I've been thinking about dads a lot these days, trying to parse together research-based insights about fatherhood and happiness. With Father's Day approaching, what gifts can we give the dads in our lives that will bring joy instead of clutter?
Although I risk offending my own feminist sensibility by putting this out there, I must say one thing that occurred to me while reading Tara Parker-Pope's new book For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage is that many dads would probably choose more action in the bedroom over a material gift from their wives or partners. And I do think that this type of "gift" is the sort that might just strengthen the union, so to speak, while bringing real happiness -- more than, say, a kitchen mixer. (Which is exactly what I got my kids' dad this year so he can make cookies with the kids, since I got the mixer when we split up. But that's another post, long overdue.)
Parker-Pope dedicates a large portion of For Better to the biology of attraction, connection and, yes, the science of sex in marriage. Research is indeed showing that a healthy sex life is good for a happy marriage, and that people in happy marriages have more robust sex lives.
Whether lovemaking is the chicken or the egg here is questionable; the causal arrow probably runs both ways. When we feel happy, and happy in our partnerships, we're more likely to be in the mood for a little nookie. And when we put forth the effort to make it happen even when we aren't at our happiest, the chemicals that wash over our brains and bodies during sex make us feel more connected and content.
There are reasons, though, why we don't do it constantly even though it feels good. We moms and dads are tired and so, so busy. As I wrote about for Mother's Day, the trouble with parenting is that we just don't have time in our busy lives for juicy sex.
Or rather, all that busyness makes us harried and anxious. And all those things we are busy doing -- tasks that certain someones could certainly help more with -- make us feel resentful and not at all in the mood. Yes, we are busy, but the dry spell really can't be about not having enough time, given that research shows the more hours people work, the more often they have sex with their partners. Most of us are physically capable, perhaps with a bit of practice, of having satisfying sex in 20 minutes (I have a friend who frequently will have two or even three orgasms in a half hour; she might be unusual but clearly, it is possible).
Here's the thing: If we aren't getting and giving enough lovin', it is more than worth it for us to take steps to improve the situation. Feel resentful? Get counseling, find a way to delete or delegate the tasks you hate doing, deal with your anger in one way or another before it slowly erodes your marriage and your happiness. I'm not saying stuff it down, mind you, I'm saying don't continue to feed it or live with it as your lot in life.
It is clearly normal for us to have less sex both as we age and after we've been with our partner for a while. Over time, the biology of our desire changes, and it naturally wanes a bit. But be assured that married parents, if you are one, have a lot more sex than their single counterparts.
And, while normal, a decline in sexual activity isn't necessarily the best thing for our happiness. There are things we can do to counter the sagging, so to speak, and this will often make us happier. This is key: When we are happy, and our marriage is healthy, our kids definitely benefit. So you can actually get intimate with your partner on Father's Day in the name of raising happy kids! Parker-Pope's take-away from all the research on sexless marriages is this: To start improving your sex-life, find out how your partner wants it.
It isn't just women who tend to say they want sweet sex that includes "caressing, massage and seductiveness," 40 percent of men do, too. The other 60 percent like it better when their wives act uninhibited and are sexually "aggressive." You go, girl.
Here are some questions you can ask the man in your life: Do you wish I would be more seductive? Initiate sex more often? Be more experimental? Be wilder and sexier? Give more instructions? (Research finds those are the top things husbands wish their wives would do.) And if not those things, what, really, do they want?
Here's where we are netting out for Father's Day gifts: When you ask that "good daddy" in your life what he wants, make sure he knows you aren't talking about a new shirt, golf balls or that nose-hair trimmer he's had his eye on. You're talking about a whole different kind of happiness, and one that can't be bought!
Pope-Parker, Tara, 2010, For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage (Dutton: New York).
Follow Christine Carter, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/raisinghappines