Practically everybody remembers the first time of making love with a spouse. Practically nobody remembers the 373rd. Love stories are about falling in love, not staying that way.
One wonders what happens in a marriage that has lasted many years. Is there any excitement about staying in love? Can it remain romantic when you climb into bed with the same person night after night?
“It depends on what you mean by romantic,” says one wife of 15 years. “If you mean that can’t-keep-your-hands-off-each-other feeling, then no, you don’t have that. It’s actually better than that, because sex is no longer a performance. You can relax and enjoy what’s happening. That’s what makes it romantic to me. I know I’m loved by someone who really knows me. Nobody can beat that.”
Of all the joys of familiarity, one of the most central is security. You learn to trust this person who handles your body and your emotions so intimately. You can let down the barricades and approach the experience with openness.
More than that, there is the security of having a shared history as lovers, a sense of safety about each other. Given the avalanche of sexual information available today, there is formidable pleasure to “get it right.” Husbands and wives have the comfortable knowledge of all the times their love-making has worked – as well as the knowledge that when it has not, nothing important changed in their relationship.
Whereas in the early stages of love the obsessive desire for each other closes out the rest of the world, intimacy between two people who have been married for many years has room to take in all facets of life. It can be exchanging a look over the head of your child or reaching out to take your husband’s hand at the exact moment he reaches for yours.
Some of the most intimate moments in marriage are those spent just talking, at times when the disappointments of the world seem to have stripped away every defence and you are sad.
Toni remembers a day like that. She’d been excited about having a job again, after years at home with two daughters. An opportunity for promotion came up, and Toni was in contention. After a week of suspense, the decision was made. Another woman got the job. “I felt as if somebody had hit me in the stomach,” Toni says.
She called her husband at his office. “He told me to meet him for lunch. We talked and talked – I told him things about myself I never dreamt I’d tell another human being. And he talked about us, and about our girls. If felt as if I’d come ti him a jumble of broken bits and pieces, and he was putting me back together again, building me up with all the chunks of our life together. When I think about that lunch, it feels to me every bit as intimate as we’ve ever been in bed.”
The core of intimacy is a profound knowledge of each other, and that knowledge takes years to develop. For husband and wives who work at staying in touch – who listen to each other, who share what’s going on whether it’s fascinating or not – intimacy becomes a steadily increasing element of the marriage that enhances all other elements. Within the intimacy of marriage, sex becomes the physical expression of the unity of two people.
What frightens many people is the normal fluctuation of passion within the long time-frame of intimacy. When the fresh excitement of a new love begins to mellow into the gentler security of an established relationship, some people panic and try to find the newness again with somebody else. To make marriage work, you have to step forward into the territory of familiarity and discover, beyond novelty, the intimate warmth of making love with the person you know almost as well as yourself.
Faces do wrinkle, bodies do get pudgier, energy levels do recede, and most people do face an increasing number of niggling ailments. A long lasting love accepts all of these less than agreeable facts. It comes to terms with me. What binds the lovers together is not what they look like, but what they are.
If the physical need for each other feels less all-consuming as time goes by, it can still be intensely satisfying. In anything, it can be better, since like most other skills sex improves with practice.
Range of Moods
There is a particular pleasure in making love for couples in the middle phase of their marriage, when the world around them is the most demanding. The whole intricate machinery of jobs and household has to be kept functioning. The days are relentlessly busy, and in the middle of all this making love can be an island of privacy.
“You know the greatest thing about sex for me?” says Judy (married 12 years, two children). “It’s putting the kids to bed, running a warm bath and getting into the tub with my husband. Were relaxed and we can giggle like kids.”
Explains Jack (married nine years, no children), “Sex does a lot for me, but one of the most important things is just release of tension.” Says Abigail (married seven years, three children): “I sometimes feel that making love is the only grown-up thing I do. All the rest of the time, I have to be doing my best to be a good a mother or a good neighbour. In bed with my husband, I can be whatever I want to be – I just leave all the roles in a pile with my nightgown.”
In the delicious privacy shared by a husband and wife, there can be the whole range of moods in love. Sometimes making love can be routine. It can also be funny or chatty or exquisitely intense. In a long marriage, sex can be experienced in all its permutations, because the two people involved are caught up in the business of living, and their moods will reflect that.
It isn’t that sexual relationships in long-term marriages present no problems. A study of couples in successful marriages, published in 1978 by researchers at Pennsylvania’s University of Pittsburgh, reported a frequency of sexual difficulties similar to that of couples studied by Masters and Johnson. Despite the problems, almost all of the individuals in the study reported that their sexual relationship was satisfactory. When it was good, the sexual sharing added to the overall sense of contentment and affection. When it wasn’t, the rest of the relationship seems to have supplied enough warmth and understanding to make the difficulties less important.
Some therapists even feel that when a married couple does find sexual problems troubling enough to seek counselling, what may help the marriage more is not the improved techniques learnt but the experience of sharing a mutual goal and working together, tenderly and lovingly, to achieve it.
When problems are not so acute, or when people feel they’ve hit a dull patch, many couples take time off by themselves. Says Susan, “When my husband and I are by ourselves, there’s a feeling of real romance all over again.”
Going away together, alone, can provide a temporary return to that blissful first stage. “You have to go away,” one wife says, “even if you just go downtown to a hotel. Otherwise you see the dust under the bed, the dishes in the sink and the briefcase in the hall. You have to leave all that behind.”
When everything is left behind, all the energy that went into running a joint life can be turned into renewing the basis for it – the loving, continuing relationship of a man and a woman who have chosen to move through time together.
Those are the moments that sustain a marriage, and spouses committed to along love build up their own private treasury. It can be lying together in a quiet room while dawn slowly lightens outside the window, holding hands under a restaurant table or coming together after a separation with fresh hunger for each other.
All are ways of making love.