A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with friends. Wine glasses aloft, we discussed the usual: kids, work, leg hair. “I haven’t had sex in months!” one friend declared. “My ankles look like a sasquatch,” I confessed. “Our version of a hot date is watching ‘House of Cards,’ ” one mom of a toddler declared. We all chortled knowingly.
If you surveyed this group, I’m sure that each of us would say our marriages were relatively happy. Spicy? Not always. Frustrating? Sure. Yet if modern media is to be believed, we’re doomed.
A canon of happiness analysis has sprung up around the quest for fulfillment, especially for women, with ominous titles like “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” (how workplace structures fail today’s females), “Lean In” (urging working women to ensure their husbands do more at home), “Alpha Women, Beta Men” (why wives are turned off if they out-earn their husbands) and recently a New York Times Magazine cover story asking: “Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?” It seems that when men do their share of traditionally “feminine” housework, like vacuuming, couples have sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those couples wherein men did “masculine” chores.
No wonder that marriage is at its lowest rate in a century — 31.1 percent, according to recent statistics from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University. Who’d want to enter into an agreement where you’re expected to meticulously parse the housework, boost one another’s career, and balance childcare, only to end up sexually unfulfilled?
The good news is that there’s a backlash. More and more people are examining marital equilibrium and questioning expectations that might not even be rooted in fact.
Journalist Iris Krasnow’s new book, “Sex After . . . Women Share How Intimacy Changes as Life Changes” examines sex lives across the life span. Krasnow interviewed 150 women from ages 20 to 90, ob-gyns, sex therapists, and even Dr. Ruth.
“I know in 35 years of writing about relationships that there are no accurate statistics about how often people have sex, because people don’t always tell the truth about sex,” Krasnow says. “There is no gold standard for how much sex is ‘normal’; your normal depends on your own physical and emotional needs for intimacy.”
Author Jennifer Senior wrote the new “All Joy, No Fun,” which captures the paradox of 21st-century family life.
“The idea that our relationships are supposed to be romantic is a pretty recent one,” Senior says, citing the work of sociologist Andrew Cherlin. “I call it the notion of a super-relationship: the idea that it should be this fulfilling thing, meet all of our emotional needs, all the time, is new. It’s unhealthy, and there’s too much riding on it.”
These days, says Senior, there’s “immense pressure to be a brilliant parent and immense pressure to be a brilliant worker and a brilliant spouse. We haven’t integrated what to do, so people go one way or another,” she says. Ergo: We’re chasing Lean In hyper-engineered perfection or ha-ha justifying the details of imperfect lives. (This is the provenance of countless parenting blogs.)
But there is a third way: the reassuring knowledge that real life exists somewhere in the middle and that the compulsion to pursue a fulfilled life might keep us from actually living one — sex included.
“I have a 3-month-old that sleeps in my room. There is no such thing as intimacy,” says Dave Twombly, 40, a Cambridge dad of two. “And if [my wife and I] have a choice between getting some sleep or having sex, we’ll probably choose sleep. But what am I going to do? Leave my wife and kids?” he jokes.
Twombly encapsulates the essence of what’s missing in so many diatribes: Less sex — or less intense sex — is only a problem if both partners think it is. Newton’s Judy Norsigian co-authored every edition of the landmark book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” since the 1970s.
“Some researchers have found that the very same woman will experience different phases through her life cycle, sometimes going through a horny period with lots of interest in sex and sometimes not being interested at all. Often, just an interest in nonsexual cuddling and physical affection persists, but that doesn’t make it a problem per se. Unfortunately, the culture often defines this as a problem,” she says.
It’s fuzzy to ascribe cultural shifts like women out-earning men or the increase in fathers vacuuming to intimacy issues. It’s hard not to, though, when we’re mired in a dissatisfaction feedback loop, wherein we’re constantly challenged to calibrate our own happiness.
Adding to the confusion are rabbit holes of envy like Facebook and Instagram, where, says Norsigian, people spend too much time idealizing other people’s relationships and not enough time nourishing their own intimate ones.
Of course, we do face thoroughly modern challenges when it comes to making time for romance.
“American marriages and families have faced a confluence of challenges over the past century,” says Professor Brooke Blower, who will pilot a course on sex, love, and family in recent American history at Boston University next spring. “First, there’s the rise and popularization of the idea of romantic love, which have imbued marriages since the early 20th century with greater power and significance but also greater expectations that at times can be impossible to live up to. Second, rising life expectancy, due to dramatic medical advances over the same period, means that a successful marriage (like one that lasts until someone dies) now has to endure longer than the ‘successful’ matches of previous centuries.”
Plus, the United States lags behind other industrial countries for parental leave and universal childcare, putting an added strain on couples. Moreover, couples are having children later in life, when they tire more easily. This is particularly true here in Massachusetts, where 30 percent of babies are born to women 35 and over, the highest rate in the country.
Then there’s overscheduling, particularly where those kids are concerned. Journalist Brigid Schulte addresses the issue in her book “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” “In just trying to hold on, the couples put work and kids first. Their relationships . . . fell to the bottom of the family food chain,” she found.
As does sex. According to a recent CNN survey, Schulte writes, one in four Americans report they’re too tired for it.
If there’s an upside, it’s that intimacy has become more precious — with a more nuanced definition that reflects the disconnect between media chiding and reality. Arlington’s Michele Barry, 48, has 11-year-old twins with her wife. Both work full-time.
“Intimacy might have an exclusively physical definition, but relationships aren’t just about physical intimacy,” she says. “There’s a richer, deeper emotional connection as well.”
“It used to be that a woman handed her husband a martini as he walked through the door. I hand my husband the baby and go to the bathroom,” jokes Cambridge’s Sarah Wahl, 30, who has a 15-month-old. “But it’s a comfort thing. It’s kind of nice that my husband and I don’t have to worry about sex so much. We’re a lot kinder to each other now. There’s new appreciation, more understanding, more patience. Some sexual energy gets displaced to that, and when we do have sex it’s exciting,” she says.
“As a team, as a partnership, we’ve made our life what we decided,” says Mansfield’s Mark Vigorito, 35, a stay-at-home dad to a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. His husband works full-time. “That’s not to say it’s perfect, but at this point, it’s awfully damned stable. I don’t have questions about what it is or isn’t,” he says.
“We have to stop torturing ourselves with counterfactual histories about what we’re missing out on and embrace what we have,” says Senior. “We all lead deeply lopsided lives, and there’s a difference between what makes sense for a couple internally and how an outsider might adjudicate it.”
It’s a liberating perspective, free of the pursuit of the ultimate marriage by leaning in, having it all, or calibrating housework against sex. We’ve made our bed; now maybe we can learn to enjoy lying in it.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.