“Being Coldly Logical”

Yes, I’m still desperately busy here, but I just had to show you this email I got today.


I find your website interesting and even helpful. I hope this isn’t too weird, but I started to think about the battle of the sexes in logical terms – what I think is called game theory, although I’m not a mathematician. This may be the strangest email you’ve ever gotten on this topic, but give the following argument a chance…

Let’s consider the decision of whether or not a married couple will have sex – so you have 2 choices, as a couple, yes or no. Let’s assume, since they “love” each other, that the couple should choose the choice that yields the greatest amount of happiness for the wife and husband added together, as a unit. And let’s grade the amount of happiness that a choice brings to each person on a scale from negative 10 to positive 10, in which (-10) is extremely painful (say, breaking both legs in a car accident), (0) yields complete indifference, and (+10) yields extreme pleasure (say, the best meal you’ve ever eaten).

Suppose a typical couple in which the husband is a red-blooded male who loves sex, and the wife, although she has less interest, claims “no, really, I like it once we get into it, it’s just …” Let’s do the math:

Have sex?    Wife Happiness   Husband Happiness   Total Happiness

Yes               -2                +5                 +3

No                 0                -2                 -2

Note, I’ve been very conservative in assigning happiness scores – I assumed the husband won’t have that great a time if he knows the wife isn’t enjoying herself, so sex is only +5; I also assumed the wife enjoys sex less than she claims, and actually finds it mildly unpleasant at -2; I assumed the wife doesn’t feel guilty (God forbid! Guilt is an instrument of oppression!) for denying her husband a good time, and so No Sex = 0. I did assume the husband is unhappy at being rejected, and let me assure you this score was quite conservative as well. But this calculation still suggests that the “rational” couple, functioning as a unit, would choose to have sex.

So why don’t wives see it this way? Are they irrational? Actually, no. I think the reasons people don’t behave this way are due to several errors in my model:

1. Some women hate sex (at least sex with their hubby) far more than they admit, even to themselves, so it’s more of a (-8) experience, not just (-2).

2. More likely, it’s this: “Wife Happiness” is more important than “Husband Happiness”, or even “Total Happiness”.

My big picture assumption, a few paragraphs above, that “the couple should choose the choice that yields the greatest amount of happiness for the wife and husband added together, as a unit” is not how people act – because PEOPLE ARE SELFISH. All that crap about “Love means it makes me happy when you are happy” is a big lie.

Pretty depressing … maybe I’m just naive.

First of all, this:

Let’s assume, since they “love” each other, that the couple should choose the choice that yields the greatest amount of happiness for the wife and husband added together, as a unit

is not the way most humans make choices.     … continued …

It’s not just that people are selfish. It’s true that we all tend to value our own happiness more than that of others, and usually more than shared happiness, too. But a more important consideration for all of us is avoiding unpleasantness or pain or distaste of any kind. This is just the way we’re made as animals. Remembering and staying away from negative experiences is a hard-wired function of our brains, because it was essential to our survival in our evolutionary past. So avoiding pain or discomfort tends to be FAR more important to most of us than any positive considerations. It comes first in any calculation of choices. It’s the main reason why many people cannot or will not accept current pain in return for future rewards.

A tablespoon of bitter will ruin a bucket of sweet.

So (pretending for a moment that any of this can actually be quantified) the negatives in these calculations should probably be multiplied by at least 10 to be anywhere near a realistic look at the values that are assigned to them by people in everyday life.

There’s also a big difference between DOING something, putting forth a muscular, mental or emotional effort, and NOT DOING something. All other things being equal, our natural bias is toward remaining passive or actively deciding against an activity. So refusal is just easier in terms of our energy reserves.

The larger problem here, of course, is that this kind of “coldly logical” calculation is indicative of a hopeless, adversarial attitude, and constitutes a negative experience in and of itself. Looking at things in this light is likely to only add more bitterness to your bucket.

So, the man’s allowed to get “brownie points” for feeling bad about his wife not enjoying it (the +5 score instead of a +10 for having sex), but the woman doesn’t get any “resentment points” and only feels that it’s “mildly unpleasant” to have sex when she just don’t f*cking want to have sex? Or, that NOT having sex is just neutral to her? Maybe not having sex is to her really a +10, and is tempered by guilt into only a +5? This guy may be conservative on assessing the man’s point of view, but I think he’s being extremely liberal with the assessment on her side.

catnmus 2/3/04; 2:00:33 PM
I guess I’m a bit baffled by this blog, which seems to be based on the assumption that men are ogres who want sex almost always, and women are prudes who want sex almost never. I’m a married woman who enjoys sex just as much as my husband does. When we have sex, it’s fun for both of us, and it’s never something we use as a bargaining tool. And we’re not newlyweds–we’ve been together for more than eight years, married for a little over three. Sex is a really great way to escape the outside world and have a good, loving, intimate, FUN time with one’s partner. Why must it be a battle? Isn’t this idea that women DON’T want to have sex and men DO want to have sex painfully outdated? Last time I checked, women enjoyed orgasms just as much as men.

michelle 2/3/04; 4:23:03 PM
Hmmm, I just read the What To Do piece posted on Nov. 21…maybe this is why I’m one of those women who absolutely loves having sex with her husband. My husband is funny, which goes a very long way, and he shows he cares about me in small ways dozens of times a day. But I do the same for him as well. We both work a lot of hours on the job, but I still find time to bake for him, for no other reason than the fact that it makes him happy, so why not? And he still finds time to pick up a little gift every now and then (I’m not talking expensive jewelry here, I’m talking a funny hat or something of that nature). And I buy lingerie pretty frequently because it’s FUN to have sexy new things to wear. I think a healthy sexual relationship within a marriage has to do with each partner really caring about the spouse’s happiness on an everyday basis, not obsessing over the ways in which your partner has failed you. Marriage does require one to be unselfish, but if both people are equally invested in the marriage, it shouldn’t be that difficult to put the other person’s feelings first, should it?

michelle 2/3/04; 4:34:29 PM
Back in the day when I was single, “having sex” usually rated far, far worse than a -2, and handily outweighed any positive to the guy I didn’t want to have sex with (even if I thought him otherwise a pleasant guy or even considered him a friend). So, I suppose I can see how something (whether it’s pain, utter fatigue, feeling humiliated about how you stack up in bed, or whatever) could make sex an unpleasant enough experience (whether for husband or wife) to outweigh one’s desire to please.

Lynn Gazis-Sax 2/3/04; 7:05:19 PM
Like Michelle, I don’t particularly relate to the experience of being any less interested in sex than my husband, but on the other hand, I do find some of what Julia says on target as far as the kinds of things which I need to make sex work for me, or the kinds of things that would make my sexual interest less. I could imagine being the wife who doesn’t want to have sex under other circumstances; as it is now, though, in sixteen years of marriage this has never really been my worry (though I still enjoy reading this site).

Lynn Gazis-Sax 2/3/04; 7:51:55 PM
It seems from the formula the writer describes winning and losing. He plays tug o’ war with the final goal of pulling the flag to his side. I am a man that can only ask: “Why play the game?”

Genuine 2/3/04; 8:33:12 PM
For Michelle and Lynn: The name of this blog says it all. The people who are interested in this are, for the most part, males who are married to women with low or no sex drive. If you are in a great marriage having great sex, why are you here?As for the calculator method in the article, the woman’s number ends up being the significant one, because she is, in essence, the gatekeeper. If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

Harry 2/4/04; 9:52:45 AM
Amen Harry!

Genuine 2/4/04; 5:20:53 PM
After lurking on this blog for quite some time, I have to come out and say that I agree with Geniune. Men have a tendency to “keep score” by mentally — or literally! — tallying how many times they have wanted to have sex and wound up not getting it, or tallying the times they *got* sex, but she wasn’t “into” it.This tallying in the Sex-I-Got-This-Week(Month/Year)-And-In-The-Manner-I-Desire column automagically creates a column called What-I-Give-Her-In-Order-To-Get-Sex column. If you are keeping tabs on the first column, I guarantee that your wife knows about it, that she knows about the other column, and RESENTS the fact that either exist.

I know, because I did it for years. You will never win this game. Ever. EVER. EH-VURRRRRRRR.

Does this change the fact that sex is, for many men, their number one need? Of course not. But if this results in a husband’s behavior that says “You aren’t meeting my need!” the wife sure as hell won’t respond. It’s like the argument between the Sun and the Wind. The Wind says, “I bet I can get the coat off that old man down there.” The Sun says, “You’re on.” The Wind blows and howls, but the man pulls his coat tighter and tighter around himself. The Wind gives up and the Sun beams brightly on the man. Of course, the man starts to get warm, then begins to sweat and eventually takes his coat off.

I’m learning the hard way that the whole point is to bring something valuable to the table EARLY and OFTEN. Not *in order to get something* but because you love your wife. End of story.

Duke 2/4/04; 8:07:13 PM
I guess my comment came out differently from how I meant it, Harry. What I meant was that even though I am not, now, in the situation of having a lower sex drive than my husband (I’ve been the one not wanting sex, but it was premarriage, and not with the man I wound up marrying), and so can understand where Michelle is coming from, I still see this weblog as worthwhile for people who are in that situation.I agree with Michelle that husbands don’t always want more sex than wives, but so what? Julia never says that what she writes applies to all marriages; she says it applies specifically to the ones where the husband wants sex and the wife doesn’t. I can even see myself in some of what she writes; I’m not a constant sex drive, always up for sex no matter what kind of person, but I have a husband who doesn’t need that from me.

I’m here because this is the one blog I’ve seen that talks about marital sex and communication at all, and so, even if it doesn’t directly address my own marriage, it still interests me. Who knows, I might even run across something that’s useful. But if I don’t, I won’t blame Julia for not writing for me; no one can write for everyone’s marriage.

Lynn Gazis-Sax 2/4/04; 10:45:11 PM
Lynn: I wasn’t trying to scare you and Michelle away. I’m glad there are all types of people here and, like you, am trying my best to glean information that I can use in my own life. Sometimes that information comes from Julia. Sometimes it comes from other men in similar situations. And sometimes it comes from people like you.Duke: I really enjoyed your post. No doubt those columns exist and that my wife knows they exist and resents them. But you’re right, it’s a game I will never win. Of course once you do something nice, for whatever purpose (e.g. the laundry, cooking dinner, etc.), it seems to become your job FOREVER. Then, you stop getting any recognition at all, except for when you screw it up. That really stinks.

Harry 2/5/04; 6:01:54 AM
Harry, I know exactly how that process goes and so does the rest of America. After all, it’s the premise of at least one episode on every sit-com ever made, right?This is where the importance of communication comes in and it’s harder than anything else that talked about on this blog. If the situation exists that you feel slighted because you’re not getting the recognition (i.e., sex) for “bringing something valuable to the table” then it needs to be discussed. *How* you discuss it is key, right? How many times have you tried to bring it up and it blew up in your face?

Clearly, I’m not bringing any answers to this forum (yet?). If I had the answers, I wouldn’t even be here.

But, you see my point…

Duke 2/5/04; 6:57:18 AM
Like Lynn, I read this column because it’s interesting, and it has an eye-catching title. And I think there’s loads of good stuff here, Julia’s take on things being very well-written and thoughtful.The point of my first post was simply that we hear so often in our culture about men being more interested in sex than women, and I think the battle lines are too simply drawn. I know many women who are just as sexual as their male partners, or moreso.

What I liked about the Nov. 21 post was that Julia nailed what a good and loving husband is. It was all really common sense stuff, but it’s sad that so many husbands, apparently, need to be told this, because one would think that a man who really loves his wife would simply know to be kind and caring, just as a woman who loves her husband would know to be kind and caring. Sounds simplistic, but it all comes down to what a marriage is for the two partners: is it a battleground in which each person fights the other one in order to get what he/she wants? Or is it a haven from the outside world?

As a woman, I certainly wouldn’t want to be married to a guy who isn’t sweet enough to show affection and tenderness outside of the bedroom. But I also wouldn’t want to be married to a person who thinks of sex as a commodity to be traded for good behavior, rather than as an enjoyable form of expression.

I guess I’m a little starry-eyed and simplistic, but we get married for a reason, right? At some point in our lives, we look at this person and think that he or she is so wonderful, so much a part of who we are, that we want to spend our lives together. They make us happy, and we want to make them happy. What happens, then, that turns sex into a battle?

michelle 2/5/04; 7:13:44 AM
This game theory-like matrix makes no sense. It’s self-justifying and thus has no value except as a tool for arguing the point of view it “proves”. The values assigned are totally subjective. This isn’t a model, just a way of making an argument look “scientific”.

jonathank 2/5/04; 4:55:26 PM
When Courting, it never was a game to win or lose. I had no “columns” or objective signs or negatives or positives. It was all positive. Then the marriage line is cross and things change. The surroundings are changed. The outside world works its way in to begin chipping away at the sexual foundation formed prior to the marriage. I remember a story or possibly urban legend of taking a jar and beans before marriage, and each time you had sex, you put in a bean. The process after marriage is taking a bean out each time. I have been married 5 years now and I could feed the homeless a good dose of bean soup! Does the ring finger trigger a response? Of course in my case, you throw in a 4 year old girl a 2 year old boy, and a hat trick due in July, and… Nevermind, I answered my own question. Is this myth or is it something that is triggered by a chemical reaction? I hate to get legal here, but isn’t this some sort of material misrepresentation of the marriage contract I entered into?

Genuine 2/5/04; 6:39:11 PM
Actually, the game theory-like matrix isn’t too far from how I felt about people pressuring me too much for sex before marriage, only in reverse. My point of view was, hey, having sex with me under these circumstances can’t really be more than a +2 for you, and missing this one sexual opportunity can’t really be worse than a -2, whereas me having sex when I don’t want to is much worse than a -2. Anyone who really understood the situation, I figured, would know that having sex when you don’t want to is worse than not having sex when you want to, and anyone who respected me ought to respect that.Of course, you’d hope that when you are actually married, and presumably at one time actually both really liked the idea of having sex with each other, that it wouldn’t turn into this kind of battle. But, jonathank is right, once it does turn into a battle, the values on that game theory-like matrix are pretty darn subjective.

Lynn Gazis-Sax 2/6/04; 11:33:15 PM
You know, stuff like this matrix gives science a bad name. The conclussions drawn by the author are inappropriate and it has nothing to do with sex. This example is like saying that if someone has to undergo mild electric shocks to make another person very happy, they should do it. Or if a group of 100 people get a really big kick out of killing a single individual, that should be okay. This isn’t the society I want to live in, thanks all the same. This is just plain flawed logic.Most normal men would not want to have sex with a woman who was doing it solely out of sense of obligation, that is without pleasure.

Jimoak 2/8/04; 3:42:25 PM
I’m with Jonathank and Jimoak; this game-theory matrix contributes nothing at all to the discussion. That is, unless the two partners can sit down together and negotiate what “scores” to put into the matrix. But if you can do that, you probably don’t have much of a problem, but you soon will if you’re this concerned about the score in the game.

Ted 2/8/04; 8:41:28 PM
Another thing I wanted to say was that Julia’s quite right about the subjective weighting of avoiding potential near-future pain. I think most people would probably rate the pain they fear much worse than the same experience after it’s done.And pleasure and pain certainly don’t belong on a symmetric scale. That’s evident in the examples originally given to calibrate the scale. “The best meal you’ve ever eaten” is nothing but a memory the next morning, but breaking both your legs is weeks or months of painful recovery.

Ted 2/8/04; 9:09:17 PM
I’m the guy who submitted the original “game theory” post, which seems to have been taken way too literally. I did not mean to imply that it is healthy for people to “keep score” with regard to anything, whether it be sex or housework. My point was this: if you really, truly love someone in an emotionally mature way, YOU should get pleasure out of making THEM happy. And if you don’t, maybe you should reconsider whether you really love them after all. I mean, okay, maybe pleasing your partner is not enough to offset something you find unpleasant, i.e., it does NOT mean that you should therefore “lie back and think about England” whenever the old mans wants it. But that the other person’s feelings should at least be considered. For example, I didn’t really want to take my 3-year old son to the zoo yesterday in 20 degree weather. But he wanted to go, so I did it, and seeing how much he enjoyed it definitely made it worthwhile. Why can’t marriage be more like that?

Patrick 2/8/04; 10:54:47 PM
Hey Patrick,Sorry I dumped on your use of game theory as a tool to better understand marital discord. It was just another case of my misplaced anger arising out of sexual frustration.

And besides, you did stimulate some good discusion.

Jimoak 2/9/04; 8:04:57 PM
Patrick, your “game theory” post was spoken like any other man. We all certainly knew from where your argument originated. I have had that discussion in my head a number of times. It spurred some good comments that caused more thought. For that, thanks. Keep those ideas coming.Getting to your analogy of the 20 degree day at the zoo, would you like the zoo very much if your son wanted to go everyday and the weather was still 20 degrees, everyday? After the second or third year, somehow zoos don’t seem to get the same result.

Genuine 2/9/04; 8:44:50 PM

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