Chores, Sex and Marriage

Male and Female Ring-Necked Parakeets Enjoying...
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This is one of those days where I’m going to be very frank on a very personal topic.

My reading list lately has been long on the heavy stuff—like Bad Mother, by Ayelet Waldman. This book came highly recommended by several people I respect. I’ll have more to say about it later, but today I want to focus on the chapter in which she talks about sex and marriage. After writing that after four kids, she was still interested in sex with her husband, Waldman got lots of feedback. Men wanted to know how to get their wives to have sex with them.

There’s talk of resentment, of inequality in household chores, of women who are too worn out by kid duty—whether or not they work outside the home—to be willing to trouble themselves with their husband’s desires. Waldman tells her male correspondents to do housework. “There is nothing sexier to a woman with children than a man holding a Swiffer. … You inevitably feel warm toward someone who is clearly thinking enough about you to relieve you of part of your burden.”

The thing that blows my mind about this chapter is how prevalent the marital discord over sex seems to be—how deep the resentment runs. I freely admit that my husband is much better about chores than the stereotypical man. And I freely admit that physical intimacy is nowhere near the top of my priority list. But it is important to my husband, and so I keep it on my radar anyway—because I love my husband.

There are bloggers out there who come across very happy-happy and, well…creepy. The ones who talk about changing clothes, getting dolled up, and having the house pristine every day before their husbands get home. Who talk about subordinating themselves, about giving sex to their husbands, as if the men have no answering responsibility and no call to do anything but be manly and The Provider.

This doesn’t sit well with me. There are things that are implicit in marriage. They’re not in the vows, but we ought to be able to generalize that if love is patient, kind, not dwelling on wrongs, and so on, then love calls both husband and wife to be focused on the other person’s needs and desires, not just their own.

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When you get married, you are subordinating the constant pursuit of “me” to the love of your spouse. It’s a two-way street. It doesn’t mean the responsibility falls on one partner. It doesn’t mean you never get to do things for you, because your spouse is making the same commitment. In our household, I try to make sure Christian gets out to play golf; he tries to make sure I have time to unwind by novel writing, sitting out in nature, scrapbooking—whatever it may be.

He also recognizes that after a rough day with the kids, I’m just not going to be in the mood. And I recognize that sometimes no matter how rough the day is, I need to get in the mood.

None of this can be kept on a score card: X cleaning jobs = 1 free intimacy card; you got three hours of free time, so I get three. You just give, that’s all. Both of you. The balance is never perfect; sometimes you have to assert yourself, but married love can’t flourish—maybe it can’t even survive—when one or both partners think the other person’s job is to make them happy.

Marriage is a total gift of self. To love means that sometimes—maybe even most of the time, once you have kids who assert their own rightful demands—someone else’s “want” is more important than your own. We get this instinctively in our dealings with our kids, but for some reason we don’t apply the lesson to our spouses. Why is that? Why does resentment over chores and sex seem so widespread? Do people just not get it?

Maybe that’s the problem. When do you ever hear about this concept? It’s totally off the cultural radar—even, generally, in marriage prep programs. I’m not even sure it was on my radar when I got married. I think I understood it instinctively, to some extent, but internalizing the lesson is a long process of maturation. (One I’m by no means finished with, I might add.)

I really began thinking about this clearly in the past few years, when I started being exposed to the Theology of the Body: the idea that our call as children of God is to reflect God’s love in the way we use our bodies. In marriage, this boils down to a total gift of self. Not holding back parts of ourselves (like, say, our reproductive systems), but giving everything we are to each other, all the time.

We just don’t talk about that, and I can’t help thinking that if we did, if we stopped focusing so myopically on “me,” that marriages in general might be happier and healthier.