Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sustaining Desire in Marriage

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.


Trigger Warning said...

Interesting analysis regarding adultery, but I disagree.

Adultery was anathema to the ancient Jews because (1) God said so, (2) it buggered up the genealogical database, (3) it threatened the orderly execution of inheritance laws (a bastard could not even enter into the congregation unto the tenth generation - see Deuteronomy), (4) it encouraged the transmission of STDs, some of which were deadly diseases (e.g., syphilis, gonorrhea), and (5) it encouraged crime.

Jealousy is [...] the leading cause of spousal murder worldwide, according to analyses I did of data over the last century. And, statistics show, it's the leading drive behind the killing of "mate poachers" -- interlopers who attempt to lure away our partners.
--- LA Times, 2007

Christendom "inherited" this view, largely on the obvious logic of (1), and rightly so.

Today, for many, marriage has become "therapy", in a sense: a path to self-improvement. Viewing the marriage bond and one's spouse as a path to self-improvement is a deadly poison in a marriage.

I suppose in a culture that must rush in "counselors" to "help" people deal with novel phenomena like bad weather and evil people, marriage might as well become a therapeutic relationship, too. And, like therapy, if one doesn't like the therapist one has selected, move on. After all, it's about one's own self-esteem and personal growth.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I was thinking of Christendom. Roman Catholic had courtesans and favorites, mistresses and courtly lovers. It was accepted practice in nations where love marriage did not exist. Even today adultery is more prevalent in France than in England. Judaism was obviously different... up until Freud's time. Before that time Jewish custom was clearly opposed to adultery but they it also practiced arranged marriage. I discussed these questions in my book.

Sam L. said...

It's kinda hard to arrange a marriage for one's children when they're miles away.

Ares Olympus said...

I'll pretend my mentioning desire as a missing component to yesterday's post helped inspire this one.

And if desire is simple a biological imperative asserting itself, it makes sense that the falling desire for sex for parents of young children might go down not just because of physical exhaustion but a lack of need of more off-spring.

And if we go back further, before marriage was supposed to be about love, we might go all the way back to the ancient Greeks, and their idealized love wasn't between a man and a woman, but between two men, and maybe more likely between an older man and a younger man or boy. So child molestation was also fair game in the world before children were people with rights.

And just like now-a-days its easy to demonize adultery as demonize child abuse, and we can consider other standards, its very possible to defend the relationship between an older man and a boy not as ABUSE, but as perfect love, where an older man perhaps is helping to "rebirth" a boy away from the feminine sphere of mother into the adult masculine sphere, so it wouldn't just be about sex, or even primarily, but about a mentorship and perhaps even teaching a craft or trade at the same time. And it just was a helpful convenience that the young boys were soft and hairless body like his wife might be, and more attractive as well, as his aging wife's body changed with child birth, and of course she'd be redirecting her attention towards her children anyway.

So all that, whatever the reality of it, suggests the hardest problem of human sexuality is that it is not clearly genetically determined, but also largely culturally determined. And it took the word of a Jewish God to help tame the pagan sexuality of our ancestors, and stories of Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed for its sinfulness. Stories of even LOOKING back at "sin city" and being turned into a pillar of salt can put the fear of god in almost anyone with an imagination.

But whatever happens next in this strange experiment called civilization, we can be sure desire will always exist, and probably will often look the most towards what is taboo rather than what is easily available. And alcohol will probably always be involved, to lower those prudish inhibitions.