Does Marriage Mean the End of Your Sex Life?

News & Notes continues its series on sex and relationships with a look ways to sustain a robust sexual relationship 'til death do you part. Sex therapist Gail Wyatt and her husband Dr. Lewis Wyatt, co-authors of No More Clueless Sex sit down with Farai Chideya to discuss the keys to a healthy, exciting sex life for marrieds.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Our Sex and Sexuality series continues now with a conversation about what some would call the cornerstone of any good sexual relationship: marriage. What's to be expected when it comes to sex in marriage? How do we deal with those invisible boundaries that sometimes go overlooked before marriage? And how can a couple keep that sexual spark alive for a lifetime?

Those are just some of the questions that NPR's Farai Chideya put to two experts on the subject of marriage, sex and everything in between: Dr. Gail Wyatt, a clinical psychologist, sex therapist and professor at UCLA and her husband of 42 years, Dr. Lewis Wyatt, an obstetrician-gynecologist.

FARAI CHIDEYA: So the two of you wrote a book called "No More Clueless Sex." Of course, that is something that I probably should have had even before it was published. So what exactly, Gail, is clueless sex?

Dr. GAIL WYATT (Psychiatry and Behavioral, University of California Los Angeles: Clueless sex is when you really don't know that sex involves so many more aspects of understanding yourself, understanding what you expect out of a relationship and the other person. And if you don't know all of the ingredients, many times you'll think that sex really is the only thing you should be looking for, and it isn't.

CHIDEYA: Lewis, I have to say that this must be a typo. You've been married for 42 years?

Dr. LEWIS WYATT (Obstetrician-Gynecologist): Yes, we have.

CHIDEYA: Both of you look too young to have been married for 42 years.

Dr. G. WYATT: Well, thank you. We're supposed to look too young to be married. You're not supposed to look worn out, Farai.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. L. WYATT: That's what "No More Clueless Sex" is all about.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, I guess so. It seems to be bringing you vitality.

Dr. G. WYATT: Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: And I know that marriage is about a lot more than sex. And I'm just curious, from your perspective, how important is sex in marriage as part of a healthy relationship?

Dr. L. WYATT: Well, you know, it's interesting, because there have been studies saying that sex is very important in a marriage, and there have been other studies saying it's not very important in marriage.

I think it's the overall context that you approach your marriage with. Sex is something that is essential to a point in marriage, but it's not the overall guiding factor of marriage. And, actually, people can live without sex because there's intimacy, and intimacy is a lot more human-height achieving than just sex alone. Sex lasts for several minutes and intimacy can last all day long.

CHIDEYA: One thing that strikes me is that we had a conversation previously about marriage and intimacy.

Dr. G. WYATT: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: And one reason we wanted to continue the conversation is specifically because we wanted a couple who had been together long term to talk together in the same room.

Dr. G. WYATT: Right.

CHIDEYA: Gail, you know, you've written a book together with your husband.

Dr. G. WYATT: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: Did it take a lot of courage to step up and write a sex book with your husband and know that people are going to read and be looking for wisdom that comes from your own personal experiences?

Dr. G. WYATT: Well, yes. I think it does take a lot of courage. I think it takes a lot of patience, because we're two individuals and I don't think it was ever as evident to me that we were very different until we started writing together. It's one thing to live together; it's another thing to write together. And you really have to have sort of a dance to it, you know, where one person is leading, the other one is following. And it doesn't work if one person's always leading or one always following.

And I think that what I discovered about my husband is that he has a completely different work ethic than I do. And I am sure he was frustrated by mine, so we really have to learn how to compromise.

CHIDEYA: You mean while writing the book?

Dr. G. WYATT: Absolutely. Getting the job done. If the Lakers were on, I mean that was it, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. G. WYATT: I just thought, you know, forget the Lakers. We've got to get a chapter written. But those are the kinds of compromises that are maybe visible when you're writing a book, but they're through marriage all the time. You're constantly dancing and changing and shifting in order to accommodate sometimes, you know, what the other person wants to do.

CHIDEYA: So Gail, I'm going to ask you this first, but I want both of you to answer. When you were writing the book and experiencing personal stress on the professional level, on the work level, did that get into the bedroom?

Dr. G. WYATT: Absolutely. I don't think that you can - I mean unless you have just a totally lustful relationship where your relationship is really built on sex, you don't need to talk, you don't need anything else. If you don't get along, you really shouldn't have sex. I mean, sex is not to make up. Sex is something that you look forward to after you've made up. And it could be all the better, I think, if you can work things out. And I'm speaking from a woman's perspective and I've heard this from so many other thousands of women that I've talked to as a sex therapist and a sex researcher, that sex within itself, just the act, has to have the foreplay of language, communication, honesty, trust, common interest and an understanding that perhaps there have been some things that could have been done differently. And then sex happens and wow, you think that's just icing on the cake.

CHIDEYA: Lewis, I have to, I want to get back to this work question, but I have to ask you about this saying - men fall in love through the eyes, women fall in love through the ears. What do you think about that?

Dr. L. WYATT: I think that's true. I think that men are lustful creatures by nature. And we're attracted to people who we feel a sexual attraction to. It's not always a cerebral attraction initially. And I think that we are lustful and that we are attracted to women through our eyes, but we use all of our senses also.

It's interesting that it's not always sexually motivated. The perceptions we have come from our history; and our history and perceptions, they really drive our behavior. And our behavior comes out in the things that we do, and when you're talking about - Gail and I, when we wrote the book together, my perceptions were entirely different about her because I only knew her as my wife at home. Now I was really working with her.

CHIDEYA: Marriage must already be so complex, trying to figure out issues of time and sex and all that stuff, and then to add work into that...

Dr. G. WYATT: Right, right. Boundaries are really important because you have to know your own, know how much intimacy you need and can tolerate and how much individual time that you can tolerate and that you need. And if you don't know that, sometimes you're intruding and pushing and being too needy. Some of our religious principles endorse that we be one in a relationship. And what I'm arguing is that you actually have to know yourself better in order to know who you're giving away.

And know that you - you never give your whole self away. There's always a piece of you that belongs to you, and you and God, and nobody else - and there's nothing wrong with that. And then, I think, you don't put too much pressure in a relationship on somebody else, to define you, to make you feel good, to make you feel happy. All of those things that are not places that you can just reach and you stay there. They're moments in time that you lose in and out of, certainly in relationships, but also by yourself.

CHIDEYA: Lewis, I'm going to ask you a delicate question but I'm sure you're up to it. There has to have been at least one time in these 42 years when you asked for sex and didn't get it?

Dr. G. WYATT: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: How did you feel and what did you do?

Dr. L. WYATT: I just take it. No, there...

CHIDEYA: Oh my God.

Dr. G. WYATT: Now, there's an example for you that you want to remember.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: We have our male producers in the studio and they're cracking up and I'm sure all the women...

Dr. G. WYATT: And they just fell out laughing.

Dr. L. WYATT: No, no. I really don't. I don't do that because, I mean, there's absolutely no intimacy and no good sexual relationship if you have to do that. So you don't take it. I mean, there's a compromise that you have to make. And there are times when either party are not up to having sex. They may be tired. They may be frustrated. They have to acknowledge that.

And one of the things that we can do in our relationship is say, you know, this is not the time, we're overwhelmed with other things that are going on right now. Let's put this in the parking lot and let's come back and do this at another time. Now, if we put it in the parking lot and we say we're going to come back at 10 o'clock, we come back at 10 o'clock.

CHIDEYA: Can you agree with that, Gail?

Dr. G. WYATT: Yeah, I can.

CHIDEYA: Like suppose that you were angry, and you had a time out - no, now is not the time to have sex.

Dr. G. WYATT: Right.

CHIDEYA: Can you project the time in the future and say, well, okay by 10:00 I'll be okay with this?

Dr. G. WYATT: I think you need to be honest about your feelings, and let your partner know, and I certainly let Lewis know if I'm considering that a talk would be better than sex. Spontaneous quickies, which we do talk about in the book, are fabulous. You don't care. You don't want to talk. You just want to feel good. But there are other times that you really need that process and I think that when both of you are in-tuned with each other, even though sex may be on your mind, it's something to work for. And it can be all the better that you have worked for. You appreciate it more than someone just accommodating you every time you mention it, you know?

And I do think that people do take sex. They think that sex comes with marriage or commitment. Or if you're paying most of the bills, you ought to have it, and I don't, obviously. And try to help couples, whether they're married or not to understand that coercion and pressure and certainly violence only creates a template of a predator. And if that's the kind of relationship that you want, and that's the kind of relationship that you're going to tolerate, okay. But if that's not what you want, you can't let that come into the relationship and say, well, it's just going to happen once. I know he'd knocked me across the room, or he pressured me, or he'd knocked me over and he raped me and it's not going to happen again. Oh, yes it is. It becomes a template for if I did it once, I'll do it.

So while we laugh, I think it is important to acknowledge that you can't take anything in marriage for granted. You need to work for it, you need to ask for it, and then people usually will give it to you. I would.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Yeah, it seems to work to you. Now, very important points and there are laws against rape within marriage as well as...

Dr. G. WYATT: Yes.

CHIDEYA: ...outside, just to mention. But I want to get back to something that you've mentioned a lot, which is know yourself. What do you know about yourself now as a woman that you didn't?

Dr. G. WYATT: Didn't know?

CHIDEYA: You didn't even know that you didn't know.

Dr. G. WYATT: Right, right.

CHIDEYA: When you got married.

Dr. G. WYATT: Well...

CHIDEYA: And I'm going to ask you the same thing in second.

Dr. G. WYATT: That's a great question, Farai. I met Lewis when I was 18 and I married him when I was 20. So you can almost say almost everything I didn't know. And I had to learn. I didn't know more importantly about who I was. I had graduated from college, which my parents absolutely insisted on it, graduated at 20. And they said if you graduate from college you can get married. So I did that. You know, and then I realized that at that point I still had aspirations to get my doctorate, which I did but I did as a married woman, which made it much harder.

So I guess what I didn't know that I didn't know was that you need to be a person. And that's what I'm saying to you today. Some 40-odd years later, I realize how important it is for you to design who you are before you give yourself away. And when you marry young, like I did, you still have to go through that process. You don't jump over anything or avoid anything. You still need to grow up.

Dr. L. WYATT: I think probably the thing I did not know about myself is that there is a process of slowly undressing yourself to your mate, so that you become more and more vulnerable. And it's an escalating process of self-disclosure which is very difficult for men to do because we are media driven and we want to be macho men and we want - don't want to be hurt and we don't want to be consumed, and so we take our time in undressing and becoming vulnerable in our relationship. And that is fearful. And most men won't do that. And if you don't do that, you never reach the real heights of intimacy in your relationship.

Dr. G. WYATT: Oh, I love that undressing kind of analogy, don't you?

CHIDEYA: I absolutely do.

Dr. G. WYATT: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: And it's a perfect way for us to end. So Dr. Gail Wyatt, Dr. Lewis Wyatt, thank you so much.

Dr. L. WYATT: It's been a pleasure.

Dr. G. WYATT: Thank you so much.

COX: That was NPR's Farai Chideya talking with Dr. Gail Wyatt, a clinical psychologist, sex therapist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, and her husband, Dr. Lewis Wyatt, an obstetrician and gynecologist. The Wyatts' book is called "No More Clueless Sex." And they joined Farai in our NPR West studios.

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