Marriages can become long-term prisons for silent suffering. Couples experience “prolonged hurt, deep-seated resentment, a lack of forgiveness, virtually no real communication, and zero intimacy.” No wonder the “Gray Divorce” is on the rise. Marriage counselors point out that couples married for long periods of time divorce once the distractions from “career, kids, schools, and community subsides” and underlying long-term issues rise to the surface.
From a man’s perspective, the typical story would run like this: the romance and intimacy are long gone, the wife nags, he remains interested in sex, while the wife seems to have lost interest after childbirth. Initially this may be due to hormones and later, the distractions of a growing child. Eventually a communication gap descends on the relationship. Conversation with other men seems much more interesting, especially when discussing politics and sports, while the wife becomes a source of bother- someone with constant demands and criticism. Women are also actively exiting what they see as dead relationships. Their thinking has shifted, and new questions on happiness and self-fulfillment occupy center stage. Their economic independence and longer lives take precedence.
When two people get married they are likely attracted to each other and believe that they are compatible. What could explain this degeneration into an almost dull and empty existence?
Lets begin with biology
Before we talk about hormones, it is important to understand that sexual desire is shaped by many variables including physical and mental health, and religious beliefs and practices. Any person can consciously repress their natural sexual urges- for example, through following ascetic practices.
Evolution and biology created two different people fundamentally. A man’s testosterone ranges between 280 and 1,100 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL) for adult males, and between 15 and 70 ng/dL for adult females. This represents an evolutionary necessity for a man’s dominant role as a hunter-gatherer, needing more muscle and bone mass, and to make split-second fight-or-flight decisions. Testosterone is key to both a man and a woman’s sexual desire, albeit estrogen also plays a key role for women.
Mayo Clinic states that “…most men maintain at least some amount of sexual interest into their 60s and 70s” when their testosterone decline from age 30 catches up. Their interest in sex is fuelled by the easy availability of porn and supplementation, and regular exercise.
For a woman the menopausal transition begins between 45 and 55 years. “The loss of estrogen and testosterone”, leads to changes in her body and sexual drive. The North American Menopause Society states that “In general, sex drive decreases gradually with age in both men and women, but women are two to three times more likely to be affected by a decline in sex drive as they age.” Johns Hopkins Medicine adds “more than a third of women in perimenopause, or who are postmenopausal, report having sexual difficulties, from lack of interest in sex to trouble having an orgasm.” They attribute this to estrogen taking a nosedive.
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This difference in biological clocks sets the foundation for future trouble as a woman heads into menopause and a man continues to want sex and intimacy (assuming he is physically healthy). However, a 2017 British study found that “Women are more than twice as likely as men to lose interest in sex in a long-term relationship” but they state that this is not because of menopause and instead largely because of “…poor physical and mental health, a breakdown in communication, and an absence of emotional closeness.” A 2020 US US study showed that only about “a quarter of women rate sex as very important, regardless of their age.”
Of course, beyond these studies on sexuality, which can be biased, nature provides us answers to a direct male-female comparison. The biological clock ticks differently for men and women. A physically fit man can father children into his 90s. A woman cannot do so post-menopause without modern fertility treatment. The biological clock ticking differently increases tensions between men and women.
For men, their feelings of closeness to a woman are directly derived from both sex and intimacy. To put it simply, in a relationship, most men cannot love a woman who denies them sex. Dr. Lindsay Gibson states “Women naturally create connections in their lives, so they have other sources of emotional fulfillment that men may only attain through their sexual experiences.”
These basic biological differences also create big differences in thinking. Men rely a lot on intuition and naturally take more risks, while women are more risk-averse and studied in their approach. These differences exacerbate with time and can often lead to divorce.
The social institutions of marriage and divorce
Marriage is an institution created by man for man. The first marriages can be traced back to 2350 BC in Mesopotamia. Back then, marriage was meant to bind women to men and to guarantee that “a man’s children were truly his biological heirs.” It is clear that through marriage, “a woman became a man’s property.” Men who brought home agricultural produce or monies were allowed to have more than one wife or sex interest. In contrast, women were expected to be faithful, give their love and body to their husband, and tend to the house and children. Soon, religious rituals sealed the woman’s role by supposedly divine order.
These days, marriage rates are going down and divorce rates are going up. In four decades, divorce rates around the world have more than doubled. Women now work, make their own money and, as a result, have their own independent identity and ego. Often, they no longer need their husbands economically.
Marriage often tends to put strain on women. Working women in the US contribute more to the housework than men: about 22% more on a weekly basis. Yet attitudes about the traditional role of women in marriage are changing dramatically, especially in Asia. Close to nine out of ten Singaporeans agree that household chores should be shared equally by husband and wife. In Asia, working women are developing a new set of expectations from their spouses. In practice, women still play a greater role in cleaning, cooking and child caring. Men not participating in household chores increasingly causes marital dissatisfaction among women. Many, especially in Asian countries, still hold traditional ideas while women have adopted more modern ones.
New expectations from men are arising not only within marriage but also within other realms of social life. Men may or may not be able to deliver on these expectations. For example, many argue that women are better teachers for children in the primary years. Yet the expectation that men play an equally important role in teaching children increases marital tensions, especially when they fail to step up to the plate. The COVID-19 pandemic and work-from-home imposed new strains and worsened some long-term issues, “causing spikes in break-ups and divorces.”
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For decades, poverty has been associated “with domestic abuse as both a cause and a consequence.” Furthermore, “discrepancy between education, income, or occupational status between partners” also increases women’s risk of getting abused. With increasing education and modern expectations women are less willing to put up with abuse and walk away from toxic relationships.
With greater social freedoms in modern society, infidelity has increased. More interaction between men and women, especially at the workplace, has led to a rise in extramarital affairs. Around “15-20% of married couples cheat,” and 20-40% of divorces are caused by cheating.
What marriage counselors advise
Marriage counselors ask couples to keep their expectations realistic, to avoid comparisons with their parents, to avoid unnecessary criticisms, and instead try to draw out the best in their spouse. For example, splitting the housework by what the spouse is good at, in a mutually agreed upon manner, and not keeping score afterwards helps. If a couple aim for a precise 50:50 split then they would have to constantly keep score.
Couples are advised to give their spouse space to allow them to continue to grow and achieve their full potential based on their unique interests and skills. This includes being mutually kind and respectful through active listening. Offer your spouse encouragement rather than criticism. You are advised to be intentionally gentle, listen intently, and validate your spouse.
Accepting one’s spouse as they are and encouraging them to do the best they can is important. Counselors advise against bringing parents into marital issues, but of course this does not cover situations of psychological intimidation, violence, crime, or infidelity. Conflict-mongering friends are best left out of social events.
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Counselors ask us to share our feelings with our partners, to be assertive but avoid being angry and hurtful in such exchanges, to control our anger and make up in a reasonable timeframe, e.g. 24-48 hours after a clash. Avoidance by sleeping separately could lead to long term, or even permanent distance between couples. Furthermore, the “silent treatment” is not a viable stage in a relationship, for research has shown that “the act of ignoring or excluding activates the same area of the brain that is activated by physical pain.”
Another common area of conflict is differences in parenting styles. Counselors recommend moderation of different methods, and to set up “family rules” to which everyone can agree, including rules for disciplining the children. Avoid undermining the spouse. Each person is good at different things and parenting should not become a competitive sport.
Counselors urge us to maintain the allure of sex and intimacy, to take the trouble to dress up and be charming, to avoid getting too comfortable or taking each other for granted, and to check in with each other as a friend and confidant every single day. They ask couples to go on dates and make their anniversaries special. They advise couples to plan time for sex even when energy is low. The sweet spot is sex once a week for healthy relationships.
With advancing age, intimacy is much more than sex. Holding hands, hugging, caressing, mutual massages, and even just sitting close together, all add value. It also includes emotional intimacy, i.e., a deep feeling of closeness and trust. Intimacy is important for good sex. It is also important to avoid porn addiction in order to ensure true intimacy. Couples that stop being intimate run the risk of love being replaced by anger, resentment and eventually hatred.
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Along with intimacy, a couple must have a deep friendship based on shared values and interests. True friendship lasts a lifetime and brings with it an emotional connection said to be five times more important than physical intimacy. Where friendship does not exist, the underlying risks to a couple’s marriage easily come to the fore. For example, men and women differ in their thinking. Men take excessive risks and often miss emotional cues. Women hold grudges for longer. If a lack of communication enters this already wobbly man-woman equation, there is little hope for the continuation of a relationship.
Little things matter. Being grateful for things that your spouse does is important, including saying “thank you” for the small stuff. Gratitude promotes a cycle of generosity. Warm, smiling “good mornings” and greetings on meeting at the end of a hard day’s work, keep up the feeling of being wanted. Small gestures, such as making a drink for your tired spouse, enhances that bond. Connecting with and showing concern for your spouse’s family is always a good idea. Cooking together also helps to strengthen relationships.
Lastly, with economic downturns and rapidly changing technology, retrenchments are becoming more common. It’s important for couples to face such situations jointly, to discuss and deal with important financial issues including the monthly mortgage, school, food and utility bills. To “do the numbers,” evaluate different scenarios, come up with a disaster plan and take joint action improves bonding.
Marriage can be a wonderful institution, leading to a happy family across generations if handled right. When both partners are committed to a thriving marriage, it has a fair chance of survival. However, both divorce rates and remarriage rates are bound to go up. So will live-in relationships and single parents. Perhaps it is also time for society to legalize commercial sex and regulate it effectively. In an increasingly complex and busy modern society, different models need to coexist.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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