I know I left you with a bit of a cliff-hanger last week. But I wanted you to have some time to truly ponder the weight of what I was suggesting. Allow me to now fill in some of the blanks for you. The very elements of mystery – the unknown, the uncertain, the ill-defined – are the places in which eroticism flourishes. The self-help guru Anthony Robbins says that the amount of passion in your relationship is directly proportional to the amount of uncertainty you can tolerate. Most of us like to play it safe, so once the first blush of love has subsided, we experience very little eroticism. Often we feel a bit like the folks in this comic my husband found me – written and drawn by Jeph Jacques.
Here are a few things that eroticism needs in order to survive in your relationship:
1. Eroticism needs separateness.
Never before in history has there been so much pressure on relationships as there is in North America today. My husband and I saw how deeply engrained our own cultural biases were when we lived in Kathmandu, Nepal. We quickly came to realize that marriages such as our own were termed “love marriages” and they were actually looked down upon! This was quite a shock to us until we learned the rationale behind the distain.
Many of the older generation had the foresight to realize that the young couple, acting on a rush of hormones and endorphins, would not have sufficient wisdom to make a life-long choice of a spouse. The older generation expected that love would grow over the years of participating together in the daily duties of life. Financial stability, genetic compatibility, the support of a wider community, etc. rather than love were the hallmarks of a good match.
Now, before we get too critical of the pitfalls of that culture, let’s take a look at our own. Today, we put tremendous pressure on our spouses. We expect romance, deep understanding of our wants and needs, spiritual alignment, friendship (indeed the closest of friendship), passion, and agreement in parenting styles. This list goes on and on. We have, in essence, taken the admonition that “the two will become one” and interpreted it as complete and total enmeshment. I personally believe that our divorce rates are a reflection of the fact that our marriages are buckling under the strain of these ludicrously high expectations.
And yet, if we are to experience the erotic in our relationships, we have to give room to the fact that our spouse is indeed a separate person, whose fantasies and sexual tastes and desires might be very different than our own. When we embrace this separateness and allow it room in our relationship, the erotic has space to breathe.
I recently had a client tell me a story about her husband. One day, while away on a business trip, he had confessed to her that he had a secret fetish. On the surface, this was completely outside of her paradigm, but she realized that it wasn’t anything which violated her core values in the marriage. So instead of feeling threatened and responding with ridicule (such as “That is so strange and I really don’t want to have anything to do with it.”), she embraced the concept that her husband was a separate person, unique in his tastes and proclivities, and she told him she would be delighted to explore this avenue with him. The irony was that when she acknowledged and affirmed his individuality within the context of their relationship, their intimacy flourished.
Why do many people push back from the concept of separateness in marriage? I believe it has a lot to do with fear. If I accept that you are a separate individual, you might ask me to do something that is outside my own personal comfort zone, you might not want me, or you might define yourself differently than I do. Which leads me to my second point.
2. Eroticism needs fresh eyes.
Many of the couples I meet take a tremendous amount of pride in the fact that they “know” each other. This is a wonderful sentiment when it creates warmth and fondness and a sense of shared history in the relationship.
It can backfire on us though. When we become so secure in our belief that we “know” our spouse, we can stop looking for different perspectives on them. We get locked into our point of view, and even worse, we think that our opinions of our spouse are the “right” ones. In essence, we get so used to seeing what is in front of us that we no longer look for it any more. Psychologists call this problem habituation. As we become acclimated to the new stimuli, we begin to take it for granted. This can be an incredibly dangerous to the relationship.
The only group in which the divorce rate is going up in right now is empty-nesters. Everyone else’s divorce rate is remaining stable or going down. Theirs is going up. Why? I believe it is because theses couples took each other for granted for years but the cracks in the foundation of their relationship didn’t come to light until the kids left home. After years of “knowing” each other, we wake up and realize we don’t know each other at all!
To combat habituation, we need to be on the lookout for fresh perspectives on our spouse. My dear friend Sarah has the pleasure (or burden, depending on how you look at it) of seeing her husband through the eyes of another almost every time they go out for dinner. Sherman is a very attractive and gregarious guy who manages, without doing anything inappropriate I must stress, to make the waitresses swoon when he enters the restaurant. Many wives I know would respond to this situation by getting jealous or annoyed. Instead, Sarah has deliberately chosen to use these times as reminders of how sexy her husband is to other women. By making this choice, she allows these experiences ensure that her perception of Sherman never stales.
Couples would be wise to heed Sarah’s learnings when they think of their own sex lives. Men in particular, often pigeon-hole their wives as disinterested in sex and less sexual in general than men. Shmuly Boteach, the “Love Rabbi”, puts a lot of the weight of responsibility for this principle on the shoulders of men. He asserts that women are much more deeply sexual than men. They have layers to their sexuality which can be peeled back and discovered.
Here is what he says:
“The Talmud, written two thousand years ago, goes so far as to say that a man of leisure, that is a man whose occupation does not involve strenuous exertion is obligated to make love to his wife every single night. And that’s because his wife wants it every night. The rabbis of the Talmud understood women to be much more sexual than men. And to the extent that today so many married women claim instead to have a headache is because their husbands are having such bad sex with them that they’ve killed off their libidos.”
That’s an incredibly different perspective that what we culturally believe. Women actually have a deeper sense of sexuality but their libidos have been killed off by bad sex!
When we actively seek new perspectives on our spouses, when we are constantly on the lookout for change and growth in them, when we refuse to be fearful or dismissive of the perspectives of others, our own eroticism grows.
3. Eroticism needs delayed gratification.
We are, without a doubt, a culture of instant gratification. It is ingrained even in our children. Numerous studies have been run over the years asking children to choose between getting the object of their desire immediately or waiting a bit and getting even more. In one study done at Stanford, 70% of the children simply could not wait. They settled for less so that they could get it faster.
We cart this mentality right into our sex lives. We are besieged with images of couples having sex on first dates (sometimes the second if the couple is extra cautious). When we hop into the sack, it is all about the sprint to orgasm. Slam, bam, thank you ma’am.
And yet, instant gratification numbs eroticism. Eroticism thrives in being put off and delayed. Think back to the first kiss with your lover. Did you spend time thinking about when it was going to happen? How was it going to unfold? Where were you going to be? The delight of anticipation accelerated the desire.
We find the antithesis of this in most modern marriages. Couples zone out in front of the TV all evening and then will turn to each other and intone the words of Big John McCarthy, “let’s get it on!” It’s no wonder that we have so many couples who are bored silly with their sex lives.
If you want to have eroticism in your sex life, you are going to have to be deliberate about cultivating it. The anticipation for sex should not begin when Leno goes off. It should begin in the morning or even the day before. You should be flirting, teasing, and touching hours before you ever take your clothes off. Only a small percentage of “sex” should take place when you are naked. The rest takes place when intercourse is not logistically possible but you are building up to the experience.
Think all of that takes too much energy? A boring, sexless marriage takes a whole lot more and it will cost you in the long run. So turn off the TV an hour earlier. Don’t panic – you can DVR it or wait until the series comes out on DVD. Flirt with each other leading up to the actual act. Look for chances to see your lover in a new light. If someone eyes up your lover don’t get jealous, get intrigued. And spend time exploring those layers of your sexuality.