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Marriage: A Cakewalk

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Earlier this week I read a little snippet on Madonna and A-Rod in The New Yorker, and this morning came upon another article on Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook in the New York Times. Reading them revived a chain of memories, working backward from Eliot and Silda, to Bill and Hillary, Jennifer and Brad, to Nora and Carl, JFK and Jackie, to Gertrude and Hamlet's dad ... ad infinitum.

Our interest in sexual transgressions stands the test of time, and we cannot look away because we want to know who and where we are in the context of these insanely complex matters. Taking a peek into what really happens within a "committed" sexual relationship provides us with a gauge for self examination, and juicy tidbits to boot.

I have five people in my practice right now, two men and three women, contemplating the perils of going out there to try and find love again after having their hearts trampled in their last relationship. Each of them was hurt in a different way, because, as we know, the possibilities are endless.

And I have more than a half a dozen clients who are working on how it feels to teeter between staying with their partners and wondering if they should leave.

Marriage isn't the culprit. Intimacy is. Intimacy of any kind. From our parents, to those we date or live with, it's the people closest to us who hurt us the most, because others don't mean enough to us to have that power (perpetrators of stranger violence aside). If an acquaintance ruffles you, you walk away and mutter "jerk" under your breath, then forget about it; if an intimate hurts you, you perseverate on the offense forever.

So if intimacy is dangerous, add sex to the mix and you have everything we know sexual relationships to be: a recipe for transcendence, which, depending on when it's served, and to whom, unfortunately doubles as a recipe for disaster.

We want sex to be a permanent adhesive in our relationships. But for the majority of us it's more Elmer's than Crazy Glue.

Since we don't often hear even a smidgen of the realities of other people's relationships until they blow up, here are some real-life descriptions of sex lives within marriage, taken from my Women's Realities Study. 25% of the respondents said they'd had affairs, and within that percentage, 22% of them had more than one. I put their quotes out to you as a testament to intricacy.

Quotes describing the quality of sex lives from marriages 1-5 years in length

Great. It's getting better with time.

We have a wonderful sex life. There have been dry patches. There have been times we were both dissatisfied. Generally, however, it's great! We are very similar so it works out well.

Non-existent; I go elsewhere.

Well...it's not terrible. I am attracted to him and vice versa...I don't feel he knows how to turn me on, and I don't know a nice way of telling him...because he overreacts often, and gets mad/hurt.

Our sex life is not that great. We have sex regularly (once a week or so) but it's very perfunctory! Not much foreplay going on, not much exploring! I haven't had an orgasm in a very long time. But I don't miss them (Really! I think it's due to a lot of things, not just the quality of our sex life.) I like the intimacy of our sex.

6-10 years

Great. Private.

I think our sex life is fine, my husband would say that we could definitely have sex more frequently. I often feel guilty because I would rather go to sleep than have sex. My husband is a wonderful and gifted sex partner, but I still prefer sleep when I'm tired.

20-30 years

After 20 years, our sexual relationship is routine and comfortable. We are both healthy and sexual frequency is not an issue, but our lovemaking is ultimately unsatisfying and somewhat distant. I find it frustrating and disappointing.

It's satisfying. I wish it were better. Sometimes I wish it were non-existent and it seems like a chore. I feel a bit sad, my body is older, so is his. We are not as attractive and it's not as much fun as it once was.

31-40 years

It has changed over time although it was never the most successful part of our relationship.

41-50 years

Very happy. Very lucky.

Fair! It took a long time to reach this state.

And lastly, from a 15 year marriage, the eloquence of this one always gets me:

It was fantastic until I didn't want him to touch me because I hated him.

As we learn from those in the public eye, couples can come undone no matter how together they look from the outside, no matter how intelligent, or powerful, beautiful, or at the top of their game they are. And the realities cited above confirm marriage is an interpersonal maze couples either walk through, get lost in, or flee.

But these are our alternatives with regard to intimacy in or out of marriage: We can close up shop and live a deadened existence because the fear of betrayal and loss is too much to bear, or we can take the risk and follow the inclinations of our bodies and hearts, and appreciate the connection as long as it lasts.