Because when you have an affair, by god you feel alive. Not that it’s the right thing to do, but it is definitely a moment when you feel in touch with life. I don’t think it’s the only way to get there, but it’s that connection to sexuality to the erotic energy that I’m more interested in.
The way that people cultivate pleasure for its own sake, the way that people can step out of their roles as mom and dad and husband and wife and responsible citizen and maintain a connection with this other more transcendent dimensions of life. And that you find in the erotic. And the erotic is not just in sex, you can find it in nature and in art, but not much of it tops sexuality.
So the obvious question is, how can you cultivate desire in relationships? How can you keep that sense of aliveness?
When people ask “how do you get that” the image that comes to mind for me is of the little child who sits on your lap, cozy, nested and secure and at some point, if all goes well, they get up, and they run to see what else is out there in the world to discover, to experience their freedom. And at some point they will turn around and look at you and they’ll see how you respond. They experience at the same time closeness and separateness, connection and freedom.
What happens in adult relationships is that often people end up sapping the freedom and the separateness in the name of a kind of connection and safety that is illusory at best. And they sap the very erotic vitality out of their relationships. At first they welcome the unknown. That’s how they met. But then they start to find the same dimensions at home, threatening. Now they don’t want surprise. And they slowly start to create something that is more fixed and flat, more safe, more secure, but also more boring. And they complain of marital boredom.
All couples couple struggle with intermittent disappearance of desire. But those who have the spark are those who know how to resuscitate it. It’s about surprising the other person, maintaining an interest. Ask your lover questions that your friends would be asking, questions that make them interesting rather than just chit chatting about the nitty gritty of the everyday all the time. It’s about relating to them as a person that you don’t yet know. And not because you’re pretending you don’t know them, but because you actually welcome the unknown, the persistent mystery of your partner, and that you don’t pretend like you actually know them like the inside of your pocket.
I think a lot of people assume it’s inevitable that intimacy or great sex is going to fade in long-term relationships.
Yes, the question is, why doesn’t good intimacy guarantee great sex, contrary to what we’re being told. For one thing, maybe it’s not lack of closeness that stifles desire, but too much closeness and the familiarity that is inherent in intimacy. Maybe the caring and protective elements that nurture love and the way that love flourishes in an atmosphere of mutuality and reciprocity are the very ingredients that block the unselfconsciousness and freedom that is needed to experience desire with the one you love.
It would not have been difficult for me to write a book about people who can’t stand each other, don’t communicate, and therefore don’t have sex. What was interesting was that I have all these couples come to see me saying, we have a great relationship, we love each other very much, we have no sex. They say, I know he loves me but it’s been years since I’ve felt wanted. And they know the difference. These are good relationships with caring, loving, and good intimacy, and they don’t experience desire. And it’s not because the lack of desire is a consequence of a breakdown in the relationship. Actually it’s paradoxically an unanticipated consequence of this wonderful intimacy they created.
Can you talk about some of the other things that you think lead to a breakdown of desire?
I was reading a study that looked at why people in the U.S. don’t flirt. You know how we don’t look at each other (which by the way is a comment that every foreigner who arrives here asks). And it’s a few different things. On the one hand there’s a notion that if you look at people you are intrusive; you don’t respect their privacy. On the other hand it’s this notion that in this pragmatic, goal-oriented environment, people don’t feel comfortable with the imponderables and the ambiguities of attraction and desire. They think you flirt when you want to start something. You don’t just play for play's sake. In this country you don’t play very often without a goal -- to win, to improve your health, to improve your taste buds.
Doing something that doesn’t have a goal or result attached to it is not highly valued in the American context. I’m talking about pleasure for its own sake, playfulness for its own sake. And flirting is playing with possibilities. It’s teasing. It’s playing with the tip of the sword to use the etymological meaning of the word. It’s never about scoring. It’s just about playing with what could be, what won’t be, what you don’t even know if you’d want to be, but that you’d love to think about could happen.
That’s the erotic; sexuality transformed by our imagination.
We’re the only ones that can make love to someone in our head for four hours, have a wonderful time, and touch nobody. Because we have the imagination. And a central agent of the erotic act, of eroticism, is the imagination. And that’s what goes away, and that’s when a breakdown of desire often occurs.
Are you talking about sexual fantasy?
It isn’t necessarily sexual fantasy. It means circumventing reality. When you think of sexual imagination people instantly think of sexual fantasy. And when they think of fantasy they often have a narrow definition of the word, it is scripts, roles, costumes. Every talk I give I’ll have someone say to me “I never fantasize” and then proceed to give me a whole description that’s pure fantasy.