Since my new novel The Forever Marriage came out mid-June, I've had the same experience over and over -- in coffee shops and wine bars and over lunch tables, throughout the Midwest and the East Coast, with people I've known half my life and strangers I've only just met.
Someone will ask if I can meet to talk about the book, or perhaps sign it, and the discussion will begin with an analysis of my writing, prose and plot. But at some point, my reader will lean over the table, lower his or her voice and say, "My marriage ... It's exactly like you wrote. There's nothing between us. I dread going home at night. I feel like you've been looking inside my house."
In every case, the person is persistently discontented but committed to staying with their spouse for some reason. Kids, money, habit. It's often unclear if they want advice or just need someone to listen. I've tried it both ways.
There was only one time where I pushed for divorce. This was the 52-year-old woman who cried as she told me that her husband of 31 years "skipped" the doctor's appointment where her lab results came back and her doctor told her she had stage 3 uterine cancer. Later, after she'd undergone a radical hysterectomy, her husband "forgot" to take out the garbage or carry the laundry up from the basement. I advised her to see a lawyer who would secure alimony and ongoing health insurance, then leave the jerk and never look back.
But in all the other cases -- the 40-year-old man with three small children, the 49-year-old woman with a nice life but no "spark" left in her 15-year marriage, the 54-year-old accountant who kept a mistress because his wife had chronic fatigue, the 35-year-old stepmother who felt more devoted to her husband's children than to him -- I saw hope.
This is the central theme of my novel, after all. It is never too late to repair a relationship between basically good people. If both parties are willing, even death cannot stand in your way.
The Forever Marriage is about the union of two mismatched people: a quiet, thoughtful, self-effacing man and a brash, sexually charged woman who wants more -- no matter how much she has. They stumble into a lifetime commitment, and then parenthood, despite constant awkwardness and muddled communication. Their intimacy is marred from the beginning. Neither is satisfied. But for 20 years, they keep bumbling along.
It is not until the husband has died that the wife in my story can find and love and feel one with the man that he was. How, I won't reveal. But I will say it has to do with math. The universe. Fate. Truth. And sex. (How does one have sex with a ghost? you ask. Well, I guess you'll have to read the book.)
Though I based this novel, in part, on relationships I'd observed, I'm still shocked at the frequency of empty marriages I encounter. If my recent life is any indication, hordes of people are living in a loveless, arid tedium. I don't always speak up. It depends on the confessor; some people clearly don't want to change their circumstances. But for those who seem to be seeking answers, I nearly always make the following recommendation:
Have sex with your spouse. Frequently. And by that I mean no fewer than four times a week.
It seems stupidly simple to me. Haven't marriage experts been giving out this same advice for years? But the people I meet act as if I'm suggesting they swim with alligators. Most respond with a look of horror, then an embarrassed laugh or a blush or an emphatic headshake or -- in one instance -- the total draining of color from a bearded face.
Here's my theory: Ideally, sex is an expression of deeply felt love in a long-term relationship. But it can also be an avenue to find and promote warm feelings. Even if it starts off without urgency, or is a little lackluster, your body will know what to do. Hormones will kick in and soften the space between you. If the idea is just too ludicrous, loosen up however you must. Drink a little. Role play. Get away from the house and your ingrained, frumpy, everyday selves. Rent a hotel room, find a secluded spot outdoors, use a study room at the library, pull into a dimly lit rest area and recline your car seats. Whatever it takes.
If you're experiencing performance problems, deal with them. See a doctor -- or a pharmacist. There are remedies out there: testosterone patches, pills, oils, colored gels, and contraptions that help with Kegel exercises. Get over yourself and your inertia. Stop being too tired. Schedule it on the calendar. I've heard there's even an iPhone app that will remind you and assign a nightly "position." So if technology is your bliss, go for it. Whatever will get you and your spouse making skin-to-skin contact is worth it. Just do it.
Oh, and one more thing: Don't have sex with anyone else.