Are we wired to be monogamous and have our best sex with a partner we're well bonded to even after many years? Or is the excitement and aliveness of sex with someone new basic to the nature of desire? Do security, joint responsibilities and routine dampen desire? Or can secure attachment heighten love making?
These two opposing ideas represent the thinking of two exceptionally smart women, Dr. Sue Johnson, author of Love Sense, and Esther Perel, author of Mating In Captivity.
Sue Johnson says we are just learning about the "science of love," which indicates that people crave and need secure attachment. With that attachment, people can be emotionally and sexually open and playful. When you know that the person you are with wants to be there for you, you can build fun and fire in your sex life together over the years.
Esther Perel, on the other hand, says that people who have affairs are not necessarily unhappy in their marriages. They may not be looking for another person so much as looking for another self. You know the carefree person you used to be? You're looking to be him or her again; you want to be the person who laughs and is excited, who sees desire in your lover's eyes and feels it when you see him/her.
Both Johnson and Perel agree that in relationships we want to connect and feel alive. Maybe the idea that we're looking for another self connects the two different perspectives. If we can feel alive and safe enough in our committed relationship, we can avoid trapping ourselves in comfortable roles that cut out large parts of who we are. We might be more willing to stretch out and experiment instead of getting stuck in our routines.
But, of course, it's not so easy. As in most matters of the heart, most of us need to work at being truthful with ourselves. You have to ask yourself at least two basic questions:
1) What genuinely makes me happy? A lot of people answer this question superficially. They have a list in their head of things they think that they want or they know what seems right at the moment. They don't pay much attention to their deeper selves and then are slapped awake by their boredom, unhappiness or attractions elsewhere. For instance, I've worked with men and women who have condemned themselves for cheating and yet continued to live double lives. Some of them struggled with their duplicity, which leads to the second crucial question:
2) Are you willing to work to live up to what you want? After the in-love phase dampens, are you willing to work at bringing excitement and desire and commitment back into your relationship? Or, if you think you are okay with affairs, are you willing to work at how you handle the feelings that come up in you and your partner?
Perel essentially says that we're often hypocrites. We proclaim monogamy, at least serial monogamy, and then accept clandestine adultery. She says Americans condemn affairs rather than condemning divorce. Why not honor the bonds and history that marriages or long partnerships embody, and accept that for many the nature of desire leads to new loves?
But that's not easy either. In my life and work with others, I see repeatedly how we get into trouble if we try to follow ideas and don't pay enough attention to what is going on inside of us personally.
For example, a woman who loved her husband always lived with a difficult to describe yearning for a "complete love." She didn't exactly know what she meant but the love she wanted embodied all of the feelings she had when she listened to music or saw romantic movies. She's extremely attractive and after a decade of marriage, she gave in to one of the men flirting with her and had an affair. She sought therapy ten years later. She was divorced and remarried and unable to come to terms with what she had done and what she had lost.
A married male client began to feel emptiness in his relationship. He tried to appreciate his life and the family he and his wife had built, but when he met someone who he felt attracted and connected to, he began an affair. He says he hates himself for what he is doing, but he feels unable to stop. "When I'm with her, I'm happy; when I'm not, I feel guilty and like a fraud."
And, on the other side, when people find out that their partner cheated, they often feel angry, jealous, sad and insecure. Some people are able to work through this and strengthen their relationship but not everyone can.
So in short, love is confusing and we aren't always sure what the right thing to do is. But even without solid answers that can carry you safely through the hot and thorny areas of love and desire, there are six things you can pay attention to make your path more solid:
Don't fool yourself: emotions are strong! Build your emotional strength just as you build your muscles. You build muscles to tolerate more weight and there's often pain involved in getting to be strong. With emotional strength, you can feel powerful desire or anger or jealousy without automatically acting. Build your emotional muscles so that you can experience your feelings and make conscious choices on how you want to express them.
Don't let your emotions be your enemy. This is common in a lot of people I work with because in our busy and distracted lives, it is all too easy to push feelings away until they create a storm in life. Feelings can be your strength and energy rather than your weakness.
If you do have an affair, be prepared for messy emotions. As sophisticated as you may think you are, your emotions may still make it hard for you to negotiate how you feel about your lover and your committed relationship. Over and over I've seen people swamped with raw feelings they didn't know they had.
Be honest about lacks in your relationship. Often people pretend that it's fine that they don't have much sexual intimacy anymore. They move into separate bedrooms and say it's "because he snores," or "because she's cold and I'm hot." Maybe. But there may also be a lot of anger and frustration. Those pent up feelings can propel you elsewhere.
If you have an affair, don't blame your partner. Similarly, if your partner has an affair, don't blame yourself. This is easy to say, and amazingly hard to do — it's where honesty and toned emotional muscles come in. Both of you are responsible for your own choices.
Know that old hurts and relationship patterns often don't surface until people are committed and feel safe. This just happens; it isn't usually a deliberate deception. Being attracted to someone, and even falling in love is easy compared to staying in love. When people first are in love they see their best selves in each other and they evoke each other's best selves. Remember Perel saying that people are looking for a different self? It's easier to be that different self earlier in a relationship.
Our desires for good sex and to love and be loved are deep. Pretty much anyone can tread water or jump from puddle to puddle. But learning to be a great, graceful long distance swimmer in deep turbulent water takes practice and time and an ability to know and use one's strengths and compensate for one's weaknesses. Maybe loving takes at least that much even though many of us like to pretend that it will be easy and last forever.
Working with people to get their desires for love and their lives more in sync with each other is something I love doing, and if you think I could be of any help to you with this, please feel free to call me (908-806-2040), e mail me (email@example.com) or visit my web site www.carolfreund.com.