If you’re reading this it probably means that you are getting separated or divorced. You are in good company as you well know. Marriage success has the same probability as a coin toss. I don’t mean that in any snarky way- I’ve lived the trauma- twice.
So I don’t know what I don’t know, but I do know what I do know. Learning is what comes from making mistakes. My education about couples comes from two failed marriages, my new relationship and blended family , my experience as a family law litigation attorney and now, my family mediation practice in Baltimore County, Maryland.
To me it appears that marriages fail most often based on "the big three" issues: finances, children and sex. The rest of the commonly cited reasons- division of chores ( see New York Times’ Magazine Article “Sexless but Equal”) letting oneself “go” (i.e. weigh gain and/or inattentiveness to physical appearance) and in-law problems all add lesser non-palatable ingredients in the recipe for divorce.
I think that these common marital problems share a symptom- they all lead to sexual withdrawal in the marriage. With Children comes fatigue, the sapping of nurturing energies, physical changes in the body (weight gain, hormonal changes), and new financial demands. With financial strife comes anxiety, stress, physical changes in the body, depressive fatigue, and worse. Irritants like in-laws and division of housework make us hostile towards our spouses. But what they all appear to lead to is a decrease in sexual frequency.
"Sexlessness" for those who need a quantification has been defined as marital sex less than 10 times per year (see Newsweek June, 2002 state http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/newsweek-cover-no-sex-please-were-married-71373437.html http://drphil.com/articles/article/372).
Most couples pair up based on sexual attraction so explain why we so readily accept that high sexuality will be a phase and not a way of life? Am I being immature? Are my expectations too high? If attraction is not a critical part of marriage why not resume family matchmaking as a way of making marital choices? If we refuse to go backwards to such loveless matches, why are we resistant to the concept that sexual attraction, as the basis of love, must be monogamy's new priority? Is the idea that marital sex is sacred in a marriage so immature? Or is it simply too hard? If so, is it harder than divorce? Ask someone who is divorced if being divorced is less hard than marriage.
I believe that people wear blinders and forget that “the spark” must be kept sparky in order to withstand the outside stress of careers, finances, in-laws, chores, body image and children. If society reacted to a married person’s sexual avoidance with the same furious response generated by infidelity (and one often gives rise to the other) then perhaps sex in a marriage would enjoy the same open status of importance as children and finances. Does it? Be honest.
Would it be acceptable for the breadwinner to permanently slack off the bread-winning because of the distraction of a baby? Sure the bread-winning parent is tired, less focused and perhaps forced to pitch in more to household chores. But near withdrawal from career obligations? Not likely. If anything the drive to protect baby and family probably increases career drive but keeping sex alive for the same reasons does not increase sex drive. Would it be acceptable for a parent with financial problems to simply cease efforts relating to child-rearing? Do financial problems mean you no longer get your kids to the bus stop, supervise homework or attend soccer games? What will it take for couples to realize that sex is not “optional” in a healthy marriage?
Sex may be the very thing that soothes our body image problems. Sex may provide the psychological boost that helps us perform well at work or instill a personal confidence that shines through in an interview. Sex may be the very thing that saves our children from becoming children of divorce! And so, why the societal acceptance of sexual laziness? Why is sex in marriage simply not the first commandment of marriage from a societal viewpoint? Is it a societal defensiveness born out of shared guilt on a problem way too many couples share?
In short where is the outrage for sexlessness- the scourge of monogamy? Does it help to excuse it away with the numerous available excuses? Should we just lower our sexual expectations and more importantly, can we?
I see so many separating or divorcing couples who have financial success, their children are successful, they have housekeepers and they love their extended families. They have lovely homes (and vacation homes) a cars and boats. When I see those couples I am perplexed by the “what was missing” issue. The guilty party initiating the divorce invariably tries to let it slip out at the first opportunity. Often when I ask how long have you been separated, or are you separated, out comes the emotional leaks: “What does ‘separated’ mean? We have been in separate bedrooms for years.” Often (but not always) the party having an affair hints of sexlessness. The reaction of the spurned party is usually dismissiveness over the disclosure, as if sexlessness, when everything else is “fine” cannot possibly justify an affair. But does it? If it is a direct culprit why doesn't it? Do you know sexual refusal can be considered "constructive desertion" as a grounds for divorce in Maryland? I would bet that the friends and family of that couple would emotionally side against the adultering party. The spouse donning the Scarlet Letter is rarely sympathetic and the "victim" is not culpable. Do we engage in a collective societal rationalization that is killing many otherwise happy marriages including the divorcing couples and the ones who stay married?
If you are reading this blog you are likely separating or divorcing, but this does not mean this issue is dead for you. Quite the opposite, you have a rare opportunity for a fresh start. Take it from me (and most divorced people) there is romance after divorce, and if you can’t avoid the unknown mistakes you may make, can you avoid the one you have already made?
My imperfect solution? Prioritize sex in a marriage from the onset. Put the "having sex" back into "sexy." Trust that sexual gratification trumps the perceived revulsion that few extra pounds might engender, especially with a few candles, a glass of wine and music (and not tv) playing in the background. Give it the same weight you would give children’s needs and financial issues. Make it as important and at least as often as taking out the trash or doing the laundry. Give it the same intensity as making sure your children’s homework is done. If you workout more often than you have sex then you might not be making enough of an effort. If you attend more lacrosse games then sex games with your spouse, you might reconsider. If you travel more for business each month than you have sex, again, problematic. If you initiated sex after every sports event you watched, how often would you be having sex. If you got divorced, would you be looking for someone who enjoyed watching sports with you or someone you were sexually attracted to?
Would you go a day without a hug, kiss or “I love you” for your child? Have you gone a month without watching 30 minutes of television or surfing the net or blabbing on the phone? One week? One day? I don’t think so. How much of a time commitment are we really talking about here?
A mathematical word problem: If a couple has 30 minutes of sex 3 nights a week (I think most couples would consider this a healthy sex life) what percentage of that couples' week would they be devoting to physical intimacy in their marriage? Hint: [(30 minutes x 3 = 1.5 hours) divided by (24 hours x 7 days = 168 hours) = .0089%. Less than 1% for the sexually active couples.
Hence my outrage and here's why: If marital sexual health protects marriage and your children from become children of divorce, why is this the one area of parenting you are willing to forego? I'm talking to you Mr. and Mrs. Helicopter. If financial health protects your marriage and your children, what do you think dividing one household into two households will do for your accumulation of wealth? I'm talking to you Mr. and Mrs. Joneses.
I have many, many suggestions about keeping sex alive. But that is a different blog. First you have to accept the truth of this premise and let it motivate your relationship physical intimacy. The first order of business, now that you will most likely be embarking on new relationships (and you are statistically likely to do so) is to make sexual attraction a key component in your choice of relationship (people who marry for resources and security start a marriage with 3 strikes against them for marital bliss IMHO). If you walk down the aisle with that new person, walk with the swagger or stagger that only comes from good and frequent sex. Enter that relationship and marriage with the determination to keep the physical intimacy alive and well. Sex in a marriage cannot be last thing on your “to do” list. It should be first, the rule and not the exception. Sex in a marriage is like water to a living creature. Sex in a marriage is sacred.