We all share a fundamental need for security, which propels us toward committed relationships in the first place; but we have an equally strong need for adventure and excitement. Modern romance promises that it’s possible to meet these two distinct sets of needs in one place. Still, I’m not convinced. Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?
Love flourishes in an atmosphere of closeness, mutuality, and equality. We seek to know our beloved, to keep him near, to contract the distance between us. We care about those we love, worry about them, and feel responsible for them. For some of us, love and desire are inseparable. But for many others, emotional intimacy inhibits erotic expression. The caring, protective elements that foster love often block the unselfconsciousness that fuels erotic pleasure.
My belief, reinforced by twenty years of practice, is that in the course of establishing security, many couples confuse love with merging. This mix-up is a bad omen for sex. To sustain an élan toward the other, there must be a synapse to cross. Eroticism requires separateness. In other words, eroticism thrives in the space between the self and the other.
Love may be universal, but its constructions in each culture are defined, both literally and figuratively, in different languages. I was particularly sensitive to the conversations about child and adolescent sexuality because it is in messages to children that societies most reveals their values, goals, incentives, prohibitions.
For those who aspire to accelerate their heartbeat periodically, I give them the score: excitement is interwoven with uncertainty, and with our willingness to embrace the unknown rather than to shield ourselves from it. But this very tension leaves us feeling vulnerable. I caution my patients that there is no such thing as “safe sex.”
Romantics value intensity over stability. Realists value security over passion. But both are often disappointed, for few people can live happily at either extreme.
In his book Can Love Last? the infinitely thoughtful psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell offers a framework for thinking about this conundrum. As he explains it, we all need security: permanence, reliability, stability, and continuity. These rooting, nesting instincts ground us in our human experience. But we also have a need for novelty and change, generative forces that give life fullness and vibrancy. Here risk and adventure loom large. We’re walking contradictions, seeking safety and predictability on one hand and thriving on diversity on the other.
And what is true for human beings is true for every living thing: all organisms require alternating periods of growth and equilibrium. Any person or system exposed to ceaseless novelty and change risks falling into chaos; but one that is too rigid or static ceases to grow and eventually dies. This never-ending dance between change and stability is like the anchor and the waves.
Not so long ago, the desire to feel passionate about one’s husband would have been considered a contradiction in terms. Historically, these two realms of life were organized separately—marriage on one side and passion most likely somewhere else, if anywhere at all. The concept of romantic love, which came about toward the end of the nineteenth century, brought them together for the first time. The central place of sex in marriage, and the heightened expectations surrounding it, took decades more to arrive.
It is not that our human insecurity is greater today than in earlier times. In fact, quite the contrary may be true. What is different is that modern life has deprived us of our traditional resources, and has created a situation in which we turn to one person for the protection and emotional connections that a multitude of social networks used to provide. Adult intimacy has become overburdened with expectations.
There’s a powerful tendency in long-term relationships to favor the predictable over the unpredictable. Yet eroticism thrives on the unpredictable. Desire butts heads with habit and repetition. It is unruly, and it defies our attempts at control.
The motivational expert Anthony Robbins put it succinctly when he explained that passion in a relationship is commensurate with the amount of uncertainty you can tolerate.
Introducing uncertainty sometimes requires nothing more than letting go of the illusion of certitude. In this shift of perception, we recognize the inherent mystery of our partner.
In the words of Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
In truth, we never know our partner as well as we think we do. Mitchell reminds us that even in the dullest marriages, predictability is a mirage. Our need for constancy limits how much we are willing to know the person who’s next to us. We are invested in having him or her conform to an image that is often a creation of our own imagination, based on our own set of needs.
We see what we want to see, what we can tolerate seeing, and our partner does the same. Neutralizing each other’s complexity affords us a kind of manageable otherness. We narrow down our partner, ignoring or rejecting essential parts when they threaten the established order of our coupledom. We also reduce ourselves, jettisoning large chunks of our personalities in the name of love.
In his book Open to Desire, the Buddhist psychoanalyst Mark Epstein explains that our willingness to engage that mystery keeps desire alive. Faced with the irrefutable otherness of our partner, we can respond with fear or with curiosity. We can try to reduce the other to a knowable entity, or we can embrace her persistent mystery. When we resist the urge to control, when we keep ourselves open, we preserve the possibility of discovery.
Eroticism resides in the ambiguous space between anxiety and fascination.
If love is an act of imagination, then intimacy is an act of fruition. It waits for the high to subside so it can patiently insert itself into the relationship. The seeds of intimacy are time and repetition. We choose each other again and again, and so create a community of two.
Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals.
When people become fused—when two become one—connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.
The dual (and often conflicting) needs for connection and independence are a central theme in our developmental histories. Throughout childhood we struggle to find a delicate balance between our profound dependence on our primary caregivers and our need to carve out a sense of independence.
Sexual desire does not obey the laws that maintain peace and contentment between partners. Reason, understanding, compassion, and camaraderie are the handmaidens of a close, harmonious relationship. But sex often evokes unreasoning obsession rather than thoughtful judgment, and selfish desire rather than altruistic consideration. Aggression, objectification, and power all exist in the shadow of desire, components of passion that do not necessarily nurture intimacy.
Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting.
Intimacy has become the sovereign antidote for lives of increasing isolation. Our determination to “reach out and touch someone” has reached a peak of religious fervor.
In our era of communication, intimacy has been redefined. No longer is it the deep knowledge and familiarity that develop over time and can be cultivated in silence. Instead, we think of intimacy primarily as a discursive process, one that involves self-disclosure, the trustful sharing of our most personal and private material—our feelings.
The hegemony of the spoken word has veered into a female bias that has, for once, put men in a position of inferiority. Men are socialized to perform, to compete, and to be fearless. The capacity to express feelings is not a prized attribute in the making of American manhood. Dare I say it’s not even considered a desirable one?—at least, not yet.
I am not convinced that unrestrained disclosure—the ability to speak the truth and not hide anything—necessarily fosters a harmonious and robust intimacy. Any practice can be taken to a ridiculous extreme.
Some couples take this one step farther, confusing intimacy with control. What passes for care is actually covert surveillance—a fact-finding approach to the details of a partner’s life. What did you eat for lunch? Who called? What did you guys talk about? This kind of interrogation feigns closeness and confuses insignificant details with a deeper sense of knowledge. I am often amazed at how couples can be up on the minute details of each other’s lives, but haven’t had a meaningful conversation in years. In fact, such transparency can often spell the end of curiosity. It’s as if this stream of questions replaces a more thoughtful and authentically interested inquiry.
When the impulse to share becomes obligatory, when personal boundaries are no longer respected, when only the shared space of togetherness is acknowledged and private space is denied, fusion replaces intimacy and possession co-opts love. It is also the kiss of death for sex. Deprived of enigma, intimacy becomes cruel when it excludes any possibility of discovery. Where there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.
If commitment requires a trade-off of freedom for security, then eroticism is the gateway back to freedom. In the broad expansiveness of our imagination we uncover the freedom that allows us to tolerate the confines of reality.
The more we need, the angrier we are when we don’t get. Kids know this; lovers do, too. No one can bring us to the boiling point as quickly as our partner (except maybe our parents, the original locus of dependent rage). Love is always accompanied by hate.
Most fans of kinky sex, at least those I’ve encountered, are drawn by the erotics of power and not, as it may appear to an outsider, by violence or pain.
The social critic Camille Paglia sees this rise in domination and submission as a collective fantasy that tweaks the rough spots of our egalitarian culture. It seems to me that rituals of domination and submission are a subversive way to put one over on a society that glorifies control, belittles dependency, and demands equality. In cultures where these values are at a premium—America, for example—we find more and more people seeking to give up control, revel in dependency, and recognize the very inequities no one wants to talk about.
More often than not, the beauty and flow of a sexual encounter unfurl in a safe, noncompetitive, and non-result-oriented atmosphere. Sensuality simply doesn’t lend itself to the rigors of scorekeeping.
There’s an evolutionary anthropologist named Helen Fisher who explains that lust is metabolically expensive. It’s hard to sustain after the evolutionary payoff: the kids. You become so focused on the incessant demands of daily life that you short-circuit any electric charge between you.
We find the same polarities in every system: stability and change, passion and reason, personal interest and collective well-being, action and reflection (to name but a few). These tensions exist in individuals, in couples, and in large organizations. They express dynamics that are part of the very nature of reality.
The tension between security and adventure is a paradox to manage, not a problem to solve.
It’s also worth noting that in Europe, teenagers engage in sexual activity an average of two years later than their American counterparts, and the rate at which teenagers give birth is a staggering eight times less. How is it that American society, with such a clear bias against teen sex, produces such a statistical embarrassment? Taboo-ridden
No history has a more lasting effect on our adult loves than the one we write with our primary caregivers.
Our sexual preferences arise from the thrills, challenges, and conflicts of our early life. How these bear on our threshold for closeness and pleasure is the object of our excavation. What turns you on and what turns you off? What draws you in? What leaves you cold? Why? How much closeness can you stand to feel? Can you tolerate pleasure with the one you love?
Our physical and emotional dependence on our parents surpasses that of any other living species, in both magnitude and duration. It is so complete—and our need to feel safe is so profound—that we will do anything not to lose them.
It takes two people to create a pattern, but only one to change it.
Over the years I’ve met more than a few people like James and Stella, couples whose otherwise colorful relationship teeters on the brink of sensual austerity.
Safety and stability take on a whole new meaning when children enter the picture. Read any parenting book about infants and toddlers and what you’ll find over and over is an emphasis on routine, predictability, and regularity. For children to feel confident enough to go out into the world and explore on their own, they need a secure base. Parenthood demands that we become steady, dependable, and responsible.
What I see over and over is that the person who takes on the role of primary caretaker almost always undergoes changes similar to Stephanie’s: a total immersion in the lives and rhythms of the children, a loss of self, and a greater difficulty extricating himself or herself from chores (a compulsion that is simultaneously frustrating and grounding).
Our fantasies allow us to negate and undo the limits imposed on us by our conscience, by our culture, and by our self-image. If we feel insecure and unattractive, in our fantasies we are irresistible. If we anticipate a withholding woman, in fantasy she’s insatiable. If we fear our own aggression, in our internal reveries we can feel powerful without worrying that we might hurt another.
What turns us on often collides with our preferred self-image, or with our moral and ideological convictions. Ergo the feminist who longs to be dominated; the survivor of sexual abuse who infuses her personal erotics with her traumatic experiences; the husband who fantasizes about the au pair (the stripper, the masseuse, the porn star) in order to boost his enjoyment with his wife; the mother who finds the skin-to-skin contact with her baby sensuous and, yes, erotic; the wife who masturbates to images of hot sex with the psychopathic boyfriend she knew she was never going to marry; the lover who needs to think about the hunk he spotted at the gym in order to get off with his boyfriend.
The point about sexual fantasy is that it involves pretending. It’s a simulation, a performance—not the real thing, and not necessarily a desire for the real thing. Like dreams and works of art, fantasies are far more than what they appear to be on the surface. They’re complex psychic creations whose symbolic content mustn’t be translated into literal intent.
Heterosexual pornography, predominantly produced by and for men, concerns itself almost exclusively with what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls “low emotion, high intensity sex.” In part, it meets the need of many men to compartmentalize their sexual and emotional lives, and to separate their secure relationships from their rash urges.
Our erotic imagination is an exuberant expression of our aliveness, and one of the most powerful tools we have for keeping desire alive. Giving voice to our fantasies can liberate us from the many personal and social obstacles that stand in the way of pleasure. Understanding what our fantasies do for us will help us understand what it is we’re seeking, sexually and emotionally. In our erotic daydreams, we find the energy that keeps us passionately awake to our own sexuality.
The bonds of wedlock are so heavy that it takes two to carry them, sometimes three. —Alexandre Dumas
Despite a 50 percent divorce rate for first marriages and 65 percent the second time around; despite the staggering frequency of affairs; despite the fact that monogamy is a ship sinking faster than anyone can bail it out, we continue to cling to the wreckage with absolute faith in its structural soundness.
Historically, monogamy was an externally imposed system of control over women’s reproduction. “Which child is mine? Who gets the cows when I die?” Fidelity, as a mainstay of patriarchal society, was about lineage and property; it had nothing to do with love.
The exclusiveness we seek in monogamy has roots in our earliest experience of intimacy with our primary caretakers. The feminist psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow writes, “This primary tendency, I shall be loved always, everywhere, in every way, my whole body, my whole being—without any criticism, without the slightest effort on my part—is the final aim of all erotic striving.” In our adult love we seek to recapture the primordial oneness we felt with Mom. The baby knows no separateness.
In a culture where everything is disposable and downsizing confirms just how replaceable we really are, our need to feel secure in our primary relationship is all the greater. The smaller we feel in the world, the more we need to shine in the eyes of our partner. We want to know that we matter, and that, for at least one person, we are irreplaceable. We long to feel whole, to rise above the prison of our solitude.
I question the widespread view that infidelity is always a symptom of deeper problems in a relationship. Affairs are motivated by myriad forces; not all of them are directly related to flaws in the marriage. As it happens, plenty of adulterers are reasonably content in their relationships.
Most American couples therapists believe that affairs must be disclosed if intimacy is to be rebuilt. This idea goes hand in hand with our model of intimate love, which celebrates transparency—having no secrets, telling no lies, sharing everything. In fact, some people condemn the deception even more than the transgression: “It’s not that you cheated, it’s that you lied to me!” To the American way of thinking, respect is bound up with honesty, and honesty is essential to personal responsibility.
In other cultures, respect is more likely to be expressed with gentle untruths that aim at preserving the partner’s honor. A protective opacity is preferable to telling truths that might result in humiliation.
At the boundary of every couple lives the third. He’s the high school sweetheart whose hands you still remember, the pretty cashier, the handsome fourth-grade teacher you flirt with when you pick your son up at school. The smiling stranger on the subway is the third. So, too, are the stripper, the porn star, and the sex worker, whether touched or untouched. He is the one a woman fantasizes about when she makes love to her husband. Increasingly, she can be found on the Internet. Real or imagined, embodied or not, the third is the fulcrum on which a couple balances. The third is the manifestation of our desire for what lies outside the fence. It is the forbidden.
Laura Kipnis says, “What is more anxiogenic than a partner’s freedom, which might mean the freedom not to love you, or to stop loving you, or to love someone else, or to become a different person than the one who once pledged to love you always and now…perhaps doesn’t?”
For these couples, fidelity is defined not by sexual exclusivity but by the strength of their commitment. The boundaries aren’t physical but emotional. The primacy of the couple remains paramount. The couples stress emotional monogamy as a sine qua non, and from there they make all sorts of sexual allowances.
I’d like to suggest that we view monogamy not as a given but as a choice. As such, it becomes a negotiated decision. More to the point, if we’re planning to spend fifty years with one soul—and we want a happy jubilee—it may be wiser to review our contract at various junctures. Just how accommodating each couple may be to the third varies. But at least a nod is more apt to sustain desire with our one and only over the long haul—and perhaps even to create a new “art of loving” for the twenty-first century couple.
Even the biochemistry of passion is known to be short-lived. The evolutionary anthropologist Helen Fisher says that the hormonal cocktail of romance (dopamine, norepineprine, and PEA) is known to last no more than a few years at best.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is getting what one wants, and the other is not getting it.”
I believe that longing, waiting, and yearning are fundamental elements of desire that can be generated with forethought, even in long-term relationships.
Like all couples, they go through periods when desire is dormant—when they are estranged from each other, or simply immersed in their own projects and in their own lives—but they don’t panic, terrified that something is fundamentally wrong with them. They know that erotic intensity waxes and wanes, that desire suffers periodic eclipses and intermittent disappearances. But given sufficient attention, they can bring the frisson back.
For them, love is a vessel that contains both security and adventure, and commitment offers one of the great luxuries of life: time. Marriage is not the end of their romance, it’s the beginning. They know that they have years in which to deepen their connection, to experiment, to regress, and even to fail. They see their relationship as something alive and ongoing, not a fait accompli. It’s a story that they are writing together, one with many chapters, and neither partner knows how it will end. There’s always a place they haven’t gone yet, always something about the other still to be discovered.