Wanting It All and Too Tired For Sex
At no point during the 5000-year history of marriage have people expected so much. Husbands and wives are not just partners in child rearing, they are also expected to be a primary source of emotional support and sexual gratification as well as be financial partners. When couples like Neil and Grace see that their marriages are falling short of what they had hoped, their feeling is something beyond disappointment. Seeing that you have everything you imagined, but still feeling emotionally unfulfilled, can fill one with a dangerous mix of despair and desperation.
Although the intuitive response is for people to assume that something is wrong with their partners or their marital interactions, I think that the root of the problems often lie in their original expectations for marriage. Many couples go into marriage thinking that having it all—in life and love—is a realistic expectation or that it just happens because they’ve fit the pieces of the puzzle together and voila: complete and total satisfaction in all areas of life.
What makes Neil and Grace relatable is that they are struggling with the same core conundrum that many modern couples face: coming to terms with what having it all means to them and wondering if it’s even achievable in the first place. If couples have any hope of successfully finding that fulfillment within their marriages/relationships, they must be adept at balancing competing demands. So based on some data and a little of my clinical judgment, I’m going to grade how Neil and Grace stack up to the average real couple across four key areas: money, parenting, sex life, and emotional support.
Many couples hope to be financially stable or well to do. As a new partner for a wealth management group, it’s reasonable to assume that Neil is making well over $350,000. Census data shows that the median level of household income in the United States is roughly $51,000 and so Neil and Grace are in the top 1% of household incomes.
However, researcher Suniya Luthar of Columbia University has found that affluence does not ensure more life satisfaction and in fact affluence tends to come with unique risks and stresses.
Parenting is complicated because quality is more important than quantity, but the total amount of time spent with children is still an interesting point of comparison. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average parent of a teenager spends 47 minutes per day parenting, which is an amount of time that Grace probably meets with their daughter, but that Neil does not.
Based on the sex Neil and Grace are having with other people, it seems as though the sex has potential to be good. The problem is they are not having sex with each other. If they are having sex less than once a month with each other, then this is far less than the 91% of couples in their forties who have sex at least once a month.
Emotional Support: D
Some of the most painful interactions between Neil and Grace happen when they fail to connect emotionally or to support each other. Marital researchers John Gottman and Robert Levenson find that happy couples provide five positive experiences to every one negative experience when interacting with each other. My tally for Neil and Grace in the premiere episode was fourteen negative interactions to two positive interactions. However, many modern couples can feel as if it’s nearly impossible to do anything right, even when they make an effort. It’s the demoralizing sort of feeling that Grace probably felt when she gave Neil the tie to communicate that she thought he was handsome or that Neil felt when he suggested sex later that night, but both of their efforts were meant with disengagement.
Hoping for Some Realism in a Postmodern World
What I love about Satisfaction is that it accurately reflects the state of postmodern marriage for many couples. In our postmodern age, when experiences are abstract representations or proxies for the real thing, couples can find themselves yearning for something raw and genuine. Neil works long hours at a soul-sucking job so that he can provide things like a pool for his family and Grace buys a tie to express her affection. But what Neil really needs to do is give his wife and daughter his time and Grace needs to directly tell Neil what she desires from him.
It’s interesting that their teenaged daughter is the only person in that household who understands what the family really needs. She is the only one who is able to see through the distortions of postmodern life that can lead the best of us astray and she knows that what they need, and what many families need, is to experience something real.