As we approach year 25 of our time together, we often like to reflect upon what has kept us afloat and, just as importantly, sexually passionate for each other over these many years. We continue to engage in sexual activity regularly (a modest 2-3 times per week of full blown intercourse) despite the stresses of maintaining our financial buoyancy, raising a teenager, and staying physically healthy as our bodies transition to middle age. This may seem a far cry from the 2-3 times per day rate we enjoyed in our first few months together, but our frequency suits us at this current level and the quality of our encounters continues to flourish. Every bit as important as our sexual statistics is the attention we continue to pay to seeing one another as sexually desirable, sexually separate beings, whether across a crowded room, in grubby sleepwear, or performing the most mundane of tasks.
Contrasting our situation is the plague of divorces that has descended upon our quiet Mar Vista community of late, with ten couples we consider friends (to various degrees) either separating or calling it quits entirely over the last 2-3 years, with sexual dissatisfaction being present in virtually every instance. Add in the dozens of couples with whom we come into contact through our business on an ongoing basis (hundreds over the past 10 years) and it would seem – sexually, at least – that long term lust is nothing more than a fantasy enjoyed by a tiny minority. In our case, is it simply blind luck that brought us together as a sexually compatible couple and strong partnership outside the bedroom? Is it really possible to stay sexually connected as years grow into decades?
Therapist Esther Perel, in her well-respected book, Mating In Captivity, finds an interesting paradox that puts forth the premise that sex and domesticity are actually at odds – even war – against each other. In layman’s terms, as we grow closer as couples and invest more of our trust and intimacy toward the end of increased stability, the conditions for passion are reduced, if not eliminated. Sex, Perel believes, needs distance – physically and emotionally – to truly thrive, therefore our reliance on our partners to provide reliability and nurturing short circuits the detachment needed to be sexually independent. This is part of a wider problem of couples depending on their respective spouses or (significant others) to fill in the voids left by splintering and smaller families, insular communities, and less reliance on outer social networks to provide recreation, etc. In other words, we’ve come to know our husbands and wives too well and this has created conditions antithetical to fostering eroticism. Partners stray not because they need sex, necessarily, but because they need sex with a person whom they don’t know so well as to allow this intimate knowledge inhibit them and, by extension, their pleasure.
As we described in our essay on balance in relationships, modern couplings bear little resemblance to those of only half a century ago, when the divorce rate stood under ten percent and the sexual liberation of the birth control pill had yet to make itself known. Marrying for love, though not unheard of, was not the primary reason for forming lasting unions; however, with female empowerment and employment equality gaining momentum in the late 1950’s and 60’s, divorce laws being relaxed, males performing more traditionally female duties, and Roe vs. Wade eliminating mandatory childbearing, couplings were suddenly in search of compelling reasons for forming, let alone lasting for a lifetime. Likewise sex, now unburdened by parenting ramifications, could be pursued for pleasure alone. Who knew we’d be unprepared for exploring the possibilities – never mind dealing with – the results of sudden sexual freedom?
Which brings us to today and the seeming inability of the majority of couples to enjoy sexual satisfaction alongside long term commitment. With respect to the aforementioned Esther Perel, we continue to lack the ability to separate sexual passion from relationship stability. Add to this combination the concept of “love,” which is the most volatile and misunderstood of all emotions and it’s no wonder so many couples languish in sex-less purgatory as time progresses. We need to somehow discover our sexual selves, independent and without judgement, and somehow relay what we want to our partner, then do the same for him or her. As sex is the most vulnerable – naked – state in which one can find him or herself, the task of detaching erotic pleasure from reassuring companionship is a tall order.
In 1988, we obviously knew none of this when we first met; there was no internet, the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s had been beaten back by Ronald Reagan conservatism and the rise of the religious right, and overall relationship mores were still dictated by leftover traditional frameworks laid out by “Leave It to Beaver, The Brady Bunch,” and similar shows of their day. Indeed, “Happy Days,” which was a generation removed from our Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation era upheaval still provided the comforting portrayal of the stable Howard and Marion Cunningham, who never failed to show respect for what they each brought to the unit, collectively. These were the examples we saw in reruns and the ideal, with regard to marriage and family, to which both of us aspired.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, we are witnessing firsthand the almost complete obliteration of the once sturdy principles of marriage and family. For better or worse, love is the bedrock upon which we build our relationship foundations, somehow counting on its mysterious powers to not only fuel passionate sex, but carry us through difficult stretches and overcome our myriad incompatibilities. We use love to justify our chosen parenting methods, love to decide which jobs we want, and love to stay connected to family members who drive us crazy. It’s maddening how many couples we see who attach hot sex to intense love, then paradoxically insist love and sex can be separated as libidos decrease and sexual desires wane.
In our relationship, especially in its early stages, we were fortunate to find both sexual and practical common ground – and love – to pull us forward toward a long lasting union. And this is fine; getting together for love and sexual pleasure is a great platform for exploring further possibilities. We used love and attraction to springboard into a wonderful relationship that continues to this very posting and still “love” each other with a giddy excitement reminiscent of our early years. But, and this is a point we can’t stress strongly enough, we did not plunge head first into marriage or commitment beyond the present circumstances. We let our level heads prevail and resisted the temptation to rush into making promises we may not have been able to keep. In fact, it was a full two years after we moved in together that we decided to make things official in the eyes of the our families, the state, and God himself.
In closing, it is our hope that the current crisis in long term relationships, especially when it comes to sex, is simply a result of the growing pains of modern evolution and we will eventually find ways to both rediscover lost passions and make better choices in our partners, initially. Perhaps answers lay in adjusting our “all or nothing” approach to long term commitment and redefining marriage to better reflect today’s realities (short term contracted arrangements with renewal options?). The real lessons here are to approach love, intimacy, and sex cautiously, and with skepticism, attempting to keep sex with your partner at suitable length from cuddling on the couch or taking moonlight walks. Enjoying a flaming romp in the sack means nothing if a few months of familiarity extinguishes it; likewise, a budding male/female friendship is not a prerequisite to a lifetime of unfulfilled desire. Sex, love, and partnerships are wonderful byproducts of being human, however, to believe these gifts will stay healthy relevant as time progresses indicates you are willing to address each on its own terms.