If you were to organize a game of Family Feud with married couples under the age of 30–dividing the teams into husbands versus wives–and the question was, “Which aspect of your relationship do you most fear losing in the next 30 years?”, topping the list for the men would probably be some version of “losing my world-class sexual virility.” Even those of us who consider ourselves to be merely average lovers might put this response in the top three, alongside “no longer being able to support my family” and perhaps “having to become the primary caregiver for our kids/her mom/anyone, really.” Of course, I have no clear idea as to the answers that might top the ladies’ list, which would require more insight into the female psyche than I’ve ever possessed.
Anyway, the fear of no longer being able to satisfy our wives sexually is, I think, fairly universal among husbands. Evidence for this comes in the sheer volume of ads featured on ESPN-type sports channels and NFL games for drugs that treated the dreaded “E.D.” and which, by most accounts, adequately address the problem for many, if not most guys. (These ads do not, of course, suggest that, at age 60, our wives may not want us to be Hugh Jackman in the marital bed, instead preferring more of a Michael Buble-type of experience.) The point here is that, for us husbands and our primary concern growing older–THERE’S A PILL FOR THAT!
For young married couples with children, what few private conversations we’re able to share probably center around the kids, our jobs and the news of the day delivered by our TV sets–sports, a murder somewhere, bad weather, etc. In the evening, once the kids are safely in their beds, we sit down in front of the TV, suck up a little screen, and then head up to bed, preparing to do battle with the world again the next day. Published data suggests that married couples with children spend, on average, something like seven minutes a day actually talking with one another. I suspect that many of these conversational snippets include one or both spouses punching away on a smartphone.
My wife Nancy shared an observation with me years ago that stuck in my head. She said that the only difference between a person today and that person a year from now is the places he (or she) has been, the people he’s met, and the books he’s read. For many parents with busy kids, travel opportunities are often limited, our circles of friends include mostly other parents, and we rarely have time to luxuriate with a good book for a few hours. Over time, these problems change, but don’t go away. Our children and their schedules continue to dominate our non-work time, even after they leave for college or elsewhere, our circles of friends tend to shrink as people move or get divorced, and the amount of free time available to us never seems to grow. If we’re fortunate enough to advance in our careers, work increasingly intrudes on both our family and free time.
As the expression goes, life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans. Suddenly we’re in our fifties, empty-nesters, with fewer friends than we used to have. Our careers may be winding down, or perhaps we’ve been displaced from once lofty jobs and have joined the legions of post-50 workers facing unemployment, or under-employment, in which the job satisfaction quotient is drastically reduced, along with the space in our consciousness formerly occupied by work.
As couples, the question, suddenly, is, “What are we going to talk about together?” If you track divorce statistics, you see the predictable spike around the so-called “seven year itch”, but then observe another one that jumps up around year 30. It is this second one that we must prepare for, as it is avoidable and at least as destructive as the early one. It is the one that would leave us facing the rest of our lives alone, damaged by the loss of three decades of our personal life story, contemplating the brutal prospect of re-entering the “dating game” and its attendant impossibilities. As Catholics, it is also one bereft of the possibility of a second marriage, one which is even more likely to fail than was the first.
The challenge, and the opportunity, is to remain interesting to each other. To take advantage of the occasional stolen minutes or hours while we’re young to go to a museum or gallery, meet some new people through, say, volunteer work or a parish ministry, and to read books. Reading books is, by far, the easiest, as Kindles and books-on-CD offer opportunities to turn dead time spent waiting in airports, driving our cars, or waiting in our cars for soccer practice to end into time spent staying relevant and interesting. What we see, where we go, and what we read is not nearly as important as the seeing, the going and the reading itself.
The momentary discussions about our kids, our jobs and the news du jour will, over time, give way to expanses of time together. When that time comes, it is important that we have things to talk about. As we mature, we owe it to our spouses, even if we can’t stay physically buff and movie star-gorgeous, to remain interesting, aware of the things each other takes pleasure in, and capable of conducting a coherent personal conversation. Otherwise, we are at risk for becoming incurably, terminally dull. And there’s no pill for boring.