Married Sex: The most honest article you'll ever read
Sex therapists are reporting a new trend: While the troubles clients presented used to be mainly physical ones—failure, say, to achieve orgasm, or to maintain erection—couples are now facing less tangible dilemmas. Even though the majority are married and sexually active, they're nevertheless distressed about the quality of their sex lives. People who are quite active feel sex should be grander somehow, and more fulfilling, but they have no idea how to proceed. The basic complaints, say experts, range from sexual boredom to loss of desire to less time for sex than ever.
Given that our popular culture deluges us with images of sex and sexy people, the existence of vague desire disorders seems strange at first glance. But to therapists specializing in sex it makes perfect sense. And to lift people out of their sexual malaise, some therapists are trying a remarkable new tactic. They're telling clients to lower their sexual expectations, to view sex more realistically. Imagine that!
No generation has ever expected so much from sex as this current crop of baby boomers, says Chicago lecturer and pioneer sex therapist Jessie Potter. "We've stretched sex out of all the contexts of its origins," she says. "Sex certainly cannot make up for all the disappointments of the week. It just wasn't designed to do that." And yet, says Potter, we tend to feel inadequate if each sexual encounter isn't pretty, poetic and "personally transforming." Compound those high expectations with two-job marriages taxed to near the breaking point with children, shopping and house work, and it's no wonder couples are experiencing the bedroom blahs.
As a result, more and more therapists are talking sex down. "Sex is overrated," says William young, director of the Masters and Johnson Institute. "It's not always like lightning. Sometimes there's very little passion or heat in it. Certainly nobody's swinging form the chandelier. And guess what: That's okay."
"I tell couples I'm one of the country's leading proponents of mediocre sex," says Boston-area couples therapist David D. Treadway. "It doesn't exactly wow people, but is sure makes them feel better."
How Much Sex Is Best?
Although sex that lies somewhere between "great" and "terrible" isn't what most people hope for, Treadway insists it's a fact of life for the vast majority of happily married couples. A frequently cited study by research psychologist Ellen Frank supports that notion: well-functioning couples claimed that their sexual experiences ranged from mediocre to being outright failures as much as 10 percent of the time. Only 40 percent of their sexual encounters were described as "mutually satisfying." (The remaining 50 percent included experiences in which one partner had a better time than the other.) Is this evidence of sexual dysfunction? Hardly. "Couples who are able to laugh about, or shrug off, mediocre experiences are able to cope with sex's unpredictability without disrupting closeness and intimacy," says clinical psychologist Barry McCarthy, who has written several books on sex and marriage with his wife, Emily.
In addition, sex therapists are now saying that frequent sex isn't necessarily the hallmark of healthy relationship either. There is, in fact, no clear connection between having a whole lot of sex and having a happy marriage. In her 1990 study of couples revisiting their honeymoon resort in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, for instance, psychiatrist Mary Ann Bartusis, M.D., found that couples who rate their martial happiness as high generally don't have all that much sex. Rates for these people ranged from less that once a week to a high of three times a week. That's it. "Sex isn't everything to happily married couples," Bartusis concludes in her book Off to a Good Start.
"When some couples have sex less often, it's actually a better experience because it's less often. They select better times and define what works well for the two of them," says Denver psychologist Scot Stanley, a student of healthy marital commitments.
Why Sex Gets Scary
So why, then, do most of us worry so much about sex? The problem, as Potter sees it, predates sexually explicit TV talk shows and beer commercials. We became confused as children. "One piece of information most American children have by the time they are five yeas old is that their genitals are Śdirty,'" say Potter. "They learn to think that what those parts do is bad. These are the organs that menstruate, urinate and ejaculate, and we never develop much comfort with those bodily functions."
Then, in adolescence and later life, the message about those body parts shifts: They're for sex. "At that point, sex becomes idealized. We endorse it by making it magnificent. We dress it up with expectations and speak of having sex as Śmaking love,'" Potter says.
It's understandable then that many people—having endured this whirlpool of opposing characterizations—never get around to thinking about sex in a coherent manner. Figuring sex out becomes one of the most difficult tasks of adulthood.
To further complicate matters, sex usually involves two people—with differing sexual apparatuses and unique sexual "programming" shaped by different upbringings and varying erotic experiences. Because of this, sex is rarely the same thing for both participants.
Along with individual differences, we must sort out gender difference. "Males are somewhat more likely to view sex as a pathway toward emotional intimacy while females find erotic contact a satisfying expression of closeness already reached," says psychologist James W. Maddock, who studies sex in marriage.
Many couples live together for years without ever asking each other what they honestly think about sex, which is too bad. When more is discussed, more can be shared. And our natural, healthy difference can be seen as just that—not as sexual problems.
How To Be Free of Sexual Rules
While we are liberating ourselves from externally imposed notions of what sex should be—that sex must occur "x" number of times a week, or must always be ecstatic—consider this radical notion: Married sex need not always be mutual, or even intimate.
Conventional wisdom considers it a taboo to bring your partner to a climax and receive nothing for yourself. But some therapists are now saying that this practice needn't necessarily constitute a raw deal—as long as both partners are willing. Says Potter, dryly, "Sometimes you do it for no other reason than to have a happier partner." Says Treadway, "Learning how to give to a sexual partner when you're not really into it yourself is a difficult thing for both men and women. I think it should be like giving a back rub, something you'd do for your partner if he or she has had a bad day."
If one partner prefers that sex sometimes be more casual—go for it, say therapists. Treadway notes that people get trapped by their own expectation that every sexual experience should be deeply meaningful. "You can have pretty good sex that is friendly, releasing, physiologically relieving and recreational, but isn't necessarily emotionally intimate," he says. This is not, experts caution, the same as sex that comes form a sense of duty or obligation.
Perhaps the most helpful advice is to see your relationship as a gorgeous jewel of many facets—only one of which is sexual. Says therapist McCarthy, "Go on walks together, hold hands, talk, have a glass of wine, fold the clothes, whatever. These are just a few nonsexual ways of connecting." When intimacy is confirmed outside the bedroom, you won't feel the need to overload your sexual relationship with hopes and dreams it can't contain.
"Sometimes sex is a tension reducer, sometimes it's a loving experience, sometimes it's a quickie," says McCarthy.
"Sometimes, it's nothing!" says Potter.
"Sometimes sex is just a touch, a kiss or pat on the butt to say, "Yeah, I'm still here and I still care,'" says Young.
How painfully ironic that after all the thought and time we've put into sex, the best way to deal with it turns out to be dwelling on it less! This doesn't mean you should have less sex, but it does mean fretting less and accepting our partner—and yourself—more.
"The idea," says Treadway, "is to escape the tyranny of 2.2 sexual episodes of a week, to find your own secret garden that may or may not include the image of sexuality society bombards us with."
"The hope," says Potter, "is that we'll move to a place where making love is how we are together."
Doesn't that sound nice?