Would daily sex strengthen a marriage, or reveal its cracks? Charla and Brad Muller decided to find out. When Brad turned 40, Charla gave him a most memorable gift: scheduled sex, every day, for an entire year. "365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy," written by Charla and editor Betsy Thorpe, offers an account of this experiment, and explores the power of intimacy in a relationship. Also, tune in June 26 to see the couple live on TODAY.
When I offered my husband sex every day for a year to celebrate his fortieth birthday, he literally fell over. He was so taken by surprise that he actually stumbled over our son’s fire truck, which was lying in the middle of the floor in our den, and landed, with a thud, in his leather chair.
It was a few weeks before Brad’s birthday. I was confident and excited about telling him my dazzling idea. Likewise, I couldn’t wait for him to accept it.
I extended my hand to help Brad off the chair and led him to the sofa. I hadn’t thrown the idea in front of him simply to get a reaction or a laugh. So, sitting side by side, I faced him and repeated the offer to him again — this time more slowly and with more gravitas. “Honey, I’d like to give you sex every day for your fortieth birthday.” I closed my eyes, relaxed back into the sofa cushion, and waited. Waited for the shock to wear off and the gloriousness of my offer to sink in. But to my astonishment that didn’t happen. Instead, Brad actually declined my offer of daily intimacy for a year to celebrate his birthday.
“Do you actually mean you don’t wanna have sex with me every day for a year?” I declared in a loud and rather high-pitched voice. I have to admit, I was close to that weird screeching noise that women are prone to emit when they are rendered to a state of utter and complete disbelief.
“That’s not exactly true, hon. It’s just that I don’t want you to feel like you have to have sex with me,” Brad said.
“I’m your wife. Of course I feel like I have to have sex with you. That’s why I married you,” I reasoned.
“It’s a great idea, I guess ... I just can’t imagine that you really mean it.”
I hung in there. “What if I do mean it? What if I really do want to have sex with you every day for a year? I mean, would you really say no to such a thing?” I was appalled at the notion!
“Of course not. But are you sure you’ve thought through this and what it could mean? Why don’t you think about this some more and we can talk about it later.”
With that, Brad walked down the hall and our conversation ended. I sat on that couch in the family room, surrounded by pictures of us together on our wedding day, and of the kids at Christmas and on our annual summer vacation in the mountains, stunned. That was it? End of conversation? I gave him the ultimate offer — the stuff of fantasy — and he said, “Yeah, not so much.” Why wasn’t he jumping up and down like a kid in a candy store? Why were there no high fives? No kisses of joy and gratitude, and phrases like, “You’re definitely going to win ‘Wife of the Year’ with this one, honey!”
Instead, he had calmly walked down the hall, and left me alone. This exchange is a great illustration of why I both love my husband and why I’m befuddled by him. I mean, wouldn’t most husbands have stripped down to their skivvies instantly, swooning over the delicious idea of fulfilling their sexual desires daily? Wouldn’t most men be running down the hall, jerking the covers off the bed, and hopping in, thinking: “The guys at the gym are never gonna believe this”? Well, not the one I married, apparently.
Brad, who is gifted with an uncanny ability to get along with me and a rather inordinately large dose of common sense, wanted me to think about it. Well, duh, I had been thinking about it, which was why I thought it was such a good idea in the first place! I was a tad bit put off, in fact. Wasn’t he interested? Did he think I couldn’t stick to such an arrangement?
I didn’t feel rejected by Brad, per se. I know my husband well and think he knows my limits better than I, and was aware that this proposal was a mighty big commitment. His initial reticence wasn’t a commentary on The Gift and his interest in receiving it, but rather on my ability to deliver it. I could have been offended, yes. But I wasn’t — he forced me to think carefully about what I was offering, and the nitty-gritty of how I was going to deliver. Because on some level, there could be cause for concern as I’m a “Big Idea” person, which I used to think was charming but am now realizing can be expensive and often hazardous. I can get caught up in the big picture and ignore the details ... and then it’s too late. Like our annual family photo (a big idea and real memory maker) that no one in my extended family under the age of six really wants to take (small but important detail when you’re running around the yard corralling little people). Or our trip to New York City to expose our children to “The City That Never Sleeps.” Well, that trip became the trip we’ll never pay off. But I still contend that sometimes Big Picture folks bring a lot to the party.
So I made a pretense of thinking about it some more. We didn’t talk about it again for a week. But I knew I could and I would deliver the goods. I’m just that kinda gal, or so I thought.
The idea to be intimate with my husband every day for a year had a few origins. The first was that I wanted to give Brad something original for his fortieth birthday. I wanted to give him a gift that no one else, only I, could give him. And intimacy — any at all —certainly fit that bill. All around us people were doing big, expensive, dramatic things to celebrate their fortieth birthdays, including taking fabulous all-inclusive trips with ten of their favorite couples to the Caribbean, running a fortieth birthday marathon, and receiving a Tar Heel blue convertible. I felt like we needed the gift of connection, a gift for our eight-year marriage and ten-year relationship, and not something that would evaporate once a vacation was over, get tarnished, or leave us with indigestion.
There was also something special about this birthday. Hitting forty is significant. That number has long been regarded as “middle age” (think how old our parents seemed when they hit forty), and according to urban myth, it’s when men turn to affairs and fast cars, and women to Botox and liposuction. Isn’t the forty mark when all kinds of people act out in loony desperation in order to feel young, fit, and attractive? Given that context, maybe having sex every day with your spouse doesn’t seem all that loony.
Take away the dread of aging, however, and you get to realize that forty is actually a really cool number. A pregnancy is forty weeks long (although it does seem longer, doesn’t it?). Noah cruised on his ark for forty days and forty nights. Mohammed got his first revelation from an angel at age forty. Christ was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. A cleansing bath (a mikvah) in a Jewish temple is filled with forty gallons of water. Spiritually and scientifically, there’s a lot going on with forty — not the least of which is that you’re halfway to eighty.
More people than ever before are hitting that eightieth birthday. Today, if you stay married to the same person, you could be married to your spouse for sixty years. Just a few generations back, people got married early, worked themselves silly, and then died. Now, we have to learn to keep a marriage fresh for sixty freakin’ years! New ground, friends. So if you can’t survive the seven-year itch and the fifteen-year hives, you might never see a cheesy but sweet golden anniversary party thrown in your honor.
For his fortieth, Brad had made plans to celebrate with a rather elaborate golf trip with his three best college buddies. I didn’t begrudge him the trip (the poor guy doesn’t demand much), but I wasn’t in the position to give him any other material gift. No extravagant watch (he doesn’t wear one), no box of über-expensive cigars (doesn’t really smoke them), no new car (he already has a not-so-new car that runs fine). Nor did he really want those things (except maybe the car) — he’s not really into keeping up with all the latest gadgets, or showing off some bling.
The more I considered the idea of what would make a really special gift for someone’s fortieth year on this planet, the more I concluded that, well, I hoped it would be hard to top intimacy with your spouse every day for a year. Those girlfriends who found out later about my gift to Brad were astonished at the length of The Gift — an entire year? Why not a week, or a month? It was as if they wanted to slap me about the head and yell, “What in heaven’s name were you thinking?”
Well, here it is: I was thinking big and bold, girls. I wanted to do something so dramatic and different that Brad would never ever pause to remember what I gave him for his fortieth birthday. And since it wasn’t something tangible, so to speak — a watch on your wrist, a car in your garage, a new driver in your golf bag — then the memory of it had to be pretty significant. I never wanted him to put his hand to his chin in a moment of thoughtful recollection about what on earth had happened for his fortieth birthday. No, I wanted this gift to come crashing down on him in all its awesomeness every time he reflected on it. And I wanted him to smile every time he remembered.
This gift was my personal — very personal — way of showing Brad how really committed I was to our marriage. I had been kicked sideways to the curb by a bout of good old-fashioned depression a couple of years before his fortieth. As depression is so capable of doing, it takes all of your faults and wounds, and wriggles its fingers around to open them up and crushingly reveal them to you. I realized what I was — and more important, was not — made of. And in the landscape of my marriage, I learned that I had married a man so solid, decent, and loving that surely God had a hand in such a lopsided union. Because I’m not sure which is worse — suffering through depression, or watching the person you love struggle with it and take your family life down with it. The ways in which my husband treated me in this state, with such unconditional support and gentle guidance, were awesome. I’m not sure I could have done the same for him in a crisis. In a weird way, I am thankful it was me and not him who had to struggle with depression, because I would be an impatient, frustrated, and smart-alecky spouse, nagging him to just get over it already.
Let me be clear here — we were never some hyperintimate couple. The year our daughter was born, I think my husband could count on his fingers and toes (or perhaps just his fingers) the number of times we even had sex at all. I tell you this to iterate just how painfully average we are. It was good when we had it; we just didn’t have it all that much. Our sex life took a nosedive very quickly after the honeymoon was over, with the arrival of our daughter thirteen months after our nuptials. It was, not surprisingly, an occasional silent sore point between us, until my husband, bless him, convinced himself for the sake of his sanity that quality was more important than quantity. This was an attitude I was grateful for, but we both knew he was kidding himself. And I was kidding myself that it wasn’t important to how I felt as a wife and about our relationship. There was some tension around this, but little time for contemplation as, twenty-three months later, one baby turned into two.
Since our sex life was indeed fairly abysmal as we entered into Brad’s fortieth year, I wanted him to know that I was willing and happy to make such a huge about-face for him and for us. I wanted this gift to show him that I valued him and our relationship enough to go do something really nutty like trying to have sex every day for a year. Sex for a week? Certainly doable, probably forgettable. Sex for a month? Well, sure ... a bit more challenging. But sex for a year? Now that was knock-your-socks-off, the-stuff-that-dreams-are-made-of fantastic. And that was the gift I wanted to deliver.
And the other good news about this life-altering, mood-enhancing, relationship-building opportunity? It didn’t cost any money. It wasn’t some harebrained idea that required us to take our kids out of school, quit our jobs, move to Alaska, and live in an igloo. We didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to finance a trip around the world and take language lessons (Parlez-vous français? ) before we left. We didn’t have to change our lives in order to change our lives. We could keep our jobs, raise our family, maintain our friendships, but our whole marriage could change. And it was legal ...
This crazy idea of mine met all the criteria for a great gift — unexpected, thoughtful, memorable, cost-effective, and especially well suited for the receiver. Did I feel as though I owed this to my husband? Absolutely not. But I wanted him to have it and give the relationship a boost in the way that his steadiness had given me a boost. Despite our differences, Brad (Steady Eddie) and I (Big Idea Girl), for the most part, made a good team. I am a born and raised Southerner; Steady Eddie grew up outside Cleveland. Big Idea Girl attended a giant public university, Steady Eddie a small private liberal arts college. I am loud and irreverent ... Well, surely you’ve guessed Steady Eddie is a solid, unassuming guy. And to boot — I really love him.
A week later I approached Brad again — it was a few days before his fortieth birthday. Time was running out if we were going to kick this plan into gear. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I still want to give you sex every day for a year for your birthday. You game?”
“Of course I am — it’s a great gift! I just want you to make sure you feel comfortable with it.”
“Of course I’m comfortable with it, it’s my idea!”
He smiled, relaxing into the idea. “How would it work?”
I was dismayed. “What do you mean, how would it work? Has it been so long since we’ve had sex that you’re suggesting we’ve forgotten how?”
Brad blushed. “No. What I mean is ... what are the details, the specifics? Are there some parameters to this arrangement?”
“Well ... yes, actually. Thank you for mentioning that.” This is what I came up with:
We will actually discuss and schedule intimacy. You cannot be married, have a grown-up job, kids to feed, and a house to keep and have passionate, spontaneous connections ... every day. It is simply not a workable model. You can spontaneously decide to get a manicure on your way home from work or to call your old college roommate who lives in L.A. just to say “hey,” but you cannot spontaneously burst into passionate and smoldering lovemaking in the “married with kids” model. And anyone who is married with kids and says they can and they do ... well, they are lying. This was a hard admission for my guy, who hangs mightily on to the memories of our courtship, back when kids, mortgages, and yard work did not interfere with our ability to burst into a passionate moment at any time.
Brad complained that discussing sex somehow detracted from its loveliness. Fiddlesticks, I said. Since I go to bed early and Brad goes to bed late, timing is important. Nothing is more maddening in my world than entering into a hard-earned hour of REM sleep and having someone nuzzle up to you, getting a feel for opportunities.
Daily scheduling requires some finesse, another adjustment we had to make. Therefore, television does not trump intimacy. This rule works for two reasons. The first is the undeniable and noble defense that anything on prime-time television (or cable, for that matter) is not more important than connecting with my spouse in a meaningful way. The second is that we have DVR, which is a fundamental game changer when it comes to time management of any kind. Now, my husband can pause the football game, I can fold a page in my book, we can have a delicious little romp in the hay, and then return to our lives, already in progress. Quickies count. In fact, quickies often are preferred if you’re doing this daily.
Another rule was that either party could decline. I have to say that, being a nice girl from the South, I do not think it is polite for me to offer regrets to the party I planned. So I would decline only under physical or emotional duress. And I just had to think my husband would never, ever in a million years (or at least for the next 365 days) decline something that is “so unbelievably awesome” (his words, not mine).
“So those are the ground rules. Whaddya think?” I asked.
“I think that all sounds great. I have some more questions, though.”
“Okay, lay it on me,” I said. “Oops, no pun intended.”
“What about when I’m out of town? Or you’re out of town ... or out of commission, so to speak.”
“Hmmmm, yeah. Why don’t I get back to you on that,” I said.
Just like learning good study habits can prepare you for a “lifelong love of learning,” we needed to work on the basics. And maybe, if we worked on these ground rules, I would acquire a lifelong love of having sex daily. Dare to dream, right?
So, back to the ground rules — when Brad’s on the road, there’s obviously no sex. And please, phone sex does not appeal to me at all, nor is it in the spirit of The Gift. We are in this for a physical and emotional connection with our spouse, not long-distance pillow talk. In reality, my husband’s travel schedule is not that heavy, and we agreed to try to “make up for it,” though that is not required, nor will it be tracked and/or counted. No score sheets for us. No play-by-play criticisms.
That leads us to the rather delicate definition of what counts as sex, and what does not (as Bill Clinton was so famously asked). Well, for the purposes of viewing this as a team sport, we did have a rather liberal definition of what counted as a connection, but it did require active participation from both parties (i.e., both parties had to be awake or it didn’t count). Regarding other issues (you know, the, ahem, monthly cycle or an occasional UTI) ... well, we would just try to work around them. Of course, reliable birth control was a must, too. And if I really, really had a headache, horrible cold, or some semblance of the plague, then of course no sex. This was not set up to be a marathon or some record-setting contest, mind you, but a considerate and sincere attempt to bond via daily intimacy and connection.
Once we committed to the theory of this arrangement, Brad went back to his Wall Street Journal, and I went to unload the dishwasher. There was no big to-do. We did not celebrate in anticipation of The Gift, although I wish we would have had some sort of kick-off celebration. Some champagne would have been nice, as champagne is always nice. Instead, I felt as though we had just moved on to the next task at hand. Birthday present — checked off the list.
While I stood sorting plastic forks and spoons shaped like animals, I was reflective. I simply assumed this would enhance our relationship, but I had to wonder: What if it didn’t? What if this was a mistake that ranked up there with my mustache-bleaching incident? What if I couldn’t follow through? What if Brad couldn’t? What if it didn’t do anything to enhance our relationship but simply created stress? What if we grew sick of it and, likewise, sick of each other? What if having more intimacy didn’t really make a difference? And while I didn’t think this experiment could do any extreme damage, perhaps some nice cuff links would have done the trick.
I mean, on one level I knew Brad wouldn’t do anything crazy like leave me — barring something horrendous like infidelity — he had told me as much. But on another, I didn’t quite believe it. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe him — I knew his passionate assertion was from the heart. Rather, I was suspect of any rational person’s ability to make the claim in the first place. How can any of us know what life will be like ten or twenty or thirty years from now? I was committed to the idea of staying married, but as trite as it sounds, there are simply no guarantees, despite wedding vows to the contrary. In some ways this put me on notice — it nudged me out of marital complacency and into this experience, I guess. But what if I jumped out of the complacency pot into the “Oh no! What in tarnation have I done?” fire? Of course, we’ll grow closer, I thought, how could we not?
I was getting a little jittery, and it occurred to me more than once, as we approached Brad’s birthday, that perhaps these were issues I should have considered earlier. Ah, hindsight.
Excerpted with permission from "365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy" (Berkeley Trade) by Charla Muller and Betsy Thorpe.
© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints