By Anne Gagliano
When I was asked to write this marriage/relationship column a few months back, the first thing my husband Mike said to me was, “I can’t WAIT to read the sex column!”
“I am NOT writing about sex!” I declared emphatically, my face flushing at the thought.
“But you have to,” Mike argued, “if you want to be at all real about relationships.” He had a point.
This conversation is so typical of men and women; men just want to skip straight to the sex, while women are embarrassed and try to avoid the topic all together. Can you feel me blushing as I write these words? Because I am! Mike cheerfully continued to tease me on this topic as he added, “And I can’t WAIT to see what picture you use!”
I’m writing about sex because it is, as Mike pointed out, a central and authentic aspect of marriage. But please do not cringe in horror, for I am not going to mention any personal details about our sex life. These, I believe, are best kept private and are certainly not to be read about in a public column, nor should they be shared in a bunk room at the fire station. Intimacy is a sacred trust between husband and wife, so I’ll just keep this clinical, with this one personal exception: I do believe that a happy marriage must include a healthy, mutually satisfying sex life.
I recently watched “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which is a movie based on Tennessee Williams play, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. Big Mama, Paul Newman’s mother in the movie, confronts his wife Maggie (played by Liz) about their marital problems. The whole house is aware of the fact that Brick has been sleeping on the couch. Big Mama says, “When a marriage is on the rocks, the rocks are there, right there,” as she pats their bed.
This is so true, for the culminating act of true intimacy is indeed expressed in love making. When it’s there, the marriage is great. When it’s not, the marriage suffers and can eventually end up “on the rocks.”
In his book His Needs Her Needs, Dr. Willard F. Harley Jr. polled 15,000 men and women to determine their top needs within a marriage. The results of these polls combined with his years as a marital counselor determined a pretty consistent pattern of men’s needs and women’s, with five standing out for each. Guess what the men picked as their number one need within a marriage? Yes, you guessed it–sex. “Men need sex like they need air and water,” Dr. Harley writes.
When a man marries, he promises to be faithful to his wife for the rest of his life. He trusts her to fulfill him sexually. If she is unwilling to meet that vital need, and if he’s moral, he’s literally up a creek without a paddle. Unlike air and water, a man can live without sex, but not happily. So fundamental and powerful is his desire for sex that he may be ultimately driven to have an affair or, at the very least, it renders him vulnerable to one.
What about women? Do they need sex like air and water? No, they typically do not. Among the women polled, sex didn’t even finish in their top five. Statistics show that a woman’s sex drive is much lower than a man’s. Young or virile men wish to have sex once or twice a day; women typically once every 5 to 10 days. Men are aroused quickly and easily and sometimes even against their will. What stimulates men? Just about anything, but generally they are stimulated visually. The more fit and healthy they are, the stronger their sex drive, as their testosterone level is higher and their circulation is better. Firefighters tend to be very fit. A survey was done on men to test which types tended to be “sensation seekers”; firefighters and mountain climbers tested the highest. Sensation seekers are those who love excitement, challenges, and sex. So there you go: All men have a very high sex drive–male firefighters have the highest of all!
What did the poll show to be a woman’s top marital need? The answer is affection. Women need affection the way men need sex; it is core, central, and vital to their well- being. Affection includes attention, interest, warmth, and tenderness. It includes conversation but not just words–kind, affirming words. And hugs, lots of hugs. Hand holding, flowers, holding the door for her–these are all gestures of affection that speak volumes to a woman.
My favorite token of affection is a simple little love note left in the morning when Mike leaves for work. So precious are these to me that I save them! We women love phone calls from the station just to check on us and see how our day is going. Show interest in her thoughts and her activities, and seek her opinion. Treat her as you did when you were courting, and pursue her as if she must be won again and again. It is in this atmosphere of affection and emotional connection that a woman desires sex. If a husband showers his wife with affection, she will become sexually aroused just at the thought of him. For women, sex is more of an emotional connection than a physical one. Women must choose to be aroused; it does not simply happen visually as it does for men.
So deep is a woman’s need for affection that if she is not receiving it at home, she may be driven to find it elsewhere. She will be drawn to the friend or co-worker who lights up when he sees her, puts his arm around her in a friendly gesture, and hangs on her every word. Just as a man is more vulnerable to an affair if his sexual needs go unmet, so will a woman be vulnerable if her needs for affection go unmet.
If you are withdrawn from your wife emotionally, do not expect her to respond to you sexually. For the firefighter, this may be a problem, for the traumatic elements of this job can leave him emotionally withdrawn, causing him to have trouble connecting with his wife. With the firefighter’s heightened sex drive, the cycle of unmet needs can be particularly brutal on the firefighter marriage, hence one of the reasons for the higher-than-average divorce rate.
Sometimes these affairs can even begin at the firehouse, where living in close quarters and sharing dramatic experiences can form a bond that may turn to attraction. A weak home life may enhance this possibility. An understanding of each other’s deepest needs and an unselfish, concerted effort to fulfill those needs is the best way to keep your marriage strong, happy and intact.
I have a lot more to say on this topic, so this just may be a three-parter. The benefits of a healthy sex life within a marriage are numerous and amazing; I intend to expound on this. Mike will be delighted!
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 25 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.