Eleanor Tucker is fascinated by evidence that children’s imaginary playmates are more widespread than ever. Especially as she used to have one herself …
In the 1970s, when I was at primary school, I had a friend. He was the sort of friend who would nowadays alert social services. Because he wasn’t a child. And he wasn’t a girl. No, he was in his 30s. He had a beard. And his name was Klas.
Klas was my imaginary friend. He wasn’t about all the time, because he lived near my grandmother in a white house by the station, about half an hour’s drive from ours. But as I grew up, he was alluded to. Mentioned. Blamed, even. If I talked when nobody was around, it was to Klas. If I sometimes played without my sister, I was playing with Klas.
It seemed quite normal at the time to have an imaginary friend with a Scandinavian-sounding name and facial hair. But lots of things pass for normal when you’re a kid. By the time I went to secondary school, Klas had stopped visiting. I filed him away under “the past” and forgot about him, until a book I read recently jogged my memory and I mentioned him to my husband. He raised an eyebrow. “He doesn’t sound like your average imaginary friend, if there is such a thing any more …”
It turns out that there is. The book, Who Framed Klaris Cliff? by Nikki Sheehan, creates a world where imaginary friends have become the enemy. It’s a young adult novel that tells the story of Joseph, an ordinary boy with an imaginary friend called Klaris who finds himself in the firing line in a world that has grown paranoid about imaginary friends. Anyone found harbouring an imaginary person is set for the “cosh”, an operation that destroys your imagination so that the imaginary friend has nowhere to live.
As part of her research, Sheehan discovered that rather than being an outdated phenomenon, a reminder of simpler times, imaginary friends might actually be more common nowadays. But why? First, it’s probably just a more accurate representation of the way that children play. “For most of the 20th century the prevailing attitude was that imaginary playmates were a sign of insecurity and latent neurosis, so people may have been less inclined to admit to such flights of fancy.”
Now imaginary friends are mainstream. Switch on CBeebies and you’ll find Lola, of Charlie & Lola, chatting to Soren Lorensen, her Nordic-sounding invisible playmate. Maybe he knows Klas.
Sheehan also suggests that within smaller family units, children these days are more likely to play in a certain solitary way, which creates an environment that is welcoming to imaginary friends. As part of her research, she spoke to Anna Roby, from the Max Planck Child Study Centre in Manchester, who found that half of the children she interviewed with imaginary friends were indeed first or only children. “But making up friends is not necessarily an indicator of loneliness,” Sheehan says.
Imaginary friends come in a huge range of guises, as educational psychologist Karen Majors of the East London Consortium of Educational Psychologists and Institute of Education discovered. They might be smaller versions of the children themselves; humans or sometimes animals; based on real people or TV characters; single or multiple; and varied in terms of gender, age and temperament.
Imaginary companions were also reported as sometimes “having lives away from the child and showing independence of will”, Majors says.
This describes my own friend, Klas. He didn’t even care to live that locally. Majors explains that when imaginary companions are not always compliant and show unfriendly behaviour, this serves to increase the interest of the child. After all, who wants to be surrounded by yes men?
Klaris, the imaginary friend in Sheehan’s novel, was certainly not compliant. So what led her to create a character like this in the first place? “A strange thing,” says Sheehan. “A recurring imaginary friend: she was a girl of about nine or 10 whose name began with the letters ‘Al’ – she was imagined by my brother, myself, and decades later, my own daughter.
“In all three cases, she was nice but bossy – like a big sister. Was this just a coincidence or was something else going on? When she was reincarnated the third time I decided to write about imaginary friends, and among the many fascinating things I found in my research was the fact that in some places, including Japan, there are people who believe that imaginary friends are protective spirits who watch over children. Sometimes they are dead ancestors and sometimes just body-less beings who find themselves needed. I liked that idea, and from there grew Klaris, and a whole world where imaginary friends had substance, free will and people prepared to defend them.”
Majors’ work certainly reinforces the idea of imaginary friends being “needed” – to overcome boredom and provide companionship or entertainment, to help express feelings and even for support during difficult times. Intrigued by the idea that imaginary friends have a purpose, I asked around – had anyone I know imagined one? I was surprised how often the answer was yes.
Julie Mayhew’s experience was the first on Majors’ list, and her imaginary friends came in the form of siblings. “I was an only child and would watch my school friends fighting and bickering with their siblings, mesmerised by it. How could they be so angry with them one minute and laughing with them the next? It seemed so unpredictable and exciting. I wanted to experience that. So when I was about eight I created my own brothers and sisters.
“I had a much older brother, who was probably my favourite: level-headed and protective, though sometimes indifferent, which was annoying. I had an older sister who was nothing like me. I was a good, quiet girl – she was blonde and outrageous, always getting into dramas that I could tut and gasp at. Then I had a little sister, who was created more in my image. But I had to help do her homework – such a chore. I even went to the lengths of finding pictures of models in the Grattan and Littlewoods catalogues that looked most like how I imagined them and cutting them out.”
Lucy Inglis went down the television character route. “My imaginary friend was Zebedee. Growing up in an isolated village, there were no other girls my age to make friends with, so I suppose I invented my own. I was a huge fan of The Magic Roundabout and Zebedee was one of my first words. My mother soon realised I was holding extended conversations with a puppet on a spring as if he were really by my side, independent of the programme. We did everything together and, of course, if I did anything wrong, Zebedee was the real culprit. This lasted into the first year of school when, sadly, reality got in the way of an excellent friendship.”
It’s no coincidence that the people keenest to tell me about their imaginary friends are women. According to Marjorie Taylor, of the University of Oregon and author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, boys and girls are involved in imaginary play to the same extent, but while girls are likely to invent companions, boys tend to impersonate imaginary characters instead.
Girls often create imaginary friends who need nurturing, but the characters impersonated by boys are often “super competent” and might be the embodiment of the child’s own aspirations. I see this in my own children – Jake, five, is never happier than when he is “being” King Superman or a variation on this theme, while Phoebe, although only three, is showing a tendency towards smaller, invisible playmates who need to be looked after in some way.
Catherine Doran’s experience is typical of this. “My two imaginary friends, Jolene and Carly, sat on my left shoulder. I talked to them a lot in my head, telling them both what I was doing and my plans. Very often they became my conscience, too – I would talk over an idea with them and if it seemed like a bad one they would battle with each other about how to tell me – inevitably I listened. I think it made me a very good child.”
In the same way that her main character, Joseph, has to delve into the depths of family life to escape the “cosh”, Sheehan turned detective to get to the bottom of her own recurring imaginary friend.
“I spoke to my mum, Pat. Realising that I was starting to sound like a sideshow clairvoyant, I asked if there was anyone in the family who died young whose name began with an A. She went quiet for a moment, then told me about her sister Annie.
‘Annie’s heart had been irreparably damaged by rheumatic fever. The doctor would come and see her once a week and charge 1/6, which the family couldn’t afford, but there was nothing they could do. Although she was laid up much of the time following her diagnosis, the charismatic Annie bossed the family around from her bed, and when things weren’t going her way, she would grasp her chest and groan until they did. Annie died from heart failure aged 14. Those were the days before family therapy and grief counselling, and now that I have teenagers of my own I can’t imagine the effect this would have had on my grandparents and their eight children.
“So there she was, my imaginary friend: Auntie Annie. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I think children can recreate and embroider the story of someone who has gone before. That’s why in Who Framed Klaris Cliff?, imaginary friends who have once been real people slip into children’s heads while they’re playing make believe. Annie’s death marked my family so profoundly that her memory was passed on to the next generation.”
Sheehan’s book is as thought-provoking as it is moving. When I put it down, I started thinking about Klas again. Was he a provider of entertainment and companionship? I don’t think so: with a sister so close in age I had a playmate by my side all during my childhood. Was he an emotional support? Klas came and went as he pleased, and I didn’t recall ever confiding in him. So maybe, like Sheehan’s recurring imaginary friend, he was some kind of protective spirit. A dead ancestor? I looked over to ask my husband what he thought, but I didn’t need to. There he was: a man, bearded, in his 30s (until fairly recently). Suddenly, I knew who Klas was.
Reader, I married him.
Read more →
There’s a reason why opposites attract, says Lori Gottlieb. She argues that couples who are best friends and split the chores and childcare have far less sex
Not long ago, I was at a dinner party with several couples in their 40s, all married except for my boyfriend and me. The mood was jovial until, over dessert, one guest made an offhand joke about internet porn. His wife took issue and, during a tense back-and-forth between them, the rest of us sensed that we were about to learn way too much about their personal lives. Fortunately, another husband deftly manoeuvred to a safe topic for middle-aged parents (kids and screen time!) and after a lively discussion about iPads, we made our excuses to leave.
In the car, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “I bet there won’t be any sex happening in their bedroom tonight.”
He smiled and shook his head. He predicted that it would be the hosts who would be the least likely to have sex that night.
I thought he was kidding. This couple were my “model marrieds”, true equals who share the housework and childcare, communicate openly and prioritise each other’s careers. The best friends of happy-couple cliche. Earlier in the evening, I watched them work together in the kitchen, cheerfully cooking and cleaning: she bringing out the hors d’oeuvre; he chopping and dicing. When their six year old woke up with a nightmare, they agreed wordlessly that he would be the one to soothe her. It was the kind of marriage many wish for.
“Exactly,” my boyfriend said. “Least likely.”
Marriage is hardly known for being an aphrodisiac, of course, but my boyfriend was referring to a particularly modern state of marital affairs. Today, according to census data in the US, where I live, 64% of marriages with children under 18, both husband and wife work. There’s more gender-fluidity when it comes to who brings in the money, who does the laundry and dishes, who drives the car and plaits the kids’ hair, even who owns the home. A vast majority of adults under 30 say that this is a good thing, according to a Pew Research Centre survey. They aspire to what’s known in the social sciences as an egalitarian marriage, meaning that both spouses work and take care of the house and that the relationship is built on equal power, shared interests and friendship. But the very qualities that lead to greater emotional satisfaction in peer marriages, as one sociologist calls them, may be having an unexpectedly negative impact on these couples’ sex lives.
A study called Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage, which appeared in the American Sociological Review last year, surprised many, precisely because it went against the logical assumption that as marriages improve by becoming more equal, the sex in these marriages will improve too. Instead, it found that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex. Specifically, if men did all of what the researchers characterised as feminine chores such as folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming – the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do – then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times a month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, such as taking out the trash or fixing the car. It wasn’t just frequency that was affected, either – at least for the wives. The more traditional the division of labour – meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones – the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction.
Some might view a study like this with scepticism – correlations don’t establish causation, and especially when it comes to sex, there’s always a risk of reporting bias and selective sampling, not to mention the mood of a subject at the time of the survey. What’s more, while this study used the most recent nationally representative data that included measures of sexual frequency and a couple’s division of labour, it was drawn from information collected in the 1990s. (Julie Brines, an author of the chores study, explained, however, that many studies on housework since then show that not much has changed in terms of division of labour.)
But as a psychotherapist who works with couples, I’ve noticed something similar to the findings. That is, it’s true that being stuck with all the chores rarely tends to make wives desire their husbands. Yet having their partner, say, load the dishwasher doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on their libido, either. Many of my colleagues have observed the same thing. No matter how much sink-scrubbing and grocery-shopping the husband does, no matter how well husband and wife communicate with each other, no matter how sensitive they are to each other’s emotions and work schedules, the wife does not find her husband more sexually exciting, even if she feels both closer to and happier with him.
I first noticed this while doing a year-long training in marriage therapy. I was seeing a couple who had been married for five years and wanted to work out some common kinks related to balancing their respective jobs, incomes and household responsibilities in, as the wife put it, “an equal way”. Over the course of treatment, the couple reported more connection, less friction and increased happiness. One day, though, when their issues seemed largely resolved and I suggested discussing an end to their therapy, the husband brought up a new concern: his wife now seemed less interested in having sex with him. He turned to her and asked why. Was she still attracted to him? After all, he wondered, why did she appear less interested now that their relationship seemed stronger in all the ways she wanted?
Brines believes the quandary many couples find themselves in comes down to this: “The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.” In other words, in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered.
It’s interesting to note that when I asked Justin Garcia, a research scientist at the Kinsey Institute, whether lack of gender differentiation affects the sex lives of gay couples, he said that male couples, who have more sex than lesbian couples, tend to differentiate by choosing partners sexually unlike themselves – who, say, want to be in the more submissive sexual position – and that lesbians don’t follow as much of a pattern of seeking their sexual opposites.
I posed the same question to Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington who coined the term “lesbian bed death” and she pointed out that gay male couples differentiate from each other in other ways, too. For gay men, she said, “the initial filter is erotic, so they’re more likely to end up with somebody who’s very different in terms of education or social class”. But, she continued, “a gay woman thinks like the heterosexual woman who asks: Do we share common goals? Do we like to do things together? Is he smart?” She believes that lesbian and heterosexual couples share sexual challenges because both relationships involve women who tend to seek similar mates. As she put it, most men, regardless of sexual orientation, prioritise the erotic, but “heterosexual men have to deal with heterosexual women”.
Reading this on mobile? Click here to watch
This isn’t to say that egalitarian heterosexual couples aren’t happy. Lynn Prince Cooke, professor of social policy at the University of Bath, found that American couples who share breadwinning and household duties are less likely to divorce. And Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History, says that having a partner who does housework and childcare has become a bigger factor in women’s marital satisfaction than many other factors that used to predict marital happiness, such as a man’s level of income or shared religious beliefs.
The chores study seems to show that women do want their husbands to help out – just in gender-specific ways. Couples in which the husband did plenty of traditionally male chores reported a 17.5% higher frequency of sexual intercourse than those in which the husband did none. These findings, Brines says, “might have something to do with the fact that the traditional behaviours that men and women enact feed into associations that people have about masculinity and femininity”.
She calls these associations and behaviours sexual scripts. Men and women, she said, are continuously sending out cues that signal attractiveness to a potential partner, and often these cues involve “an ongoing reminder of difference and the sense of mystery and excitement that comes with the knowledge that the other person isn’t you”.
When I asked Esther Perel, a couples therapist whose book Mating in Captivity addresses the issue of desire in marriage, about the role sexual scripts play in egalitarian partnerships, she said: “Egalitarian marriage takes the values of a good social system – consensus-building and consent – and assumes you can bring these rules into the bedroom. But the values that make for good social relationships are not necessarily the same ones that drive lust.” In fact, she continued, “Most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we’ll demonstrate against during the day.”
Power – and the act of balancing it – is a common topic with the couples I see in therapy. They are eager to talk about levelling the domestic playing field but tend to feel awkward about bringing the concept of power into conversations about sex, mostly because it can feel so confusing.
One woman in her late 30s, for instance, who has been in a peer marriage for 10 years, said during couples therapy that when she asked her husband to be more forceful, “rougher” in bed, the result was comical.
“He was trying to do what I wanted,” she explained, “but he was so … careful. I don’t want him to ask, ‘Are you OK?’ I want him not to care if I’m OK, to just, you know, not be the good husband and take charge.” And yet, she said, his caring and his concern that she’s OK with what he’s doing are what she loves so much about him in every other area of their marriage, ranging from which brand of toilet paper to buy to what to feed their children to where their money is spent and which nights each of them can stay late at work. “I don’t want him to take charge like that with anything else!” she said.
A desire for equality, and the lack of desire that equality can create, may make scientific sense, even as it challenges conventional wisdom. As Daniel Bergner has written in his book , many studies show that women often report fantasies, such as those involving submission, that tend to be inconsistent with our notion of progressive relationships.
But Pepper Schwartz says that while women may have always had these types of fantasies, now they have permission to give voice to them because of how much power they have in real life. “The more powerful you are in your marriage, and the more responsibility you have in other areas of your life, the more submission becomes sexy,” Schwartz says. “It’s like: ‘Let me lose all that responsibility for an hour. I’ve got plenty of it.’ It’s what you can afford once you don’t live a life of submission.” Married women, she adds, may have had a very different relationship to their fantasies in the 50s, but even so, “this mixture of changing gender roles and sexual negotiation is tricky”.
So tricky, in fact, that when I was speaking about relationships at a conference and mentioned that I was writing about this topic, a large group of women who had just waxed poetic about Fifty Shades of Grey suddenly seemed outraged. Was I saying people can’t have good sex in egalitarian marriages? (No, I wasn’t.) Isn’t marriage better overall when partners have equal power? (In my opinion, yes.) Then why write about this kind of thing? (Because when a roomful of women who just raved about Fifty Shades of Grey don’t want me to write about “this kind of thing”, that tells me it should be talked about.)
Men, of course, can feel just as uneasy with overt expressions of power in marriages that are otherwise based on equality. During a couples session, one woman in her early 40s said that it wasn’t until she came across some porn scenes her husband had viewed online that she felt comfortable telling him about her fantasies, which happened to be very similar to what she found. She thought he’d be thrilled, but although he enacted the scenes with her, she was surprised by his lack of enthusiasm.
For this couple, the experiment felt so awkward that they quickly reverted to their routine: sex in the usual roles and positions during a window between 10.30pm and 11pm when they were both tired but not yet asleep. When I turned to her husband for his perspective, he seemed relieved that he could express his puzzlement.
“It’s nice,” he said about the sex they have. “It’s not superhot all the time, but it’s really nice. I’m attracted to her and I like being with her, and I’m very happy with our sex life. I don’t know what she expects. If I don’t clean up the bathroom, if I don’t give her equal time with her work, if I make a decision without consulting her, she wouldn’t want that. I’m so used to interacting with her as an equal – and I also want that – but I like what we have, and occasionally I like getting the other stuff on the internet. Isn’t being a good husband and father and wanting to have semi-respectful sex with my wife enough? Before we got married, we always said we’d have a 50-50 marriage, and you’d think that would be great for our sex life, but instead it’s the one area where we’re having trouble. Everything else is great. It’s the sex we don’t agree on.”
He took a deep breath before adding: “I know what a 50-50 marriage should be like. But what is 50-50 sex supposed to be like?”
Reading this on mobile? Click here to watch
Sex in any marriage is idiosyncratic and complex – and if it’s consensual and enjoyable, it’s nobody’s business, frankly. But the idea that married sex should be steamy is reflected in our culture.
“The passionate marriage used to be a contradiction in terms,” Esther Perel, the couples expert, told me. The quality of sex in marriage – and not just the frequency – is a relatively new conversation that has come about with more egalitarian marriages. In today’s marriages, she said, “we don’t just want sex; it has to be intimate sex. It has to be transcendent and self-actualising”.
Which brings me back to the dinner party where that husband made a joke about internet porn. The conversation started innocuously enough, with the husband noting that with men and women both balancing the responsibilities of work and household, even sex needs to be outsourced sometimes. By day’s end, he said, men feel so worn out that they, too, “get headaches” because they don’t necessarily have the energy to make sex happen or, more specifically, to make it happen in the way their wives want it to. The modern marital tableau, he quipped, is two overwhelmed people trying to relax before bed: he on Pornhub, she on Pinterest. Then they kiss and go to sleep.
The men at the dinner party laughed; the women smiled uneasily. His wife seemed perplexed. If men found release on Pornhub, what about women’s sexual needs? That’s when things got dicey. Without missing a beat, the husband deadpanned, “Vibrators do for modern men what dishwashers did for modern women.” His wife became upset, calling the comment selfish. As we averted our gazes, I’m guessing we were all thinking the same thing: how impossible it often feels for two exhausted equals to meet each other’s sexual needs.
In Marriage, A History, Coontz writes that one recent marital development “is that husbands have to respond positively to their wives’ requests for change”. Yet no matter how many requests wives make and how hard their husbands try to accommodate them, the women may still end up disappointed. After all, women are now coming into marriage with sexual histories and experiences on a par with men’s, leading to expectations that are difficult to replicate in any marriage, especially now that people live longer and will be having sex, presumably with the same person, for decades more.
Similarly, older couples who can now wait and marry for love have less time together during their sexual primes and, if kids are in the plan, they may even miss that year or two of newlywed abandon. (Ask a 40-year-old couple trying and failing to conceive how much fun the sex is.) Pepper Schwartz, who serves as the American Association of Retired Persons’ relationships expert, says that 50 year olds of the past were often grandparents without great expectations about their sex lives. Now those same 50 year olds might have a 10 year old, placing them in a life stage formerly occupied by people in their 30s and subjecting them to pressure to maintain the culture’s view of “youthful sexuality” in marriage, especially with the ubiquity of Viagra and Estrace.
One day I was talking about these expectations with a friend, a 41-year-old married father. He and his wife, who have two young children, are in a minority in their social circle. She takes care of the house and kids, and he provides all of the income. He said that he and his wife consider their sex life to be good. “We use X number of positions and various forms of oral and manual stimulation, and we’re happy as clams,” he said. “But a lot of people think it’s supposed to be more exciting than this.”
He believes that we have to accept that we’re not going to get everything we want in our marriages and our sex lives, instead of constantly complaining about it or wondering if we might not be compatible with our spouse. “How much are you going to let the 10% of your differences dictate your future?” he asked. “Is anal sex more important than your marriage?”
I shared my friend’s observation with Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute who studies sexual attraction. She noted that even people who are satisfied with their sex lives often crave more nowadays. She told me about a study she conducted that asked participants who had had affairs why they did so. Fifty-six per cent of her male subjects and 34% of her female subjects said they were “happy” or “very happy” in their partnerships but cheated anyway.
While past research has shown that men have higher rates of infidelity than women, those rates are becoming increasingly similar, particularly in younger people in developed countries, where recent studies have found no gender differences in extramarital sex among men and women under 40. This may be because younger women are more likely to be in peer marriages – and conditions in peer marriages make female infidelity more probable than in traditional ones. A large national study in the late 1990s found that women who were more educated than their husbands were more likely to engage in sexual infidelity than if they were less educated than their husbands. Studies also find that people who work outside the home and whose partners remain in the home cheat more – and the traditional gender roles in this situation are now frequently reversed. As women increasingly work in professions that are not female-dominated, they have more sexual opportunities with peers than ever.
There’s a phrase I often use in therapy with couples – “competing needs”. What do partners do when they have needs that directly conflict with those of their spouses? What if both have to work on the same weekend or be out of town at the same time? Who goes to the school play or compromises without feeling resentful? It used to be that husbands and wives operated largely in their own spheres with so little overlap that these questions rarely came up. But women now make up almost half of the US labour force, and 23% of married mothers with children under 18 have a higher income than their husbands. In fact, total income is higher in families in which the woman is the primary breadwinner. When a 2010 study of business-school graduates asked, “What is success to you?”, surprisingly, it was more women than men who chose “career goals” while more men than women picked “personal growth”.
As Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, encourages women to “lean in” – by which she means that they should make a determined effort to push forward in their careers – it may seem as if women are truly becoming, as Gloria Steinem put it, “the men we want to marry”. But these professional shifts seem to influence marital stability.
Lynn Prince Cooke found that though sharing breadwinning and household duties decreases the likelihood of divorce, that’s true only up to a point. If a wife earns more than her husband, the risk of divorce increases. Interestingly, Cooke’s study shows that the predicted risk of divorce is lowest when the husband does 40% of the housework and the wife earns 40% of the income.
Ian Kerner, a sexuality counsellor and the author of She Comes First, sees couples struggle to find a ratio that works. “I work a lot with stay-at-home dads and men who work from home,” he said, “and one thing I hear a lot is that in theory they’re really happy balancing flexible work with stay-at-home responsibilities, while their wives are out working full-time in corporate jobs. But at the same time, a common complaint is that mum comes home and feels guilty for being away all day, and s o much time has to be made up connecting with the children, who take first priority, that these dads feel lost in the mix.”
In many couples, Kerner says, the wives start to feel disgruntled because their husbands get to see more of the kids and the husbands, whose wives are controlling more of the spending, start to feel “financially emasculated”. Sometimes, he says, a vicious cycle begins. The husband feels marginalised and less self-confident, which causes the wife to lose respect for and desexualise him. Under these circumstances, neither is particularly interested in sex with the other.
Frequently I hear from husbands and wives who say they want progressive marriages, in which women have the option to do anything their husbands do and vice versa, then start to feel uncomfortable when that reality is in place. And that discomfort, more often than not, leads to less sexual desire – on both sides.
Recently, a male therapy client who came to me because he began feeling depressed said that he had tremendous empathy for what women have been voicing all these years. “I have to hold down a job, I have to juggle the kids’ schedules, I have to get dinner on the table three nights a week, I have to volunteer at school, I have to get the bills sent in each month and on top of this I have to be the fun dad and the sensitive husband and then be ready to romance my wife if I want sex before bed – usually after listening to the rundown of her day and going over the list of what needs to happen the next day,” he said. “I rarely even have time to get to the gym, which is the one thing that relieves my stress.” As he tries to balance work and parenthood and his marriage and household responsibilities, he’s going “a bit mad – and I mean that in both senses of the word”.
I asked how interested he was in having sex with his wife, and he looked at me and laughed.
I met my boyfriend online, and like many marriage-minded people clicking on search criteria, I was seeking a partner similar in intellect, background and interests. I shared this with Betsey Stevenson, a well-known economist who studies relationships, and asked how she feels about so much similarity. In her view, she said, going through life with a peer is a positive development.
Reading this on mobile? Click here to watch
“It used to be,” she explained, “that you lived your life in one way, and he lived his in another. With equal partners, there’s more of a sense of people who are kindred spirits. Now you have people who have similar interests and lifestyles.”
On an emotional level, “kindred spirits” sounds lovely. But when it comes to sexual desire, biology seems to prefer difference. Helen Fisher, for one, pointed me to the “sweaty T-shirt” experiment, conducted in 1995 by the Swiss researcher Claus Wedekind. He had women sniff the unwashed T-shirts of various men and asked them which scent they were most attracted to. Most women selected the T-shirts of men with genes markedly different from their own in a certain part of the immune system. Other studies confirmed these findings. Presumably this attraction to genetic variation is an evolutionary adaptation to prevent incest in our ancestral environments and improve the survival prospects of offspring. Interestingly, a later experiment found that women partnered with men who had genes similar to their own in this part of the immune system were more likely to be unfaithful; and the more of these genes a woman shared with her partner, the more she was attracted to other men.
There’s an important exception, though. These findings didn’t apply when women were on the birth-control pill. They responded differently to the T-shirt test by selecting partners who had similar immunity and were less “other”. One study even suggested that when “a woman chooses her partner while she is on the pill and then comes off it to have a child, her hormone-driven preferences change, and she may find she is married to the wrong kind of man”.
Of course, we are not driven by biology alone. There were certainly some cultural factors that caused us to choose difference in the past. Until recently, Stephanie Coontz said, “the idea was that you’re only half a person and you can’t be complete unless you get the opposite half. Both men and women were trained to find attractive somebody who did things and had things and were things that they were not.” But now that women do and have and are many of the things that they used to seek in their partners, Pepper Schwartz says that a result can be something more sibling-like than erotic. Her research likewise suggests that too much similarity in egalitarian marriages leads to boredom and decreased sexual frequency. “When you’re best friends with your partner, there’s less frisson,” Schwartz says. “Introducing more distance or difference, rather than connection and similarity, helps to resurrect passion in long-term, stable relationships.” She also found that in lesbian couples in which there’s a high degree of intimate conversation, there’s less sex.
Yet a married friend who described his wife as his best friend said he was happy to take a high degree of simpatico over a high degree of sexual pull. “I can walk down the street and be attracted to 10 people and want to have sex with them,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean they’re going to make me happy. It doesn’t mean I’d want to live the day-to-day with them. There are always going to be trade-offs.”
Is the trade-off of egalitarian marriage necessarily less sexual heat? It’s possible that the sexual scripts we currently follow will evolve along with our marital arrangements so that sameness becomes sexy. Regardless, more people marrying today are choosing egalitarian setups for the many other benefits they offer. If every sexual era is unhappy in its own way, it may be that we will begin to think of the challenges of egalitarian marriages less as drawbacks and more like, well, life, with its inherent limitations on how exciting any particular aspect can be.
“It’s the first time in history we are trying this experiment of a sexuality that’s rooted in equality and that lasts for decades,” Esther Perel said. “It’s a tall order for one person to be your partner in Management Inc, your best friend and passionate lover. There’s a certain part of you that with this partner will not be fulfilled. You deal with that loss. It’s a paradox to be lived with, not solved.”
• A version of this article first appeared in the New York Times Magazine.
Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. She is the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough and a contributing editor for The Atlantic
Read more →