04/10/2012 09:02 EDT | Updated 06/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Marriage Is an Institution -- But I'm Not Ready for an Institution


Marriage is an institution that functions surprisingly well. But as Mae West so aptly put it: "I'm not ready for an institution."

We have a love-hate relationship with the idea of marriage. On the one hand, we embrace its emotional closeness and practical aspects, primarily the financial and emotional stability it provides, particularly for raising children. On the other hand, we resent the day-to-day mundane sameness of it. A sustainable marriage requires mindful living, and that includes deciding what you can and cannot live with and taking a considered path towards addressing it.

Among the many potential pitfalls, two stand out: the lack of physical intimacy and a dysfunctional view of love.

Keep the sexy in sex

Depending upon your circumstances, physical intimacy may consist of a sustained hug or cuddling in bed, but for most couples, sexual intimacy is essential. In fact, many experts say a couple's sex life is a barometer of the health of their relationship.

During the fusing stage, those first couple of years, the sex is typically fabulous as you discover each other through physical intimacy. But the urgency, the intensity tends to diminish over time. You get used to each other. The sheen grows dull. Polishing requires work.

There are two keys to a healthy sexual partnership: communication and chemistry. Chemistry is mysterious, a combination of hormones and a love force that is either there or not, but its presence can be encouraged by good communication, which is an acquirable skill.

Many couples don't make it. A survey of some 6,000 men and women found that 16 per cent hadn't had sex in the previous month. The couples' stated reasons ranged from stress-inducing jobs to drug use, financial woes to problems with the children. Usually, myriad factors are at play, and the most reliable way to sort it all out is through communication. Talk about your problems, hopes, fears, loves, hates. Talk about sex specifically, your needs, your desires, your fantasies. And don't forget to have fun.

Recognizing where we come from

Another obstacle on the path to marital harmony is our early experiences of love.

When a child is consistently and demonstrably loved, it often results in life-long feelings that they are loved and of value. In short, it gives the person an inner sense of security, a constant place from which to engage the world. In the absence of this inner security, a person may place excessive importance on their romantic relationship; external love makes them feel loved and valuable and secure. For these people, the world is an unpredictable place in which they have to constantly strive to ensure they are loved. This can lead down two equally dysfunctional paths:

Co-dependency: Rather than a relationship with depth and true intimacy, this person has an all-consuming desire to have his or her need for security and love met. Sex is frequently an affirmation of this.

Inability to commit to a relationship: These individuals honestly don't know what commitment means because their parents didn't commit to them. Or, they know what commitment means, but it terrifies them because it makes them vulnerable to hurt. One defining characteristic is that, as adults, these people consistently choose to leave a partner before that partner leaves them.

Dodging the dysfunction pitfall requires first recognizing the problem and secondly, seeking counseling to help mitigate it.

In the end, investing time and energy into bolstering physical intimacy or addressing a dysfunctional view of love can result in a fuller and more satisfying marriage.

It might even save it.

Barbara Sibbald ( is a two-time novelist, editor at a leading health journal, and an award-winning freelance journalist. The above is an excerpt from The Book of Love: Guidance in Affairs of the Heart, a novel (General Store Publishing House), now available in e-book format.