In her 50s, this anonymous writer has a wonderful relationship with her husband -- except for one thing. No sex. Does it matter? Of course it does
It was a Friday evening, and I was in a bar with a friend. We were a few glasses of wine in, getting down and dirty in our exploration of what it means to be a 50-something woman.
"Okay," says my friend. "So here's a question for you. If you could make love to any man on the planet, who would it be?"
I knew the answer right away, but I was scared to share it. I pretended to ponder; took another olive, gazed out of the window. Should I lie, or would I tell the truth? "Do you really want to know?" I asked eventually.
"Sure I do," said my friend. "Hmmm," I said. "All right, I'll tell you. It's my husband."
My friend laughed: I was joking, right? "What I'm asking is if you could have anyone, anyone you wanted. Not Mick . . . I mean, you sleep with Mick every night . . ."
Well, yes, I said. Certainly we sleep together: as in, we share a bed every night of the year when we're both at home. But make love? No, we don't. Not any more. Not for more than a year.
My friend was a bit shocked at first, but then she brightened.
"Well," she said. "I certainly didn't expect you to say Mick. But I guess the good news is that you've at least got a chance of being able to lay him."
We both laughed. But the truth is that these days I think I'd have more chance of getting it on with Brad Pitt than I would of getting my husband of 27 years to have sex. And just like Meryl Streep, who has the same problem in her role as Kay in her new movie, Hope Springs, (see interview, opposite) that makes me very, very sad indeed.
Just as it did for Kay and her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) in the film, sex gradually fell off the agenda for Mick and me. Like most couples, we had a fair bit of it in our 20s and then when the babies arrived it happened less often: I was always pregnant, or breastfeeding, or just too damn tired.
When the children got older the tiredness didn't go away: by this stage Mick had a stressful job and I was trying to get my career back on track. There were money crises and work crises and school and house crises, and somehow sex and whether we were having it or not never seemed to make it to the top of our "things to worry about" list.
Then the children hit adolescence: and with a house full of teenagers sex felt nigh-on impossible. When they are toddlers you can put them to bed and they will usually stay there for a few hours.
As teenagers they are always up, either watching a DVD downstairs or on the Xbox in the room next door, or they are out late at a party and you are lying in bed poised to hear their key in the lock. None of this is remotely conducive to foreplay.
"Get away on your own," the experts say. "Have a weekend in Paris. Everything will fall back into place." Only it didn't, and we didn't have the budget to keep on trying. Teenagers are expensive, and we put them and their needs first.
Later there were the costs of topping up their university loans: somehow, getting away for a few days à deux always seemed too selfish a use of our savings pot.
Now, though, our youngest is going away to university -- and, like Kay, I don't know how long I can go on ignoring the fact that we've ceased to make love, have intimate moments, even to have much in the way of cuddles. And I don't want another husband, or a new lover.
I'm very happy with the one I said yes to, when he asked me to marry him almost three decades ago. He's quick-witted and smart, interesting and fun. He's a brilliant dad -- and even after so long together, there's no one I'd rather meet for dinner.
We laugh a lot and, importantly for a marriage, we have a lot of respect for one another.
It's just that life, and raising children, and the stress of balancing domesticity with two full-on careers, had to take its toll somewhere. And where it hit us was in the bedroom.
I went to see a preview of Hope Springs last week and ended up crying through most of it. "You cried?" said Mick, when I told him. "I thought it was a comedy."
As it happened, many of the people in the cinema were laughing -- but most of them were in their 20s. As far as they were concerned, the film was a cute little rendition of what happened to one later-life couple in Omaha.
But in the ladies' room, I met another 50-something: and she, like me, had gone to dab mascara off her cheeks. We looked at one another and exchanged a meaningful glance: like me, she'd been watching her own story.
It's not just me and the woman in the loo: according to Helena Lovendal -- who runs exactly the sort of "couple's retreat" courses that Kay drags Arnold off to in the film (she also co-wrote Sex, Love and the Dangers of Intimacy) -- almost every marriage that lasts long enough will eventually hit this moment.
"It's the moment when you lose sight of one another as a man and a woman," she explains. "You're good people, you love each other. You're intelligent, successful and devoted to raising your children. On top of it all you're supposed to be having an amazing sex life -- and for most people, it's just too much."
In the past, says Lovendal, marriages never got to this point. People died much sooner than they do these days. But they also settled for less than we do. "You'd be content with a 'maintenance marriage', and very often you would be discreetly having sex with someone else," she says.
"The truth is that no society has ever had such high expectations for marriage as ours. We get married and expect the honeymoon to last forever. We expect to go on being in love and wanting to have sex with one another.
"Then when that period comes to an end -- and it always does -- then our response is 'Oh no, I was obviously with the wrong person. It was all a mistake.' And then they get divorced."
In fact, says Lovendal, that moment was -- and is -- an opportunity to create something deeper and better and properly long-lasting.
"Both men and women long for intimacy, though they go about trying to find that intimacy in different ways," she says. "This moment in a marriage, the moment when you feel it could all unravel, is the precise moment when you've got the chance of a lifetime -- the chance to build something really liberating and meaningful, and genuinely intimate."
But it's not easy. "If you really want the levels of intimacy that most of us are longing for, then you can't avoid digging down into the depths of yourself," says Lovendal.
In her experience sexual problems are rarely genuinely sexual. "If you get the emotional stuff right our bodies remember how to make love," she says. "It's the emotional baggage -- the issues that have been festering right through the marriage -- that has to be unpacked.
"And then sex becomes a normal and natural part of the relationship again."
She doesn't underestimate the enormity of what is at stake.
"Our generation are the pioneers: this is the first time anyone has tried to work out a way of having fulfilling, loving, properly intimate later-life marriages," she says. "There's no road map. We're negotiating a path no one else has been along."
So what of Mick and me, I ask. I'm increasingly unhappy with the state of our marriage -- but my husband thinks I'm being over-ambitious.
Mick's attitude is: "What are you complaining about? We've got three lovely children, we've got a great home, we're still good friends."
All of that is true, but I can't help believing that we could have all this and so much more. On top of this, there's the fear of what living like this could do to us in the long term.
The most heartbreaking moment in Hope Springs for me is when Kay describes how lonely she is. And, she says, she's getting to the point where she thinks she might feel less lonely if she was on her own. I can already identify with that: how much more am I going to be able to identify with it in five years' time?
As Lovendal says, Mick and I are at one of the classic crunch-points in a marriage: the moment when we're left looking at one another without the distractions of our brood and we have to re-learn what it was that first brought us together, and weigh up whether it's worth re-fashioning it into something that could last another 27 years.
It's a scary thought. But Lovendal says it's also an exciting one.
Just when you thought it was all over, your marriage might be about to really begin.
Hope Springs is on general release now