Staying vulnerable to our partner’s autonomy keeps desire alive
Who doesn’t want romance and sex to last? But anyone who’s been married for five minutes, much less for five or 15 years, knows sex changes this side of the altar.
A huge number of books are written on the subject and its potential resolution. Experts argue about the inevitability of decline. Jokes confirm the ubiquity of the problem. And married couples often face serious disappointment as lust gives way to more predictable and routine sexual exchanges.
I believe marriage is a good arrangement. Two people who have committed to weathering the storms of a lifetime can be a source of great strength to each other, their children and their social world. And while I want us to think about the problems of sustaining desire in marriage, I am in no way denigrating the sincerity of vows or suggesting we abandon this ancient tradition. Promising forever is the best way I know to meet our deepest needs for connection with an other.
Usually in the beginning, we make love with abandon. Overwhelmed, we joyfully realize that this amazing, attractive person has come to the very same conclusion about us as we about them. Destiny has found us a soulmate and we’ve never felt so passionate or alive. Then, with a cold shudder, we realize our heart’s exposure.
We could lose him. She could stop loving us. He could choose another.
Our heart wants guarantees. “Secure a promise,” it whispers before the proposal. Sometime later when conflicts push us further apart than seems safe, we begin to nag for sameness. Be more like me, we tell our beloved. We mistakenly think that if our partner really understood us, then they would agree with us – on everything. We fantasize that Siamese twinship could circumvent our inevitable losses. Controlling our spouse stops us from thinking about the reality of his options. Desire doesn’t fade, “we kill it,” wrote the late Stephen A. Mitchell in Can Love Last? as discussed in the New York Times by Judith Shulevitz. We kill desire because it embodies (literally) the essence of our heart’s vulnerability.
In analyzing the usual sexual decline, Mitchell wrote that ecstatic sex requires ”multiple surrenders, relinquishments of self-control . . . immersion in the sensations and rhythms of the other.” We are dizzy in love and it feels so good. Yet in every relationship, at some point, we feel our need to emerge from the symbiotic sea and walk on dry land. We remind ourselves of our separateness and authority over our own bodies. In the healthiest relationships, sex can continue to enliven us and to provide renewing excitement. We trust that we will surface as whole beings again after orgasmic ecstasy. Sex provides us with the adventure we crave within a secure relationship.
When we have less confidence in our separateness, we tend to mute our sexual hunger in order to deny our wish for merger. Low libido protects us from being invested with this other being. Or, singed by the heat, we shy away from such intensity. Surely, nothing this good will last. So we protect ourselves by backing up and pretending not to care quite so much. Diluting desire for our own mate, we may begin to long for others, diminishing our permanent choice by comparing the options. We assure ourselves of a plentiful supply. Vigilantly, we watch for slight cues warning of the smallest betrayal in order to justify withdrawal. We worry love to death.
Desire resides inside us as separate individuals and between us as a couple. In marriage, it is much like the cat in the box in Schrodinger’s thought experiment which is both alive and dead at the same time. Facing our terrible anxiety about our partner’s potential rejection, we recognize their love may end. Regardless of fidelity’s promise, regardless of our partner’s current robustness, they could choose elsewise; they might even die. All love stories end tragically.
Yet miraculously, our partner chooses us, this time, this minute, again. We stand loved and potentially unloved at once. Though we may tell ourselves that we need more connection in order to be sexual, counter intuitively, it is when we openly acknowledge the freedom of our mutual choice that desire ignites. Only someone wholly free yet choosing to be with us inspires responsive yearning. Our surrender to what is truly outside our control gilds our partner.
Before marriage, this dilemma is a constant. While we are chosen and unchosen sex is explosive. Then, when our security needs just slightly outweigh our needs for adventure, we lock things up with marital vows. Interprets Shulevitz a la Mitchell, we “subtly denigrate the other, which reduces his or her power over us but also his or her allure.”
Is forswearing marriage a better path for sexual passion? Perhaps a lesser commitment to one mate does suggest we’ll have a changing array of partners to keep us in the throes of romance. Unfortunately that array of partners doesn’t allow enough depth of relationship for us to be seen and known at profound and complex levels. And ceremony-phobic couples (or those forbidden the right to marry), in long-term, technical, if not common-law marriages struggle to maintain desire as well. But I am addressing people who want both commitment and sex.
A recovering alcoholic who quit drinking 30 years ago told me that every day he still chooses not to drink. Certainly, a wedding is a line in the sand. We tell the world of our intent on that day. But a marriage is built on the bedrock of daily choices to love. For love and desire to be alive in the same relationship we must do two things: choose again and again ourselves and, at least intermittently, be vulnerable to our partner’s freedom to choose and not choose us.