Greetings readers.  Today’s topic for TCA’s Advice Column (first installment) is marital relations.  There lately seems to be quite a bit of nonsense about marital relations floating around the internet and among more mainstream media outlets.  That, and a post by a new blogger, hastywords, on the twenty-year chill in her marriage, inspired me to clear the air of some of the bullshit. 

Dear Curmudgeon,

Is it true that a marriage is doomed when married couples don’t sleep together in the same bed?   Signed, He thinks sleeping on the couch is sort of like camping out, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Allow me to answer your question with a question:  Was there anything in your marriage vows about sleeping arrangements?  If you or your spouse had jobs that prevented sleeping in the same bed at the same time (overnight travel, shift work, etc.), would you be any less married in the eyes of the Lord, or the state, than if you were snuggly spooned together in the same bed?  I think you know the answer.

While studies have been conducted that purport to show a correlation between marital couples sleeping together and improved health (as reported in a Wall Street Journal article), they should be summarily disregarded as so much nonsense, probably funded by mattress manufacturers.  There is absolutely no way to meaningfully control for all other variables than whether or not a couple sleeps together to determine the impact that sleeping together might have on one’s health.  And while it may very well be that some weak correlation between sleeping together and good health might be established if a study tried hard enough, correlation is not causation.   And causation would likely run exactly backward to what the studies purport to show, in that it is far more likely that poor health causes separate sleeping than that separate sleeping causes poor health.  Answer me this, do you sleep with your spouse when they’ve got the flu, or, do you find other sleeping arrangements?   Exactly.

So, having thoroughly debunked a myth (that sleeping together improves health) possibly on its way to exalted status as an Urban Legend, where it might be adopted into the hipster catechism (“Oh, Serge and I have a strict eight-hour bed schedule as part of our health regimen”), to be bantered about in preening conversations at dinner parties serving artisanal pasta and marinara sauce made strictly from heirloom, organically-grown, tomatoes, allow me to return to the question at hand—does sleeping apart mean a marriage is in trouble?

The answer, of course, is that it depends.  If a married couple who had before always considered sleeping together an integral part of their relationship eventually finds that they so despise each other until sleeping in the same bed is out of the question, then, yes, it would be a marker that marital bliss is gone and marital breakdown and breakup might be imminent.   

But some couples have healthy, happy marriages, and never sleep in the same bed.  My wife’s paternal grandparents were married for over fifty years, and died a day apart at a very old age, Granddad only letting go when he knew Granny was gone.  Yet they never slept in the same bed, nor later in life (when they could afford it), even had the same bedroom. 

Marriage is not a sleeping-arrangement partnership.  If that’s what you thought before you got married; if you hoped through marriage you might assuage your little-girl/big-world loneliness that you most poignantly felt at night when it’s time for bed, then you got married for the wrong reasons.  It’s time to grow up. 

There are a number of perfectly legitimate reasons why a husband might prefer to sleep on the couch that have nothing to do with a weakening marital bond.  Do you have different sleep schedules?  Do you snore?  Are you a light sleeper that wakes up every time he moves around?  Does he have a different wake schedule?  Is the possibility of sex completely foreclosed by bed time?  Any of these and more might be a good reason for your husband to want to sleep apart.  They only indicate marital trouble if you foolishly try to conflate marriage with sleeping in the same bed, an idea that only gained purchase in the last half-century or so. 

Dear Curmudgeon,

My wife and I have been married over fifteen years now.  We almost never have sex anymore.  I’m thinking of straying, but in the meantime, sign me, wanking it in Portland, Oregon.

Though “sleeping together” has become an euphemism for a couple sharing a conjugal relationship, “sleeping together” in the context of marriage often means only what it says, perhaps explaining why so many men prefer couches to the marital bed (see previous answer).   Why bother putting up with another human so close by if there are no benefits to be gained from the proximity?  

Your complaint that your previously monogamous relationship has slipped into quasi-celibacy with time is a common one.  And usually, let’s just be honest here, it is the woman’s fault.  Though men are ill-designed biologically to thrive in a monogamous state, they are even less well-suited for celibacy.  In general, men would have sex with their wives—even wives getting old and out of shape–if their wives would let them. 

Sex in a marriage is hard nut to crack (no double entendre intended).  Unlike sleeping in the same bed, which is not a critical clause in the marital contract, sexual fidelity generally is.  Whether sleeping in the same bed, on the couch, or in strange beds, wives generally do not want their husbands to have sex with other women, even when they themselves don’t want to have sex with them.  The wife in a marriage has a monopoly on the amount of sex supplied to the marriage.  Sometimes the wife supplies an amount of sex reasonably commensurate with demand, but often they don’t, not caring that in so refusing, they have forced their husbands into a situation where they must either violate their marital vows or simply do without.  It is why married men so often lead lives of quiet desperation. 

It seems to me that the female compulsion to strictly enforce marital fidelity among men, and the impulse to conflate marriage with sleeping together in the same bed, arrived at about the same time and for the same reason, a by-product of rising female economic power relative to men.  Half a century ago, women didn’t really expect men to be sexually monogamous.  Look at Jackie O—her husband was openly seduced by Marilyn Monroe, among a host of others—but she just ignored it.   Yes, marriage ostensibly demanded sexual fidelity, but really, what man could actually live like that?  And since men held far greater economic power than women (Jackie O being a perfect example), the women turned a blind eye to it. 

Biology simply hasn’t caught up with economic realities.  The historical male/female relationship—the one eons of evolution have hard-wired into our genes—has been one of male dominance, including taking whichever, and ever how many, sexual partners the male prefers and is capable of securing, and female subordination.  Marriage, even long before technological developments freed women from the necessity of relying on men for survival, was a social compromise, allowing a great many low-status males an opportunity to mate, but with only one woman.  Women needed men in order to survive back then, so were presumably more forthcoming in conjugal relations.  Now they don’t need men at all, and at some point in their sexual lives, inevitably reach the point where they don’t want them either.

So, unless you’re Kennedyesque, you shouldn’t much despair at your lack of available sexual choices beyond your wife.  In an earlier age, you’d probably have not had sex at all.  Within the social compromise that is marriage, the fact that your wife feels no compulsion to keep up her end of the marital bargain (providing sex), while expecting that you keep up yours (remaining faithful), probably speaks to the fact that she just doesn’t economically need you, and has tired of wanting you, as the relentlessly operating law of diminishing marginal returns has turned what sexual desire she may have once had into indifference, or perhaps even revulsion, and it might not even be about you, but about sex in general.  No matter how many silly studies are contrived that claim otherwise, females generally desire sex a great deal less than men. 

Yes, it sucks, but there is little can be done about it.  Keep wanking or find a girlfriend, but be prepared to suffer dire consequences (less for wanking than for girlfriending) if either activity is discovered by your wife.  And no, sex and sleeping together aren’t the same things, and bear little relationship to each other, and the male/female discord and disconnect on sex is hard-wired, so no amount of talking will resolve it once and for all, no matter how much foolishness (see this article, also from the Wall Street Journal) you might otherwise read.

Dear Curmudgeon,

I have been married for over twenty years.  More and more, I find myself suffering episodic intervals of hating everyone around me, including particularly my husband, and even sometimes my kids.   I have a beautiful family and a loving husband.  Why can’t I be happier?  Signed, having it all and wanting none of it, Peoria.

Tolstoy observed that happy families are all alike; unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.  Which is to say, there are any number of ways a family, and the people in it, might be unhappy, but there is only one way to happiness.

Marriage can’t make an unhappy person happy.  If you came into the marriage thinking it would alleviate your need to find happiness from within, which is ever and always the only true source of happiness, then you set your marriage up for failure from the very start.  If you develop that feeling along the way of being married, then you need to refocus and get some sense of perspective.

How to have a happy marriage?  Don’t seek happiness in the marriage.  A marriage should not complete you.  You should come to it a complete person, ready and willing to face the vicissitudes of life on your own terms.  You must understand that another person can never make you a whole one.  And being a whole person requires knowing yourself and being true to who you are. 

But even the happiest of people can have stretches of utter despondency, when they hate their world and everything in it.  And within a marriage, this is a perfectly normal response to the frenzied lifestyle of compromises that marriage and family life entails, particularly in 21st century America.  Even if you know yourself well (perhaps because you know yourself well), there are times when the obligations of communal living—and a family is a communal living arrangement—drag you down, leaving you wondering whether all the pain and sacrifice is even worth it.   In such times, it might be helpful to evaluate your life to see if there are extreme or latent stresses causing your despondency.

I remember one day when the chaplain for the hospital where my son was getting his second bone marrow transplant came by and asked if I was depressed.  It came on the heels of another episode of utter incompetence by his transplant doctors (an incompetence later conclusively proved by his urologist), and an ensuing quite acrimonious exchange between they and me.  I asked him, “Well, my son’s been in this hospital off and on now for over six months.  The transplant doctors proved again how utterly indifferent or incompetent they are.  What do you think?  Am I depressed?  Or just angry, that not only must I deal with caring for my son, but I also must deal with idiots for doctors? “ The point is, sometimes there are perfectly good reasons to feel be angry and despondent, and a bit paranoid perhaps.  And just because you’re paranoid, as the saying goes, does not mean the world isn’t out to get you. 

Asking a marriage or a family to be a sole source of happiness is simply asking too much.  Everyone in the family, including the spouses, should understand that the family is not there to make anyone happy, but is there to aid and support the individuals within it in seeking their own happiness.  That, truly, is the way all happy families are alike—they are comprised of people who don’t expect to find happiness through the family, a socio-economic organization that is not now, and never has been, designed to provide it.

Aside from all that, happiness is not a place.  It is a striving.  If you are unhappy, I suspect it is because you have arrived at a place where there is little left to strive for, and you are blaming the family and your marriage for the ensuing ennui.   Look within your heart, and you will find that there is always some more striving to be had.  The trick is to hold on to what you’ve got, and after twenty years, you’ve surely accumulated quite a lot, while still finding something to energize your heart and mind in its seeking.