Married Sex

“Oh, my God! You’re actually getting married in a few hours! I mean, everything’s gonna be all different. Carla, you never have to have sex again except for when you actually want to.”  Elliot from Scrubs.

Husbands often complain about too little sex:

One in five couples, he says, have a sexless marriage (having sex 10 or fewer times per year) and that if they want to get out of this painful rut, they’ll have to work together. … “The man says ‘Why don’t we have more sex?’ And the woman says ‘Why don’t we have more intimacy?’ ” he explains. … Most often, he says, the problem is much more mundane: “The sexual charge no longer is there.”

Well the charge must be there for him, or he wouldn’t ask.  So the charge isn’t there for her; what does she want?   The authors of Why Women Have Sex:

Women’s sexual attraction tends to be far more nuanced. It’s affected by … how a man smells … sense of humor and confidence, social status … other women’s judgments of how attractive he is … in addition to the visual cues. … Some women reported having sex to give someone else an S.T.D. or to extract revenge on someone who had wronged them. … Young women today … had sex just for the pleasure of it, … they wanted to be sexually experienced and add “another notch on their belt”; they had sex because they were competitive with other women—they wanted to win; and they were curious—they had sex just to see what it was like with men of different ages, ethnicities, careers, and penis sizes. …

I’m personally betting on the “Mr. Right Hypothesis,” which suggests that women use sexual orgasm, in part, as a mate selection device. Men who are attentive to the woman, sexually unselfish, take the time to learn what turns her on, etc., tend to make good partners and possibly good dads. … Some women came to the conclusion, after being with one partner for several years, that they were just not very sexual creatures. Then when they switched to a different partner, all of a sudden they started to blossom sexually. … Women are all different in their sexual needs. Don’t assume that what worked in the last relationship will be as effective in the next.

This complexity allows women to be honestly confused about what they want, but it can also hide motivated differences between what women say or think they want, and what really drives their choices.  For example, reduced sex might come from wives respecting husbands less than before, from seeing overly willing wives as lower in status, or from withholding sex to gain bargaining power on other issues.

The most emailed NYT article today is Elizabeth Weil’s account of trying to improve her marriage:

Early in our marriage, when nearly everything was still up for grabs: Where would we live? How much money was enough? What algorithm would determine who would watch the baby and who would go to the gym?  Recently those questions had settled, and our marriage felt better for it. … The competitive mind-set came roaring back, as I reasoned, unconsciously anyway, that any changes we made would either be toward Dan’s vision of marriage and away from mine or the other way around. Admitting too much satisfaction seemed tantamount to ceding the upper hand. … A friend had recently told me that he thought I was the boss in my marriage. Did I really want to negotiate my marriage anew and risk losing that power? …

I thought I had avoided becoming one of those mothers who transferred all of her romantic energy from her husband to her children. Apparently I failed. But Dan, in my view … at times he ignored the kids. … Among our most longstanding fights was how much energy and money should go into Dan’s cooking. … I garnered no sympathy from our friends. Still, Dan’s cooking and the chaos it created drove me mad. …

I let Dan pick the first exercise, … “reromanticizing.” … Step 1: Complete this sentence in as many ways as possible: “I feel loved and cared about when you ___.”  Dan quickly jotted down “submit to kissing, clean the kitchen, tell me I look studly.” …  For the next few weeks, even our sex was more intimate, more open and trusting. Then I found myself recoiling. … following intimate nights, I’d walk up to our kitchen from our bedroom below and want to pretend it didn’t happen. Dan would caress the small of my back. I’d squirm away. … I did start watching my reactions when Dan told me that I looked beautiful. Did he mean it? What did he want from me? …

Since the beginning of this project, Dan had been waiting for one thing: sex therapy. … I [tried] … to think, while we were making love, that Dan was not predictable … by telling myself I did not know what to expect, I wanted to move toward him, to uncover the mystery. … Now I was having the same sweaty feelings I had in my 20s, when I would let my psyche ooze into that of a new lover at the start of an affair. … But by now I noticed a pattern: improving my marriage in one area often caused problems in another. … I spent a lot of time feeling bad about this, particularly the fact that better sex made me retreat.  [HT to Tyler.]

Let’s review.  Dan wanted more sex, while Elizabeth wanted more money and time from him.  Each time they found a new pattern leading to better sex, she found herself pulling away.  And initially she noted, “Admitting too much satisfaction seemed tantamount to ceding the upper hand.” The obvious interpretation here is that she had been unconsciously withholding sex to gain marriage power; when better sex increased her unconscious fear of losing power, her unconscious pulled her away to regain that power.

Marriage is a deal men enter into part to get sex, but a time-inconsistency problem haunts this deal.  Most parts of the deal, such as who earns and spends how much, who does what chores, where they live, and so on, become entrenched in stable habits, which are hard to change from day to day.  But due to complex female sexuality, the man is supposed to accept the sex part of the deal fluctuating from day to day and year to year for unknown and unexplained reasons.

So the wife is less committed to her sex part of the deal than the husband is to most of his parts.  The wife can implicitly threaten to withhold sex for last minute demands, but even if he meets those demands she may still decline.  And if she is not in the mood there is little he can threaten to withhold at the last minute that is of comparable value.  Without kids he might threaten to leave the marriage, but that is a dangerous game to play.

Presumably overall this problem makes men less, and women more, willing to marry, though it may also make men more eager to marry to signal their confidence that this problem won’t befall them.  I see two general ways to avoid this time-inconsistency problem:

  1. Obligatory Sex – more explicit norms about the frequency and nature of sex, norms wives are expected to meet even when less in the mood.  Perhaps wives would have to do something unpleasant, like exercise lots, when there was no sex.
  2. Nonobligatory Other – remove something wives want lots from the usual set of stable husband contributions, so husbands can threaten to withhold that without being a pariah.  Perhaps the expectation that he sleep at home [added: or maybe a big budget he could spend on extras for him or her]?

Both these approaches have been common in the past.  Either would make women less willing to marry.  Men won’t propose these because that would signal a lack of confidence, but women could propose them to signal they don’t expect a sex problem.  Intuitively this seems unlikely, thought I’m not sure exactly why.

Added 3p: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: people express strikingly little sympathy for sex-starved men.

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