My wife and I were lying in bed after making love one morning—okay, I know that must sound very sophisticated and child-free, but this was an exceptional morning: Our daughter had spent the night at a friend’s house, and my teenage son was not yet out of bed. Anyway, there we were, as close to contentment as I could hope to get on this earth, when I made a minor-league error. I asked her what she was thinking about.
“The trim size of the magazine,” she replied, “which we may have to reduce.”
I should explain that for the last year my wife has been the editor-in-chief of a new women’s magazine, and as anyone who has worked on such a launch can tell you, the work never really stops. Or, at least, you never stop thinking about it. Even during those moments when work talk was once banished.
If memory serves, I simply fell into step and began discussing the fate of oversize magazines in this competitive newsstand environment. It’s nice to share an interest—or in this case, a profession—with your mate. But there is a time and place for everything, no?
What’s depressing is that it doesn’t seem very long ago that I held my wife’s bedroom attention for just a little longer. In our early days, like most couples, we tangoed till we were sore (to borrow a line from Tom Waits). But lately I have come to feel that, like Billy Idol, I’m mostly dancing with myself.
Not that I expected marriage, and the sex therein, to be a cakewalk. But like a lot of men, I’ve always put sex high on the list of domestic prerequisites, somewhere between food and basic cable. I did not think it was something that would have to be constantly negotiated and appraised, and I admit I was sort of caught with my pants down (or up) when the trajectory of our sex life spiraled from nightly to weekly to “What’s wrong with you?” Is this common to marriage? I wondered. How could I tell? Most of my male friends are married and no doubt have similar tales to tell, but despite what some women may fear, grown men don’t spend much time talking about sex (especially if they’re not getting much). When you’re young and not getting any, you talk about it all the time, but when you’re an adult it’s not quite the same thing. In fact, it’s the opposite thing.
Now, despite Dr. Phil’s assertion that “sexless marriages are an undeniable epidemic,” that’s not what I’m talking about. A sexless-marriage story would quickly devolve into a divorce story, and my wife and I have both invested too much love and energy into our marital vehicle to sit here and watch the wheels come off. No, my wife likes sex as much as I do. She really does. She may not like it as frequently as I do. Or as urgently. Or with as many possible variations . . .
With so many couples, especially those with two careers and children, sex just falls off the list, like some dance craze from our youth that everyone’s forgotten. And men who opt for divorce and trade their old wives in for younger, more pneumatic models appear in public as graceless as Grandpa doing the funky chicken—and, soon enough, they find themselves back in the same boat anyway when the pneumatic version, too, starts yawning at eight o’clock and proclaiming she’s not in the mood.
Our situation may be complicated by the nature of our jobs. I work at home, and as such our house and its needs constitute half of my work. I’ve been a freelance writer and editor for the eleven years we’ve been married, while my wife has gone from one magazine to another, ascending the editorial masthead. As her work has become more demanding as well as more remunerative, the tasks of cooking, cleaning, and keeping track of the children have fallen to me. Nothing wrong with that: I like to cook, and after my parents divorced I became accustomed to doing household chores. But it does put us in a rather different frame of mind at day’s end. When she leaves work, she’s fleeing minions demanding her time: editors, art directors, publicists, and publishers—they all want something and they want it now. The last thing she wants to deal with when she gets home is somebody else’s needs. And though I have been gnawed by my own ducks (a son who’s lost his keys again, an editor who wants a new lead, a daughter who wants help with her homework), I, unlike her, am pretty much starved for adult conversation by the time she gets in.
Nothing in my wife’s feminist life has prepared her for the Freaky Friday feeling of suddenly finding herself cast in the role of fifties dad. “The whiplash effect can be kind of intense,” she tells me. And I can’t blame her for not wanting to come home some nights—though of course I do.
One night, my son wanders into the kitchen, guitar slung around his neck, to inquire when dinner might be ready. “As soon as your stepmother deigns to make an appearance,” I tell him. Then the phone rings, and it’s my wife herself, who claims she’s now leaving for real—she just got caught up in a meeting and then there was an e-mail she had to answer.
“Did you ever hear of the phone?” I snap before hanging up on her.
Yes, it’s come to this.
Our evenings don’t vary much. After dinner comes the nightly ritual of putting our daughter to bed (something we share, or break up into shifts, with me doing the reading and Mom acting as the closer). Then maybe a little evening news and the promise of sleep, sweeter, it seems—for her at least—than any sexual fantasy.
But hope springs again on the weekends. Of course, there’s the usual forest of responsibilities to coordinate: playdates, music, various tasks related to our home and animals, and even more work (for both of us) that must be done by Monday. That’s precisely why stealing moments of pleasure seems all the more imperative to me. Finding ourselves unexpectedly without children or chores one afternoon—someone had called to see if our daughter could stay at her house longer, my son was at a matinee—I raised the subject, and also an eyebrow. My wife looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu.
“That’s the last thing you think of at times like that,” I accused her later, “but it’s always the first thing that occurs to me.” She couldn’t argue with my assessment. She hasn’t equated free time with foreplay since the last time we were trying to conceive. But for me, what sweeter revenge against this world and its injuries could you imagine than lounging in bed with the one you love? Everything in my life seems better after sex: New York doesn’t smell so bad, and the GOP isn’t really the Nazi Party after all. I think most men are like me in this regard. Given the choice between fucking and just about anything else, they’ll go for the former.
Does that make us stupider than women? It certainly makes us simpler. My brother once sent me an e-mail with the subject line “The difference.” Within the body of the message was an image of two boxes shaped like stereo tuners. The one labeled women was covered with knobs and buttons, as complex as the cockpit of an airplane. The MEN box had but a single switch, labeled ON and OFF. My wife is still trying to find my off switch.
Weekend evenings would seem to be a lock for some marital recreation, wouldn’t you think? Barring illness, exhaustion, or dinner guests who just won’t leave, there is little that comes between us—except, perhaps, a novel. The narrator of the Arabian Nights, you may recall, had to keep telling tales to her husband or he would kill her. In our variation of this Scheherazade routine, my wife seems to believe that she needs to keep reading tales of her own or I will ravish her.
I recall a real date we had last year: a movie, a babysitter, the prospect of an early bed. I shaved and brushed my teeth, practically humming “I’m in the Mood for Love” as I came down the hall. My wife was about halfway through one of Alan Furst’s sublime novels of espionage—a shared passion of ours of a different sort—and begged a moment more: “Just let me get to the end of this chapter.”
When she got up to use the bathroom, however, I stole a look at her book and discovered, to my considerable dismay, that the chapter had another 75 pages to go.
Wives used to put out for their husbands because they had to, the thinking goes. It was part of paying the rent.
Upon her return, I pointed this out to her and she assured me she didn’t mean the end of the whole chapter—there would surely, she promised, be a natural break in the narrative … sometime. Then she picked up the book and resumed her reading.
Rather than sit there and sigh like Al Gore, I took the dog out for a late constitutional, cleaned up in the kitchen a bit, read some of the paper, and finally came back to our bedroom to get my cigarettes. She was still deep in the intrigues of the French Resistance and seemed surprised to see me.
“I don’t know why you’re avoiding me by hiding behind that book,” I told her. “I’m not even sure you know. But when you do decide that you want me, I trust you’ll remember how to let me know.” She put down the book, mole-eyed. “Don’t be that way.”
But the game was up. One of the first rules of this sex tango is that you don’t speak its name. The second is: no complaints. You can make logical, unassailable observations, try to be good-humored and gracious, but once you express any hint of disappointment or frustration, you’re dead.
The next day was Mother’s Day. After I brought my wife coffee in bed (something I do every single morning, for the record), she apologized. “This week has been such a burnout,” she said. “Sometimes I just need to disappear inside my little snail shell.” It’s true: She is far more independent than I am, and this difference is probably one of the things that keep our marriage together.
So after a long, slightly bumpy Sunday—marked by some petty bickering and an absence of shaving on my part—we make love, and it’s sweet and salty as escargot served with butter and garlic. It’s getting past the shell that’s the tricky part.
There have been many explanations offered for the man-woman disconnect on this matter. Biology gets a lot of grief, with the simplest explanation being that women have less need for sex once the husband-children thing is locked in, while men ride their heat-seeking missiles off into oblivion, like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove. (There is no OFF switch.) Society, too, gets its lumps, as feminists find most men’s expectations of sex and marriage based in patriarchy and an obsolete sense of entitlement. Wives used to put out for their husbands because they had to, this line of thinking goes. It was part of paying the rent, part of what women gave in exchange for food and lodging, to say nothing of the college fund for the children.
But as that sort of traditional marriage grows scarce, at least in many Western countries, the old answers don’t work. For men such as myself—outearned by their wives, with their very work identities cast into doubt—the mantle of breadwinner, and the assumed benefits thereof, simply no longer apply.
A modern marriage is held together by a thousand tiny threads, of course, and there is no crude quid pro quo of the meat-for-sex variety that sustained early societies. But if my wife doesn’t depend on me for her financial solvency (and a good thing, too), she does depend on me for myriad other things—cooking and child care, yes, but also for humor and companionship, for moral support and critical insight, for reality checks and trivial information. Farther down the list, almost falling off the page, is sexual gratification. I think women know it’s something we’re much keener on than they are, and occasionally they try to indulge us without being completely condescending.
“It’s a very romantic complaint,” my wife says, reading an early draft of this essay. (You try writing about your sex life without letting your spouse vet the piece.) And she’s right: I am yearning for something that seems long gone but is still within reach, not just sex but love in all its lost intensity, immediacy, and impulsiveness. Women roll their eyes as men are forever clinging to scraps of former glory—that guitar pick Joe Strummer threw into the crowd, the ticket stubs to that playoff game twenty years ago. And like all romantics, we believe that by hanging on to the vestiges of fulfillment past, we might just bring it back to life. To give up on this, to me, feels like a kind of death.
If you took all the mostly useless literature out there concerning men and women and sex, you could probably boil it all down to one complaint. “I don’t see why it has to be such a big deal,” we yell to each other across a chasm. Men meaning, “What’s the big deal? Let’s go to bed”; women meaning, “What’s the big deal? Can’t you give it a rest?” A fair question, but the answer seems to be no. Because, let’s face it, if men weren’t always hungry for it, nothing would ever happen. There would be no sex, and our species would perish.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic. But married sex outside of procreation might well become a thing of the past. If women associate sex with new life and new relationships, men tend to associate it with life itself. I remember making love to my wife a few days after learning of my mother’s death. We were headed west for the funeral, staying in a friend’s cabin in the Rockies, and the sensation was as intense and urgent as any baby’s wail. Each passionate kiss refuted death, every caress said to the earth, You ain’t got me yet. I know my wife loves me; she shows it in a hundred ways. But without my resilient desire, I sometimes wonder what our marriage would be. A book club?
“It’s a very romantic complaint,” my wife says, reading an early draft of this essay. (You try writing about your sex life without letting your spouse vet the piece.)
Another evening at home. My wife is getting ready for an event her magazine is hosting the next day, printing out a speech she’ll be giving, worrying about the dry cleaning that hasn’t arrived. She has a million things on her mind, and I am not one of them. She pauses in mid-flight to kiss me.
“And think of how much more relaxed you’ll feel after I fuck you against the wall in the hallway,” I say, grabbing her and holding on.
On instinct, she tries to pull away, unprying my fingers from her arm—she doesn’t have time for this. But then she returns with a surprise of her own. She kisses me again, more voluptuously, and says, “That does bring back a happy memory.”
And there it was. For a minute I made her remember—for an instant she wanted me. And that was enough—or at least enough to tide me over until I try again to get inside.
Excerpted from The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom (HarperCollins; April 27).