Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die? We can’t quite bring ourselves to believe that passion can thrive on modern love—because our sexual imagination is stuck in the past.
By Virginia Rutter Ph.D,
“‘Hot is not the word I’d use,” says Hannah of her 23-year marriage to Barry.* “Slow simmer” is more like it. “One thing you learn over time,” she says, “is that, no matter how long you live together, two people always inhabit separate worlds. Some part of your partner is deeply unknowable.”

Although it is hard to coax any words out of her on a topic she considers, perhaps quaintly, so private, Hannah makes it clear that their sex life cleaves to the contours of their commitment. “There are nights, not often but indelible, when passion builds in molten intensity from an unremarkable start,” she says. And there are nights—”almost more transcendent,” she confides—when the two share the separateness, lying naked together, holding hands in rich silence. And there are many nights in between.

Hannah and Barry personify sex in America today. Contrary to conventional wisdom, married couples—and their cohabiting counterparts—have more sex than the nonmarried, a fact confirmed in a 2010 survey by the Kinsey Institute revealing who does not have sex. Three out of five singles had no sex in the previous year, versus one in five marrieds. In the prime years, ages 25 to 59, married individuals were five times more likely to have sex two to three times a week (25 percent) than singles (5 percent). Explains economist Heather Boushey, director of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth,who studies family patterns, “You don’t have to go out and forage.”

Evidence has long existed that couples have lots of sex early in the relationship and the frequency of sex declines over time. Aging and the dramas of raising a family and earning money change when and how people do it, but long-married couples still have an advantage: They enjoy it more.

Studies also show that long-term couples get better at sex and get more pleasure out of it. That is true of men as well as women, heterosexual and same-sex couples. As Vanderbilt University sex researcher Laura Carpenter explains, “While people get older and busier, as a relationship proceeds they also get more skillful—in and out of the bedroom.”

The facts on the ground in no way preclude sex in long-lived relationships. Yet we seem to have trouble accepting that coexistence. We readily blame any loss of sexual desire on the domesticity of modern marriage—especially the sharing of household chores—or the constant proximity of familiar partners.

There seems to be a widespread aversion to the idea that sex is alive and well in long-term couples. Social scientists are not exempt. Very little research is dedicated to middle-age sex. “Not a lot of studies look at sex in established couples or sex in midlife,” says Carpenter. Even “experts” have little clue what sex looks like in contemporary marriages: who initiates it and how, who does what to whom, how long it lasts.

If we have trouble fully grasping the compatibility between long-lasting love and sex, our own mental machinery must share blame. We have yet to erase those hoary icons of highly gendered bliss imprinted on our brains at the dawn of the media age—when men went off to work in suits and ties while women vacuumed the living room—and which have retained primacy in our minds ever since. In the absence of more updated models of how the sexes relate and share all aspects of their lives, including sex, we are prone to default to antique Mad Men beliefs about what’s sexy. We may resort to outmoded ideas because we have yet to upgrade our sexual imagination, the movie that plays in our heads about the sex we want to have and dream of having. In this regard, our sex lives lag well behind our work lives.