The power of compartmentalization…
NY Times –
A study called “Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” which appeared in The American Sociological Review last year, surprised many, precisely because it went against the logical assumption that as marriages improve by becoming more equal, the sex in these marriages will improve, too. Instead, it found that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex. Specifically, if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming – the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do – then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what was considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car. It wasn’t just the frequency that was affected, either – at least for the wives. The more traditional the division of labour, meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction.
Granted, some might view a study like this with skepticism. Correlations don’t establish causation, and especially when it comes to sex, there’s always a risk of reporting bias and selective sampling, not to mention the mood of a subject at the time of the survey. (Was she answering the questions while standing next to a big pile of garbage that hadn’t been taken out?) What’s more, while this study used the most recent nationally representative data that included measures of sexual frequency and a couple’s division of labour, it was drawn from information collected in the 1990s. (Julie Brines, an author of the chores study, explained, however, that many studies on housework since then show that not much has changed in terms of division of labour.) But as a psychotherapist who works with couples, I’ve noticed something similar to the findings. That is, it’s true that being stuck with all the chores rarely tends to make wives desire their husbands. Yet having their partner, say, load the dishwasher – a popular type of marital intervention suggested by self-help books, women’s magazines and therapists alike – doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on their libido, either. Many of my colleagues have observed the same thing: No matter how much sink-scrubbing and grocery-shopping the husband does, 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, even if she feels both closer to and happier with him.
I first noticed this while doing a yearlong training in marriage therapy. I was seeing a couple who had been married for five years and wanted to work out some common kinks related to balancing their respective jobs, incomes and household responsibilities in, as the wife put it, “an equal way.” Over the course of treatment, the couple reported more connection, less friction and increased happiness. One day, though, when their issues seemed largely resolved and I suggested discussing an end to their therapy, the husband brought up a new concern: His wife now seemed less interested in having sex with him. He turned to her and asked why. Was she still attracted to him? After all, he wondered, why did she appear less interested now that their relationship seemed stronger in all the ways she wanted?
“I’m very attracted to you,” she said earnestly. “You know when I really crave you? It’s when you’re just back from the gym and you’re all sweaty and you take off your clothes to get in the shower and I see your muscles.”
Her husband countered by saying that this very situation had occurred that morning but that his wife became irritated when he tossed his clothes on the floor, which led to a conversation about his not vacuuming the day before when she worked late. He had worked late, too, which accounted for the lack of vacuuming, but still – she hated waking up to a messy room, and it was his turn to vacuum.
“Right,” she agreed. “I wasn’t focused on sex, because I wanted you to get out the vacuum.”
“So if I got out the vacuum, then you’d be turned on?”
His wife thought about it for a minute. “Actually, probably not,” she said slowly as if hearing the contradiction even as she was speaking it. “The vacuuming would have killed the weight-lifting vibe.”
The linked article is huge — but worth reading. The above quote caught my eye though — I’ve had that conversation with couples a hundred times if I’ve had it once…
Ten years ago, the conflict showing up in my office was about husbands helping at all and whether or not he was even capable of tenderness in sex. Now, it’s about how desire fades in the face of absolute equality in marriage. Granted, the more equal marriages are happier — but NOT more passionate.
But, there is an answer…
And, as much as it irritates me to have to post him, I have to hand it to Dan Savage for giving that right answer:
I mentioned this situation to Dan Savage, the sex columnist, who told me that he sees similar themes in the letters he receives and the questions he fields at personal appearances. At a recent talk, for instance, one woman asked him if a certain sex act was “loving or degrading?”
“My reply was, ‘Yes,’ ” he told me. “Why can’t it be both?” He continued: “People have to learn to compartmentalize. We all want to be objectified by the person we love at times. We all want to be with somebody who can flip the switch and see you as an object for an hour. Sometimes sex is an expression of anger or a struggle for power and dominance. They work in concert. People need to learn how to harness those impulses playfully in ways that are acceptable in equal relationships.”
A desire for equality, and the lack of desire that equality can create, may make scientific sense, even as it challenges conventional wisdom. As Daniel Bergner has written in his book “What Do Women Want?” and in this magazine, many studies show that women often report fantasies, like those involving submission, that tend to be inconsistent with our notion of progressive relationships.
But Pepper Schwartz says that while women may have always had these types of fantasies, now they have permission to give voice to them because of how much power they have in real life. “The more powerful you are in your marriage, and the more responsibility you have in other areas of your life, the more submission becomes sexy,” Schwartz says. “It’s like: ‘Let me lose all that responsibility for an hour. I’ve got plenty of it.’ It’s what you can afford once you don’t live a life of submission.” Married women, she adds, may have had a very different relationship to their fantasies back in the ’50s, but even so, “this mixture of changing gender roles and sexual negotiation is tricky.”