Because my husband knows I try to read all the good books coming out on various subjects related to sex, he clipped the reviews from the New York Times of two new ones. I glanced hurriedly at the reviews without really taking them in, and then reflexively proceeded to order the books: 365 Nights by Charla Muller, and Just Do It by Douglas Brown. I am writing this, not to critique or recommend the books but to reflect on them. Although both inspired mixed responses in different ways, they stimulated much thought as well. Both are memoirs of a very specific venture: in each the author and spouse embarked on a routine of daily sex for a predetermined length of time. Charla Muller’s gift to her husband for his 40th birthday, was a promise of daily sex for a year. Douglas Brown’s story, also initiated by his wife around his 40th birthday was a sequence of 100 days. The two books detail their experiences.
Of course you are getting my both literary and ideological reactions here. Brown, a journalist, writes with a slightly sensational and titillating style.This is not to say he offers an excess of erotic detail. He doesn’t. But he appears to be trying perhaps too hard to provide humor and spice for the reader, much as he and his wife sought out mildly unconventional or less mentionable means to prevent boredom. The result is an air or bravado, as well as a subtle tone of satire about those who may earnestly enjoy sexual practice outside the “vanilla” box.
Charla Muller is rather the opposite. She presents as a conservative, traditional Midwestern wife and mother who assumes that women and especially mothers tire of sex, and it becomes a duty, a chore and a moral or religious requirement of marriage. Her premise is the stereotype that men want sex constantly; where women after having the number of children they desire will avoid it to the extent they can get away with. She presupposes that this is a point of chronic strife, disconnection and demise of a vast percentage of midlife marriages. Although this perspective is not without its demographic, and certainly we hear frequent statistics supporting it, we all know of numerous relationships, perhaps including our own, that diverge from the generalized pattern. Women’s liberation and the sexual revolution, milestones in many of our backgrounds, would tempt us to believe or hope otherwise.
Both of the book couples being heterosexual, this article may appear to have a hetero sexist tone. I apologize for that, and the thoughts that I have on the subject defy gender stereotyping. I am also aware that I am dating myself. Admittedly, the age of 40 is about ten years shy of midlife to me. And in our 50’s there are changes not least of which are physiological. Still however, both books made some valuable and provocative points.
Priority and Time
Lifestyle requisites and choices jam our waking hours with activity and hurry. The statistics warn us that even “waking hours” are excessive, with chronic sleep deprivation being pandemic and deleterious. How we order our priorities is also significant. As a couple’s and sex therapist, I see the fallout of the intimate partnership sliding too low on the scheduling hierarchy. The demands of making a living and for many raising children, cram the calendar. For far too many couples, quality time alone together is sacrificed or neglected, not to mention sexual intimacy. The “low sex” or “sexless” marriage, defined as couples having sex ten times per year or less, is the subject of numerous popular and professional books and articles. Sadly it is hardly exceptional. Whether it is cause or effect of the persistent demise of marriages is unclear. Most likely it is a dialectical “both.”
Both of the couples in the two books are placing a clear and concrete priority on daily intimate time. Lovemaking requires protected, private time. It need not always be a lot of time, and both authors as well as many sexuality clinicians and researchers uphold the value and utility of the “quickie.” Not, it is hoped as a staple, but it has its place. Making some amount of time each day for the relationship is a statement of its meaning and importance. Judging from what I hear daily in my office, this for many intimate partners and spouses is painfully in question.
Too both couples lament the prevalent effective devaluation of sexual intimacy. By relegating lovemaking to time that might be left over, when all of the more essential activities and tasks are complete is a commentary by at least one of the partners. It reflects a discounting of sex as a vital component of a “good” relationship. Both the Browns and the Mullers challenge this.
Sexual Frequency as a Relationship “Issue”
Most couples don’t realize that “desire discrepancy” is the norm rather than the exception. Some researchers believe that this fact has an evolutionary basis; that if too many low-libido individuals paired up the preservation of the species might be compromised. In our culture both “low desire” and “high desire” folks are pathologized, called “nympho,” “sex addict,” “dirty old man,” “frigid,” “prude” or ins some other way “dysfunctional.” The truth is that what creates difficulty is when discrepancy takes on a life of its own. Rather than evolving a rhythm workable for both, sexual frequency becomes a “political football” of meanings where partners might diagnose or interpret one another harshly. It might be “there is something wrong with you,” or “you just don’t love me.” Or countless other conclusions or judgments. Often the disagreement devolves into a chronic simmering tension that might build over time, lead to resentment, distance, even affairs.
The decision to make a daily practice of lovemaking in both books’ couples, eliminated any need for negotiation of frequency. Because the agreement had already been made, any humiliation incumbent in asking or declining was removed. Any sense of “I’m doing you a favor,” or the possibly shameful acceptance of a “favor” was erased. We are doing this for the relationship, because it is good for us.
Both couples experienced a heightened closeness, not only during the daily trysts but through the days. It was a known and expected fact for the children that Mommy and Daddy take their special time alone and are not to be disturbed. The relationship between parents, whatever their gender, is the solid ground upon which children stand and grow. In an over-focus on children, and their often becoming the relationship “glue” between partners and spouses, this essential fact is readily underestimated. Couples forget how meaningful it is to their children to observe and experience their obvious affection for each other. One couple I worked with, who came to me to restore a long defunct sexual relationship remarked that after their sex life resumed after a five year hiatus their young adult children commented on a perceptible change between them. Even though the “kids” didn’t know what had changed, they observed and enjoyed a warmth and pleasure that was different and “more fun to be around.” Both of the book couples commented that non-sexual touch also increased markedly. They seemed naturally to touch each other more, and the general ease between them extended from the physical across all the dimensions of the relationship.
A Personal Experiment
After reading the two books back to back I was intrigued and curious. As we approached our summer vacation, which was launched by my husband’s birthday, it occurred to me that our two weeks away might be a fitting time for our own experiment. It was a far cry from the 100 or 365 consecutive days of the books, but it seemed an achievable goal, and more daily intimacy than I have reveled in, for many a moon. I was careful not to propose it as a birthday gift as my experience (unlike Charla Muller) is that sexual “favors” as a gift might feel patronizing or humiliating to the recipient. Rather, two weeks in Italy seemed a most fitting venue for exploration. It harkened back to our honeymoon when my husband taught me that in his world, that and good food spell vacation. Although we are significantly older now, I in my early 50’s and he in his middle sixties, he was receptive.
Different couples will of course have a different experience of the same endeavor. The Browns told many friends and family what they were up to, undertaking the 100 days as a marathon or or some other extraordinary athletic feat. Their friends would wink and tease them about how it was going. They also worried about and struggled with anticipated or actual boredom or repetition, leading to stale or obligatory rather than erotic interaction. For the Mullers, it was more of an integration of sex intio ordinary life. It became a “maintenance” activity like any other health supporting practice, on the order of flossing or going to the gym. Being tired or even cranky was not a deterrent, but rather this is something we do each day, and even if we lack enthusiasm on occasion going into it, we are invariably better for it.
I discovered that freedom from having to decide if we would make love, but only negotiating when or how, made for a light hearted negotiation, much like the other pleasurable decisions one makes on vacation, like where to eat or what kind of gelato to have. Morning, afternoon, evening, before dinner after dinner, there were opportunities to try them all. And if any one foray was less than spectacular, it was no terrible loss because we had countless more chances and soon. There was something very relaxed, sweet and intimacy enhancing about it, that added pleasure to our vacation.
Physiologically this makes sense. Oxytocin, the bonding chemical, is released in nursing mothers to enable them to bond with their infants. Oxytocin is released from penetration, in women; and in men, from falling asleep after orgasm. It makes sense that the practice of daily sex of some sort, would enhance the intimate bond between partners. In our case I would certainly say it did. It made us more relaxed, closer and happier. We were careful to insure that our daily lovemaking not slide into feeling compulsory or mechanical. By the end of the vacation we strongly agreed that the experiment was a success. I even noticed an additional perk. As a post menopausal women I was delighted to learn that as with any other physical activity, all the “equipment “ works better with more frequent “use.”
In both of the books at the end of the predetermined time, the couples reflected on what they had experienced and learned, and assessed “where to go from here.” Both were rather relieved and proud to have competed their goal, tallying the gains and thinking about how this venture might change their lives from here forward. As an endurance athlete I felt I could relate to having completed a record-breaking milestone, and asking myself, was the objective to meet the challenge? Or do I really enjoy this and want to do more of it?
Coming home from two weeks away of course, was of a very different order of magnitude. Daily sex on a completely elective schedule is very different from integrating it as the book couples did, into the rat race of deadlines, commutes and chronic sleep deprivation. It would be a very different undertaking for me, even for just two regular work weeks. This makes me think yet again about wanting to change the rhythm of my workaday life, maybe to be a little be more Italian, (another of the contemplative gains of both vacation and the experiment.) Not that our life, or even our “usual” cycle of intimacy isn’t wonderful, it is. But rather as I get older it is ever clearer to me that I want to be intentional about how I spend my time and order my priorities.
Both of the book couples emerged from the experiment richer and closer. They both settled back into less than daily sexual intimacy, but decidedly more than before. Charla Muller proposes, whatever you have been doing, double it, or triple it. For me it has been a bumpier than usual transition back from vacation. I suppose I still have not quite arrived fully back. As both a sex therapist and a human being, I think what I am concluding I’d like to aim for is this a kind of new RDA: do something intimate every day. It certainly needn’t include chandelier swinging or even an orgasm. But that it involve the heart, the body, the senses, a mindful presence, and that it be loving and connecting. It needn’t take more than a few moments. I think that will change the quality of my life, even make the world a better place. We’ll see how it goes.
Douglas Brown, Just Do It: How One Couple Turned Off the TV and Turned On Their Sex Lives for 101 Days (No Excuses!)
New York. Crown Books. 2008.
Charla Muller with Betsy Thorpe, 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy. New York. Penguin Books. 2008
Ruth Cohn, MFT is in private practice in Rockridge. AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, also certified in EMDR and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. She specializes in relationship work with adults overcoming histories of childhood trauma and neglect, their intimate partners and families. She can be reached at email@example.com or www.cominghometopassion.com.