Is marriage ruining your sex life?

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A divorce lawyer shares how you’re probably missing the mark and how to fix it.

As a divorce lawyer, I meet a lot of married people with very satisfying and active sex lives. Most of the time, however, the person they’re having that satisfying sex with isn’t their spouse and therein lies the problem.  

If you’ve been married longer than ten years and you and your spouse still want to have sex with each other, you’re clearly doing something right. I’m sure there are many of those marriages out there. As a divorce lawyer, however, I just don’t get to interact with the individuals fortunate enough to be in such unions. Instead, I see lots of marriages with the same basic and binary problem: one or both parties are dissatisfied with the quality and/or frequency of the sex. The sex is either unfulfilling or fulfilling but not frequent enough.

There are, of course, marriages where neither party is all that into the sex anymore. Maybe they never were or maybe, with time and age, it’s just not much of a priority anymore. Maybe they both have really interesting hobbies. Maybe they both are out of shape to the point where sex seems like too much cardio to be fun.

But those people aren’t the ones filling my schedule and crowding up my office. There’s a balance there. I want to talk about the far more common scenarios where an imbalance exists. Where sexual desire is no longer a two-way street. Where one person is still feeling highly sexually attracted to their partner (or just has a tremendous libido that needs to be satisfied with someone, and the person they chose to be married to is, legally, supposed to be that someone), and the other partner feels sex is little more than a chore that needs to be performed with a certain regularity to prevent discord.

Go Without or Go Elsewhere – The Cruel Choice

If you’re married and your sexual needs aren’t being met by your spouse, you’ve got a cruel choice: you can go without or go elsewhere. Those are the only two options as I see it. You can have your needs remain unfulfilled (go without) or have them fulfilled by someone other than your spouse/partner (go elsewhere). In my recent book, If You’re In My Office, It’s Already Too Late : A Divorce Lawyer’s Guide to Staying Together(link is external), I share  a number of stories of clients who experienced a disparity in their sexual needs in their marriage.  While that issue was rarely, if ever, the lone reason for divorce, it played a significant role in the demise of the relationship.

Every couple has a different idea of what is “good” sex and most of the time it’s probably whatever you were doing when you settled into datingseriously. So let’s use that as our working definition here. Let’s be candid: When relationships begin, there’s usually a lot of sex (let’s call that variable “frequency”) and the sex is fun and exciting and varying degrees of adventurous (let’s call that variable “intensity”).

So there’s the formula for an early relationship: High Frequency x High Intensity = “Good” sex

As a monogamous relationship progresses, there are a host of reasons for the frequency variable to drop. Here’s a selection of “greatest hits” from my many clients over the past two decades:

“I’m exhausted at the end of the day with the kids.”

“I’m so busy at work we’re rarely in the same room awake to chat, much less have sex.”

“I’m just not as into it anymore. I like skiing but if I did it every day for six years, I wouldn’t find it as exciting anymore.”

The reasons for the decline in the intensity variable are in some ways similar and in some ways a bit more complicated:

“After watching her wipe the butts of our children all evening and listening to her talk on the phone to her sister for half an hour before bed, I don’t really view my wife as an object of lust as much as I did when we were dating and still a mystery to each other.”

“My husband really let himself go in the last five years. He put on twenty pounds and isn’t as sexy or energetic and fit as he was when we were dating and I just don’t find him as sexually exciting as I used to.”

Let me save you the lecture: I know these examples are harsh – but they’re candid, honest and real. This isn’t speculation. This is what my clients have told me. There’s little reason to lie to your divorce lawyer about why your marriage fell apart or why you and your spouse stopped sleeping together.

Screwing It Up – With the Best of Intentions

And it’s not like married people aren’t trying to keep their sex lives enjoyable. Sometimes even the best-intentioned couple, in the process of trying to have great sex with each other, can inadvertently screw up their sex life by throwing off the intensity variable (often by trying to maintain the frequency variable). I’ve seen this one a bunch of times and it always makes me a little sad. Having lots of bad sex does not equal a good sex life.

Let’s look at an example of how a perfectly happy and well intentioned couple can screw it up.  Let’s call them John and Mary (but it could just as easily be Mary and Eileen and Steve and John – this isn’t a problem exclusive to heterosexual marriages)

John and Mary have been married for five years. Each still finds the other attractive. Neither has any particular hang-ups about sex; both are committed to a marriage that features, among other attributes, a mutually satisfying sex life.

As with any two people who have had sex with each other a few hundred times, John and Mary have figured out (through communication, observing reactions and noting what was requested and/or selected) what the other likes best. John likes, among other things, morning sex and when Mary bites his ear during sex. Mary likes, among other things, when John pulls her hair a little (but not too much), and when John says her name just before she climaxes.

Mindful of each other’s pleasure and aiming to please John and Mary each learn to work these “highlights” (for the other) into their sex, both to maximize the enjoyment of their partner and to increase the efficiency of their sex (how to get and give the most pleasure in the minimal amount of time). This approach is, for some people, why monogamy is ideal for people who like sex: Sure, you give up the novelty of frequent new partners but you trade it for a partner who knows your sexual “highlight reel.” A partner who knows what buttons you like pushed and how best to push them.

Like most married couples, John and Mary have a somewhat predictable day-to-day routine filled with personal and professional obligations. Like you, they’ve got careers, children, social obligations and the myriad of other things that take up time. So, John and Mary, mindful of their desire to maintain a healthy sex life and keep the other satisfied, try to remember to “fit” sex into their life together. As a result, they (without conscious deliberation and with only good intentions) begin having sex on somewhat predictable days, at predictable times, when the four most important conditions are met: They are together, they are alone, they are awake, Game of Thrones isn’t on.

Can we agree that John and Mary have expressed, thus far, only the best of intentions?

Here’s where the perfect storm arrives, often culminating in one of them showing up at my office.

Spoiler Alert: John and Mary, after a few years of marriage, and with the specific goal of having relatively frequent and mutually satisfying sex, have inadvertently created the conditions where sex becomes unsatisfying and, as a result, eventually infrequent.

How Marriage Ruins Good Sex

John and Mary, like most married couples, have created conditions where the sex happens on the same days and at the same times, under generally very similar scenarios (e.g., Tuesday evenings after they finished dinner but before bed, and in the master bedroom because that was where they preferred to watch TV after they’d gone upstairs for the evening). They have created the conditions for predictable sex. “Predictable” is not an adjective people use to describe an ideal sex life.

John and Mary have also created conditions where the sex, when it happens, features the same specific sexual acts, ones that, as mentioned earlier, they knew from experience were the ones their partner liked best.

So now John and Mary are two people mostly doing the same things to each other, in the same place, at the same time.

In short, John and Mary have a sex life that is “routine” – another adjective never employed to describe a superior sex life, or a sex life (for those who really like and need sex) that motivates one to remain monogamous.

So How Can Married People Not Ruin Their Sex Life?

The secret to staying out of my office for these reasons is – once again – simply to talk to each other about sex and how you’re feeling about where your sex life is standing, at that particular moment, in both the frequency and intensity categories. You partner can’t hear what you don’t say and if you value your marriage you don’t leave things like this up to chance.

Don’t wait until you’re in the heat of the moment to have the discussion. In a long term relationship if you’re looking to throw some “new moves” into your bedroom game don’t just shoot first and ask questions later. Mid-sex isn’t the best time to “call an audible” and add something new to the menu.

Open your mouth and be candid with your spouse about what’s going on in your head and in your heart. Tell your partner, early and often, that they’re the one you want to meet your sexual needs with and help them see your candor about what you need from them in the bedroom as what it is: a desire to keep your marriage happy, satisfying and out of my office.

James J. Sexton is a divorce lawyer in New York City 

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