacy something to relish. That requires more than just perpetual availability. In fact, perpetual availability may itself be something of a intimacy-killer.
When sex is “on the table” on a near-daily basis, a predictable pattern tends to develop. Men have a higher sex drive, and strongly associate sex with closeness and relationship health. Women comparatively place greater weight on other forms of interaction, and on a physiological level, their appetite for sex simply tends to be lower. Thus, when marital intimacy is perpetually possible, women can easily fall into the habit of putting it off, or even coming to see it as a chore. It’s also well known by now that hormonal contraceptives tend to decrease sexual appetite. So by preparing themselves physiologically to have sex at any time, women make it so that they rarely or never want to.
Should we be at all startled that this does not add up to a recipe for marital health? Men start to feel that they are perpetually begging, which is hurtful and degrading. Women start to feel that they are forever badgered and never wooed. Resentment grows on both sides.
The passive-aggressive spreadsheet-keeping husband illustrates an important point about sex and marriage. His problem isn’t just that he doesn’t get to enjoy marital intimacy with his wife as often as he would like. The real sting lies in the sense of rejection that derives from her lack of enthusiasm. One can easily imagine another couple whose marital relations were just as (in)frequent, but who felt secure in the knowledge that both were looking forward to the next available opportunity. Which couple would be happier, closer or more fulfilled?
When marriage was understood more traditionally, as a foundation for family, this created a natural script. It provided a context that helped married couples retain the romance. Sometimes natural obstacles (like infertility) require people to vary the plot a bit, but as every composer knows, good variations require a theme. Lacking that, modern couples find themselves quibbling over whether his desire for sex should trump the fact that she “feels grungy.” Everyone ends up feeling aggrieved and dissatisfied.
Like every other sort of relationship (but more so!) marriage is more satisfying when it’s about something. A marriage is meant to be an unusually involved and lengthy sort of relationship, so the “subject” matter should probably be more significant than a shared love of basketball and a passion for American Idol. Any idea what might fill the bill?
Editor’s note: The image above is an iconic scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr from the 1953 film From Here to Eternity directed by Fred Zinneman based on a novel by James Jones.