I find so many misleading, mind-over-body assumptions in the New York Times Sunday Magazine article, “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?” that I cannot not respond and hardly know where to begin!
The overarching myth, of course, is an oft-heard one with a robust history: as marriages age, passion wanes. The twist in this article’s argument is that equality in a marriage precipitates that decline. Like all good myths, this one is self-fulfilling. Believe it—even fear it—and it will prove true. You will notice downticks of desire and accept them as proof of what you know: less sex, less satisfying sex, less sexual satisfaction is guaranteed. As the article concludes, most long-married couples simply accept that what they have is “good enough.”
I don’t buy it.
Before addressing this myth directly, however, I want to dislodge four mind-over-body assumptions in the article that hold it in place. In response, I offer alternatives to each one that point to a host of different conclusions.
Assumption # 1: Sex is easy, or at least, it should be. The article assumes that the best sex is sex that happens regularly, frequently, and naturally. “It” involves arousal to orgasm, a physical capacity and a biological need. It happens as long as nothing gets in the way. Marriage, of course, and all of it attendant responsibilities and commitments, especially when shared, gets in the way. Marriage is thus a problem.
Assumption # 2: Sex is a mechanical act; and our desire for sex is a desire for “it.” The article assumes that satisfaction happens when “it” occurs. Partners are happiest when they make the movements that produce a physical punch. Such satisfaction is something you can count: X times a week. So too, this mechanical act and its physiological release are what matters to the happiness of a relationship: the more the better. Our physical needs must be met.
Assumption # 3. Love makes sex good. Assuming that sex is a physical act, the article also implies that sex (a motion) is separable from love (an emotion). As the article notes, a person can be in love with one person and have sex with someone else. Two people can be in love and not have sex with one another, or have sex and not be in love with one another. The implication is that the best sexual experience happens when love provides the emotional content of a physically explosive act. Sex in marriage is made good because it is done for love, while feeling love, even as an expression of love.
Assumption # 4. Sex is better (meaning “it” is more frequent) when gender roles are differentiated. Here the first three assumptions of the article knot together in support of traditional gender roles. Since sex is a natural urge, a mechanical act that can be done with or without love, then a relationship is happiest if someone—generally a wife—submits.
What do I make of these assumptions?
All of them operate with a mind-over-body logic. That is, they take for granted that “we” are minds living in, over, and against physical bodies for whose actions “we” are responsible.
But what if we are not minds in bodies? What if we are bodily selves—ongoing rhythms of bodily becoming—whose movements are making us (as I argue in What a Body Knows)? What might shift in our perceptions and experiences of marriage and sex?
Here are my responses.
Response # 1. Sex is not easy. Good sex between mutually consenting is complicated. It involves a never-ending process of discovering, creating, and becoming patterns of responsive, relational movement. It involves ample portions of concentration, attention, empathy, imagination, coordination, endurance, and effort—not to mention desire. Yet a desire for sex for it is only a small part of the equation, even as a desire to eat is a tiny part of preparing a nourishing meal.
If good sex between consenting partners were easy, there would be no prostitution, pornography, or any of the other means by which people seek virtual, vicarious, partial satisfaction. People would have their physical needs met. Good sex is not that easy; and the idea that it should be is part of what makes the process difficult!
Further, good sex takes time—and not just time doing “it.” As two people create a life together, as the choreography of their interdependence grows more complicated, so too do the surfaces of themselves that can and do and need to come together. Over time, sex can grow more complicated because it can and does and must engage a fuller range of sensibilities and experiences.
However, in so far as sex in marriage may be more complicated and time consuming, it can also be far more interesting and deeply satisfying (see below).
Response # 2. Sex is not a mechanical act. It does not just happen. Sex is about physical sensation, for sure, but what we can sense is never given and never solely a physical matter. What we sense is always a function of how we move and how we are moved in all ranges of our awareness. It is a function of how we think, feel, imagine, value, and attend. Sure, we can go through the motions of sex with a narrowed range of ourselves, but our experience will reflect those limitations.
So too, if good sex is about our capacity for sensory awareness, then our desire for it cannot be limited to one particular action. A desire for sex is a desire to find ways to stir and gather sensation so as to quicken our entire bodily selves, and blast us into the present. A desire for sex is a desire to learn to give and to receive a touch that awakens an inner pulse and jolts us into more of what we are able to feel and know. A touch that is, in a word, life-enabling (see What a Body Knows).
In this sense, one's desire for sex is not just or even primarily a desire for arousal to orgasm—despite what we have been taught. The physical act is never enough. It will never be enough. As mind-blowing and cell-sparkling as it is, it will never feel like enough. It happens and it is over.
Rather, our desire for sex is a desire for a connection in which the ability to give and receive a life-enabling touch is an ongoing realit—a desire for a matrix of mutually enabling movements that can and does find expression in moments of bodily bliss. Yet, there is no formula for finding or creating this connection. The particular medium and coordinates of that touch are always in flux depending on how and where a person is. Thus what a long-term relationship does is give partners the opportunity and the need to keep discovering and exploring wider, deeper, smaller, and more subtle ranges of life-enabling touch with one another. The possibilities are endless.
The implication of this perspective is clear: partners who make orgasm the goal will inevitably feel frustrated and disappointed: they will never get enough of “it.” They will always been noticing the obstacles. Yet, their frustration, in so far as they feel it, will more to do with their idea of what they want and how they experience their own desire (as easy, physical, for love). By making make “it” the goal, partners devalue and disregard the enabling texture of the relationship—that matrix of connection which will find its expression in and as “it.”
The greatest secret of long-term relationships is that the simple acts of talking and walking and holding hands can deliver partners to the same place of ecstatic physical release as orgasm. Such gestures are not simply foreplay or cuddling; they are not beside the point. They are not incidental pleasure. They are the movements by which our capacity for sexual pleasure infuses and enriches every moment of our lives. The beauty of a marriage is that partners can commit to finding that sense of open expanse in every encounter—not just periodic, quantifiable hits.
To find bliss in every moment is an impossible goal, for sure, but it is one that orients partners to greet every moment of conflict, irritation, and discomfort as an impulse to connect, and a potential for pleasure yet to unfold. (see Family Planting).
Response # 3. Love, as is now evident, does not necessarily make sex good. Love is not something that is or can be added to sex in order to give it meaning. Nor is love something that takes the exciting edge off of sex, so that the desire for it pales. Love is not what we are left with, as a compromise, once the fun of sex subsides. Rather, love is a constant challenge to our sexual experience even as our desire for sex poses a constant spur to love.
Love is alive. Love is an organism with a life of its own that must be tended and fed. Love is a power, an openness to one another. Love grows. It wants to grow, and it does so by absorbing and overcoming whatever blocks its progress.
Love between partners grows when partners choose love in a moment they might otherwise act out of fear, insecurity, anger, jealousy, resentment, or doubt. Love grows as partners allow it to well within them a force capable of resisting the grip of whatever would hold them back in becoming more fully who they each individually have the capacity to be. Love grows as partners open to each other as causes of their being (see Family Planting).
There is thus a tension inherent in love that plays itself out in partners’ desire for sex. As love grows within persons, they arrive at deeper places of mutual comfort, and they want to stay in those places of comfort. Yet at the same time, that comfort encourages them individually and together to envision and create, to want more for themselves and for one another.
Hence the paradox. As persons in love grow to new places of comfort and imagination, they can find it harder to risk making new movements. It is harder because they care; because they want what the relationship offers, even and especially the sex. So they hold back because they do not want to hurt their partner’s feelings; or jeopardize the goodness that they have discovered together. They refrain from taking risks to name and honor their hopes and dreams. And as they do, spaces of sensory awareness through which desire travels quietly close.
No love is static. It moves. It must, or else it dies. It moves in rhythms, spanning arcs of intense growth, risk taking, and heightened vulnerability; and then leveling out in plateaus of comfort and security. Over the course of a relationship, desire ebbs and flows along with these rhythms; it backtracks and changes course. It can be, in fact, a bellwether of sorts, predicting the kind of change that is happening—or could happen—in order for love to grow.
In this view, a quieting of desire may signal the enabling condition of its imminent resurgence. Alternately, it may be signal that a couple has reached a plateau where they are happily suspended between the comfort of being there and the thrill of looking over the edge and seeing how far they have come. They may thoroughly enjoy what they have created together. It is exactly what they wanted.
Response # 4. Perhaps it is now obvious that power inequality per se is not what heightens sexual desire, frequency, and satisfaction in marriage. The key is sensation—and partners’ presence to it. And yes, there are many ways to intensify sensation—including behaviors that inflict pain, induce conflict, broach danger, or transgress limits. While such methods may supercharge a moment with intensity and thrill, they do not necessarily satisfy desire; and they do not create the conditions, the ongoing multiplex connection, needed for giving and receiving a life-enabling touch.
Once we let go of the assumptions that sex is an easy, mechanical act, made good by emotions of love, then we realize that there are other paths to sensory awakening that lie within—in a deepening of our inward awareness, and a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to one another—mutually vulnerable.
Why do so many alpha men—who are married to smart, beautiful, accomplished women—have affairs with women who are not their social equals? It is not so that they can be on top. It is so they can allow themselves to be vulnerable—in a situation where they are clearly, safely not.
In this rendering, the challenge of a marriage is far different than figuring out how to schedule sex once a week. It is not about date night or couples' time. It is rather about committing to the process of growing more present to one’s self, as one’s self, for one another. It is about learning how to stay connected with one another, open to one another, regardless of whether partners are together or apart, working side by side, tending kids, or tangled in bed. It is about learning how to live the fullness of desire for one another in every moment, as a pleasure, as a potential for pleasure, as an enticement to more life. It is about trusting in the wisdom of desire as a guide to learning how to give and receive a life-enabling touch.
Marriage is a process not a state. A beginning not an end. A life long journey. I will never “get there” for there is no place to get—only more experience to discover, more sensation to explore, more love to bring forth into the world. That is “good enough” for me.