I’ve often been described as a very passionate man, whether that comes to my work, my relationships, basically anything I do—provided of course that I care about it. I really care about the quality of Emily’s sex life. I cared about that for my previous partner as well. That sort of passion is something that always came easily for me, and the idea of men could be selfish in the bedroom was something I actually had to be introduced to later as an adult. That was down to my father, and some critical decisions he made in regards to my sexual education. Dad isn’t a particularly open man, at least, he can’t really do that directly, but what he did have was a sexuality section is his library and when I came of age he mentioned that he had books on the subject, and that I was free to read them. It didn’t escape my notice that of the five books he had on the art of sex, four of them were dedicated to a woman’s pleasure and only one to his own. That sort of set the stage for me with regards to expectations of what is meant to happen in the bedroom. In many very old and primitive cultures the inability to please a woman was seen as catastrophic enough to prevent conception itself. As for me, even before I started my reading, I didn’t see the point without making an emotional connection, and I assumed, quite correctly I might add, that the quality of each encounter would be directly related to the emotional purpose of it. I’m setting this scene up not to pat myself on the back or brag, but to give context to my perspective of a plight affecting many marriages. For many, some time after marriage, whether that’s years or immediately, there seems to be some sort of lost magic, and further still many couples defeatedly accept this fate as an expectation long before they tie the knot. What to do about that exactly requires explaining some deeper held meanings of what marriage is, so we’ll be taking the long way round.
Esther Perel calls this problem a lack of desire, the flame going out, and in her view this can only be solved by creating some sort of distance in the relationship. Apparently many people view the flame dying down as a necessary stage of marriage. I think that may have been the most shocking thing about reading Mating In Captivity. I wondered why that was such an accepted presupposition, the thought never even occurred to me that sexual desire would naturally wane over the course of a relationship, hell, I consider that a sign of a relationship that’s starting to fail. If anything, I consider the separation of sexual health from marital health to be an issue all on its own and it’s rare that I see the former fall apart without the latter following suit. Clearly though, there’s a problem with fires going out. I think I could even accept Esther’s position more readily, if I assume that the relationships she’s talking about are built on a foundation of pure Eros, or what we refer to as romantic love and lately even lust. To me, this would be akin to lighting the flame of a relationship, having no fuel available but pine straw. At the very beginning of Mating in Captivity, Esther talks about how there are actually couples that have no trouble keeping that flame alive, but she talks about them like they’re weirdos, and she certainly points out their rarity. Esther makes no further mention of these people, and is quick to point out her material isn’t directed at them. I have to assume this lack of ability to explain the perspective is borne out of the fact that she isn’t one of those weirdos. Well, Emily and I are those weirdos, and perhaps that’s some perspective I can and ought to give.
Perhaps if we kindled relationships with better types of fuel than pine straw we wouldn’t accept it as fate that fires would dwindle and extinguish over time. Have you ever tried to keep a fire going with nothing but kindling? It’s something to give a shot, even to just capture the symbolism with experience. You’ll find yourself expending energy, rushing around in a never ending panic to keep the fire fed. Any interruption, no matter how needful, and the fire dies down if not outright expends its fuel. Plato describes a situation wherein lovers are also friends. In Plato’s view this transforms Eros into something more substantial than romantic lust and keeps the passion of a romantic relationship perpetually fed. Eros and philia are transformed by one another, and feed one another, creating a positive feedback loop that endures time and hardship. This lines up a little more closely with my experience. Not to undermine the importance of Eros however, I find when that flame dies down the marriage soon follows. Perhaps it’s a mistake to view those things as separate. Those fires are one in the same. We do not replace Eros with philia, one modifies the other. We can even find some pointers towards this in biology. When you have sexual relations you release oxytocin. This neurotransmitter is responsible for a lot of things but the two we’re interested in at the moment is pair-bonding and trust. Mothers release a ton of the stuff when they give birth, and when they nurse. In fact, any stimulation of the nipples of women seems to release it. Oxytocin also regulates uterine contractions, it’s what’s in Petocin, and it’s why women close to term are encouraged to have regular sex (as it releases oxytocin and helps move labor along). Oh yeah, did I mention it promotes pair-bonding and trust?
Trust has been fingered as a key predictor of divorce by Dr. John Gottman. In his book What Makes Love Last: How To Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal—reviewed here—Dr. Gottman lays out his case and his research, showing that low levels of trust are a highly predictive indicator of a doomed relationship. He also goes over the behaviors outside of sex that build trust and behaviors that erode it. Extremes of either seem to be self-reinforcing. So let’s put that together a bit. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter released during sex that influences trust and pair-bonding. Low trust is a strongly predictive indicator of relationship failure. Behaviors outside of sex influence trust levels higher or lower. High enough trust begets itself, damaged trust begets mistrust. The idea that a romantic relationship reinforced by a genuine connection outside of its sexuality is stronger than one based purely on Eros is supported by modern scientific literature. Plato figured this out a long time ago. Relationships that merge Eros and philia feed each other sustainably and are the most durable.
If you’ve followed this far, you may be thinking I’m making the argument that the die is cast, that relationships started in the wrong way are doomed to failure and that there’s no helping it. You’re either doing things the way I did or you’re screwed. Nah. What I’m saying is that you have to be more than your spouses provider, or nanny, or babysitter, or any other major marital function you can think of. All of those functions after all are merely temporary, or at the very least, replaceable. Sexual satisfaction is likewise replaceable. A good marriage however, isn’t, it provides a critical function that I think is well summed up by a quote from Dr. Jordan Peterson in one of his recorded lectures. He says on marriage…well actually I was going to put a quote here but he’s damn wordy, but the expressiveness is useful, so I’m just going to leave a clip here.
It’s often extolled in the virtuous theater of social media that a friend is someone who will support you but a true friend is someone who will tell you you’re screwing up and it’s your fault. This is a sentiment I agree with but in my experience no matter how much people talk about wanting one, most people can’t handle having a so-called true friend. I don’t think that’s an inherent flaw, I think that’s why we take marriage vows. This is the aged oak that is lit by the kindling of Eros. Oak burns hot, and it burns long, hot enough and long enough that you need not constantly rush about to refuel it the way you have to in a relationship built on pine straw. In this sort of fire, you may actually take a moment to enjoy the light it gives and the warmth it radiates before you have to give it more fuel. You may be in one of those pine straw relationships, and you may believe everything is fine, and hey maybe it is, but don’t be surprised when you find out just how much upkeep you’ve been doing on that fire when something else interrupts you; hardship, children, a new job that requires relocation, longer hours at work. I’ve been through all those things with Emily, and it was never the sex that kept us together, good as it is.
Now, that was the long way round to get to it, but I think all those details are important, because it is for those qualities of my marriage that I do not have to think about keeping our fire stoked—that is something that happens mostly on its own. Yes, there’s some effort involved here and there, the small reminders of physical affection, the occasional date night, and other romantic gestures, but it’s not something we fight with or struggle with. It’s what makes us those weirdos where the flame doesn’t just die on its own unless we create some sort of contrived distance between us or other strategy for tricking ourselves into being sexually attracted to each other again. I never fell into the trap of thinking of my wife as only a mother or only a caregiver or as adopting any other sort of single identity that reduces her sexual or romantic value to me because our relationship is deeper than her utility—which by the way, are the situations Esther Perel deals with in her book. If you want to call that ‘keeping distance’ you go right ahead, I call that proper togetherness. I call that knowing without a doubt, that come praise or criticism, the things Emily says to me and about me are coming from a position of my long term well being.
Hey, maybe that does actually make us weirdos. Maybe you take a look at the words I’ve written and say you couldn’t live your life that way. Totally valid. I can tell you one thing though, I don’t mind being in the position of looking at people who can’t seem to make the time for intimacy, or are in a marriage of utility, and can’t seem to wrap their heads around where all the magic and love has gone, and thinking that they’re the weirdos. I don’t mind that situation being alien to us. If that situation isn’t alien to you, perhaps it’s time to be a weirdo.