I am a great fan of your column and admire the advice you've given others over the years. My problem is this: I'm in my late 20s and have been married for nearly two years. My husband and I have been together for 10 years: We met when I was a freshman in college, and he was the first, and remains the only, man I ever slept with. Our relationship has survived many ups and downs, including several years of long-distance dating during which I had periods of deep ambivalence about staying in the relationship -- worries that had little to do with him personally, but stemmed from a vague sense that the relationship should end because it had gone on too long. I should seek out new experiences with new people: This was the common wisdom shared with me, relentlessly, by my parents and some of my friends. "You're only young once," they'd say. "You don't want to have regrets later on." While we tried breaking up on a few occasions, I found myself so attached to him -- and his love for me was so comforting, intoxicating -- that we never stayed apart for very long. When I hit my mid-20s I put aside my doubts and decided to marry him. I loved him deeply and, on our wedding day, I felt certain I was making the right choice.
By all accounts, we are happily married. We love each other's company, share many interests, have great sex, and can talk about anything. Yet this contentment is shattered -- suddenly, inexplicably -- whenever I hear stories about the sexual exploits of my friends. The stories of one close friend in particular seem to have an especially disastrous effect. Living abroad, she's traveling, having one-night stands, generally living what seems to me to be an exciting life. And her stories of sexual adventure make me feel crushed. I can't fully explain or understand it, but confronting the reality of my close friends' sex lives seems to throw into relief the fact that I have foreclosed all other sexual options in order to be in this marriage. Whenever this realization hits me I feel a deep despair, a sense that I've wasted my chances, and that life has passed me by. Sex with my husband, usually great, suddenly seems dull, inadequate; my life itself seems routine and meaningless. These depressive spells last for days. I even begin to think that experiencing sex with another person, in the most risky and anonymous circumstances possible, might solve my problem. It's not a different relationship I want, after all, just different sex. A one-night stand in a new city would do the trick, I think in these moments, banish this sense of inadequacy, get it out of my system.
Of course, I don't want to throw away all that my husband and I have, the wonderful relationship we've built over so many years. Most of the time, I love being married and cherish our deep connection. I'm still certain that I made the right choice in marrying him, that he is the one for me. Yet I can't seem to overcome this intense, existential sense of sorrow I feel when faced with what I've missed out on and can never have. Is there any way for me to get past this?
Dear Seeking Contentment,
Have you talked about this with your husband? If you were to show him this letter would he hear what you are saying? Is this the kind of thing you mean when you say you and he can talk about anything?
If not, if you cannot share this with your husband, then share it with someone. I mean, in person, aside from me and our many kind readers.
If you were to get with a therapist with whom you could explore this feeling, you might find what surrounds this hunger. Sure, everyone wants to sleep with everyone. But this "existential sense of sorrow" goes beyond lust. Existence in society is itself a kind of sorrow. It is a fall from pure freedom. Every bond is a narrowing. Every bond forecloses other bonds and other avenues. The deeper we go, the more we shed, and if we feel a sorrow for every life unlived, every option aborted, every long leafy promising driveway driven past on our way to somewhere else, then life is an unending trail of sorrows.
Every day we are shutting the door on the many nights one day might become: An errand to deliver a cake might become a night spent in North Beach drinking cappuccino. A walk to the mailbox might become a walk to the beach. We might spend the day there watching the sea. Or we might take a shortcut through the park and see some children playing and sit on a bench and end up spending the day there.
Or we might meet someone and decide to have an affair, a one-night stand.
The imagination is erotic. And the erotic is transpersonal. If you are able to find a therapist who can give you the freedom to explore your fantasies, you may find out that this longing is not just a sexual longing but part of a larger erotic embrace. There may be something about sisterhood in it, too. That is, it is not just a drive for a private encounter; you may also hunger for more intimacy with your women friends.
Have you noticed that you are not so troubled by your own erotic fantasies except when you think about your woman friend having hers? She has something that you want and it is not just her one-night stands. It is perhaps also her autonomy and her courage. It may be her way of being in the world that you want.
And this is where we get to the rub of marriage. She has her freedom because she chose not to marry. The implications of your admiration for her are inescapable. We feel a constant friction between the outward forms of life we have chosen and the demands of our authentic selves. This friction keeps us thinking. It keeps us looking around. Marriage makes unreasonable demands. It can seem cruel.
You think a relationship will help you be who you are, and yet to "preserve" the relationship you find yourself lying about who you are. You long for something yet feel it must be kept secret because it threatens what you have.
A one-night stand might provide a piece of what you long for. But it would not give you the kind of freedom your friend enjoys. Rather, it would bring you the opposite: It would burden you with secrecy. Rather than walking away lightly, you would carry this burden into your marriage. Freedom is what your friend enjoys. It may be in fact her freedom that turns you on. And her freedom stems from her choice not to be married.
At least now the issues are clear. There are certain things you want very much but they lie outside the boundaries of your marriage. This might be where you would start the conversation with your husband -- with your admiration of your friend, your envy of her freedom, and your curiosity about what she learns in her encounters. Or if it seems too risky to talk about with your husband, then it might be where you begin the conversation with a therapist.
The secret one-night stand is not off the table. Let's not just dismiss it. To dismiss it would imply that we do not believe you have choices. You do have choices. It is a possibility. It's just that it also has consequences. What would happen if you found someone and had some sex just to see what it feels like? Where would you be then? What would you do? Would you feel the urge to tell your husband?
That would be ironic, wouldn't it be, if you hesitated to tell him what you were thinking, but felt compelled to tell him about the act the thinking led to.
If you did not tell him then you would have a burdensome secret. Some people are OK with that.
How are you at keeping secrets?
What if you liked it and wanted to do it again?
And what is the anatomy of such a transgression? Well, in talking about your thoughts, there is no breach. You haven't gone outside the marriage to have these thoughts. They're inside you and you're inside the marriage. You are inviting the other person in. You are sharing. It's an act within a relationship.
But then if you go and have an affair, you're going outside the relationship.
And maybe that's precisely what you want and require: some experience outside the relationship. Maybe you want to be outside the relationship. It's important to be honest. It might not be so much about eroticism as about autonomy. It might be that this existential sorrow has to do with some pristine kernel of your being that feels undernourished or eroded.
Things are signs of other things. We focus first on the stirrings of physical desire and think that is where the impulse to go outside the marriage starts. We overlook even earlier stirrings. Of those we remain unconscious. What we say is contradictory. We say it is about sex even though, as you say, what it feels like is existential sorrow. Maybe it was existential sorrow all along. Maybe sex arrives later as a convenient container. People so often feel empty afterward. It was never about the sex. It was about the existential sorrow.
Find your way to the source of this existential sorrow. The cure for it is probably not sex but something more like grieving -- grieving for the many unacted desires and unlived lives we speed past on our constant way to something better.
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