Why the sizzle fizzles

Are married couples really fated to lose that spark?

Illustration By Frank Harris

Open up the love lines
To learn more about Brian Martin’s counseling, call 891-0973.

Sex with just one person until death do us part may be a scary concept for some, but for others, sex after marriage is downright, well, sexy.

The idea that sex becomes less satisfying after marriage is a myth, said Marianne Paiva, who teaches Sociology of Sexuality at Chico State. Most married couples say that when they have sex it is satisfying, although for some couples it may be less frequent as time passes.

American culture is very confused about sex—who is supposed to want it and when. Of women, she said: “You’re supposed to be a Victoria’s Secret model, but a mom, too; virginal, but also seductive.”

Love begins with the infatuation stage, which includes lust and the excitement of falling in love. That initial phase is eventually followed by marriage and planning a life together. After marriage, the logistics surrounding parenthood further complicate matters. All of these things distract couples from their sexual relationship, Paiva said.

Often, it’s not until the children are 4 to 5 years old that couples begin to realize that they are not having sex as frequently as they would like. At this point, one way for them to strengthen their sexual relationship is to seek counseling.

Less than 5 percent of couples seek professional help, while more than 65 percent need it, said Brian Martin, a marriage and family therapist who owns the Chico-based practice New Beginnings.

“Five to 10 percent of the people I see come in with sex as their primary problem,” Martin said. “But more than half of the couples we see have issues that include sexuality.”

Even though sexual images are everywhere, sex is still seen as being extremely private and people are often embarrassed to seek help for their issues, Martin said. But with counseling, those problems are treated like anything else.

“It’s just like taking your car to the mechanic and saying the transmission is slipping,” he said. “It’s very normalized.”

So what can a couple do? Martin suggests starting with honest conversations about both partners’ needs and boundaries. Rather than placing blame on each other, he said, it’s important to focus on the problem.

“It’s not a him or her issue,” he said. “It’s an us issue.”

Like Paiva, Martin runs across a gamut of sexual myths.

One stereotype people have about sex is that its frequency decreases with age, but sex drive is something that is very individual and fluctuates over time, he said. Some couples may have sex four times a week, while others only once every four weeks, for example. But both couples are normal; a problem exists only if one partner is unhappy.

Sexual issues arise for a variety of reasons, but a common hang-up occurs as people age and their bodies change, creating a lack of confidence. Sometimes people don’t feel good enough for their partner, so they hold back and then their partner feels rejected. Often times, this becomes a vicious cycle, Martin said.

Other problems may stem from a society that confuses sex with intimacy. Martin said we live in a very impatient culture, and emphasized that getting to know someone takes time. He pointed out that many cultures are focused on the connection between two people, but we tend to be very sex-centered.

“Western culture is goal-directed toward an orgasm,” Martin said.

Religion also plays a role in sexuality after marriage. Some view sex solely as a means for procreation, while others look at it as a spiritual experience, he said.

Martin admits that after marriage the sexual sparks between couples tend to fizzle. The excitement of discovering someone new wanes, and while sex may remain the same quantitatively, the fireworks don’t always last. On the upside, he said love usually deepens.

“It’s a compassionate love more characterized by closeness,” he said.