By Jane Ganahl, San Francisco Chronicle
In the last year of my first marriage, our sex life had gone the way of the dodo. The passion we’d once felt for each other, romantically and sexually, had turned to passionate anger and disillusionment.
Our baby, his job, my writing — all had taken a toll on our quality time. We were so mad at each other all the time, in that pouty, noncommunicative way twentysomethings have of relating, that I could not even bear the idea of sex with him. I was so ashamed of what we, a torrid twosome since senior year in college, had become that I couldn’t even talk to friends about it.
Little did I know that had we gone through this 20 years later, we would have had the satisfaction of knowing we had the social illness du jour: sexless marriage. It would have been the topic of talk shows and magazine cover stories and cocktail parties, and I would not have felt so alone.
Which raises the question: Is there really an epidemic of no-sex relationships? Or has it always been thus, and people are just now feeling comfortable talking about it?
Michelle Gannon, who with her husband, Patrick Gannon, teaches the Marriage Prep 101 class for pre-newlyweds, says it’s most definitely a disheartening trend.
“I just returned from the annual Smart Marriage conference, and the latest studies show that around 20 percent of all marriages are sexless, which means having sex fewer than 10 times a year. I see it in my practice as well.”
Michele Weiner Davis, in her best-selling book, “The Sex-Starved Marriage” (Simon & Schuster, $24), says the problem is “grossly underreported,” which, given the amount of attention the problem has gotten lately, must mean the problem is huge.
There has been a flood of books on the subject in addition to Davis’, including “In the Mood, Again: A Couple’s Guide to Reawakening Sexual Desire” (New Harbinger, $14.95) by Kathleen Cervenka, “Resurrecting Sex: Resolving Sexual Problems and Rejuvenating Your Relationship” (HarperCollins, $24.95) by David Schnarch and James Maddock and “Rekindling Desire: A Step-by-Step Program to Help Low-Sex and No-Sex Marriages” (Brunner-Routledge, $16.95) by Barry and Emily McCarthy.
The market for Viagra continues to boom, as does the new market for women’s libido-enhancing pharmaceuticals and herbal supplements.
If 10 times a year equals sexual starvation, how often does the average married or long-term-coupled person have sex? A 2002 study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago says married couples report that they have sex 68.5 times a year (presumably that .5 owing to coitus interruptus). (This is of course reported, not observed at bedside, so no one knows whether it’s true and accurate.)
My own theory for the proliferation of talk — and books and products, etc. — on saving/enhancing your sex life has to do with the expectations of my generation, the Baby Boomers. Because we launched the sexual revolution and discovered decades ago that sex can make a fantastic pastime, when we get to That Certain Age, golf just won’t do.
We have assumed all this time that our sex lives will always be robust, married or not. But the realities of life inevitably interrupt the fantasies created in the ’60s. And when they do, it’s a bummer, man.
“Many couples have trouble dealing with the disappointment that it’s not as exciting anymore,” says Michelle Gannon. “Research shows that the first six months of being in love with someone is as effective as an antidepressant. Then it wears off and people think there is something wrong with the relationship.”
Other realities — kids, work, stress — all take their toll. It’s tempting to employ the media’s current title for the syndrome — DINS: Double Income No Sex. But research indicates that sexual burnout is not based on both partners being overworked at the office. Couples with stay-at-home partners experience sexual switch-offs, too.
Physical reasons can include fatigue — cited in studies as the chief culprit — as well as menopause, alcohol problems and other illnesses. And our sexual hard-wiring — our baseline need for sex — can also trip us up.
“It’s amazing how many high-desire folks get together with low-desire,” Gannon laughs. “Life would be so easy if a couple’s desire level matched perfectly, but they rarely do.”
Gannon says emotional reasons are as responsible for sexual dysfunction as physical ones.
“Poor body image and self-esteem issues — not feeling as attractive — are often to blame. Also anger and resentment towards your partner. And complacency. Couples experiencing sexual problems just figure, ‘This happens, so what can you do about it?’ They stop talking about it. They won’t deal with it. And the longer you go, the lower your desire falls.”
Unfortunately, she notes, the consequences are not just a diminished quality of life.
“The upshot can be infidelity. Forty percent of married men and 25 percent of married women are having sex outside their marriages. And that doesn’t even include cyber sex.”
Out of the country’s 56 million married couples — and many long-term gay and lesbian couples — does anyone still have a healthy sex life? Experts seem to be universal in their opinion that although sex is just one part of a happy union, most truly happy couples include it.
The good news, says Gannon, is that no matter how fallow the marital field has become, it can become fertile again. But it takes some work.
“Some couples have deeper issues to settle before they can even think about getting intimate again. You have to communicate more, have romantic time, and you’re going have to just do it,” says Gannon. “Did you know that half the population feels desire and then acts on it, and the other half does not feel desire until they start kissing and touching? It’s a good case for not waiting to be ‘in the mood.’ ” She also encourages her patients to “expand the definition of sex, so that there is more daily affection in the relationship. Touching, hand-holding, kissing.”
My own advice to friends who complain about the lack of sex in their long- term relationships is pretty basic: Examine your priorities. If they say they’re too busy for sex, I suggest they keep track of what they do that makes them too busy. Do they spend hours watching TV or going online? Playing golf on weekends?
Consider scrapping those plans and having sex, I tell them. It’s sweeter to be intimate with a real live person than a computer, and the exercise definitely beats the pants — no pun intended — off golf.
Swing from the chandeliers to perk up old flame
We asked The Chronicle’s Two Cents pool to share some of their views on the lack of sex in long-term relationships. Not surprisingly — this is the Bay Area! — most couples, while admitting that it’s something to constantly guard against, did not view the syndrome as an insurmountable problem. Some stories follow.
Jill — married more than 20 years
I don’t exactly understand this big hoopla over the sexless marriage, although there have been times when it was sexless. But you still stay with it,
and know that it will get better again. You don’t just dump someone whom you’ve loved since you were 17. We get out of ruts by being extremely silly. If it takes swinging on chandeliers to get it going, that’s fine. Once I went to a bar in fishnet tights and let myself be picked up by my husband. Another time we went out to the beach and set up our tent and made love. You have to get creative. Moonlight and roses are wonderful, but you don’t have to have them. Even if it’s just an hour, you have to make time for each other, which is a difficult thing in this world.
Frank — in a gay relationship for 17 years
The passion sort of comes and goes, and varies with our emotional life, things that are going on in our lives. One of the surprises I had in this regard was that one of the peaks was when my mother was dying of cancer. I guess I was thinking a lot about mortality, and I needed to reach out and connect with my other loved ones. We change the routine to get out of our ruts.
Travel is really good for that, as is changing the location, or the time. Our sex life has definitely declined, but when we have it, it’s really, really good. We are very tuned in to each other now. Even though it may not be as frequent, there is a larger emotional content to the physical act.
Michael, together eight years, married three, one child (a baby)
Since the birth of the baby, things have been quite a bit different. We haven’t gotten back the level of intimacy we had before, but we accept it as a couple. It’s not a problem — yet — but we’re definitely looking forward to the pre-baby sexual scenario. We have done a number of things to get through the down time until the baby is old enough — we freed up time during the week as a date night. It’s important to us to keep the romance part of our relationship alive. It all stems from open and honest communication.
Shelley — in a lesbian relationship for two years
I’m very conscious of the whole idea of “lesbian bed death” because it’s happened to me in previous long-term relationships, so we’re trying really hard not fall into that. We think about that a lot. My girlfriend travels a lot for business, so I try to slip some kind of little note in her luggage. I put one in the book she was taking on the plane. We also have this thing we call fund-raising. We have a jar, and every time we have sex we put a dollar in it. We laugh about it. “Oh, a long weekend! There will be some good fund raising!” We try to be playful about it, but at the same time are committed to setting good patterns from the get-go.
Joe — married 20 years, no children
It goes through peaks and valleys, for sure. It’s in a bit of a trough right now, mostly brought on by job stress. It’s hard being with just one person and finding ways to keep it interesting. But there are ways of working on it. The thing that works with us is that, beyond everything else, we are very good friends. We can acknowledge what’s going on and talk about the dynamics.
BJ — with gay partner for 20 years, two grown daughters from former marriage
I am very committed to my partner. But we are not traditionally monogamous. We didn’t begin our live-in arrangement with expectations about monogamy. The first one to three years were vital, passionate, intense. We have found that we are quite receptive to mutual involvement outside the relationship. Inevitably it evolves a mutuality in which the personal dynamic transcends sex per se but does not exclude it. The key for us is trust and communication. And the rule we have is “”no secrets.”