Until relatively recently human beings have not much worried about sustaining sexual desire in marriage. Until the sixteen century in Protestant Europe, the problem did not really exist. Until then marriages were arranged, and true love rarely entered the arrangement.
But then, Martin Luther and his band of defrocked and excommunicated religious started to get married. Since they had no social standing they had to fall back on the default position: they married for love.
Love marriage arrived in Great Britain and America in the seventeenth century. To be fair and to be accurate, the new marital custom did not really recommend that people choose their intended by the urges in their loins. The most radical reform of the marital institution was: allowing women a free choice of spouse. Perhaps love then entered the equation, but it is surely not true that women choose husbands only on the basis of emotion.
Love marriage did not become customary on the European continent until the nineteenth century, if then.
Thus, the social custom of marrying for love, something we take for granted, is more like a human novelty than a human norm. Even today, looking around the world, I would guess that more marriages are arrangements than are love matches. Even when couples marry for love intelligent young people do not fall in love with just anyone.
I have discussed this topic at length in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. Thus, I will not belabor it in this post.
When marriages were more-or-less arranged, the question of sustaining sexual desire within them did not really arise. Couples were not marrying because they loved each other or lusted after each other. Romantic love, such as it was, became the province of adulterous liaisons. A man who lost interest in his wife could solve the problem easily by finding a mistress. In many cases, the same rule applied to his wife. And each partner could have serial mistresses or lovers.
Vows of chastity, to quote Shakespeare, were more honored in the breach than in the observance.
Once marriage was based on love and once women had a more important voice in it, the Anglosphere started stigmatizing adultery—think the scarlet letter. Men who had heretofore not worried about whether or not they desired their wives found this new custom a threat to sexual expression.
No one seems to have noticed it, but the new customs certainly mattered to Freud. He was trying to help people to adapt to the new circumstances. He created psychoanalysis in order to show how to keep desire alive within marriage. The notion that he was offering a road to mental health was a ruse to trick the gullible.
Freud never quite puts it in those terms, but if your truest desire, according to the Oedipus complex is to copulate with your mother, then, when desire wanes you should head over to your local psychoanalyst and discover that you married your wife because she reminded you of her mother. For a Freudian it’s supposed to be better than Viagra.
Obviously, it worked far better in theory than in practice.
A later Freudian like Jacques Lacan did not really accept the Freudian solution and made it his life mission to make the world safe for adultery. He understood that doing so would require an all-out culture war on the sexually repressive Anglosphere. Lacan’s war on shame involved removing the stigma that had been attached to adultery. His last mistress, by name of Catherine Millot, has just written a book about how she was both Lacan's mistress and his patient... at the same time.
Since we presumably live in the Anglosphere, the adultery solution does not feel like much of a solution. Besides, we Anglos tend to marry for love and even to marry someone we lust after. And yet, what is commonly called the honeymoon phase of a relationship does not last forever. Ergo, the question of sustaining desire becomes more urgent.
In her most recent Wall Street Journal column Elizabeth Bernstein described what happens:
In the beginning of a relationship, neurotransmitters such as dopamine push the partners to have sex as much as possible. Scan the brain of someone in this early, passionate stage of love and it will look very much like the brain of someone on drugs.
The addiction doesn’t last. Research suggests the chemical phase of passionate love typically continues between one and three years. Desire fades for different reasons: the chemical addiction to a partner subsides; people age and hormones decrease; emotional distance can cause passion to drop.
Happily for all of us, science has discovered that the cause of fading desire is not: repressing your desire to copulate with your mother. Whew.
Anyway, scientists are not like psychoanalysts. They are not in the business of manufacturing desire by whipping up a witches’ brew of taboos and fetishes. They accept that some people really want each other, while others do not.
They want to know how we can sustain desire. And they have found some answers. Primary among them is this. When couples are kind to each other they are more likely to continue to desire each other. It’s not about throwing rose petals around the room or reading up on the latest in sexual techniques in Cosmo. It’s about getting along and cooperating. It’s also about the security that obtains when a couple establishes good couples routines.
About this one cannot but assent.
One can also add an intriguing point, made by Julienne Davis and Maggie Arana in their book: Stop Calling Him Honey. I have discussed it on this blog in several posts.
Their argument, brilliant for its simplicity, is that if you want to sustain desire in a marriage, you should stop using terms of endearment and start calling each other by your proper names. Instead of Honey and Snookums, try Jack and Jane. Unless, of course, your names are not Jack or Jane.
This works for the reasons the Bernstein suggests. It is a kind gesture; it implies recognition of the person as something other than a concatenation of organs and orifices.
I am sure that you are old enough to know what happens to desire when you call your beloved by someone else’s name.