I remember being sixteen and fearing people might find out I was having sex. Part of me wanted to scream, “How cool is this?!” But the rest of me worried that my friends would freak out if they knew I was doing it when most of them weren’t.
I’m having that same feeling all over again. Only now, I’m a forty-year-old mother of two. And the guy I’m having all this secret sex with is the one I’m married to.
My discomfort over divulging our near-daily hookups started last year. First, I mentioned it to some women at a party and was met with stony silence. Then, one of my friends told me she was considering divorce partly because her husband wouldn’t get physical.
I told her, almost apologetically, that after ten years together and two kids, we’re still constantly doing what Bob Eubanks used to call “making whoopee.” She said I was the first married mother she’d spoken to who is getting any.
I know it’s a classic ritual for married people in our culture to complain that sex and fun inevitably end once you get married. For decades, it’s been fodder for songwriters (“You don’t bring me flowers . . .”), sitcoms (Mr. Roper on Three’s Company) and stand-up comics (“Take my wife – please”).
Advice columnist Margo Howard remembers her mother, the late Ann Landers, hearing from our mothers’ generation when Viagra hit the market in the 1990s: “She was bombarded with letters from women saying, ‘Jesus, we thought that was over and now they come up with a drug?’”
But I always assumed that Gen-Xers who made comments about never getting any were kidding around, riffing off the whole “beleaguered spouse” stereotype. Aren’t we the ones who were so turned off by what we saw of our parents’ adult world that we didn’t want any part of it? Half the people I know wear sneakers and jeans to work, and borrow their kid’s DS to play Spore.
We grew up on Dr. Ruth’s rah-rah attitude toward sex and her very public advice about how to enjoy it. Today, we swim in a multimedia sea of sexual imagery. We’re offered constant dispatches on the sex lives of celebrities (including forty-five-year-old Brad and thirty-three-year-old Angie, poster children for both wild passion and familial procreation). This is the era of the “hot mom,” or so marketers will tell you. In our metastasized culture of self-help, we’re constantly fed tips on how to be the sexiest selves we can be. Aren’t we the last people who would stop having sex just a few years into marriage?
“I should share with you some of the emails that I get,” says marriage therapist and author Michele Weiner-Davis. “So often it’s from people in their twenties and their thirties saying, ‘This isn’t supposed to be happening to us. We’re young and we’re vibrant. And yet here we are.’:The thing that’s surprised me the most in my work is that I never really assumed that people your age would be experiencing this issue in the numbers that they are.”
Obviously, every married couple in America isn’t going without sex. Some, like Christina Moran, say things are blazing. Despite raising five children (four from their previous marriages, one they had together) she and her husband Kevin both say sex is a central part of their relationship.
Amid the stress of work and the challenge of blending their families, Christina Moran says, “the one thing through it all that we’ve always had was we could always turn to our sex life and know that we have that to let off stress.”
Moran, a thirty-nine-year-old accountant, started a side business in 2007. She teaches pole-dancing classes at a workout studio called Goddess Fitness in Bethesda, Md. Many of her students are married women looking to reconnect with their sense of sexiness.
Dana Suazo, a forty-one-year-old Colorado mom, has sex with her husband three or four times a week, though that number can drop if their three-year-old daughter is sick and awake at night. Suazo has girlfriends who’ve gotten divorced over an absence of sex. And she, too, has had awkward moments when divulging her busy love life. She recently quoted her frequency figure to friends, and “the rest of the girls were like, ‘Don’t say it too loud. Our husbands will hear!’”
Is it really a rare thing to be forty and still regularly having sex with your spouse? I started hunting for numbers, wanting to know just how many Gen-X parents are having little or no sex with their spouses. How do we compare to previous generations? “There just aren’t really good statistics,” says Jennifer Bass, information services director for the Kinsey Institute, which has tracked American sexual behavior since 1947. “Averages just don’t mean anything because everyone is different, every situation is different:There is no norm.”
Five Tips for Improving Your Sex Life
1. Talk – and listen.
Michele Weiner-Davis says communication is key: Let your partner know you’d like to have sex more often. Discuss – without complaining – what you really like and what you’re up for trying. Listen to what your spouse wants; preferences evolve over time, and needs may differ. “Unfortunately,” says Weiner-Davis, “we tend to give to our partner the things we need ourselves, rather than giving in the language of our partner.”
2. Schedule it.
“You wish it would always be the spontaneous thing,” says Dr. Tammy Zacchilli, “but there’s just so many other things going on . . . sometimes scheduling is the only way you know for sure.” It may sound unromantic to plan your hookup. But what you lose in spontaneity, you gain in anticipation. Rather than just planning a single date, agree to set aside time each week (maybe the same night each week at 10 p.m.?) for physical contact.
3. Set the scene.
You can easily make your bedroom more romance-friendly without spending a dime, says author Doug Brown. Put away the clutter and the laundry, remove toys or anything else belonging to the kids, then stow anything work-related. Gather up a few candles from around the house, maybe some good music, and put your favorite sheets on the bed. Make it a space focused on the two of you, rather than a spot for the whole family.
Last summer, The Journal of Sex Research reported on a study of “sensual and sexual marital contentment in parents of small children.” The sex lives of 452 parents had been studied in 2002 when their babies were six months old; they were analyzed again four years later. “Sexual contentment remained low,” the study said. “More parents had changed from being sensually content in 2002 to discontent in 2006, than the contrary.” Even those who hadn’t had a second child weren’t back to their pre-parenthood sex lives: “The average sexual frequency was low both at six months and at four years for both parents with and without additional children.”
That journal article also cited a 2005 study of 820 parents, which found that “the majority of parents had sexual intercourse once to twice a month when the baby was six months old.” But they took note of the overall lack of exploration of this subject: “There is a lack of research concerning the development of the parents’ relationship over a longer period of time and the experience of sensuality and sexuality in the role of a partner or parent.”
Much of the data available on the subject comes from surveys by companies with a stake in the outcome. Last November, an online survey funded by the chipmaker Intel caused some brief buzz when they announced that 52 percent of women ages 35-44 would rather go without sex for two weeks than give up the Internet for that long.
In other words, the Internet has become indispensable to our personal and professional lives. But sex, assuming you’re not seeking to conceive, is totally dispensable in the short run. And so, given how overscheduled so many of us are, it’s getting repeatedly moved to tomorrow’s to-do list because today is already packed.
“I have a recurring dream that my husband and I are trying and trying to have sex, but always to no avail and always with the greatest frustration,” says Elizabeth Lasseter, a thirty-nine-year-old mother of three who lives in Alabama. She and her husband are “still very attracted to each other and would have sex more often if we had more time alone,” she says, but for now “we are not defying that sex-dies-down-after-marriage rule.”
Doug Brown, author of Just Do It: How One Couple Turned Off The TV and Turned On Their Sex Life For 101 Days (No Excuses!), says that since his book was published last summer he’s heard lots of stories from sexless readers – friends and strangers alike. “They’re like, ‘You know, we haven’t done it in like a year.’ Or, ‘We only do it, like, every few months if we’re lucky,’” says Brown, a forty-three-year-old father of two.
Why, then, despite our sexed-up, forty-is-the-new-thirty culture, does this seem to be so common?
“We go to school, we get our degrees, maybe we go to grad school,” says Dr. Tammy Zacchilli, professor of psychology at Saint Leo University in Florida, who studies marriage. “We’re getting older while all of that is happening. We don’t want to think we are, but we are. Then you bring the kids into that. . .”
Some spouses who both work outside the home arrange their work schedules to share child-care duties. Working opposite hours, they’re rarely home hanging out together. Even off-duty, many of us have bosses who want us wirelessly reachable 24/7. And the range of digital entertainment and information coming at us provides added distraction.
This is also a very kid-focused generation of parents. Many of us spend as much of our free time with our offspring as possible, and truck them to a time-consuming array of extracurricular activities.
4. Prepare yourself.
No one’s expecting you to get buff or go macrobiotic. But taking decent care of your body and thinking about what you’re putting into it can make a major difference, says sex columnist Yvonne K. Fulbright. So eat a little better, exercise a bit more and get sleep as best you can.
5. Eliminate distractions.
Don’t turn on the TV as soon as you walk into the bedroom at night, says Brown. And don’t split your attention between your partner and the digital world: If you reflexively check e-mail or Facebook throughout the evening, try to kick the habit. Multi-tasking is great, but sex happens when people focus on each other. Sometimes the problem is communication: “The way people say ‘I want to have sex’ is often ‘Are you coming to bed?’ And if someone says, ‘No, not right now,’ that’s it. There’s no sex,” says Lori Brown, a sociologist who teaches sexuality at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. “We’re inundated with sexuality, and yet we don’t talk about sexuality. The average Americans don’t talk about ‘what I like, what I want.’”
We must devote more time and energy to physical intimacy, the experts say. But time and energy are in ridiculously short supply. In many cases, not only are people too busy to have sex, they’re also too busy to notice that they miss it.
And that’s the scary part.
Because it’s not nearly as dispensable in the long run as it may seem when you’re skipping it. It’s a glue that keeps people together. It keeps you focused on each other and forces you to let your guard down in a way that nothing else can. “There’s a link between sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction,” Zacchilli says. “It’s something important.”
Weiner-Davis, the therapist, has many patients who assumed their marriages would keep bubbling along without much sex, while they focused on children and work. “I’m here to tell people,” she says, “if you put your sex life and intimacy, physical or emotional, on hold, you’ll be sitting in my office, if you’re lucky, or in a divorce lawyer’s office.”
The message seems to resound: If you like your marriage and want it to keep going, make time for sex. What have you got to lose – especially right now? We’re in a recession, with all its stress and distraction and potential marital arguments over money. Forget the babysitter. Forget the romantic dinner and movie or the weekend getaway. Get busy with your partner in your own bed at home. Sex with your spouse isn’t just good for your marriage. It’s also free.