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Russell Collins: Can Monogamy Be Hot?

Theorists debate how to balance our wild desires with the practical needs of closeness and safety

A funny thing happened on the way to splitting up for Britta and Lawrence, a divorcing couple in mediation with us long ago. They started an affair. They told no one about it, including Laura and me, their mediators. Their kids didn’t know, or their closest friends. In fact, I learned about it only years later, when they called to schedule couples therapy with me. They were trying to decide whether to get married again.

Having an affair in the middle of your divorce is untypical behavior, to say the least. But the story of Britta and Lawrence will have a familiar ring to it for therapists who work with couples, and it raises some difficult questions.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

“Listen, we loved each other. That wasn’t what the divorce was about,“ Lawrence explained to me in their first counseling session. “But we were sexually and romantically just … burned out and done.”

Britta filled out the picture with her own description of increasing loneliness, despite caring about Lawrence as her friend and father to their children. “It went on for years,” she added. “I was deeply depressed by the end.”

“But when it came down to stepping off the final cliff of divorce,” Lawrence said, getting self-conscious, “it got exciting again. Like there was nothing to lose, so go crazy.”

What happened here? What awakened the passion in Laurence and Britta that had gone dormant so many years before their divorce? What might it mean about the institution of marriage?

Author Susan Cheever captures the essence of this dilemma, which she lays out in a brief but fascinating essay about her own struggles with monogamous passion called, “In Praise of One Night Stands.”

“Somehow, I never fantasize about sex with my husband in a marital double bed that I’ve neatly made with hospital corners, or with a man who has just changed our baby’s diapers or emptied the dishwasher. ... I think this is nature’s way of telling us that sexual intimacy is distinct from emotional and financial and domestic intimacy. What’s wonderful in bed can be disastrous in the nursery or kitchen,” she writes.

So, can monogamy ever be hot?

There is something of a debate about this going on among theorists of human sexual relations. In a terrific book titled, in fact, Hot Monogamy, Dr. Patricia Love represents one side of this debate. Good communication and emotional connection create trust, she says. And trust between partners creates the “freedom to explore” new sexual territory and behavior.

Therapist Sue Johnson, another increasingly influential thinker about relationship issues, says it like this: “When partners are emotionally accessible, responsive and engaged … secure partners feel free and confident to surrender to sensations in each other’s arms, explore and fulfill their sexual needs, and share the deepest joys, longings and vulnerabilities” (from Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight).

This has a uniquely American ring to it (although Johnson is Canadian, and Love hails from West Virginia and speaks with a twang). It’s upbeat, positive and optimistic. Most importantly, it points to realistic, achievable solutions. Improve communications. Enhance empathy and connection between partners. Then, with a little coaching and education about sex, it starts to get hot again. I like this approach and, in fact, I use it very effectively in my practice with couples struggling with sexual-intimacy issues.

But there is another idea about intimacy, one that’s intellectually a little richer, slightly more dangerous and very European. It goes back to Freud and his idea that erotic energy is wild and primal, while civilization — including monogamy and marriage — is repressive and smothering to sexuality.

Of course, no one (including Freud) wants to abolish civilization. So this idea of a struggle between the dark erotic and the civilizing forces inside us has given rise to a vast, century-long controversy: Just how do you balance the wild urges with the practical realities of hospital corners, diapers and dishwashers?

A few years ago, I sat with a group of Santa Barbara therapists gathered for a talk with Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.

Perel asked us each to think of a time when we were particularly drawn to our partner. As the answers came from around the room, it wasn’t apparent at first what tied them all together. “When I see him play sports. ... When she’s unaware I’m watching her. ... When he is talking with friends. ... When she’s confidently speaking with a colleague. ... When she’s standing on the other side of a crowded room, and she smiles just for me. ... When he’s playing with the kids. ... When I watch him do something he is passionate about.“

What’s the common denominator? “Distance,” Perel told us. As she wrote later in a blog, “The separateness is accentuated and difference is magnified. We look across this distance and what we see is different than the view up close.”

Perel’s idea is that it’s not closeness and safety that sustains erotic desire in a relationship. It’s the opposite. “Love and desire are two different languages. We would like to think that they flow from each other. In fact, at times, the very elements that nurture love — comfort, stability, safety, for example — can extinguish desire.”

Perels is not alone in her belief that the safety we seek in relationships can be the enemy of passion. London-based psychotherapist Adam Phillips, in Monogamy, a book of commentary on love in the modern world, launches an assault on the very notion of monogamy itself. “At its best, monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with; at its worst, it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness,” he writes. “They are easily confused.”

Here, Phillips is questioning the value of monogamy itself. That’s not where Perel is headed. Instead, she is looking for a solution within the bounds of a committed relationship. She’s trying to find ways to reintroduce the elements of danger, of uncertainty and — surprise — of distance into the relationship. Because it’s there, she believes, that the erotic impulse lives.

Her answers are not simple — and not easily translated into a program for suffering couples. But her advice includes stepping away from the familial safety of the hearth to go out into the trackless night where the wild things are, sexually speaking. This means giving up, for the moment, the nurturing and protecting roles that define us in long-term love. It means revealing the ruthless and selfish aspects of our sexual natures.

In hiding the shameful aggressiveness of our desires, Perel argues, we lose erotic connection with our partners and, worse, we lose spontaneity in the service of safety. She emphasizes fantasy and play as the vehicle for expressing our wildness. Sexuality can not only be fun, it can be an antidote for the obsessive scheduling, planning and striving that dominates so much of our lives. And it can act as a counterbalance to the boring politeness that weighs down our urge to be spontaneous.

As she presents them, Perel’s dangerous ideas stand out starkly against those of the more pragmatic, positive, communications-oriented programs of the best-known American relationship experts. In the end, though, I think it’s just a difference in emphasis — an exotic presentation of proven and familiar ideas. Which is it? Does a safe secure relationship make it OK to express your wild side? Or does getting in touch with your wildness make it possible to be close without suffocating? It may be both.

One of the assignments I gave Britta and Lawrence as they sifted through their doubts and desires about getting remarried was to read some excerpts from Perel’s book. I pointed especially to the language she uses to capture this mysterious and paradoxical intertwining of safety and commitment on one hand, and the yearnings of our wild hearts on the other.

“Love is a vessel that contains both security and adventure,” she writes, “and commitment offers one of the great luxuries of life: time. Marriage is not the end of the romance, it’s the beginning. They know that they have years in which to deepen their connection, to experiment, to regress and even fail. There’s always a place they haven’t gone yet, always something about the other still to be discovered.”

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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