As a marriage and family therapist, I have taught pre-marriage workshops with my wife for over twenty years. The biggest challenge is always what to do about the topic of sexual intimacy. For a while couples we invited to submit questions anonymously. We stopped because all the questions invariably boiled down to two:
1. How do you deal with differences in sexual appetite?
2. How do you keep sex hot?
It’s the second question that was most perplexing. I mean, these young people were only a year, maybe two, into their relationship, and those who were sexually active (not all chose to be) were already coping with boredom in the bedroom.
Our approach involved trying to help the couple be more playful and less serious about sex. But I confess that I’ve always tackled this issue on the assumption that the couple is simply not sufficiently connected. Good sex is an organic expression of loving intimacy. Deepen your connection, strengthen your emotional bond, listen more carefully, etc. Well, possibly. These are all certainly important dimensions of a healthy relationship.
But according to Esther Perel, in Mating In Captivity, most of the conventional therapeutic wisdom around sustaining hot sex over time has got it wrong. What turned us on originally was precisely what we didn’t know about this other person. S/he was a mysterious stranger, full of exotic and erotic possibility. It was this otherness that created desire. Think about it. We desire what we don’t have. Once we have it, desire, ahem, droops. We habituate. “Eroticism thrives on the space between self and other”.
Perel’s point is that it doesn’t take long to confuse love with merging. In order to feel safe and secure with our partner, a couple anxiously fills up the all the in-between space. We know what happens to a fire when you don’t leave space between the logs for air to circulate. Effectively, we domesticate the wildness out of our partners, and ourselves, the very wildness that made us burn with desire in the beginning. And tragically, we foster the illusion that they now belong to us. Isn’t this what marriage is all about—the security of deep belonging?
Actually, it’s only half of what marriage (committed relationship) is about. When it becomes what it’s all about, you can kiss (politely, of course) hot sex good-bye. We do not desire what we already possess. Which brings up the question, how did we start believing that we possessed our partner? There is a wild mystery about every single creature on the face of the planet, but in our egoic drive for absolute security and safety, we domesticate the wild beauty. After all, all that wildness might cause our beloved to stray, right? The sad irony is that it’s just the opposite—it’s the over-domestication of our intimates, the making-it-safe-for-us, that underlies so much sexual straying. What people look for in our “affairs” is precisely the arousal that comes from the adventure of discovery.
The evolutionary impulse is an urge toward an increase in three fundamental dynamics, and only one of them is communion. The other two are differentiation and subjectivity (interiority). If we only have communion with our mate, the relationship becomes a gooey, undifferentiated mass. And yet, where do couples get support for increasing differentiation and interiority? There are endless therapeutic models out there to help us listen more carefully, get emotionally more bonded, express our vulnerability. But where are the experts who are telling us to take separate holidays now and then, get the hell out of each other’s orbits and rhythms, move out for a while, take a complete day to rediscover who you are when you have only your own instincts and intuitions to follow?
The poet, Rilke, knew that the secret to keeping the flame of desire burning for each other was differentiation. He yearned to see his partner “whole against the sky”. Can you think of times when you experienced this, when you were caught off guard by the sexy babe walking into the room, and then suddenly realized “Holy shit, that’s my wife!”? For a brief moment, you saw her, not as an extension of yourself, but in her wholeness, in the fullness of her primal nature—and that, believe me, you have not actually domesticated. She doesn’t actually belong to you, or you to her. You are free, as is she. Free to either choose into the relationship, day by day, or not.
The exiting starts emotionally and psychologically—representing an unconsciousness need for differentiation, (but which is typically treated by marriage therapists as a failure of communion). It takes years before this internal exiting manifests as a physical withdrawal. The fantasy of absolute security smothers the fire, and it is, in any case, an illusion. Feel that? Bit scary, huh? We need to deal with our own fear in order to liberate the untamed beauty of our partner.
Incidentally, this suppression of differentiation occurs in the life of communities as well. I’ve seen many of my clergy colleagues relinquish their distinctive, unique self, while serving congregations. The congregation exerts subtle and not so subtle pressure to make-us-feel-safe by adhering to our preferred image of a holy man or woman. The minister starts to lead a double-life, never showing up in his profane, quirky, and erotic radiance in the pulpit, but reserving that for non-church gatherings. It all gets quite boring, naturally, and exit fantasies flourish.
I watched a film a couple weeks back, Rust and Bones. The protagonists are a nomadic boxer and a woman who had her legs chewed off by an orca whale. Trust the French to be able to bring off such a tasteful treatment of some pretty explicit, hot sex between this unlikely couple. I found his character compelling, possibly because he lived so close to his wildness. He fights in an illegal circuit, for example, mostly because he enjoys fighting. He fucks with a willing partner when he feels like it, with or without legs. But he’s also capable of surprising tenderness and compassion, in bed, as well as in his life. There’s a vulnerability about him that comes to full flower by the end of the film. Interestingly, he ends up transmuting the energy of his street fighter by training with a national boxing team—still wild, but within chosen, disciplined boundaries. Perhaps this suggests a template for successful couplehood.
“Reconciling the domestic and the erotic is a delicate balancing act. It requires knowing your partner while recognizing his persistent mystery; creating security while remaining open to the unknown; cultivating intimacy that respects privacy. Desire resists confinement, and commitment mustn’t swallow freedom whole.”