Whether or not a couple has a normal, or happy, sexual life together cannot be determined just by knowing how often they make love. Other aspects of their marriage impact their sexual relationship, and to some extent reflect that relationship. In fact, as a psychiatrist I really have no accurate way of judging someone’s sexual life apart from the rest of what goes on in that person’s marriage. Imbedded in both are issues of respect, affection, and a desire to please. Some people seem to find life joyful in general, and they are likely to enjoy sex. But, when I ask a patient about his or her sexual life and he/she tells me it is fine, I have no reason to enquire further. So I have to judge by those people who say things are not fine.
Some people start off marriage, as they have been up to that time, inhibited sexually. They have developed somehow the idea that sex is dirty, or violent, or threatening in some way. Sometimes these ideas are so deeply rooted that the individual is not aware of them. Every once in a while, these inhibitions reach devastating proportions.
A fifty year old married man came to my office with a variety of neurotic complaints, most of which resolved quickly with psychotherapy. But when I took a full history, he told me he had only had sexual intercourse once in his life. It happened when he was 18 years old. He had received a 1A notice from his draft board that day saying he could serve in the armed forces. He felt exhilarated having the United States government on record testifying to his manhood. He went to a bar, picked up a woman and had intercourse—with no difficulties whatever. But never again. Oddly enough, after he was married, he fathered a son. He had ejaculated near the vaginal introitus (at the entrance to the vagina), and that was close enough to impregnate his wife. (This is a cautionary tale for all you young people out there.)
I encouraged him to suggest to his wife that it might not be too late to overcome this problem.
“WHAT?” she said, outraged, after he spoke to her, “you want to do that now? After all these years?”
And that was that.
An inhibited person may be aware only that sex seems uninteresting, or even distasteful. Or just too much trouble. That feeling may not be overwhelming. It may be only in the background, becoming more evident only under certain circumstances and over time. Sometimes certain women or men have particular aversions to one sort of physical interaction or another. Some particular act may seem abnormal. What is surprising is what seems peculiar or abnormal to one person does not seem that way to the next person. That person may be a spouse. The spouse may very well have a different set of prejudices. Sometimes both husband and wife seem to have the same unusual tastes.
The ropes chafe.
I once treated a young man who had been seriously agoraphobic. He was housebound at one point. He got better with time, and he got married. He confided in me one day that he had always had sexual fantasies of tying women up. His wife, it turned out, had fantasies of being tied up.
I shrugged. “Well,” I said, “the two of you don’t have to answer to anyone else.”
But the experiment did not work out. I asked what happened.
“The ropes chafed,” he explained to me.
I often think of that remark as a metaphor for the problems people have trying to live out a sexual fantasy, or any other fantasy for that matter. Some unanticipated detail presents itself and spoils the fantasy. For instance, the reason why couples rarely stay in wife-swapping groups is because someone finds himself finishing first and wondering what is going on in the next room and whether this other person is a better lover. The ropes chafe, in other words.
By the way, everyone has sexual fantasies, at least from time to time. They are sometimes simple and sometimes more elaborate. They grow out of childhood experiences that are subtle and no longer remembered. They tend to fall into certain common patterns: looking at someone, being looked at, being aggressive in certain ways, being part of a group, and so on. I sometimes joke that there are four people making love at any one time, the two people in the bed, and the two other people they are thinking of—but by that standard, there is probably a crowd much of the time.
Good sex: I should write a really big, expensive book about sex and make a lot of money. Except that it has already been done. With pictures. Speaking to people over the years, I have concluded that being good in bed reflects pretty much only two things: being enthusiastic and trying to please the other person. Good sex within the context of marriage usually requires that both husband and wife are able and willing to talk about sexual matters, as they should be willing to talk about everything else in a good marriage. I saw a couple once who had fallen into a pattern of no sexual interaction at all for a period of years. They had to make an appointment just to talk about the problem at a time when they were all alone in their house. Usually, a couple discovers what works for the other person and vice versa. Sex, in that sense, is routine, but satisfactory. If one person thinks it is too routine, (dull) something has gone wrong.
As I suggested in my last blog, once children come along, some couples who are somewhat inhibited find it difficult to continue having sex. The reason, really, is psychological; but the reasons given are usually, not enough time, too tired, etc. As the children grow older, their parents feel uncomfortable having sex until the kids have gone to sleep. Since adolescent children often stay up later than their parents, it begins to look like sex may be deferred, for the most part, until the kids have gone off to college. This is not a satisfactory arrangement. Parents should get in the habit of locking their bedroom door—in many different circumstances, such as when getting dressed, so that a locked door does not announce to everyone that sexual activity is going on. Children, and parents, too, should get into the habit of knocking on closed doors.
Sexual activity over time: As people get older, they tend to have sex less frequently. A couple in their twenties that might have, let’s say, sex three or four times a week, is having sex three times a week in their thirties, and two or three times a week in their forties, twice a week in their fifties, once a week in their sixties or seventies, and less frequently after that. As I have indicated over and over, there is considerable variation in these numbers. No specific pattern is “normal.” But sexual interaction occurs normally in most couples until something, an illness, perhaps, or the loss of a partner intervenes. As time goes on, there are more and more couples who live together, more or less happily, as far as I can judge, without a shared sexual life. But sex is possible quite late in life.
A patient came to me once because she was very concerned that her mother, who was in a nursing home, was discovered to be having sex with one of the other aged residents.
“So?” I asked her.
“We can’t stop them! They keep sneaking off somewhere to have sex.”
“She’s SEVENTY YEARS OLD!” the woman exclaimed, outraged.
On another occasion I saw a seventy-four old woman, who had been widowed ten years before, and I asked, as I always do, about the patient’s sexual life. She smiled at me indulgently, and told me that that part of her life had ended long ago. She met a man a number of months later and reported to me that her sexual feelings had returned. “They woke up again,” was the way she put it to me.
Some people think of themselves so fundamentally as sexual creatures, that they have difficulty adjusting to life without sex, if that becomes necessary. Others take the view expressed by Socrates: “I’m glad to have that monkey off my back.” Apparently, that figure of speech dates back to ancient times.
Post script: For those people who are concerned about a marriage holding together in the absence of sex: in my experience it almost always does. In particular, the absence of sex in a marriage does not lead to infidelity, although the opposite may not be true. Infidelity may lead to disruption of a marriage, to the point, at least, sometimes where there is no longer sexual relations between the husband and wife. In my experience.(c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog