Monday, July 31, 2017

When Is a Marriage Not a Marriage?

Back in the day psychotherapy and especially psychoanalysis had intellectual gravitas. They did not always deliver on the promise, but therapists and patients inhabited a world where everyone pretended to be a serious thinker. Freud might have gotten it wrong, but he was an important thinker, someone who changed the culture… even if, for the worse.

In many ways it was too good to last. Psychoanalysts were mostly physicians and physicians have no real notion of how to do philosophy. After all, Freudian theory does not come from medicine. It is philosophy. Adding psychologists to the mix helped things out, but the need to present the profession as clinical and scientific undermined even the pretense to intellectual rigor.

Even in the academy serious thinking had a place and attracted a coterie of followers. French theorists, in particular, whether Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Lacan and Kristeva, were read and studied and even respected. Now, we have the sad philosopher clown named Slavoj Zizek and a Belgian psychotherapist named Esther Perel.

Strikingly, the New Yorker now tells us in an overblown puff piece that Perel is the ultimate couples counselor. After all, she had an enormously successful TED talk and is now offering up podcasts of real couples counseling sessions. She has something of a cult following, which might have something to do with her charming accent. It has very little to do with the substance of her thought—shot through with psychobabble and political correct platitudes—and a lot deal to do with great marketing.

The New Yorker has nothing to say about whether or not her counseling is effective, though we all know that couples counseling is notably unsuccessful in putting marriage back in gear.

In any event, Perel zones in on couples intimacy. The New Yorker gushes over her popularity:

Since 2006, when she published her first book, “Mating in Captivity,” an investigation into the fraught topic of married sex, Perel has travelled the globe speaking about couples’ intimacy, or their lack of it. Her TED Talk “Rethinking Infidelity” has been watched more than 7.5 million times; another, on “the secret to desire in a long-term relationship,” is nearing ten million views. This following extends far beyond the ranks of the long-coupled. A source at a recent bachelor party in Brooklyn reported that the groom-to-be declared himself an avid fan.

Apparently, Perel has focused like a laser beam on the conjugal boudoir. Apparently, our sex laden age has produced marriages that are singularly lacking in lust. No one will deny the appeal of such thinking to modern couples, but it provokes a simple question. 

That is: when is a marriage not a marriage? The answer: when it is an affair.

Unfortunately, for those who believe that marriage is held together by libidinal glue, the truth lies elsewhere. If you try to conjure a relationship that runs exclusively on romance and lusty longings, that escapes the tedium of socialization and domesticity, you are talking about an affair. If your love affair loses its spark, it is over. Done, finished. All it has is desire and once the desire flames out, no more affair.

Marriage is a different story. It is a contracted relationship that comports duties and obligations. It involves more than two people. It involves children and families and communities. It confers an identity on both parties. Marriages work when both spouses are committed to a common and cooperative enterprise. When these elements break down, when the contract is breached, the desire will diminish. If you think that the commitment you contracted when you got married can be revised according to the state of your bliss, you have misunderstood the institution. 

If you do not understand the difference between a marriage and an affair you are likely to have problems in your marriage. You might also have problems in your affair, but since an affair is disposable, the consequences are significantly less grave.

In any event Perel seems to be selling sexual desire to couples who do not understand what a marriage is. Considering that said couples would never be able to deal with the truth about marriage, one understands why her message has an appeal:

On the TED stage, she introduces her topics with provocative questions—“Why does good sex so often fade, even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever?”—and dispenses advice that is surprisingly counterintuitive yet reassuringly practicable. To rekindle desire, stop counting on the magic of spontaneity, a surprise ravishing by the washing machine: “committed sex is premeditated sex.” Betrayal may spell the painful end of a chapter in a relationship, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole thing is done: “Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?” (Her forthcoming book, “The State of Affairs,” expands on this theme.)

The New Yorker’s writer finds this all to be brilliant. Immediately this tells you that even this august magazine has sacrificed intellectual gravitas to the gods of political correctness—because it has something to do with white male privilege:

Perel is a master at what she does. She is preternaturally incisive and humane, alert to the sorts of ingrained fears and long-standing insecurities that clog communication. She guides and prods as she interprets, occasionally butting in with a joke or some good-humored chastisement, and, while she lets her patients know when she thinks they’re onto something, she also tells them when they’re way off base. “You have to be able to say, There is another adult down there, and she’s not a total nincompoop,” Perel tells the neglectful partner, in the second episode, when she confesses that she is so consumed with her children because she doesn’t trust her spouse to properly care for them. Meanwhile, the neglected partner worries that they are not having enough sex. “There is nothing that stands in the way more to a woman’s desire than a sense of caretaking,” Perel tells her. “If I have to think about everybody else, I cannot think about me.” In other words, ease off, but also help out. You’re right, but you’re wrong, too. Welcome to life as a couple.

This is catnip for narcissists. Needless to say, in some of these couples counseling sessions, what passes for truthfulness is aggressively rude, insulting, even bordering on assault:

Perel diagnoses them as “splitting the ambivalence”: one takes the positive position, the other the negative, until the suppressed pain finally boils over. The husband tells his wife that sleeping with her was like having sex with a corpse. “Come in five minutes then leave me—that is my sex life!” the woman retorts. They are in a deadlock, seething and hurt. “It’s very rare that I make blanket statements like this: your communication is terrible,” Perel says. She suggests that they create a private e-mail address that they will use only for one another, to begin to learn how to speak to each other again.

Does it take a world class couples counselor to imagine that something positive will come of a man’s telling his wife that sex with her is like having sex with a corpse. You have to give credit to the simpletons who imagine that this will all be solved if the two of them have their own private email address. How brilliant. How intimate. How personal. 

Just between us, when you communicate via email you are not speaking to each other. The same applies to texting. 


dragonlady said...

Well, you are obviously right in your critique. As a survivor of marriage therapy (me, not my marriage), I hope to hear your solutions to the problem.

Ares Olympus said...

I always thought the "Do you love me?" scene in Fiddler on the Roof was sweet and hopeful. Honoring our duties and obligations are necessary for success, but not clearly sufficient for the desires of the heart. So they sing "But even so after 25 years, its nice to know."

And on sex, but also many things, there will always be a problem in relationships that "Whomever wants something less has more power" and so the one who wants more risks resentment, and the apparent goal has to be how to avoid that resentment and redirect that frustrated libido into something more useful. And in that direction, Freud and Jung's concept of sublimation is surely a source much that is good in the world.

trigger warning said...

It's a modern view to consider marriage a contract. In the original Judeo-Christian view, marriage was a covenant. I realize that current understanding considers contracts and covenants to be essentially the same, but the original meaning held contracts to be an exchange of goods or services and covenants to be an exchange of persons. It's why royalty exchanged persons for reasons of state.

Governments got involved in marriages because the demands of estate law, taxation, etc. required careful record-keeping. One did not want the bastard inheriting the castle keep or the freehold. Romantic marriage is largely a Victorian notion. Desire was not a part of marriage, nor was "self-fulfillment". Young people were not adjudged to have enough common sense to choose well, and rightly so. Throughout history, most lower-class marriages were common law marriages. Common law marriages are recognized (e.g., licenseable) today in several states and legal in all 50 states. The Catholic Church recognizes common law marriage if the persons were granted license in a state that does so.

The main problems we see today in marriage (i.e., divorce, gay "marriage", etc) are the result of the government getting involved in marriage and the romantic vision of the Victorians. No sane person would enter into a contract for business reasons under the same terms as the government-awarded marriage "contract"; viz., either party can abrogate the contract for any reason at any time with a division of assets. It's crazy.

And of course sexual attraction gets old. Even Lay's Kettle Cooked Potato Chips get old if that's all you have to eat, and they are as close to manna as it gets. And of course couples have tempestuous times. Roommates in college have tempestuous times. Families separated by distance have tempestuous times. But you can't divorce your roommate or your family and walk off with half the property, so there are no therapists to gobble up part of the estate before the lawyers get as much of the rest as legally possible.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I have written about the history of the marital institution in my last two books. Love marriage, as opposed to arranged marriage, goes back much further than Vic England.

For Dragonlady, I do believe that we should begin by seeing marriage as a contract, an agreement entered into by two free individuals that comports duties and responsibilities. We do best not to think of it as an expression of romantic love. In truth, until the advent of love marriage, romantic love was always the province of adulterous relationships.

trigger warning said...

Love and romance are similar in some ways, but different.

Sam L. said...

The consequences of an affair may be less grave, unless one consequence is a baby.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

We would be wise to see marriage as a commitment to build something together, based on what endures. All the feelings and physical attraction eventually falls away, and we see two people who have (hopefully) grown old together. What have they accomplished together? Is it meaningful? That's the measure of a great marriage... and it captures what continues beyond.

James said...

"The husband tells his wife that sleeping with her was like having sex with a corpse"
There are some women I have known that if I had said that to them........I would have been the corpse.