Long marriages don't have to be shortchanged on lovemaking

June 29, 1993|By Betsy A. Lehman | Betsy A. Lehman,Boston Globe

June is the month of weddings, and even in this era of premarital activity, sex is in the air. There are the lingerie gifts at bridal showers, the teasing at bachelors' parties. There are the old jokes about wedding nights.

But just as surely, June is the month of wedding anniversaries. And the jokes about long-standing marriages are a little different. People have headaches, not sex. They give their partners excuses, not ecstasy. They're too busy, too tired, too annoyed, too, well, whatever.

It's apparently true, say sex researchers and therapists, that sex becomes less frequent as the years of a marriage go by.

There is little good sex research, mostly because no one wants to fund it, but one respected effort found that sex diminishes over time, whether couples are married, cohabiting or homosexual.

Among married couples together two years or less, 45 percent had sex three or more times a week, reported sociologists Pepper Schwartz and Philip Blumstein of the University of Washington in their 1983 book "American Couples." Among those together 10 years or more, only 18 percent had sex that often.

The number of married couples having infrequent sex, once a month or less, jumped from 6 percent to 15 percent in the two groups.

Is the situation hopeless?

No, and yes, say the therapists. Sex can actually get better over the years, perhaps not as electric or frequent as in the early lusty days, but more free, loving and satisfying as husband and wife get to know themselves and each other better, and as they get better at negotiating what they want.

Not having sex is also OK if both people are satisfied. There's no "correct" amount, says Bernie Zilbergeld, a psychologist from Oakland, Calif., who has written about male sexuality. But more often, at least one of the partners isn't satisfied by a nearly sex-less union. "These days, women as well as men feel that sexual activity and pleasure are their birthright, and they're entitled to it and want it," says Dr. Zilbergeld. "They're having trouble dealing with 'where did it go?' "

Besides, he says, "making love" isn't just a euphemism for sex. "For people who have reasonably good sex, it really can be a making of love and can bond them together and make them feel close for hours or days after. It casts a glow."

Eve P. H. Welts, a Waltham, Mass., social worker, has counseled husbands and wives for 40 years and says her clients today are more able to talk about their sexual needs than ever before. Women, she says, in particular seem more willing to figure out what they want, more open to the idea of masturbating to achieve satisfaction and less likely to leave their husbands guessing, often wrongly, what will please them.

Therapists say that long before someone endures 15 years of unhappy sex, there are things to do to bring back lost pleasure or create a more satisfying sexual relationship.

A locked door helps

Sometimes, it means getting a lock on the bedroom door, so kids don't wander in.

It means knowing some basic facts of sex: Most women do not have orgasms during intercourse; they usually don't get enough clitoral stimulation that way. It's normal for men occasionally to have trouble having an erection and for women to have trouble lubricating. There also can be medical, psychiatric and drug-related reasons for sexual problems, including alcohol use.

Another common male symptom, premature ejaculation, can often be easily remedied, says Suki Hanfling, director of the Human Sexuality Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, N.Y. (Instead of trying to distract yourself in order to delay ejaculation, says Ms. Hanfling, one approach is to focus on the sensations and stop just before you climax. Try this several times, starting during masturbation and then during intercourse.)

Often, making a better sex life starts with making time for each other. Rediscover what recreational activities you both like, whether that means dancing, movies, fishing or sky diving, and find time for fun. Being forever bogged down in dishes, children's homework, errands and yard work will kill romance.

Once in a while, let the grass grow.

"If you don't have blocks of time, when is there going to be sex, never mind creative sex?" asks Karen B. Martin, a psychotherapist at the Sexuality Center of Hillside Hospital, a division of Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Glen Oaks, N.Y. "You do what you can remember to do, in as little time as possible. That's what happens. It becomes the equivalent of housework -- you're just doing it in bed."

Or fantasize

Letting your gaze roam, which at first might seem disloyal and forbidden, can actually be harnessed to a couple's advantage, says Dr. Zilbergeld. If you're attracted to someone else, whether at work, on television or in the movies, don't bury the fantasy -- let it blossom, but with your partner.

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