The Secret to Keeping Passion Alive After Decades of Marriage? Hint: It's Not Friendship

An extensive survey reveals what many couples who have preserved their passion for years already know: Love can be sustained and even deepened. A rebuttal to Eva Illouz's downgrading of romance

Illustration.
Alexandra Zuckerman

On my first reading of Eva Illouz’s recent article “Why we don’t celebrate friendship with the same fervor as love,” which was published in this newspaper on February 12, I was bewildered and frustrated.

Utilizing impressive rhetoric, Prof. Illouz presents the failures of romantic love, which she terms a “disease of the imagination,” an experience deriving from “the narrow impulse to possess another person sexually.” Against this, she juxtaposes friendship, which she lauds “because it happens between two people who see and know each other, who share a deep understanding of the world.” In her view, love is an inexhaustible source of suffering and torment, as opposed to friendship, which “cultivates character,” is “a feeling experienced in freedom,” and so forth.

According to Illouz, the problem with romantic love is that it is based on sexual desire, which frequently leads us to choose “as its object someone who will make us suffer, feel uncared for or misunderstood.” As a coup de grace, she notes ironically that according to numberless studies, “the intense state of rapture we feel in love is always doomed to end anywhere between six and 24 months after the initial encounter.” The “ecstasy of love,” she adds, “will always go away; it fades, evaporates from our lives, sometimes turning into the sweetness of attachment and sometimes in the bitterness of burdensome promises we cannot fulfill.”

Ultimately, these developments give rise to “shared lives that never end at all, and keep on staging their own tired exhaustion and powerless rage.” Her remark, “I am not saying that love does not exist, only that the road that leads us to it is a long and arduous one,” reads as a kind of disclaimer that is immaterial in terms of the overall message of her verbal crusade. To say that the picture of romantic love that emerges from Illouz’s article is gloomy would be the understatement of the decade.

As Haaretz’s romantic-relationships correspondent, I am almost insulted by this blow to the honor of romantic relations, though of course my feelings are not the point. The point is that the research tells a completely different story than that told by Illouz. If married life made people as miserable as she claims it does – that fact would emerge clearly in the many studies about happiness that are constantly being conducted. In truth, in the West, married people report higher satisfaction with life than unmarried people, and the ongoing debate in the scientific community revolves around the question of whether there is a causal relationship between the two factors.

Clearly, for example, a finding that carpenters are happier than poets should not be taken to mean that all poets should become carpenters – and for our purposes, the analogy would be that there are quite a few people who will be happier single than married. Still, there is a large segment of the population that prefers married life. In other words, wedlock need not necessarily lead to terminal despair. Quite often it’s extremely joyful.

Let’s now slip between the sheets. Illouz maintains that sexual ardor will fade sooner or later, and with it love. The assumption that a relationship cannot exist without sexual desire is hardly self-evident, of course, but even if the first part of the equation is correct, there is no certainty about the second part. A new study, one of the largest-scale of its kind, which examined the characteristics of the sex lives of men and women and their satisfaction with it, found that a decline in sexual satisfaction through the years of a marriage, while typical, is far from inevitable. At first glance the findings might seem banal, but they constitute impressive evidence that also reinforce some of the conventional wisdom we’ve encountered over the years but might have scorned.

Led by psychology professor David Frederick, from Chapman University, in Orange, California, the research was based on data from an extensive Internet survey conducted by NBC News in 2006. In the study, published last month in The Journal of Sex Research, Frederick’s team analyzed the responses of 38,747 men and women between the ages of 18 and 65; the vast majority were U.S. residents, and all of them had been in a relationship for at least three years. In a conversation with me, Frederick acknowledged that this group is not a representative sample of American society. Nevertheless, he said, it is highly diverse in terms of age, gender and length of relationship.

Eighty-three percent of the study’s respondents stated that they had been satisfied (meaning a grade of 5-7 on a scale of 1-7) with their sex life during the first six months of the relationship. Only half, however, said that they were currently satisfied, and the others assigned a neutral (4) or lower ranking to their present sexual satisfaction.

“If properly nurtured, passion can last for decades,” the researchers write, adding, “Nearly two-thirds of sexually satisfied respondents [and more than one-third of all the participants] reported that their sex lives now were as passionate as in their early days together.”

All that remains is to find out what sets apart this fortunate group, who remain sexually satisfied despite the years that have passed, the births, the children, the wrinkles, the erosion, the excess kilos, etc. The study is packed with fascinating information.

A key finding is that “diversity” in bed is a very potent predictor of satisfaction in sex life. The researchers list 17 types of “sexual variety,” including a light back massage, wearing sexy lingerie, showering together, trying a new sexual position, anal stimulation, anal sex, watching porn together, a romantic vacation – in short, all the things one finds suggested in women’s magazines, but now in real life.

A very strong correlation was found between the overall number of sexually related behaviors the respondents reported trying in the past year, and their level of sexual satisfaction. “Almost half of satisfied and dissatisfied couples read sexual self-help books and magazine articles, but what set sexually satisfied couples apart was that they actually tried some of the ideas,” Frederick is quoted as saying in a Chapman University press release. A similarly strong connection was found with regard to two more types of behavior. One involves creating an appropriate environment – such as lighting a candle, playing music and using humor. Did we laugh, for example, at something funny that happened the last time we had sex?

The second type of behavior relates to – you guessed it – communication. There is a very clear statistical correlation between the number of times a partner expressed him- or herself verbally about the topic during the preceding month – this can include verbal requests concerning the act of love, praise for one’s partner for his/her brilliance in this realm or sending a teasing text message during the day – and satisfaction with their sex life.

It’s also encouraging to discover that there are some aspects of sex life that are not only “preserved” but that actually improve over time, particularly in women. For example, when asked about emotional closeness during sex (these data are for the whole sample, not only the “satisfied” participants), 31 percent of the male respondents replied that this was far more pronounced at the start of the relationship, 41 percent said it’s the same now and 27 percent noted that emotional closeness had increased. Among female respondents, 27 percent said emotional closeness was greater at the beginning, 35 percent that it’s the same now as then and 36 percent that it is higher now.

The data in Frederick’s study are similar with in regard to reaching orgasm: Women reported that they achieve orgasm now more regularly during sex than in the past. As for attraction, about two-thirds of the men reported that they are now as attracted, or more so, to their partner now than at the start of the relationship. The figures are less encouraging among women: Only 51 percent said they feel the same or greater attraction for their partner.

And one last charming statistic: About 75 percent of the men and women who define themselves as satisfied relate that in their last sexual encounter, at least one of the partners said “I love you.” In contrast, slightly fewer than half of the dissatisfied couples related that these words were spoken during the act.

To return to Eva Illouz’s article. Her equation not only downgrades romantic love, it also exaggerates in its exaltation of friendship. The truth is more complex. The choice of friends, too, can stem not from mature, free will but from projections of unconscious mental needs, some of them dark and destructive. In contrast to what she writes, “acquiring a friend” does serve social goals – no one wants to be in the position of being without friends – and in this sense “possessing friends” is a status not far diminished from “possessing a partner.” Friendship, like love, also “greases the wheels of the economy” (as can be confirmed by spa proprietors, who sell pampering packages to “best girlfriends”). Friendship, like love, can be characterized by grinding psychological excavation of one another’s psyches, by exchanges of insults, dramas, screaming and fighting. In a romantic relationship, you can at least have make-up sex.