It was the night before my wedding, and I was alone in my bridal suite, too wired to sleep and contemplating the future of my orgasms.
Out of tradition, I didn't sleep with my husband-to-be that night, but I was wishing that I had. What if it was my last chance for mind-blowing sex?
In the 20 years of dating I did before my wedding, which took place on my 35th birthday, the sex was never as good as sex during the early days of a relationship. Between my first, fumbling, over-the-bra feel-up at 14 and when I met my husband at 34, I had five serious relationships that each lasted more than a year. Inevitably, at the six-month mark, we would transition from the kind of couple who would have sex in the back of a New York City taxi to siblings who fell asleep with our clothes on and sometimes switched who played the big spoon.
"We would transition from the kind of couple who would have sex in the back of a New York City taxi to siblings who fell asleep with our clothes on."
But those relationships were disposable. Once the ennui and disinterest set in, I could discard them. Maintaining good sex didn't really matter until I met the man who would become my husband while on a work trip (I was a travel editor) on an eco-cruise of the Galápagos. It was the fairy-tale ending to the rom-com that had been my life for the past two decades, and we were engaged in just three months. Of course we still wanted to rip off each other's clothes at that point. We maintained that intensity and fervor as we prepared to walk down the aisle nine months after the day we met, a new hot-and-heavy record for me.
But how long could that go on? A married-sex rut would be even worse than a dating-sex rut. Married-sex ruts can last forever.
After many nights spent worrying, I took action. I began a reporting journey around the world, during which I crowdsourced answers to the question of how to be a wife. I interviewed hundreds of women across 20 countries, ostensibly talking about marriage, but more often talking about sex. I compiled all of their answers into a book, How to Be Married, which was as much about implementing the advice as asking for it.
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It was like I'd been initiated into a top-secret sorority where the password was "I just got married." Complete strangers, young and old, black, white, and brown, began telling me things that would make a Dutch prostitute blush. In fact, the most conservative sex advice I got was from an actual Dutch prostitute, who informed me that maintaining a healthy sex life is mostly up to the woman. "A married man is easily contented and loses his sense of adventure," she whispered to me in between shifts in Amsterdam's Red Light District. "Be the captain of your own ship. Women will always have the burden of maintaining the passion. The men want to be told what to do."
The women of the polygamist Maasai tribe in Kenya, thousands of miles from Northern Europe, echoed her sentiments. "You need to be in charge of the sex," they told me. Strong words coming from such a patriarchal society. The Maasai women hailed the importance of making time for sex, no easy task for them. They live in a single room with multiple children, and their schedule can revolve around up to four other wives.
"How do you have good sex with the kids around all the time?" I asked. The women got quiet for a beat, and I worried I'd overstepped. But then one leaned in to me and whispered, her breath hot on my cheek, "You get on top. It's quieter."
Isn't being with the same person, night after night, for the rest of your life, well, boring? And doesn't boredom always lead to bad behavior? It always has in my case. I'd long fretted that perhaps monogamy simply isn't a natural state for humans, and I looked to the French, a culture that is much more accepting about extramarital activities, for guidance.
But when I asked a coterie of wildly sophisticated Frenchwomen with perfect bangs and sweaters that fell effortlessly off their shoulders whether allowing affairs was the secret to stoking marital passion, they looked at me like I'd suggested they murder puppies. "Do I want my man to fuck someone else?" one practically spat on me. "No, I do not."
After a sip of wine and a long draw on her skinny cigarette, she softened.
"I must keep him interested. It's about keeping the mystery," she explained. "You American women get married and you get rid of the sexy lingerie and start walking around in sweatpants and peeing with the door open." She said the word sweatpants the way someone else might say toenail clippings. I didn't bother to explain to her that the bathroom in our San Francisco condo is small, and peeing with the door closed makes me claustrophobic, and that I had invested a good amount of money in Lululemon athleisure pants, which technically were sweatpants that hugged my butt. "I don't really understand sexy lingerie," I said instead. They told me I was committing a cardinal sin in my relationship.
I'd expected a good amount of sex advice from the French. I hadn't expected it from the Orthodox Jewish women of Jerusalem.
"Never stop having sex with your husband. Even when you get very old," one very old Israeli woman who resembled Bea Arthur commanded me on the banks of the Dead Sea. "Quality over quantity," another woman told me during a conversation in her apartment right outside of Jerusalem's Old City. Orthodox couples have sex only during specific times of the month. I'd wondered if this was a way to maximize fertility, but my assumptions were shot down once again.
"We believe that sex needs, seriously needs, to be good for the woman."
"That's when sex is better for the woman. We believe that sex needs, seriously needs, to be good for the woman. During the times we have sex is when all of the hormones are right for sex to be very enjoyable for the woman," an Orthodox woman around my age (married for more than a decade) told me. That time? Seven days after your period. And yes, she was right. "The two of us move apart for part of the month in order to get to know ourselves better and then come back to each other more complete. It keeps the passion stoked."
I kept a running list: Be the captain of your ship, behave like your husband's mistress (from the French, naturally), don't wear shitty sweatpants, keep the bathroom door closed, have less sex to have better sex, make sure to make time to have sex, keep the damn phone and computers out of the bedroom (from those wicked-smart Danes).
It all sounded like so much work.
"What if we didn't have sex for two weeks?" I said to my husband, Nick, when I got home from my Israel trip.
"What if we didn't try that?" He shot me a skeptical look before tackling me onto the bed. If the mere suggestion of taking a sex break did this much for his libido, I wondered what an actual break might do.
Acting the part of the mysterious mistress in barely-there lingerie was another matter entirely. My husband seems confused by sexy underthings. "I'm just going to take it off you," he'll say. "What's the point?" To be fair, I can never figure out where anything snaps or where the tiny lacy holes are supposed to go. At the very least, I could try to pee with the door closed. I could maintain that last vestige of mystery in our marriage. But, I swear, every time I've attempted it, Nick has started a conversation with me. And, truth be told, the bathroom really is incredibly small. The best advice, it turns out, came from the Danes. Taking our phones and computers out of the bedroom has made room for touching, tickling, and squeezing that would have been taken up by clicking and tweeting and scrolling mindlessly through other happy couples' Instagram feeds. I'm now stricter about this rule than almost any other rule in our marriage.
The bedroom is a place for sleep, cuddling, and sex.
We've been together for just over two years, which went by in the span of about two minutes. I'm five months pregnant as I write this, and despite a few dry spells for morning sickness and the flu, our sex life hasn't veered anywhere near sibling territory. Just the other day, I took off the shitty sweatpants to walk around the house naked. Worked like a charm.
This article appears in the September issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.