A funny thing happened this week: A reader emailed me with a dare of sorts. “From your columns, I understand you’re in a serious relationship with a man,” it read. “Mazel Tov, it should be all you hope for.” Then things got interesting: “I was wondering if you guys would experiment with something me and my wife do.” Oh boy. I readied myself for the revelation of a kink I’d never even heard of before. Instead, he explained that as Orthodox Jews they observe Family Purity Laws, which, among other things, prohibit intercourse and physical intimacy — even sharing a bed — with a menstruating woman. While they do it for religious reasons, he believes that it’s also caused the passion in his marriage to last longer. ”I was wondering if this process would work for secular hetero couples as well,” he wrote. “My theory is that there is a finite amount of passion in a sexual relationship; if you use it all at the beginning, there’s not much left after the bloom has gone off the rose.” He ended rather sweetly with a “P.S.” to assure me he wasn’t trying to save me or anything — which is wise, that ship sailed long ago — he just wanted to see if he could “do a little bit to help relationships last.”
For a moment, I considered taking him up on the challenge. Then that moment quickly passed.
I was left feeling struck by just how many theories there are out there about the secret to monogamy, and coming from all directions – religious leaders, relationship experts, individual family lore. The advice ranges from abstaining from physical intimacy during menstruation to breaking out your copy of “Fifty Shades.” That’s not to mention superficial advice on keeping a partner interested — from vaginal rejuvenation to Rogaine. Is there any worthwhile wisdom to be gleaned from all these theories on erotic fidelity? We can fly to the moon, for crying out loud, but what do we know, or think we know, about making long-term monogamous passion last? I decided to investigate and came up with five of the most compelling bits of advice currently floating around out there.
Earlier this year, couples therapist Esther Perel, author of the fantastic book “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence,” gave a must-watch TED talk on the topic and emphasized the importance of maintaining distance in relationships — contrary to the “fusion of souls” version of love that is so often romanticized. ”In desire we want an other, somebody on the other side that we can go visit, that we can go spend some time with, that we can go see what goes on in their red light district,” she said with a smile. “Fire needs air, desire needs space.” In interviewing couples around the world, she found that many reported being most desirous of their partner when physically apart from one another, or when seeing them with new eyes — for example, watching from afar as they entertain people with witty banter at a cocktail party. ”In this space between me and the other lies the erotic unknown,” she says.
Validate your own damn self
Here’s another pointer that flies in the face of our concept of all-consuming, all-fulfilling love. David Schnarch, author of “Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships,” writes, “Better sex is not a matter of technique or dexterity. To get it, you’ve got to hold onto yourself. That is the paradox: You have to learn to hold onto yourself emotionally while holding onto your partner physically.” He believes that nonreciprocal ”self-validated intimacy” is essential. ”It feels good when our partners agree with and validate us, but you can’t count on it. If you demand it, you can land in the crazy conundrum that creates eternal insecurity: we put a spin on what we reveal about ourselves in order to get the response we want,” he says. “Then we can never feel secure with those who accept us because we know they don’t really know us.” But if you validate yourself, he explains, “you can afford to let your partner know you as you are” — and that’s when you begin to be truly known.
Put sex on the calendar
So unsexy, I know, but it’s reality. As Perel found in interviewing what she calls “erotic couples,” they all share an understanding that “passion waxes and wanes.” As she explains in her TED talk, “They have de-mystified one big myth, which is the myth of spontaneity, which is that it’s just gonna fall from heaven while you’re folding the laundry like a deus ex machina.” It doesn’t — and often enough it requires planning. “Committed sex is premeditated sex,” she says. “It’s willful. It’s intentional.”
As sex therapist Marty Klein once told me in an interview, “When we’re young, we don’t have to develop the skill of planning for sex, of being patient, of waiting for when it’s going to be the right time … How many 40-year-olds who have any sort of a life do anything spontaneously? I mean, look at you and I, we wanted to have a conversation and we had to plan it. We didn’t say, you know, when you’re in the mood, give me a call.” In other words, you shouldn’t necessarily wait for the mood to strike.
Many couples have sex in the dark — either with the lights off or behind tightly closed lids — but Schnarch recommends going into it with your eyes open, literally. This “is not simply a matter of two pairs of eyeballs staring at each other,” he writes, “but a way to intensify the mutual awareness and connection begun during foreplay; to really ‘see’ and ‘be seen’ is an extension of feeling and being felt when touching one another.” This can be terrifying, he says, but “bravely pursuing eyes-open sex in spite of these misgivings helps couples not only learn to tolerate more intimacy, it increases differentiation — it requires a degree of inner calm and independent selfhood to let somebody see what’s inside your head without freaking out.”
“Candor and caring”
Journalist Daniel Bergner spent several years investigating female desire, and the lack thereof, for his book, “What Do Women Want?” So when I interviewed him for Salon, I asked for the wisdom he’d gleaned from his investigation and he offered this: “The simple thing is, I sometimes think we have to be a little braver about just caring more. Caring, and being open about caring about sex, with one’s long-term partner sounds like it should be easy, but I think often it’s not because you can fail and you can feel hurt. And so I do think that candor and caring are important and then signing up to welcome distance back into relationships might well be the root to maintaining passion.”
There you have it, five not-so-simple tips. So to the reader who wrote me: I too would like to “do a little bit to help relationships last,” just so long as it doesn’t involve personally abstaining from sex for nearly two weeks. But if it works for you, a very genuine, “Mazel tov.”