Welcome to my world! This is my first column (to be followed by others and podcasts).
I spend a lot of time thinking about intimate relationships.
If you’ve read any of my previous work as a professor at the University of Washington, or watched me on television, you know that I care about what keeps people together, what drives them apart and what gives them pleasure. I am curious about trends, but also unique behaviors. I look at people above the clavicle and below the waist. It’s all interesting and important to me.
I know it is to you, too. I want to hear what you’re thinking. Please ask me questions or give your point of view at Pepper@seattlemag.com and I will respond, if appropriate, online and perhaps in print.
Let’s have some meaningful conversations – and some fun while we’re at it!
So, what’s on my mind today?
Well, actually, conversation. Can we talk? Apparently not. Especially when young and single.
To explain, I have taught at the University of Washington most of my adult life and my students are generally between the ages of 18 and 25. Not so long ago, I had assigned one of my smaller classes a reading that stated that young adults no longer felt comfortable just picking up the phone and calling each other.
Texting was not only preferred, it was also almost the only form of communication used. Calling someone you had been texting was considered a bridge too far for singles – unless the couple was planning on walking down the aisle to the altar the next day.
After rereading the article I had assigned, I felt it was probably exaggerated. I asked my class of about 20 people to raise a hand if they agreed that calling someone you were thinking of dating, or had gone out with a couple of times, was out of the question. Every single hand was raised. A discussion ensued about how awkward it would be, how it would give the wrong impression and how it needed to be reserved for a truly intimate relationship. And even then it would be awkward.
I concluded that right before my very eyes, vocal cords were atrophying. I mean, if calling someone makes you pitiful, or aggressive, and efficiency dictates texting even among friends and family, when do you learn how to converse? I noticed that even in my class, where part of your grade is dependent on conversation about the readings, only about 20% of my class was eager to share opinions and about 30% never did say more than a few words, even with continuing encouragement on my part. Should we be in class and text one another? Aargh!
I actually worry about this, maybe because I love to talk so much and because a great conversationalist is a joy for me. Further, when I was single, and we daters of the 1970s and ’80s daringly met in person and had to talk to one another, it was the way I knew if I wanted to know someone better. Voice tone, expression, a funny riff, a story well told — all were building blocks of interest and yes, eroticism.
What do you think? Is this confined to the youngest generation of adults? Or is it more general than that? Or do you feel that I am seeing something that exists only in one specific bubble? I’d love to know your thoughts.
What’s on your mind?
Q: I am 33 years old and have never lived with someone. Last year I met a man my own age who swept me off my feet and he moved In with me. He is delightful but down on his luck because he lost his job and, so far, interviews haven’t turned up another good alternative. I understand, but right now I am paying the rent and the grocery bills. He says he will make it up to me but it’s been six months. Do you think I am being taken advantage of? I feel that way sometimes.
Short answer: Yes, maybe. If you feel that way, that feeling is a fact. Something is off kilter.
How did he support himself before he met you? And whatever that was, can you verify that he actually had the job he says he had? And if we assume he had that job, the fair thing would be for him to get the job he can get and pitch in and help you with expenses. If you haven’t heard, just about everywhere there are signs that say, “We are hiring.” Granted, if he had a big job, some of what’s available may not appeal to him. Still, sometimes we have to take an unappealing job while we look for an opportunity to get a better one.
If this guy really loves you, or even just respects and likes you, he won’t want to be in the position of mooching off you forever. A short while is understandable, but half a year? Unless there are extenuating circumstances you haven’t mentioned, I’d say you might want to check out his motives. But just before we kick his butt out, consider one other thing: Does he make you happy? Does he help with the dishes, walk the dog, or remind you to take your vitamins? Does he have some amazing moves in bed? Are you getting some great stuff, and if so, what’s it worth to you?
Q: My lady friend and I are serious, but we don’t want to get married. We are both in our mid-50s and have had children with our past spouses and we don’t see the point. But I have heard that if we live together long enough, we will be considered married by the state. I want to avoid all that, but I do want to live with her. What is the safest way to proceed?
First lesson of love: Know your state laws. I have consulted with my friend, the honorable Carol Schapira, who used to be a Superior Court judge, and have come up with these insights: If you are in Washington, you will never be considered married unless you get married. In Washington, there is no such thing as a “common law marriage” but there is special consideration for people who hold themselves out as married but are not.
Should you live together for quite a while and then break up, and disagree about who owes whom what, the court looks at how long you have been together. If you look “sort of married,” it will want to invoke some of the principles of fairness that a marriage would require. For example, did you “comingle” your assets, or do you share a bank account? Did you refer to each other as spouses? A judge will decide if your love nest has the feel of marital coziness, and can say, “It sounds a lot like marriage to me and so I think you owe each other X, Y and Z.”
If this is causing you to hyperventilate, stop right now. A judge will not and cannot declare you to be married in Washington state. Bottom line: What gets decided depends both on whether or not it is a community property state (Washington is) and an individual judge’s feelings about who deserves what.
But let’s get real here: What is it that you are really trying to avoid? And what is it that you really want to do? I understand if you have some things that are dear to you and want to make sure that these things are protected, but make sure that you do not circle your wagons so tightly that you end up Scrooge-level ungenerous. It is smart, especially in middle age, to make sure you are not economically vulnerable, but if you worry about protecting every dollar, you may ultimately undermine a loving partnership.
Q: We are newlyweds and I really don’t know who to turn to on this issue. Basically, I have heard that newlyweds have sex all the time, but my husband only wants it once a week. Sometimes once every two weeks. I feel this is scary low. We both are religious and wanted to wait to have sex before marriage, but this is not what I expected. Am I the problem, or is he?
Sounds low to me. But that’s just me. Well, no, it isn’t just me. The stats on this show that most newly married couples have sex two or three times a week — at least if they are newlyweds in their 20s or 30s. If they are newlyweds when they are 50s or later, they have sex more than other people their age — but that doesn’t give them the same passions (or stamina!) as 25 year olds. The point is that youth and newness usually make people a lot hornier, and when they are in love, the elixir of strong emotions and lust makes it hard for them to keep their hands off each other.
Of course, humans do not live by population statistics. What’s important is whether you are both satisfied with how often you make love, and it seems you are not happy. I am not sure you will see this as good news, but at least you are not alone. It might be comforting to know that differences in sexual desire are the most common problem that show up in the office of most sex therapists.
I assume you have already talked to your husband about your desire to have more sexual contact. If you haven’t, try in a non-accusatory way. Tell him how much you desire him and see if he is open to having sexual activity more often. If he says yes but things don’t change, you might think about whether he is going through some stressful times that are inhibiting his sexual energy. Could he be depressed? Little or no interest in sex can sometimes be a symptom of depression.
I know I am requiring you to do a little psychological detective work. While knowing the cause of his low libido might not change anything immediately, it can show you both a path toward more frequent intimate connection.
That said, if you don’t think any serious pressure or problems are present, I think seeing a sex therapist who is also a psychologist or clinical social worker would be a good idea. You might need help finding out if there is a relationship issue stifling sexual attraction or if there are religious or other proscriptions about sex that are affecting his ability to either feel sexual desire or act on it.
Notice I am not saying just sit tight and things will change. Nor am I saying it’s no big deal. I think it can be a very big deal, especially over time. I do believe that sex is important in any serious relationship and not just because it feels so good (if it doesn’t that’s an additional issue) but also because it helps create wonderful intimate moments and emotions.
I know some people are happy being celibate and some are happy having no sexual feelings whatsoever. I also know people can have committed relationships without sex and feel happy, but that usually is not true until way later in life. As far as I am concerned, if you are under 90, I think you need to find a way to be sexually satisfied with your spouse.
Have a question for Dr. Pepper Schwartz? Send it to Pepper@seattlemag.com.