Happy in a low-sex marriage

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By Nara Schoenberg

For many writers, it would have been an occasion to celebrate: Hazel McClay’s book group had chosen to read an anthology containing an essay that McClay herself had written.

But McClay’s essay was about being happy in a low-sex relationship, a sensitive topic in a culture where intense desire is widely celebrated. Hazel McClay is a pen name, so no one in her book group knew that she was the author; in fact, she hadn’t talked about her essay with anyone — not even her boyfriend, who had since become her husband. “This should be interesting,” she thought when she learned she would be hearing her book group’s unfiltered feedback, and so it was.

First, McClay sat through the comments of a woman who seemed to think the essay was a celebration of sexual relationships that start awkwardly but improve markedly over time. The woman explained — in some detail — that this had been her own experience with her husband.

An awkward silence followed, and when no one came to the speaker’s rescue, she turned back to the essay.

“This sounds like a wonderful relationship,” she said.

“Sounds like a boring relationship to me,” another woman said, and then she and her friend burst out laughing.

McClay, whose essays appear in the recent book “The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier” and the 2002 best-seller “The Bitch in the House,” is tackling one of the few remaining taboo topics in a time of marked sexual frankness. We have respectful news articles about the polyamorous, who openly engage in multiple romantic relationships, and we have blogs and Facebook pages for asexuals, who may have no interest in sex at all. A popular reality TV show, “Sister Wives,” tells the story of a man with multiple wives. But low-sex marriages that are neither unhappy nor dishonest? When was the last time you heard about one of those?

“It really is something under the radar,” said McClay, a writer and editor in her early 50s.

“There is a bit of shame attached to it because there’s kind of a pressure to be highly sexed and highly performing sexually in this culture. And so if you’re not, that’s considered to be a problem.”

A much-quoted 2016 study in the journal Social and Psychological Personality Science found that, on average, couples in romantic relationships who have sex once a week are happier than couples who have sex less frequently. (Having sex more than once a week wasn’t associated with additional happiness.)

But the study looked at averages; it didn’t rule out the possibility that some individuals are very happy in low-sex marriages.

About 40 percent of married couples in part of the study were having sex, but less than once a week, co-author ‪Amy Muise said in an email exchange.

Asked what percentage of that group reported being very happy, Muise said she hadn’t broken down the data in that manner.

In “The Bitch Is Back,” McClay writes that she and her husband, “Charlie,” laugh a lot, love each other deeply, and have a son who’s thriving.

“With Charlie,” she writes, “I felt, and still feel, like somebody in the world gets me; I feel, at the risk of sounding cliched, loved for exactly who I am. This is something that was missing in every relationship I had before him, including the ones that were filled with sexual passion. … Within weeks of meeting him, I loved him — his brain, his quirks, his humor, and the grounded way he made me feel. I still do.”

They don’t have sex often: at this point, once a month at most. When they do, she’s always glad, but for different reasons: Sometimes because the sex itself is really good, sometimes because she knows sex is important to her husband, even though he doesn’t press the issue or seem dissatisfied.

“I never crave sex,” she writes, “so if I never had it again, I don’t think I’d miss it. If I never had another brownie, now, that would bum me out.”

McClay does have her fleeting moments of self-doubt. At one point, she writes, she tried medication to increase her sex drive; it didn’t work. And there have been rare times when she’s missed feeling the kind of intense passion that makes “your bones seem to melt away underneath your skin.”

“I know that there are women out there who think that (a marriage like mine reflects) a very 19th-century Victorian attitude, and that that’s sort of horrifying to them. And I guess I understand why they would see things that way, and why they would think I had settled for something terrible, and that you should hold out for the whole package,” she said.

“But all I can say to that is, ‘Maybe you’ve never loved somebody the way that I love my husband.’ There are just too many good things here for me to throw it all away and go looking for something I might never find. And again, I can see people saying ‘That’s a very fearful attitude on your part,’ but I don’t think it’s fear. I don’t want to go. I want to be with him.”

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