Sex and Marriage: Not Always a Sure Thing

By Michael Gordon

I recently found myself on a long overseas flight, and decided to watch a movie to break up the time. I scanned the options and chose On Cecil Beach, the movie rendition of an Ian McEwen book that I had read and enjoyed.

The film, as the book, focuses on a failed relationship in which the failure, at its core, seems to be one of sexual incompatibility. It’s all about a newlywed husband and his bride, who is clearly terrified of her first sexual encounter and has a terrible experience. The movie shows the realization on the part of the husband that his wife, who he dearly loves, does not want to have sex with him but does want to be married to him. That becomes unacceptable, and the film reveals his everlasting love for her as they live their lives separately.

The conundrum raised is not that unusual. The question is how partners (whether straight or gay) can achieve sexual satisfaction, and perhaps allow for, accept and undertake what has to be called an extramarital relationship in situations such as this.

Discordant desire

There is frequently a discordance in sexual desire among couples, even (or perhaps, especially) after very long relationships. In my geriatric practice, I often hear husbands complaining of the waning responsiveness of their wives and occasionally vice versa. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that a 2017 Newsweek article reported that while younger Americans may be viewed as more sexually progressive, older Americans engage in extramarital affairs more often than younger married people. However, while these extramarital affairs may occur, the fear of breaking up a longstanding family unit often forces the couple to stay together.

Sex is always a good subject for the media. In recent years, a number of articles have explored what in the past might have been thought of as taboo, and which has now entered more mainstream thought and practice. Of note, The New York Times last year published an opinion piece by Karin Jones, titled “What sleeping with married men taught me about infidelity” (April 6, 2018). It is an eye-opening and thoughtful piece that should be read by all those in the predicament of having an unsatisfying sex life within an otherwise reasonably satisfying marriage.

Open relationships

Of course, extramarital relationships are not a new phenomenon. But, these days, some choose to be more frank about such options, leading them to be less of a scandal and more of a mutual arrangement that meets the varying needs of couples, without having dire consequences for the original couple or their children and financial security. In other words, the couple decides, together, that an “open” relationship might work for them.

As noted in a 2011 issue of Psychology Today, “This new openness and discussion about the state of marriage and monogamy are incredibly exciting.” Perhaps it is the array of books and in-depth conversations. Many pieces have been written about so-called open marriages, with all the caveats they entail and rules for couples—some such relationships clearly succeed, while others fail. Ultimately, it depends on whether an open marriage is a better solution than divorce or separation—if, of course, one can juggle emotional and physical relationships with more than one person. Or is such a relationship an unhealthy, poor replacement for what many of us believe is the goal—a lifelong, monogamous marriage, for better and for worse?

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