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On my way to meet psychotherapist Esther Perel, I pass a sign for the new Brad Garrett sitcom 'Til Death with the tagline, "Marriage . . . No Sex in the City." I later see him on Entertainment Tonight declaring that the message of the show is to "get out while you still can." (Garrett and his wife of seven years, Jill Diven, separated in April.) He's spouting a common, if backward, view of marriage as a place where sex goes to die. I ask Perel, whose new book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, explores the stereotype: Husbands want sex, wives hold out. Perel demurs, claiming an even split among her clients. Regardless of gender, "The spouse who wants less sex is the one who has control. The other person goes berserk then because they know it, and feel rejected," she notes.
Having attended three weddings this summer, I was curious whether marriage changes sex, for better or worse. Plenty of recent books share tips on spicing up the marital act; there's Holly H. Hollenbeck's Sex Lives of Wives: Reigniting the Passion, Shmuley Boteach's Kosher Adultery: Seduce and Sin With Your Spouse, and even Paul Coughlin's No More Christian Nice Guy, which argues for greater erotic intimacy within marriage. Coughlin writes that for men, "Sex is our Lifetime Network, our Oprah. Sex is the closest we get to being those screaming, insane girls at a Beatles concert."
Yet the ideal of domestic harmony and lifelong passionate sex is a challenge for many as they juggle time constraints, careers, friendships, family commitments, and erotic wanderlust. Perel claims that love and desire grow in opposite environments; while love thrives on closeness, desire needs distance to retain its spark. She tells of couples who are in love but cannot create the necessary interest in each other to sustain a healthy sex life (but may be able to get it up easily for someone else). Some of her solutions sound counterintuitive: She advises one couple to stop touching each other in day-to-day life and save skin-on-skin for the bedroom. She also argues against oversharing, claiming that when women prioritize talking over physical closeness, they shut out men's attempts to communicate through sex.
Couples cope with the strain long-term marriage puts on their sex lives in various ways. For suburban mom Jane Black, keeping kink an erotic sanctuary with the occasional hotel romp is a vital part of her marriage. "There have been some really long, dry spells, and BDSM has been a way for us to find our way back to hot sex. It provides variety because we're always buying toys, reading porn, exploring power exchange in new ways, and trying to stay in touch with our inner perverts." Though theirs isn't a full-time master-slave relationship, she maintains that "the kernel of submission is there all the time, whether we're fucking or cleaning the house."
But for writer Jenny Block's husband and many of Perel's clients, the more they love someone, the more they want to cherish and protect thembut not fuck them in the most animalistic sense of the word. "I figured that since my husband was the person with whom I shared the greatest intimacy, he'd be the guy I could do anything with, sexually speaking. Once we got married, though, he didn't want me to be his little slut anymore. At first that pissed me off, but I soon realized I wasn't going to change him and didn't really want to," confesses Block, who's in an open marriage.
"Happily ever after" clearly isn't a snap, and couples shouldn't be ashamed of seeking help or wanting to revive a flagging marital sex life. As Perel writes, "Sex and eroticism are not the same, and the lascivious, intimate, ardent, needful, frivolous, erotic sex of lovers becomes rare after the housewarming party." She's saying that the quality of married sex matters as much as the frequency. You may be doing it five times a week, but if the sex is just so-so, what's the point?
"We like to think there is marriage and then decline," observes Perel. "We think passion is only good for the beginning of a relationship. It should fizzle and become more tame and relational over time." This view of marriage as a sexual black hole (even though for some, marriage is seen as the pinnacle of lust) puts further distance between spouses. Going back to the first flush of romance, while retaining the bonds you've built, may be the ticket to revitalizing your sex life. As Black puts it, "The memory of our first year together can still redden my cheeks and dampen my panties."
Marriage needn't be the ultimate goal for everyone; making it practically compulsory takes away from the joy when two people decide to commit. Perhaps there's a "grass is always greener" mentality at work; married people may envy singles for the seeming freedom we possess, while we long for the stability and closeness marriage seems to provide. But that closeness cannot be taken for granted; Perel argues that the downside of knowing almost everything about another person is a loss of mystery and temptation.