Love and Lust

Happy isn’t a zero sum game

I have heard over the years that marriage is where desire goes to die. I think that’s bullshit. It isn’t the fault of desire that we can’t quite bring ourselves to believe that passion can thrive on modern love. It is because our sexual imagination is stuck in the past.

“‘Searing’ is not the word I’d use,” says my client, Sarah of her 23-year marriage to Rick. “Slow rumble” is more accurate. “One thing you pick up over the years,” she says, “is that no matter how long you’re together, you both always dwell in separate worlds. Some part of your partner is profoundly impenetrable.”

Even though it is hard to coax any words out of her on a topic she considers, perhaps curiously, so private, Sarah makes it clear that their sex life sticks to the lines of their commitment. “There are nights, not often but unforgettable, when appetite builds in molten passion from an unexceptional start,” she says. And there are nights, “almost more divine,” she confides, when the two share the separateness, lying naked together, holding hands in the richest of silence. And there are a million variations in between.

Sarah and Rick represent sex in America today. Contrary to what passes for “conventional wisdom,” research indicates that married couples — and their cohabiting colleagues — have more sex than the non-married. In a 2010 survey by the Kinsey Institute, researchers confirmed ideas on who does not have sex. Now sit down for this one: three out of five singles had no (none) sex in the previous year, versus one in five married people. In the prime years, ages 25 to 59, married couples were five times (yep, five times) more likely to have sex two- to three times a week (25 percent) than singles (5 percent). Face it: if you have a partner you don’t have to go out and forage for what you need.

We all know that most couples have lots of sex early in the relationship while the frequency of sex slowly declines over time. Aging and the commotions of family life, not to mention earning a living, change when and how people can enjoy sex. That being said, long-married couples still have a big advantage; they appreciate it, they enjoy it more, and they enjoy each other more.

It really doesn’t take a great imagination to see that long-term couples usually get better at sex and more pleasure out of it. That has been found to be true of men as well as women, heterosexual and same-sex couples alike. Yes, people get older and busier, but as a relationship progresses, they also get more skillful, both in and outside of the bedroom. The facts don’t at all suggest that sex ends in long-term relationships. Still, people often have trouble accepting that synchronicity. We stand ready to blame any loss of sexual desire on the home life of modern marriage — particularly on the allocation of chores — or at times, the constant nearness of a well-known partner.

For some reason, lots of people fail to see the simplest of truths; sex is alive and well in long-term couples. Social scientists are not exempt from this view. When you consider how much research has been done regarding sex, it might surprise you how little of it focuses on middle-age sex. It really is hard to find studies that look at sex in traditional couples or sex in midlife as well. Even the “experts” have at best a limited view of what sex looks like in modern-day marriages, e.g., who initiates it and how, who does what to whom, how long it lasts. They just don’t fucking know. They never bothered to ask.

Even the “experts” have at

best a limited view of what

sex looks like in modern-day marriages.

If you have a hard time wrapping your mind around the balance between long-lasting love and sex, your own mental mechanism has to take some of the blame. We haven’t dropped those over-used images of bliss imprinted on us early in the TV/media age, when men went off to work in business suits and women cooked and vacuumed the house. Those images still prey on our minds and still direct many of our choices today. Lacking more accurate images of how the sexes communicate and share their lives, including sex, it’s easy to fall back on Leave it to Beaver period beliefs about what’s sexy and what’s not. If you haven’t bothered to upgrade your sexual imagination, you’ll always fall back on one old idea or another. The movie that plays in your head will give you a life that always falls way behind your desires, I promise. In this regard, our sex lives lag well behind our work lives.

A Change to Shared Lives

Are household tasks always sex-killers?

As a coach, I think that the path to sexual commitment runs right along side of the willingness of partners to share in the running of their lives. Research clearly shows that men who do housework have more sex than men who don’t. Period.

These studies are important because they track couples’ inner and outer experiences across life in several ways. What that means in common language is that the results they get are particularly reliable. One researcher meticulously established detailed scales of emotions and behaviors. He used heart rate, fidgetiness, and facial expressions as data points. He studied both the content and manner of partners’ conversations, and collected self-reports of how both people felt about their experiences, including sex.

So what? Well guys, when men contribute to housework and childcare, their partners see them as sexy, and put simply, (so even a guy can understand it) they have more sex than their chore-free brethren.

Spoiler Alert: The finding establishes a correlation, but not a cause. So, I am not saying that housework causes sex, nor does it inhibit sex. Instead, what I am circling around is that the qualities of people who share in even one chore are many of the same qualities of people who share in the other, i.e., sex. Most important of all, something is going on inside the structure of the relationship that makes a big difference.

The sharing of the chores actually does help couples stay sexually connected. Surveys from thousands of people find that the more housework men do, the more sex they have. Intriguingly, the same was true for women. The real difference in couples was not if they completed one chore or another, but how much energy they had overall for everything. It could be said that more housework hours the couple shares equals greater sexual frequency. (Where’s that vacuum cleaner!)

Yes, sexual frequency is greater in couples where the men spent more time doing such traditionally “masculine” chores like car maintenance and yard work, as opposed to couples in which the men did such “feminine” chores such as cooking and cleaning. I wonder to myself at times, if women are in some way turned off by their men doing household chores most traditionally deemed to be in women’s domain?

But interestedly enough, neither sexual enjoyment (as compared to how often you have it) nor relationship satisfaction was affected by the kinds of chores partners did. Egalitarian couples may have less frequent sex, which might be true, but they still report happy marriages and the same levels of sexual satisfaction as the “old-school” husbands and wives.

Egalitarian couples may have

less frequent sex, which might

be true, but they still

report happy marriages.

How often you have sex isn’t influenced by which partner earns a greater share of the income either. Couples where a wife works more hours for pay than a husband, and makes a lot more money, have sex at the same rate as couples in which the man is the sole breadwinner. It just doesn’t seem to make a bit of difference whether or not the husband or wife earn more or less or the same. In our country today, you find fewer and fewer relationships predicated on the idea that men must be the breadwinners and decision makers, while women stick to vacuuming and the emotional heavy work. Indeed, American couples are coming to believe in sharing all responsibilities.

In a 2010 Pew poll of young people 18 to 29, 72 percent agreed that the best marriage is one in which husband and wife both work and both take care of the house. So it really doesn’t matter whether you pick up a hammer or a vacuum; working together on it makes the difference.

Diminished Lust or Expanded Love?

Our current notion of what’s a feminine and what’s a masculine task is pretty recent. When our nation was founded over 200 years ago, women fed the pigs and wrung the necks of chickens, while men did the shopping in town.

Even where there were statistically important differences in sexual regularity, the differences were, in real life terms, not big. Men who did more “feminine” housework had sex about four times a month, versus five times a month for men who did “manly” chores.

Be careful: sexual frequency is not always the best measure of relationship quality. Doing chores is only one of the observable ways to define the balance in participation most modern couples seek. Mutual respect and whose needs take priority in a pinch is way more important overall as a guide. Even though it was my example, housework is a very isolated variable. To understand relationships better you have to look at variables closer to the relationship, in particular, emotions, incorporating interest, affection, anger, sadness, and contempt.

Doing chores is only one

of the observable ways to

define the balance in

participation

most modern couples seek.

Housework doesn’t really have anything essential to do with developed sex drives. It’s not fundamentally lethal to lust. Think about it, there really is no “natural” division of chores so embedded in our makeup that they are linked to our sexual drives. The homemaker-breadwinner model of marriage is a late 19th-early 20th century construct. It was practiced widely for only for a few decades in the 20th century, and then mainly among white families and mostly in the upper classes. But due to television and the general media, it’s become accepted as the template for good relationship behavior.

Relationships are not a zero-sum game, where more or less housework ends in more or less sex. Housework doesn’t rob lives of love, yet curiously, it can increase it. Time spent on important and worthwhile shared activities enhance couples, and motivate them to have more sex. Couples feel more of a shared purpose. Partners don’t experience friction between housework and sex. It isn’t because housework is sexy, it’s because they are in it together, they are doing it together.

A Sexual Mystery

Sexual feelings are typically tempered rather than fresh. In society, the feelings are filtered through cultural rules that we learn. The rules shape desire, arousal, fantasies, and our most intimate behavior as we go through life. As a result, we each carry a set of “sexual scripts” that for the most part, control what we allow ourselves to do or not, and what those behaviors mean to each of us.

Sexual scripts change over time, and along with them, private behavior in the bedroom. For example, 50 years ago, straight couples rarely said they had oral sex. (Who knows if they were telling the truth, it is just what they said.) Today, couples are likely to avoid admitting that they don’t have oral sex. It is much more a sexual staple than in the past. As with rivers, the mainstream changes over time.

There are still those who maintain that desire needs distance, not security, and definitely not the shared life favored by modern couples. The thought goes like this: by dwelling in separate worlds, maintaining sexual scripts more indicative of attitudes of the 1960s, men and women maintain a sexual mystique that feeds desire. The path to sexual connection, they say, is through mystery. They point to couples who share and describe themselves as loving, trusting, and caring, but still complain that their sex lives have become dull and devoid of eroticism.

There are still those who

maintain that desire needs

distance, not security, and

definitely not the

shared life

favored by modern couples.

As a coach, what I have seen is that they are failing to balance something important. They don’t balance the fundamental need for safety and security with an equally strong need for adventure and novelty. In this 7-day workweek and 24-hour news cycle, we absolutely need more play. Sexual desire is frenzied, chaotic, and something couples who feel sexually adrift should tap into, rather than push away. On a practical level, lots of couples share the growing load of earning and housekeeping today. It is just a part of the modern lifestyle we live with.

While some researchers say that such sharing is the opposite of sexy, like a flannel nightgown or worn-out boxer shorts, I always find the suggestion of more distance between partners puzzling to say the least. From what I can see, couples already occupy two different work worlds all day; they’re already separate most of the time, so why make it even more distant? When you keep that up, you get a complete stall out.

It is interesting to note that heterosexual couples are still holding on, in a measurable way, to traditional his-and-her scripts. Some sexiness is still attached to old-school gendered activities, e.g., gardening for her, working on the car for him. And it’s most prominent in the bedroom.

Heterosexual couples are still

holding on, in a measurable

way, to traditional his-and-her scripts.

What I have seen is that if desire is dampened in couples, it’s because couples are “script-less,” or between scripts. What I mean is that they are now struggling with what sexiness is today. I don’t think we have newer alternatives to traditional sexual scripts in marriage, what sex is supposed to feel like, which of the two is supposed to initiate and how, what fantasies are turn-ons or not. Sexual scripts have not changed to reflect the new ways couples relate outside the bedroom either. Our new sexual imagination has not been revised or updated yet.

Zero-Sum, Zero Sex

In my experience, desire is a balance based primarily on how people relate in everyday life. It’s not the form of the marriage that kills sex but what goes on in it. In those housework studies findings — couples in which men shared housework had more sex — I contend that what maintained the good sexual connection was that the wife felt respected and understood.

It’s not the form of the marriage

that kills sex but what goes on in it.

Respect and understanding are communicated by accepting influence from another; that is, partners are responsive to each other’s feelings. A study conducted by Stanford and UC Berkeley followed couples over 20 years, with one group starting at age 40, another starting at age 60. Excluding health problems, the couples had sex with each other on a regular basis, with only one important condition: they had sex on a regular basis as long as they didn’t resort to evading, obstructing, or defensiveness to shut out their partner when handling problems.

In the very few marriages that were sexless, there was no “give.” The relationship was adversarial, shut down, zero-sum. And that kills desire.

Just how does influence and connection support a great sex life? Well, it isn’t the saying “no” to sex that leads to the end of sex. It is the cost imposed by the other person. It happens in the best of couples. The next move in the interchange — what the “initiating” partner says or does in response to the turndown — that is the significant action.

Showing annoyance is a cost. It is a form of punishment.

After being refused sex, the pursuing partner may say “fine.” But tone is everything. There’s “Fine!” said with an air of anger. (Read: “Fine. I didn’t really want to have sex anyway.” “Fine. I don’t need you.”) “Fine” is one of those things that doesn’t even need to be spelled out.

It is an injured, hurt, even a little bit of an indignant response. So the initiator turns away, implying “I don’t need you, I will be fine.”

It’s an emotionally delicate situation. If there is any cost — even a tiny one — it leads to not having sex.

A non-costly response to “no” is easy enough. Way better than “fine” is something like, “I really appreciate your telling me you’re not in the mood. I don’t want to make love to someone who isn’t in the mood. What would you like to do?” The best upshots for your sex life occur when you reward a “no” with positive treatment.

If asking for sex always has a cost, the sum of the disappointments grows toxic and it builds greater over time. Shutting out the voice and needs of a partner damages the marriage; it also harms the partners themselves. It has been discovered over 20 years of study men who were in zero-sum relationships were a lot more likely — 7–11 times more likely — to die than men in influence-sharing relationships.

Get this: zero-sum men felt good, or merely neutral, when their partners felt bad about the outcome of a disagreement. Do you see it yet, how can you have a good relationship when her loss was his victory? Zero-sum women also suffer; they were sicker than others, although their life spans were not shortened. They are indeed a harder group to study; the number of zero-sum couples is small, since they are less likely to volunteer for a long-term study of marriage. (Go figure.)

Couples who have a lot of sex end up somehow being able to communicate with one another that it’s a priority. It isn’t going to be the last item on an infinite and growing “to-do” list. And they have an outlook of flexibility. A woman or man who feels somewhat uninterested in sex just might say, ‘I’ll help you get off’ or ‘I’ll help you with a hand job or a blow job.” Or agree to a quickie. This is how balanced couples work it out. They emotionally reassure each other along the way.

Distance vs. Connection: The Brain’s POV on Sexual Imagination

Sexual imagination has one critical ingredient: the freedom to play. We all know that play needs a feeling of safety.

A fear response is expensive to the brain and commandeers many of its processes. The brain gets busy solving problems, including how to escape from the situation. When it comes to sex, self-focus decreases intimacy and inhibits one’s full focus the moment, which his having sex. The potential is much greater for leaving yourself behind and being in the moment, ready to play, with fewer distractions.

It is critical to offload things that are not relevant. When you do that, the doing allows us to get more aroused, not less, with our partner.

That’s why many coaches are in my camp and see no war between love and lust. Our society conditions us to believe we can achieve and maintain a peak sexual relationship for decades. That isn’t the way it is. There are valleys and plateaus, and they involve other things in life, including careers, children, and every other distraction under the sun.