According to the experts, some people make love five to six times a day, day after day, year after year. I never knew anyone like that, but I imagine I see them in the street every once in a while, walking or stumbling along, glassy-eyed, stooped over a little. Some people might say that these couples are having sex compulsively, on the general theory that someone who is doing something much more than they do must be behaving in a pathological fashion; but it is not so. There is just tremendous variation in human behavior, particularly human sexual behavior. Some people normally have a lot of sex.
Couples at the other extreme, unfortunately, are not uncommon. Unlike the couples who are having so much sex it is hard to determine exactly how much they are having, the number of sexual encounters these other couples have can be ascertained exactly: zero. Zero is too little. Sex is an integral part of marriage, just as it is a critical to most mating animals. Couples who are satisfied in their sexual relationship get along, as a general rule, better in other aspects of their marriage. Although not always. I remember a couple who told me when I spoke to them separately that they hated each other, but stayed together because they had a good sexual life. It is not uncommon for a couple who have been divorced to continue to have sex, more or less because it is convenient, and they are used to each other. Still, sex is important within the context of the marriage.
Some people start off a marriage without ever having had sex. For religious reasons, or psychological reasons, they have gotten to a mature age without having had any sort of sexual experience. Most couples in this situation do fine. With good will, and maybe a sense of humor, they stumble around until they figure out what works best for them. But I have seen some couples who have not consummated their marriage a year or two into it. Knowing that sex is permissible may not overcome readily life-long habits of restraint. Sex is natural only in the sense that it is part of the human condition. It still has to be learned a little at a time, like most things. Walking is natural too; still children have to spend a number of months learning how to do it.
It is possible that these couples, and others also, may have learned that certain types of sexual behavior are disgusting or immoral. Just talking about these matters is likely to help such couples, who are often embarrassed and anxious. I explain to them that it is natural for some people to find certain acts distasteful. No one should be expected to perform a sexual act that seems repulsive just to please that person’s partner. There are enough other ways of satisfying each other. When I talk to them, though, I take the same ethical point of view about sex as I do about everything else: if you are not hurting someone, it is okay. I recognize that this is certainly not the view of everyone. I hope the readers who take a different view of the morality of sex will not take this as another opportunity to tell me I am going straight to hell. I understand.
When I began my psychiatric training, I had the idea that a married couple who were not adjusted sexually should have been able to see this problem coming. Someone who is inhibited prior to marriage is likely to have problems afterwards. This sort of thinking is an outgrowth of a more general idea that the bad things that happen to other people won’t happen to us because we take proper precautions. (I won’t develop lung cancer because I don’t smoke; I won’t get diabetes because I exercise, I won’t be unemployed because I have gone to college.) Life quickly teaches us otherwise. There are many couples who had an active, satisfying sexual life during a courtship period and then proceed, sometimes in stages, to a point where they are having sex very infrequently or not at all. There are certain particular points where this may happen.
Marriage: Sometimes there is a fall-off of sexual behavior that goes beyond the universal tendency to have sex less often once a courtship period is over. It is as if sex is less interesting, or even permissible, with a spouse. Sometimes it is the woman who seems to lose interest, sometimes the man.
The birth of children: It is as if being a mother precludes the sexual thoughts that seem exciting. If sex is thought of to some extent as “dirty” or aggressive, it no longer seems to be possible with someone who is a mother. This reflects the distinction sometimes made in literature between the “whore” and the “saint.” A mother becomes more like a saint. Sometimes it is the woman playing out the role of mother who loses interest. She is too tired. Being tired explains not wanting to have sex today or tomorrow, but not all week. More often, in my experience, it is the man. When I speak to men who have withdrawn from their wives this way, they cannot give me an explanation, or they say something about their wives having gained ten pounds—which even they do not believe is the right reason.
This situation should be addressed as soon as it appears. Couples find it easy to settle into a rut which is not satisfactory to either of them. Over time trying to have sex becomes unfamiliar and awkward.
I just saw the movie “Hope Springs” which is about a couple that have gotten out of the habit of having sex. They go for counseling. For a change, the psychiatrist, or psychologist, who treats them behaves sensibly in the movie. Usually, movies portray psychiatrists as looney, a little, or evil, or extremely wise, almost supernaturally sensitive. This guy seems more real, although he never smiles or laughs. I had a few objections to his treatment of the couple, though:
- The therapist seems to regard the couple’s difficulties as being exclusively sexual, which it never is.
- His treatment takes place over a week. In real life the treatment of sexual disorders takes much longer.
- The therapist charges much more than I do, which annoys me. Where did I go wrong?
In treatment, I encourage anything that is likely to work. First of all, both partners have to recognize this sexual withdrawal as a problem. Like any other behavior, it becomes easier just to go along and not make waves. But the possible consequences are severe. They should make time to be together, alone. Spending a weekend away together is like spending some time with an unfamiliar partner, always more exciting. If the couple is not made uncomfortable by x-rated movies, those can help. Sometimes the couple can go to places where they remember themselves at a time when they were first falling in love. Often, if this problem gets better—as it often does—it may recur years later. It will respond then, again, to the same serious effort to get closer and not get old together prematurely.(c) Fredric Neuman 2012 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog