Saturday, December 05, 2009

More intimacy meant less autonomy. More passion meant less stability

Married (Happily) With Issues Elizabeth Weil
Do you fear the snakes in your own marriage? Are you clearer about your job as a parent than your job as a spouse? Share your thoughts NYTimes.com: December 1, 2009 (Page 10 of 10)

Monogamy is one of the most basic concepts of modern marriage. It is also its most confounding. In psychoanalytic thought, the template for monogamy is forged in infancy, a baby with its mother. Marriage is considered to be a mainline back to this relationship, its direct heir. But there is a crucial problem: as infants we are monogamous with our mothers, but our mothers are not monogamous with us. That first monogamy — that template — is much less pure than we allow. “So when we think about monogamy, we think about it as though we are still children and not adults as well,” Adam Phillips notes. [...]

In “Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time,” Stephen A. Mitchell, a psychoanalyst, presents a strong case for the idea that those thoughts you might have about your spouse or your sex life being predictable or boring — that’s just an “elaborate fantasy,” a reflection of your need to see your partner as safe and knowable, so you don’t have to freak out over the possibility that he could veer off in an unforeseen direction, away from you.

Inspired by Mitchell, I decided to try a thought exercise: to think, while we were making love, that Dan was not predictable in the least. Before this, Dan and I were having regular sex, in every sense: a couple of times a week, not terribly inventive. As in many areas of our lives, we’d found a stable point that well enough satisfied our desires, and we just stayed there.

But now I imagined Dan as a free actor, capable of doing anything at any time and paradoxically, by telling myself I did not know what to expect, I wanted to move toward him, to uncover the mystery. For years, of course, I felt I knew Dan well, worried that lessening the little distance between us could lead to collapse. Now I was having the same sweaty feelings I had in my 20s, when I would let my psyche ooze into that of a new lover at the start of an affair.

A better marriage meant more passionate sex, this went without saying. But by now I noticed a pattern: improving my marriage in one area often caused problems in another. More intimacy meant less autonomy. More passion meant less stability. I spent a lot of time feeling bad about this, particularly the fact that better sex made me retreat.

There’s a school of thought that views sex as a metaphor for marriage. Its proponents write rational-minded books like Patricia Love and Jo Robinson’s “Hot Monogamy,” in which they argue, “When couples share their thoughts and emotions freely throughout the day, they create between them a high degree of trust and emotional connection, which gives them the freedom to explore their sexuality more fully.”

But there’s this opposing school: sex — even sex in marriage — requires barriers and uncertainty, and we are fools to imagine otherwise. “Romantic love, at the start of this century, is cause for embarrassment,” Cristina Nehring moans in “A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century.” She berates the conventional marital set-up: two spouses, one house, one bedroom. She’s aghast at those who strive for equality. “It is precisely equality that destroys our libidos, equality that bores men and women alike.” I can only imagine what scorn she’d feel for hypercompanionate idiots like us.

Still, I agreed with Nehring’s argument that we need “to rediscover the right to impose distances, the right to remain strangers.” Could my postcoital flitting away be a means to re-establish erotic distance? An appealing thought but not the whole truth. [...]

In psychiatry, the term “good-enough mother” describes the parent who loves her child well enough for him to grow into an emotionally healthy adult. The goal is mental health, defined as the fortitude and flexibility to live one’s own life — not happiness. This is a crucial distinction. Similarly the “good-enough marriage” is characterized by its capacity to allow spouses to keep growing, to afford them the strength and bravery required to face the world.
In the end, I settled on this vision of marriage, felt the logic of applying myself to it. Maybe the perversity we all feel in the idea of striving at marriage — the reason so few of us do it — stems from a misapprehension of the proper goal.

In the early years, we take our marriages to be vehicles for wish fulfillment: we get the mate, maybe even a house, an end to loneliness, some kids. But to keep expecting our marriages to fulfill our desires — to bring us the unending happiness or passion or intimacy or stability we crave — and to measure our unions by their capacity to satisfy those longings, is na├»ve, even demeaning. Of course we strain against marriage; it’s a bound canvas, a yoke.

Over the months Dan and I applied ourselves to our marriage, we struggled, we bridled, we jockeyed for position. Dan grew enraged at me; I pulled away from him. I learned things about myself and my relationship with Dan I had worked hard not to know. But as I watched Dan sleep — his beef-heart recipe earmarked, his power lift planned — I felt more committed than ever. I also felt our project could begin in earnest: we could demand of ourselves, and each other, the courage and patience to grow. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Elizabeth Weil, a contributing writer, is working on a memoir about marriage improvement called “No Cheating, No Dying.”

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