Take a couple of studies about American happiness (which say that today’s women are less happy than men because they simply want too much -- career, kids and a clean house). Add in a report which says that if women don’t voice their anger and frustration to their spouses they’ll literally make themselves sick. And, for good measure, toss in an explicit HBO drama about four couples, in which the only couple with children hasn’t had sex for a year.
In the span of a little over a week, two stories about those academic studies ran in the
First, the happiness studies. The Times  recently highlighted two reports which attempted to gauge happiness among American adults. In discussing a downward trend in women’s happiness as compared to men’s since the 1960s, columnist David Leonhardt wrote, “What has changed – and what seems to be the most likely explanation for the happiness trends – is that women now have a much longer to-do list than they once did (including helping their aging parents). They can’t possibly get it all done, and many end up feeling as if they are somehow falling short.” Then, for good measure, Leonhardt paraphrased one of the happiness researchers as saying that one of the reasons women were likely happier in the 1960s was because “they had narrower ambitions.” In other words, some 40 years ago, women didn’t feel the pressure to have fabulous careers, be thoroughly entertaining and engaged mothers to their young children, sexy wives to their spouses and keep Martha Stewart-esque homes.
Several days later, the Times  published an article in its Science section which detailed recent studies of marital discord, including one of some 4,000 men and women which found that when women hold their tongues when they’re upset with their spouses, they can literally make themselves ill. Men, not so much. Consider this daunting excerpt from Tara Parker-Pope’s column: “In men, keeping quiet during a fight didn’t have any measurable effect on health. But women who didn’t speak their minds in those fights were four times as likely to die during the 10-year study period as women who always told their husbands how they felt, according to the July report in Psychosomatic Medicine.”
“. . . [W]hen women stay quiet, it takes a surprising physical toll,” the article added.
For those of you keeping score at home, thus far, we’ve been told that women are less happy than men because they can’t successfully and simultaneously tackle everything (work, family and domestic chores) and if they keep quiet about all their angst, they’re more likely to die sooner.
On that happy note we move onto the HBO show which has garnered media attention for its graphic sex scenes, but is, in truth, more emotionally explicit than sexual. “Tell Me You Love Me ” follows couples at different stages of their lives, but the couple in which I’ve been most interested is the fortysomething duo, the only couple on the show with children. Katie (Ally Walker) and David (Tim DeKay) haven’t had sex in a year and Katie just couldn’t take the physical detachment any longer. She insisted that they go to couple’s therapy and when David refused, she went solo. (This venting and seeking out therapy is a good thing, according to the social scientists quoted in the New York Times. We don’t want to see Katie wind up dying prematurely from all that pent-up unhappiness and hostility while she attempts to have it all, now do we?)
After Katie attended a few therapy sessions alone, David finally acquiesced and accompanied her. In an explosive scene in which he was asked why he wasn’t interested in physical relations with his wife, David depicted suburban parental life as sexually deadening. “I guess, yeah, I should be in the mood every time I clean out the gecko cage,” he said. “Everybody else is, it seems. I’ll tell you what turns me on, buying Cheerios is really hot. And then of course getting shoelaces or fantasizing about minivans, that’s sexy too . . . Then after all that, then I am ready to have sex, because all that is hot.”
During the next episode, David attends another session with Katie in which the therapist tries to persuade the couple to pay attention to one another instead of focusing on everything else in their lives. “One of the many things that couples cite as an obstacle [for not having sex] is time, or lack of time together,” therapist May Foster (Jane Alexander) said, suggesting that they put a lock on their bedroom door and spend some time alone together each day. When Katie and David balked at the idea of locking their children out of their room, she replied: “This has nothing to do with your children. This is a choice that you’re going to make for your relationship. Look, you’ve devoted 11 years to your children. Give each other a half an hour a day.”
The rest of the scenes between Katie and David included: Katie falling asleep next to David on the couch in front of the TV, David slipping away from the sofa and into the bedroom (where he locked the door and then masturbated), Katie and David rushing around their kitchen putting breakfast and healthy lunches together as their kids bickered, David coaching his son’s Little League team while Katie cheered them on and the parents cuddling their sleeping son between them in their bed.
The cumulative message I drew from all of these things? That you can have a career, be a supportive parent and make healthy meals for your children, but you can’t have a sex life or be happy at the same time. Something has to give somewhere. Not being able to have it all . . . isn’t that a distinctly 1990s revelation? Which leaves me with this last, Carrie Bradshaw-like question: Are these really bleak times for ALL relationships between husbands and wives, or are all these news stories and television programs simply holding up a mirror and exposing a few private truths?