Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Marital Bed Death

How's that sexual revolution working out for you? If you’re married, the answer is: probably not very well.

There's nothing new about married couples losing interest in sex. There’s a reason why adultery and the sex business have been around so long.

Couples that were lusting after each other in the early stages of their marriages find, after a few years of conjugal bliss, that their desire has died down or even faded away.

Most people are more open and honest about our sexuality, have learned to explore our sexuality, have fallen in love with “the one,” only to find out, when they get married, that their sex lives suffer marital bed death.

Daniel Bergner has written a book about the problem. Previewing it in the New York Times he began with the statistics:

Lack of lust, when it creates emotional distress, meets the psychiatric profession’s clinical criteria for H.S.D.D., or hypoactive sexual-desire disorder. Researchers have set its prevalence among women between the ages of about 20 and 60 at between 10 and 15 percent. When you count the women who don’t quite meet the elaborate clinical threshold, the rate rises to around 30 percent. For a minor fraction of all the sexually indifferent (or repelled), the condition has been lifelong, regardless of whom they’re with or how long they’ve been with them. For middle-aged or older women, menopause and its aftermath may play a role, though its importance is much debated. For a sizable segment of the undesiring, the most common antidepressants, the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, can be the culprit. Millions of American women are on S.S.R.I.'s, and many of them would have good use for a pill to revive the libido that has been chemically dulled as a side effect of the pill they take to buoy their mood.

Surely, it is fair to say that the problem has multiple causes. Prozac might be one culprit, but as Susan Walsh reminds us on Hooking Up Smart, depression can also diminish desire and appetite.

Today, more and more women are looking to solve the problem with chemistry. They are signing up for a clinical trial of a new drug called Lybrido. Anecdotal accounts of the trials suggest that it produces both good and bad results. It enhances desire but it keeps enhancing desire even when the woman does not want it to be enhanced.

Bergner outlines the problems that arise when the problem is treated chemically:

Chemically enhancing a woman’s desire might play out in all kinds of ways within a relationship. Some couples might feel closer, others might feel desolate because, despite more sex, their bond isn’t stronger. Wives might yearn for the old seductive efforts of their husbands, even if those gestures stopped working long ago. Women might feel yet more pressure to perform: Why not get that prescription? their partners might ask; why not take that pill? And men, if they are willing to confront the truth, might not be so happy about the reminder, as their partners reach for the pill bottle, that their women need chemical assistance to want them. All the agonies that have existed since the dawn of monogamy will still pertain, many of them coming down to the craving to feel special.

Among moderns, I venture that gender confusion also plays a role. With more and more women being breadwinners, it is worth recalling that men in female breadwinner marriages take more Viagra than do men in traditional marriages. Women in atypical marriages take more anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medication.

How many women lose their sexual desire because they have discarded their femininity? How many of them insist that their men cease acting like men and get in touch with their feminine side? What happens to a woman’s sexual desire when she decides to discard her feminine mystique?

Others have suggested that desire diminishes in marriage because sex is prescribed not proscribed. Presumably, we want what is tabooed more than we want what is available.

Evolutionary psychologists blame it on the simple fact that, when it comes to sex, men and women are differently constituted. Women associate sex with reproduction and with risk far more than men do:

But for many women, the cause of their sexual malaise appears to be monogamy itself. It is women much more than men who have H.S.D.D., who don’t feel heat for their steady partners. Evolutionary psychologists argue that this comes down to innate biology, that men are just made with stronger sex drives — so men will settle for the woman who’s always near. 

Bergner and other counterculture types dismiss these views, but one suspects that they prefer ideology to science.

Still, it is fair to ask whether women who have lost interest in sex believe that their husbands want sex more than they want sex with them. If a man is seeking to have sex with the nearest warm female body, after a time his wife is going to turn off to sexual encounters because she feels unloved.

Others explain marital bed death by noting that familiarity breeds disinterest. Being strange and new is apparently more attractive than being the same and familiar. Apparently, this is true for women more than men:

But for women who’ve been with their partners between one and four years, a dive begins — and continues, leaving male desire far higher. (Within this plunge, there is a notable pattern: over time, women who don’t live with their partners retain their desire much more than women who do.)

And then there is the daily domestic grind:

Every woman raised a mix of possible reasons. There were the demands of graduate school, the demands of children, the demands of work, medical issues, men who weren’t always as kind or nearly as engaged as they could be. But at bottom there seemed to be one common cause: they had all grown tired of sex with their long-term partners.

To be more accurate: in his last sentence Bergner has confused an effect with a cause.

Of course, these are only a few suggestions. We might also want to ask ourselves how well these couples know how to conduct themselves in their marriages. Do they try to establish domestic harmony with cooperation and a clear division of domestic labor? Do they make all household decisions into drama and conflict? Do they like to fight because they like the make-up sex, only to find that their fight-fetish is no longer working as well as it did?

And then, it might be a good idea to compare marriages that have gone cold with marriages where sexual desire is sustained. Rather than make it seem inevitable that things go wrong, why not examine those couples where things have gone right?

As scary as the statistics are a majority of couples seem not to be suffering marital bed death.

We would like to know how these couples conduct themselves in their marriages. Are they more traditional or more modern?


Sam L. said...

I'm old. Wife's a bit younger. Coming up on 5 years married. Still good for us.

Anonymous said...

Traditional = bad. New = good. We live in an ADD culture. Our culture is drunk on "new."

But then why does human misery persist? We eschew the traditional as restrictive. Yet the traditional is typically about reinforcing the value of commitment in the face of humanity's fascination and allure for the new. Seems that the consistent feature in all this is a fallen creature called Homo sapiens and his/her desperate desire for connection and community.

Sartre famusly said "Hell is other people." Really?

Traditional structures seem to be stabilize relationships and communities, supporting our being through the good and bad for a net happy life. But such thinking isn't new, so it must be bad... or at least not very exciting. After all, excitement, stimulus and pleasure seem to be the highest values in the land of the new. Ever wondered why?

It sells stuff.

Is "stuff" all there is? Yes, the materialists say. No, the metaphysicians (if there is such nomenclature) say. The materialist is wooed by the new thing, because things are all there is. It's all about how they relate to te self. The traditionalist follows the eternal, who he/she is called to be, bound by relationships to others.


Susan Walsh said...

Thanks for the link, Stuart. I hadn't thought of the potential impact of females as breadwinners - I think you're onto something there.

Leo G said...

"if at the age of 70, you are still doing/feeling as you were when 17, you have wasted your life"

Paraphrasing Mohammed Ali.

Anonymous said...

Good golly, I've been working my whole married life, and didn't know this. My Husband is a fine man, and as we've entered our '60's, the passion has tapered off a bit, but we still enjoy each other!!

Susan Lee