Old Married Lady Gives Advice: On sex and the committed relationship.

By | February 24, 2011

Sad housewife without a vacuum cleaner. Dansk: Nilfisk reklame - Årstal ukendt // Nilfisk-Advance

Evidence of a lesser-known invasion by the Daleks. It was a dismal failure; turns out they were all allergic to cat dander.

Earlier this week, an article entitled How to survive as a SAHG (stay-at-home girlfriend) was making the rounds on Twitter, and elsewhere in the social-media-verse. It starts off innocently enough, with the author explaining that she was laid off last year, and offering her tips on how to get through a patch of unemployment without losing one’s mind. In retrospect, the first red flag should have gone up for me when I read “…I’ve always been someone who’s really into keeping her boyfriend happy (that’s how I was raised)…” in the first paragraph. This clause is flag-worthy for two reasons. One: the implication that being “really into” keeping one’s significant other happy is a special characteristic—don’t we all want the people we love to be happy? And two: “that’s how I was raised” seems odd in this context, as this is a sentiment most typically employed to describe social niceties, like not swearing in public (obviously, an upbringing I lacked).

While it’s true that women tend to develop a sense of their responsibility in relationships early on in life, I wonder at how many are explicitly raised for the purpose of creating happiness for a man they’ve yet to meet, and of those who are, how many might be happier with their lives if they decided on this arrangement of their own accord, and not simply because “that’s how I was raised,” like being in a relationship is on a level with going to church and keeping your elbows off the dinner table. “That’s how I was raised” implies “this is all I know” and further “I am not interested in other people’s perspectives on this.” I have a problem with it not because I think it’s bad that people are raised in certain ways, or even because I think it’s wrong, but because I am of the opinion that successful, intelligent adulthood requires a questioning of the things one took for granted as a child, and even if one decides those values are all worth keeping, one should at least come to that conclusion independently.

The proffered suggestions are not bad, at first: don’t sleep all day, keep the house reasonably tidy, take care of dinner plans. All smart approaches to keep one’s mind busy when one is stuck alone at home. But eventually we come to the “tip” that knocked me from patient understanding to sad, sad head-shaking. I’ll just quote it for you:

Sexy Time: Everyone knows there is nothing more important in a relationship than that special time between the sheets. I have eight to nine hours everyday to send out my resumés and clean and make dinner, by the time he comes home from work I am well rested. Frankly, there’s no real reason (time of the month aside) why I shouldn’t be ready and willing when he is. I try very hard to keep my boyfriend happy and this is a key part of doing so.

I lost my sense of humor here, and not just because of the troubling suggestion that a stay-at-home partner should be Sexually Open for Business at any hour, day or night, automatically accommodating their partner’s sexual desires regardless of their own interest. Because being the partner at home means sex counts as one of the few things you’re good for? That is distressing (and frankly, preposterous) enough, but what really struck me is that first sentence: “Everyone knows there is nothing more important in a relationship than that special time between the sheets.”

Everyone knows. I can speak only for myself, as a thirtysomething cisgendered lady married to a cisgendered guy for eight years, and monogamously partnered for thirteen, but I do not know this. I do not know it at all. Thus, I offer a thoughtful rebuttal to the notion that nothing is more important in one’s relationship than the time you spend fucking.

Lusty/sexy feelings are grand, and definitely important, but in most circumstances, positioning them as the foundation of your long-term relationship is limiting and unrealistic. Arguably, they’re not even the ground floor, but rather belong in an upstairs bedroom. If you want to have lots of sex, for heaven’s sake, don’t get married. Ideally, don’t even live together. This is not to suggest that there aren’t married/partnered/cohabitating couples out there fucking like rabbits on a daily basis—there are! But it may not be true for you. It’s not true for a majority of long-term partnerships. Frankly, that isn’t what such partnerships are for. You don’t need to be partnered to have loads of sex; you can do that in all kinds of circumstances. If you are establishing some degree of formal commitment in your arrangement—this can range from legal marriage to signing a lease together—it is important to understand that your relationship at that point ceases to pivot on sex alone, or even primarily. You are now financially responsible to each other, and maybe emotionally too.

So if long-term partnership isn’t for sex, then what is it for? That is a complicated question with a complicated answer, and one that varies dramatically from one relationship to the next. A long-term commitment can be a romantic endeavour, but it can also be a practical matter, a financial arrangement, or a religious event, in the case of marriage. For example, the practical challenge that finally drove my husband and I to make things official (after years of wondering if legal marriage wasn’t gratuitous in our case) was my needing to get on his health insurance, which could only happen if we were married. We are married because we love one another, certainly, but also because it provides certain practical benefits, as anyone who follows the fight for same-sex marriage can tell you. At its core, any long-term romantic partnership is about trusting someone you love enough to share the entirety of your life with them. It is about tying your fate to the fate of someone else. Sure, there’ll be times when it’s all cocktails and fucking, but there will also be times when a reliance on your shared ability to get drunk and have orgasms is simply not enough to sustain you.

A successful long-term relationship demands that all parties involved recognize that while they’ll be together during the awesome times (see: orgasms), they’ll also be together during the inevitable tragedies and traumas. It means knowing that you will be there when your partner’s parents pass away, and your partner will be there when yours do. It means that if one of you gets cancer, or is in a terrible accident, or develops an addiction, or gets laid off, you will support and help one another, even if it’s difficult, distressing, or a drag. That is what makes a good partnership valuable, and precious, and amazing—the promise to stand side by side, out of a love far deeper than penetrative sex. Sure, you have the option to say, “Dude, your stupid chemotherapy is wrecking our all-important sex life. I’m out. Call me if you survive.” But please be aware that doing so makes you an asshole.

It probably goes without saying, but you should absolutely not feel compelled to stick around if your partner becomes abusive, or if you are no longer good for one another in other, more subtle ways. We cannot predict how time will change us, and whether it will change us in ways that complement one another, or in ways that antagonize. The fact is, partnerships are hard. They’re occasionally a ridiculous amount of work for very little measurable return. And conventional wisdom aside, long-term commitments are not and should not be compulsory for a happy life; not everyone wants nor is suited to this kind of arrangement, and trying to force someone to fit a particular mold of committed relationship when they’re not into it is asking for a world of hurt.

So what is the most important aspect of a relationship? In my typically humble and subjective opinion, it’s not the sexytimes, it’s not a shared religious background, it’s not a political agreement nor a passion for a particular sportsball game nor a mutual desire to have a bunch of kids. The times that I feel the most love and appreciation for my partner is when he is supporting me in my dreams, when he is believing in my intelligence and my nerve and my ability to do good shit; when he is being, as he has always been, my best friend. Even better, a best friend that I can also have sex with.


23 Comments

Zanna77 on February 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm.

I agree! I agree 100%! It is amazing all of the intimacies and responsibilities in a long-term committed relationship that have nothing to do with sex. Also, what if for some reason your partner were no longer capable of having sex? If your relationship was based on sex being of primary importance does that mean that if you have a debilitating injury or disease and the sex is over, the relationship is too?

Also, for me and my experience, the absolute trust and commitment we have for one another has led to having a better physical relationship overall.

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DEL on February 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm.

Yes. And this is another one of those issues where the Lady Mags do a good job trying to fuck people up. There are all these articles about keeping your marriage hot… as if the inevitable shift in priorities/focus of the relationship is somehow a Problem that The Wife needs to solve.

We’ve been married for 17 years. We have an awesome kid and a good solid happy life. Do we heat up the sheets like we used to in the courtship? Nope. But we know absolutely that we can get through anything together and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

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Cathy S. on February 24, 2011 at 1:49 pm.

Thanks Lesley. I really needed this. I’ve been married for 10 years, and for the past 3 or so, I’ve had no libido at all, due to medical conditions and medications. It’s really been preying on my mind; I feel guilty much of the time, although my husband is very understanding and does not guilt me in any way. Sometimes I worry about the damage I might be doing to our relationship even though it is very good in every other way and I really needed to see this, to have someone articulate all the things that make for a healthy relationship. It’s making me cry at work, but fuck ‘em, no one’s paying attention anyway.

I see my gyn in a couple of weeks and I’ll talk to him about it (my endo’s already tried some changes which haven’t been working). We’ll see how it goes. Thanks again Lesley. I will be reading this over and over again.

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Tiferet on February 24, 2011 at 3:44 pm.

If damage is being done to your relationship, it doesn’t sound like YOU are doing it. You are communicating well with your partner, or at least it sounds like you are, and it probably means a lot to him to know that you too miss sex and that you do want to be sexual with him, and that you are trying to figure out how to get your libido back.

Sometimes relationships are damaged by situations that are nobody’s fault at all. IF your relationship has sustained damage because you can’t enthusiastically consent to sex right now, it’s not your FAULT.

But since your husband is understanding and does not seem to you to be very unhappy…he’s a grownup, and if he’s not happy, it’s his responsibility to say so. There’s a lot of pressure on women to be sexually available all the time, and it sounds to me like you are getting more of that pressure from yourself (internalised) than you are getting from him.

I know I said below that I think this kind of thing can be very damaging, and I hope you don’t let my voice down there add to any pressure you may be feeling, because my situation was very different. My husband not only did not want to have sex, he did not particularly want to WANT to have sex. He did not want to explore why he didn’t want to have sex (because he didn’t want to admit that he was not heterosexual or very sexual generally) and he wanted to make the fact that I did, very much, want to have sex, my problem and mine alone. In fact he tried very hard to look for reasons why it was my fault that we weren’t having sex.

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notblueatall on February 24, 2011 at 2:39 pm.

Perfection!

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Tiferet on February 24, 2011 at 2:57 pm.

Marriage is a lot more than sex, and I’d be the first to agree that you’re a jerk if you dump someone because their chemo has temporarily destroyed the sex life you share, but I want to say this.

I married someone once whom I still love dearly, but who is gay in his emotional and romantic inclinations and has a nearly-nonexistent libido, and if I’d known this going in, I wouldn’t have married him; it really fucked with my head to be wondering for so, so long what was wrong with me.

Admittedly part of the problem was that he was a jerk about my weight for a while (he tried to say that when he’d first met me, many years before we actually got to KNOW each other, I’d been much thinner and hotter, the first of which is true and the second of which is true or not depending on your tastes) because he didn’t want to admit that he’d only wanted sex with me for a very short while and hadn’t actually enjoyed it much when he got it through no fault of mine.

We tried polyamoury, but he lost his shit when I got more attached to people I was having sex with who didn’t make me feel ugly (and I ended up marrying a real loser afterward, and I do think that the damage to my self-esteem in that relationship contributed toward me putting up with said loser as long as I did…said loser called himself an FA but was really into fat girls because he thought they wouldn’t dump him.)

Anyhow. I think that for people who expect complete sexual fidelity and the romantic fidelity that goes with it (not emotional; most people don’t mind a best friend or children or parents), a change that means you can’t have sex with your partner any more is very damaging to a marriage even if it’s nobody’s fault, and I’ve heard people also call other people assholes and dicks just because they wanted to negotiate some kind of nonmonogamous agreement with a partner who could no longer have sex or who had lost all interest in it, and I don’t think that’s fair, either.

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Lesley on February 24, 2011 at 4:02 pm.

I tried to leave room for nonomongamous relationships in the post above, because I don’t want to privilege monogamous pairings here. I think what you describe falls under the category of “not being good for each other anymore”. I tend to be of the opinion that most people incline pretty strongly toward either monogamy or polyamory, and that switching is rarely a feasible option. I base this on a number of factors, all of which I admit are anecdotal, but there’s a lot of smoke to this argument for there not to be fire as well. The people I know who have working poly relationships feel natural in the arrangement, and the intensely monogamous types like me (I am monogamous even with friends, for heaven’s sake; this is why if I ever do raise a child I cannot fathom having more than one, as I know I would have a favorite; I best sustain relationships of all sorts with one person at a time).

Unfortunately, because monogamy is valued so highly in the dominant culture (and polyamory maligned as promiscuity or “greed”), what we wind up with are lots and lots of people who would be happier as poly trying really hard to force themselves to be monogamous, whether to please a partner they love, or because they think they must be “broken” or “commitment-phobic” and just need to suck it up, while a monogamy-happy partner feels guilty or responsible for the “failure” to keep their beloved happy.

Point being: sexual compatibility is absolutely important, and I think that a mutual understanding about monogamy/polyamory is a critical aspect of sexual compatibility.

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Erin on February 24, 2011 at 3:20 pm.

NO CRYING AT WORK.

Coincidentally I wrote a Happy Anniversary card at 6:10 am in my sweatpants after walking the dog and making lunches two days ago. What I wanted to say was:

“At its core, any long-term romantic partnership is about trusting someone you love enough to share the entirety of your life with them. It is about tying your fate to the fate of someone else.”

But I wrote some garbage instead about another tough year, glad we have each other to journey together. Blahblahblah.

So, I have sent him the lines you apparently plucked out of my heart and slapped into your post. Maybe it will make up for the lame card sentiments. Probably they didn’t need to be made up and aren’t we more lucky for that.

Thank You!

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Emerald on February 24, 2011 at 3:49 pm.

Oh, God. This reminds me of my ex-husband, as it happens. The one who told me, after we’d split up, that in future he thought he’d just, you know, ‘meet women for sex on weekends’ because being married (i.e. emotional commitment, sharing housework, supporting his partner in tough times, taking an interest in her hopes and dreams and, actually, making any effort to please her sexually either, come to that) ‘wasn’t for him’.

With the guy I’ve now been married to for over a decade, all that other stuff is there, and while there have been times when sex has been the last thing on either of our minds (we’re both prone to depression…fortunately, we haven’t been in a situation where both of us were really low at the same time, so we’ve been able to support each other through it), that side of things is way better than it ever was in my first marriage. So, I think it’s all tied together.

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Cute Bruiser on February 24, 2011 at 5:48 pm.

This is exactly why I’ve spent more time and energy on my relationship with my best friend/pseudo-sister than in pursuing some guy. I know we’ll always be there for each other and I don’t have to put out.

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maggie on February 24, 2011 at 5:52 pm.

A relationship is definitely not all about sex, but sex is also definitely pretty important sometimes too. I was in a monogamous relationship for 7 year with somebody who wasn’t a good match for me. I got out, and now I’m polyamorous and get to explore my kinks, with a fiance who I love dearly and would love even if we couldn’t have sex.

In summation: sex is not everything, but being true to yourself is a good idea.

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G on February 24, 2011 at 7:48 pm.

While it is not the primary focus of a long-term monogamous relationship, good sex covers a multitude of faults and, at least for me, often results in dragging a bad relationship out longer than I should. Maybe this is why ladymags focus on it– it’s a way to ‘keep’ a man (or woman). At least in the bit you quoted above “I try very hard to keep my boyfriend happy” the woman isn’t focused on sexytime for her own pleasure at all; it’s something she does for him. Her pleasure is taken out of the equation.

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Susie Kline on February 24, 2011 at 8:00 pm.

I loved this post! I followed a convo on twitter where the moms were sharing how they were preparing their daughters to be good husband-supporting wives (great cooks, housekeepers, baby makers, etc.). Maybe the blog writer you reference was raised in is manner!

Again, kudos for this post!
X Susie

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Arwen on February 24, 2011 at 10:25 pm.

I completely cosign with similar experience. My husband and I made “being on each other’s side” the major commitment in our relationship. Sexytime is both fabulous and important, but it’s not the bedrock. (Oh, man, wanna make a “rock the bed/bedrock” pun. Moving on.)

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kbryna on February 24, 2011 at 10:45 pm.

well, now I’m all depressed because apparently i’m the only never-married singleton in comments. :P

This is probably wonky logic (but why should that stop me, or anyone else?) but this SAHG’s “all-important sex” statement seems pretty easily disproved by reversing it. That is, a whole lot of sex (even really great sex) does not a relationship make. I know this from, you know, having sex with people I wasn’t dating. Wasn’t even interested in dating. Was only interested in having sex with. Which was delightful and whatnot, but didn’t constitute a Relationship, beyond the bare minimum required to avoid diseases and such.

I’d like to take this moment to be an obnoxious single person and remind all you couples out there that, like being white, skinny, wealthy or beautiful, being partnered is a privilege. The SAHG is an example; if I, as a single person living alone, lost my income, I wouldn’t be worrying about what happened between the sheets, or how to keep my home sparkling; I’d be more worried about how to keep my home and my bed, at all. Of course unemployed single people exist all over the place, but having someone else bringing home a paycheck – my lord. What a luxury! Even having someone to feel angry at for never doing the dishes looks like a luxury from where I’m sitting. And, since I just did my taxes, there’s also that nifty little “you get to claim more exemptions if you’re married” thing. Just another way to reinforce compulsive married heterosexuality!

[this is actually not from bitterness about being single. I'm not very bitter about that; when I feel anything about it at all, I feel annoyed that I have to do everything myself, and/or depressed]

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Mekoness on February 25, 2011 at 1:34 am.

Spot on, for sure. I’m not married but I’m in a long-term monogamous relationship. I have a lot of medical problems and he has a low sex-drive and together, we are actually fairly sex-less. But guess what? Totally cool and we are amazingly good together. Even though I’ve been unemployed for some time. I cook, I clean, we help eachother out. We spend time together, etc.

Being unemployed can take a toll on a relationship and I feel a lot of times this is a scenario that gets overlooked, because as women we are defaulted to just stay home and do that whole thing already, but financial pressure can fuck up a relationship in a hurry. Trying to balance a lot of expectations coupled with the feeling of worthlessness that comes from being out of a job is really horrible sometimes, on top of everything else.

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closetpuritan on February 25, 2011 at 11:22 am.

“Dude, your stupid chemotherapy is wrecking our all-important sex life. I’m out. Call me if you survive.”
That must be what happened with Newt Gingrich when he cheated on his first wife…

To me, the “I’ve always been someone who’s really into keeping her boyfriend happy (that’s how I was raised)” seems like a dog whistle for “I follow conservative views of marriage”–although if that’s the case, it’s odd that she’s “living in sin”.

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metermouse on February 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm.

yessss to this! yes a thousand times to this. I think I love you!

cough* er, carry on!!

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metermouse on February 25, 2011 at 4:13 pm.

oh yeah, I love the title btw. I read it and then slowly in the middle I was like… wait… she’s talking about HERSELF in the title! everybody- soilent green is PEOPLE!! etc. etc.

haha

so…. I’m pretty quick is basically what I’m saying.

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Lurker du Jour on February 27, 2011 at 10:59 am.

I was raised to believe that it was my job, as a woman (heterosexuality was *absolutely* assumed), to pander to and please whatever man would have me, because “everyone knows” men are just big giant fickle babies who will drop you at the first sign of discontent, who have to be cosseted and certainly never trusted.

…all this while I was being encouraged to work hard outside the home and be smart and competitive and make lots of money. The cognitive dissonance did a number on me for a long time. Finally I figured that “do for your man” was a relic from a time in which women – in my family, and in lots of others – were financially dependent on their husbands and developed no marketable skills. Fail to cosset your princeling, in that situation, and you and your kids are out on the street. That’s scary and sad, and the fact that women had so little economic freedom was an unquestioned problem. Plus, this attitude manages to be misogynist and misandrist at the same time – quite a feat. Shudder.

My more egalitarian attitudes confuse the relatives who still have them, so I just avoid the marriage/gender topic altogether. I’ll live by example if they want to connect the dots.

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libraryhead on March 3, 2011 at 2:25 pm.

Thank you, Leslie. This is just what I needed to hear today.

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libraryhead on March 3, 2011 at 2:30 pm.

Sorry, Lesley! I could at least spell your name right.

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bq on May 5, 2011 at 4:22 pm.

tbh, i’m not sure why poly people are like some new fashionable marginalized group now, since pop culture at large glorifies “players” and people who boast about their “conquests”. i’ve noticed that a lot of men use “sex-positive” rhetoric to rationalize shady, disrespectful behavior.

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