“Sexless But Equal” — that’s the title of Lori Gottlieb’s latest article in the New York Times Magazine on the gender gyrations of contemporary couples: his duties, her duties and the goal of equality in partnership. Presumably, the result is a happier and more stable relationship.
Unfortunately, increased contentment may mean a less satisfying sex life. Apparently, men wielding vacuums and spatulas aren’t winning points in the bedroom.
Ms. Gottlieb explains:
“… No matter how well husband and wife communicate with each other, no matter how sensitive they are to each other’s emotions and work schedules, the wife does not find her husband more sexually exciting [in the egalitarian marriage], even if she feels both closer to and happier with him.”
And so I find myself contemplating my marriage (now defunct), during which I glanced up at age 40 to realize I was juggling two boisterous boys, a demanding career, as well as wifely duties to a husband who traveled.
Equal partnership? Not exactly.
Sexless? Let’s just say — he was on the road and I was on the front line. He was focused on career and I was focused on getting through the day. When he was around, he was chipper and I was pooped. It’s a dynamic that plays out in millions of marriages, even when one of the partners isn’t hopping a plane to visit customers.
Flash-forward a few years, as the relationship erodes and then lands us in divorce court. Sure, marriages fizzle on many dimensions, but unequal distribution of familial tasks breeds resentment, resentment makes for a spotty sex life and when intimacy falls away for an extended period, it’s a sure sign of trouble to come.
At the time, I might have thought that a more equitable arrangement would have helped. Equality, it seems to me, is likely to encourage commitment, communication and consideration — factors that make for a very nice sex life, if not the sizzling stuff of fantasy.
Now I don’t know what Lori Gottlieb views as sexually exciting, but I can say with conviction that the sight of my ex packing school lunches would’ve done wonders for my libido. I might add that while Ms. Gottlieb notes that “husbands who cook, vacuum and do laundry have sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those who do not,” I wonder about the study or studies that yield that conclusion — the age demographics involved, income levels, not to mention the number of children in the household.
Naturally, life after divorce has offered me other perspectives. I experienced my share of distractions; I wanted sex — sweet sex, sultry sex, steamy sex — a reminder that it wasn’t too late, that I wasn’t too old, that as a woman, not just an overtired, midlife mother, I was still present and accounted for.
Up to a point, to be sexless or not is a matter of choice and circumstance.
However, if you’re basically built for monogamous relationships, which I am, you may ultimately prefer no social life at all to a meaningless merry-go-round of playtime partners. Thus my periods of on-again, off-again online dating, followed by a few desolate years until I met the man with whom I’m in a relationship.
Remarkably, I believe our arrangement would qualify as a peer partnership, the very dynamic that Ms. Gottlieb dissects. We’re both past child-rearing, but there are elder care responsibilities and increasingly, we share them. We both work long hours, but his is a more predictable schedule and comes with paid time off. Our lives are intertwined with the romantic and the responsible: We balance the usual tasks of an established duo, aware that we are lucky to have found each other and even more importantly, to agree on what matters.
If anything, the man in my life is the one who does more of the cleaning, shopping and meal preparation. According to Ms. Gottlieb’s article, that doesn’t bode well for our intimate relationship. However, we are neither sexless nor trapped in a humdrum routine. And I certainly don’t find my companion less desirable because he cooks and cleans. On the contrary: I couldn’t be more grateful for his innate sense of fairness, his willingness to see what has to be done — and then to do it.
We may be the exception to what Ms. Gottlieb describes, those scenarios in which the everyday eviscerates the erotic. And I wonder why.
Perhaps stage of life is working in our favor; children are no longer an interruptive or divisive factor. Perhaps in our maturity, we understand the precious nature of attentiveness; we place it high on our priority list, sexually and otherwise. Perhaps midlife divorce allowed both of us to explore a variety of personalities, to engage in a greater range of sensual activity, to know ourselves better — and the resulting clarity is liberating. Whatever the reasons, I know this: There is nothing sexy in one partner disproportionately carrying the load.
And so I stand firmly planted in the “egalitarian camp,” contending that with experience we are capable of acting equitably. This does not eliminate the erotic, but rather, creates more time and energy to enjoy it.