I met my wife in college and pursued her for over a year before realizing, as we now say, that she just wasn’t that into me. My ardor for her cooled, and I stopped asking her out on what I thought of as dates but which she perceived as acts of kindness and social obligation to an awkward suitor. With romance off the table, we became friends, and from that relationship her interest in me grew, until eventually she was the one doing the pursuing.
Being that our relationship comes from a place of friendship and mutual respect, our life together has always been fairly egalitarian. Before having a kid, we lived together like roommates, with a list of expenses on the refrigerator door that we’d try to make even out by month’s end. We both love to cook, and move together in the kitchen with the coordination of synchronized dancers. We enjoy similar movies, books, and television shows, and have great conversations. We generally have the same level of cleanliness. And we do our best to split the household duties and now the childcare responsibilities as well.
Sex, on the other hand, is something that we often struggle to make room for. As, it seems from Lori Gottlieb’s article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, do many couples with similar set-ups. Gottlieb reports that a growing number of marriages are organized around democratic principles, with both partners earning money, doing chores, taking care of the children, owning cars and property, and making decisions. This equality makes each partner feel good emotionally, but what’s suffering? Their libidos.
It boils down like this: “A study… found that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex. Specifically, if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming — the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do — then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car.”
Gottlieb goes on to provide anecdotal evidence from her work as a marriage therapist that backs this up. Women are happy to see their husbands helping around the house, but not turned on, while men, in particular stay-at-home fathers, sometimes feel emasculated in their marriages.
What’s going on here? I think it’s a lack of forward thinking and realistic expectations about sex.
First, no one associates household work with intercourse necessarily, unless you’re talking about a woman in a French maid outfit or… what’s the equivalent for a man? A hot butler suit? Oh wait — there isn’t one. Because while men have been fantasizing about women doing housework for ages, that power dynamic has not historically existed for women. We can, for example, think of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his cleaning lady, or, if you really want to talk about some disgusting dynamics, Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with his house slave Sally Hemings, but it’s difficult to think of a woman having an affair with the hired help — that dynamic doesn’t have quite the same cache.
The burly, silent, buff mechanic, on the other hand, or the feisty, heroic fireman, are male archetypes that many women find attractive. The idea is that women like being saved while men like being served, and our culture as a whole has yet to shake the power of these images.
Second, passionate chemistry and friendship are different, and both require effort to maintain, especially when kids enter the picture. Just like going out on a date takes more planning when you’re a parent, and you have to remember to set aside a few minutes to talk one-on-one about something other than the children with your spouse, so too do couples have to be more deliberate about their bedroom activities.
This might seem the opposite of our expectations, at least as we see them in movies and on TV. Shouldn’t it just happen? Isn’t chemistry a natural thing? Not necessarily. All fires need tending, and perpetual motion doesn’t exist in real life, especially not with the friction of kids, housework, jobs, friends, and family obligations pulling on you. In many ways, married life with kids does not naturally provide the proper conditions for a rich, full, satisfying sex life, at least as we tend to define it in our culture.
Chemistry seems to be based on mystery, an alluring, playful power dynamic, and a sense of spontaneity things that may be impossible for a couple to maintain over time. The heady, intense buzz from an early relationship does not continue, but it does deepen into something else, a more complex sense of happiness and satisfaction. Hints of the early excitement can return, if a couple talks honestly and openly with one another about their needs and desires, and makes time to reconnect with one another romantically.
And this can still be very exciting! As sex columnist Dan Savage recommends in Gottlieb’s article, just because you have an egalitarian relationship doesn’t mean you can’t play with power dynamics in the bedroom, if that’s what gets you going. He says married couples need to “compartmentalize” their relationships, and I couldn’t agree more. You can be a nurturing father or mother, an engaged spouse, a hard worker at the office, and a domestic god or goddess around the house, AND you can be a burly, sexy man or seductive temptress in the bedroom. There’s a time and a place for everything. Get playful, people!
Don’t take sex off your marriage’s menu. It’s not easy balancing it all, but it’s not impossible. All it takes is some honest communication and a little time.