Intense passion and marriage are concepts that are intrinsically at odds with one another. One is fickle, changing, restless. The other is (supposedly) stable, reliable, permanent. So why do we still believe that we’re automatically entitled to both in the same relationship?
At 58, my friend Diane fell in lust with a man of 39. My friend–petite, blondly attractive, intelligent, twice married–is a woman who has been badly burned by love but who has still managed to retain a remarkable sense of optimism.
“We did it in my Corvette in my garage while my mother was upstairs, just like teenagers,” she told me. Twenty years since her divorce and ten since her last sexual affair, and suddenly passion was back in her life. And no one was more surprised than Diane herself.
Luckily for her, she was wise enough not to try to make it more than it was. She enjoyed the ride while it lasted–about three months. “Thank God I finally learned not to let them move in anymore,” she told me.
Another 40ish friend of mine is now in love (again) with her high school boyfriend. He turned up five years into her second marriage, announcing that he was leaving his wife because he had suddenly realized she was his one true love. That’s a siren song that’s pretty hard to resist, the idea that you’re somebody’s perfect woman, so lately she’s been spending a lot of time in dumpy roadside motels doing the wild thing.
That’s the incredible power of passion; it can lead you wherever the hell it wants–unpredictably, unreasonably, no matter how much therapy you’ve had or how many Oprah shows you’ve watched. Passion brings adrenaline, adventure, a sense of being unbelievably alive. But all too often we ignore the red flags that inevitably bring us misery and a broken heart. “I loved you, then I lost you, and I will never be the same,” we sing along with Melissa Etheridge, knowing it was written just for us.
We live in a culture where 60% of first marriages and 70% of second marriages fail. But would you buy a car that started 4 out of every 10 times that you turned the ignition? Yet we still feel as if we are entitled to one true love that lasts forever. Unfortunately, as everyone finds out sooner or later, the world is not a wish-granting factory.
It is a cruel irony that familiarity and contempt seem to pair up more easily than passion and stability. Most of still expect to be rocked by love and passion while nestled in security, and we feel personally cheated when we aren’t. I have friends who have been more or less happily married for years but who, after their third drink, will admit that they resent the lack of passion in their lives.
“Without a doubt, the biggest problem the married people complain about is that they’re bored stiff,” says Bob Berkowitz, eYada.com host and a “sexpert” who talks to people about sex on his radio and Internet show. Or perhaps more accurately, they’re not stiff because they’re so bored!
The truth is, sustaining the spark in any long-term relationship takes time, attention, and work. “It’s fairy-tale bullshit that sex will be as exciting after you’re married as it is the first few weeks that you’re in a relationship,” says one married friend of mine. “You’re not going to be doing it on the kitchen table twice a day anymore, but if you at least continue to LIKE the person, sex can still be good. But your desire for it definitely ebbs and flows. You have to be willing to wait out the boring periods.”
It’s the Raisin Bran syndrome: even if you really like Raisin Bran, do you want to eat it every morning for the rest of your life? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some Lucky Charms once in awhile? Cocoa Puffs sound pretty good. And what’s life without a little Captain Crunch?
Maybe a little absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Maybe people who are married or in long-term relationships should take regular sabbaticals from each other to help keep that spark alive. Or, as Katherine Hepburn once suggested, men and women should just live next door to each other and visit now and then.
In many cases, I suspect the real trouble starts when boredom leads to bad manners. We stop behaving ourselves. All too often our beloved ends up getting the worst part of us, while we save the good stuff for strangers and friends.
“When my husband gets really nasty with me, I tell him to treat me like a stranger,” says one friend of mine. “If you wouldn’t use that tone of voice with a stranger, I tell him, don’t you dare use it with me.” I think of the story I once heard about the pastor who was asked to give some words of wisdom to a newlywed couple. He said, “After 50 years of counseling couples, it’s a bit humbling to admit that the best advice I have to offer is just to be kind to each other.”
When someone is always there, it’s very difficult not to start taking each other for granted. “Respect is the most important thing in marriage. When you lose respect, you’re in trouble,” says Josephine Gorney, who has been happily married (she says) for 47 years. Gorney’s other advice? “Retain a sense of privacy. Never get to the point where you’re so comfortable you let him see you in the bathroom. There are certain things that people shouldn’t have to watch each other do, even when they’re married.” Or maybe especially when they’re married.
Another 50-ish friend whose second husband adores her tells me: “Don’t ever get too predictable. Make them wonder where you are once in a while.” Seems to be a trend here: perhaps it’s that combination of manners and mystery that helps gets one over the rough spots.
Maybe the truth is that for marriage to work, it has to be built on a shared long-term goal, something more than the temporary desire to rip each other’s clothes off. Because even after the most mind-blowing orgasm, you still have to be able to talk to the person you wake up next to. Maybe the real challenge of love is learning to love a flawed human being, after the glow of infatuation has worn off and you realize that you’re stuck with the carrot cake when what you were really hankering for was the chocolate mousse.
Years ago, before I was married, I had lunch with an old boyfriend who was already raising a family. I asked him if he was happy in his marriage. “Happy,” he said in annoyance. “That was the trouble with you, worrying about happiness all the time. My marriage is not about being happy every day. It’s like running a business, like work. It’s about being there for each other, whether we’re mad at or bored with each other. Raising our kids together. Building something bigger than either of us.”
At the time I was appalled. But now I think perhaps he was right. When you’ve committed to someone for the long haul, there will be times when you are totally in sync, and times when you will lock yourself in the bathroom and wonder what karmic sin you committed that made you end up with this particular person.
When passion is in trouble, it helps if you want the same things out of life, so you can keep the big picture in mind and try to ignore the dirty underwear on the floor or the way he falls asleep on the couch with his mouth open every night at 9:00 p.m.
I know single friends who have had too many roller-coaster rides on the passion train and are hitting middle age almost in despair, because they are starting to doubt that they will ever find a relationship that lasts.
Part of the problem, no doubt, is still the White Knight, that persistent little bastard. Despite college educations, solid paychecks, and mutual funds, too many women still grow up secretly expecting to meet a man who will be everything to them: loving, successful, understanding, strong and compassionate.
My friend Julie is 38 and still believes her soul mate is just around the corner, but now she’s not excited about it anymore, just pissed off. “I’m not willing to settle yet,” she tells me. “But I’ve been dating since I was 15, and I’m sick of it. Where the hell is he?”
One writer friend of mine wasn’t ready to “settle” until she hit 30 and realized she didn’t have the energy to continue pursuing relationships. “Yes, I settled in some ways when I married my husband,” she says. “He’s not a reader. He doesn’t understand symbolism, and he likes action movies. But he wanted what I wanted: a secure, monogamous relationship and a family. I tell people I finally bought the character and not the charisma.”
So some people do choose to “settle,” whatever that word means. They settle, or grow up, or accommodate, in exchange for the comfort of having a house with a china cabinet, or a family, or someone to spend every Christmas with. Most will admit that the sexual juices ebb at that point, but perhaps that’s an acceptable tradeoff to all but those who hold fast to their adolescent holding patterns.
At some point you must decide for yourself: do you feel more cheated when you gamble on passion and lose–or when you’re in a long-term relationship that doesn’t meet all your expectations? Which is more true: out of sight, out of mind, or absence makes the heart grow fonder? Can it be both?
The truth is, every long-term relationship has compromises, sexual and otherwise, and anyone who tells you different is a liar or an idiot, or both. No couple I know has exactly the same sex drive. “Many times, sex is a wifely duty for me,” says my friend Lisa. “I wish I didn’t feel this way. My husband and I are very intimate; we hold hands, hug and kiss, but the sex thing just takes too much time for me. If he wants it and I don’t, I either give in and fake it or I tell him when we can have it so he can be pacified.”
Another friend of mine is a member of that rare and alien race who married her college sweetheart and is actually, really living happily ever after…or as close to that ideal as is humanly possible on this planet. She freely admits that she uses sex to “grease the wheels” of their relationship. “It’s part of our negotiation of needs. I do things to make him happy because I know that I will get what I want in other things, like getting the kitchen painted,” she says.
And before you whisper the word “prostitute,” or worse, let me tell you she has the happiest marriage that I know. And let’s be honest here: how many of us have traded sex for much less than that, whether it’s an ego boost, the attention, or a little excitement? As Elayne Boosler, one of my favorite comedians, has said, “People criticize Madonna for sleeping her way to the top. That bitch. All I ever did was sleep with people who could do me absolutely no good.”
The interesting thing here is that most people don’t realize that the idea of combining passion and security is a relatively new human concept. Until the middle of the 20th century, very few people even attempted to survive on their own, because life was hard and life expectancies were short. Even today, many European countries view marriage as an institution for family and security; passion is reserved for the mistress.
It was only after World War I, when the silver screen started showing movie stars smoking and smooching on the big screen, that American appetites for passion became well-honed. Now we insist on combining these opposites.Yet we don’t see ourselves as experimenters–just nice people trying to find the love we deserve.
The greatest irony–and perhaps the greatest blessing–is that you are never safe. You can refuse to compromise and grow old alone, thinking that all your great romances are behind you, and pow–passion can still walk in at any moment and knock you flat on your ass.
That’s when, if you’re like most of us, you’ll once again do your best to nail down a secure, permanent tent inside the hurricane force of an emotion that is by its very nature always changing. You can be absolutely convinced that you’ve found your passionate soul mate and that this one will last forever, but you can still end up a guest on the Jerry Springer show one day.
All I can do is to wish you good luck and to remind you what a monumental job you’re taking on, what an incredible dare.