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Part 2: To Be the Anchor and the Wave: the Challenge for Couples Who Love

Part I of this series provides a brief history of marriage in western societies (albeit with some generalization across socio-economic classes) and attempts to lay the foundation for an exploration of monogamy in contemporary times. Marriage and monogamy is a substantial topic, to say the least, and I will not profess to have performed any groundbreaking analysis or reached any irrefutable conclusions. Rather, this series is the beginning of an investigation, the observation and scrutiny of the institution itself and the modern practice of it … my primary goal is to gain additional insights and ask some difficult questions that not only challenge our traditional views and mores, but provide my clients and readers a better chance at solving the problems they face in their own lives and relationships.

In a monogamous relationship we might like to believe that our partner becomes our one and only shining light, the person who no matter what makes us feel warm and special inside. Your partner may actually be that person … at least in the beginning of the relationship. Later on, as the love pheromones descend from their pinnacle and a more balanced routine sets in, you quickly learn that your partner will fail to make you feel lovey-dovey all the time. Au contraire, he or she can downright bring out the worst out in you. We realize our partner has flaws, and may in some ways be exactly as imperfect as we feared. We understand there are inherent differences between us. Hopefully not fatal ones! OK. Eventually, we advance into what it means to be in a relationship after the honeymoon phase dissipates (my father is always fond of saying “after one year, the romance is dead…” thanks for the tip Dad!). If you decide to ride the wave long enough you learn to understand each other better, negotiate the terms of your relationship, compromise, learn how to fight, and how to make up. And we do this mostly out of love and passion for one another… right? So is it love and passion that define a relationship?

Passion, for the most part, is monogamous. It certainly doesn’t share well. With rare exceptions, when you’re in love and passionate about someone you are single minded. Often those who have endured trauma or insecurities in their lives (in other words, the majority of us) want one person in life to rely on and make them feel safe and secure. They don’t want to deal with the unknown of multiples. So we hold on tightly to our partner and rely on the romantic ideal. “I will be your everything… and you will be mine!”… or so we tell ourselves. The boundaries become blurred, ‘what’s yours becomes ours’, and partners dive deep into the emotional world of feelings. Ideally, you make each other feel special, loved, cared for, and relied upon. Sounds great, right? But when we begin to think of ourselves as “I’m the chosen one” … ”I’m the IT” or I’m the “one”, we rely on the belief that our partner doesn’t think or want anyone else again. Instead we think … “If you get everything with me there is NO reason to go for it elsewhere!”

The assumption is that you belong to one another and the boundaries of the relationship become rather rigid instead of open and flexible. The expectation is each of you will operate in not just your own, but in your partner’s best interest. You will try to do everything possible to not hurt the other. The rule becomes you love me, and only me. Sexual fantasies are, supposedly, confined to the relationship. For example, pornography, especially if abused, can throw relationships over the tipping point. Why? Perhaps because partners give into this notion of believing their partner is owned property; a private sexual fantasy, or series of them, on the Internet suddenly becomes a threat to the relationship. Over time it might seem that anything and everything in the relationship becomes about the other and the couple as a whole. Where then does the self end and the relationship begin? Is there a distinction in such a construct? One thing is for sure: losing individuality, however tempting it may seem in the beginning of a relationship, is a dangerous proposition that might have negative long-term consequences, both within and outside of that relationship.

Couples are often stuck in a “black and white” model of how they define their relationship, when in fact relationships operate predominately in the gray zone. That is where the unknown, the complexity, the nuances, and the ambiguity of relationships reside. Add feelings and emotions to the mix, and you’re quickly swimming (or sinking) in gray waters. Love is fickle, and when love begins to define a relationship, those volatile feelings can also deconstruct it deeply, and quickly. The old saying of, “marry until death do us apart” might now more accurately translate into “marry until the love dies”.

Research by Dr. Sue Johnson and Dr. John Gottman show us, for example, that when couples fight about sex, money, parenting, In-laws, etc., these arguments are often in fact more a result of failed emotional connections than the topic at hand. When the relationship is defined predominately out of love, couples become fused and lost in one another. The emotional connection of the relationship determines how couples feel, think and act towards each other. The self in each partner is lost. The weight of love gets puts onto the relationship … think of a glass heart: beautiful, fragile and easily breakable. I am not saying love less. I am saying, love more intelligently, more maturely, and with a free sense of self. (In this context nurturing the self means remaining true to yourself in a relationship where there is intense intimacy, standing up for your own beliefs and values, retaining the ability to calm yourself and not let your own anxiety run away with you, not getting over-reactive, not conforming to the pressure of your partner, etc.).

Relationships and marriage are fluid and dynamic. They evolve and there are different stages that require couples to continuously change in order for it to adapt well. It’s a dance between two people who are constantly seeking togetherness and individuality – often, and quite typically, at different times. The tolerance and the level of intensity of togetherness and individuality vary from person to person, and from couple to couple. Each person in a relationship has their own negotiation with self: the self who wants and desires togetherness, and the self who strives and demands individuality. Often when one partner looks for closeness, the other will at some point push away and long for individuality. The dance of pursuer-distancer is set into motion.

Similar to the opposing opposites of togetherness and individuality, we as humans tend to have (at least) two sides to us. One side might want to be “good”, obedient, and compliant. Yet there is often another side that wants to break the rules and test boundaries. I simply need to watch my kids at play and this contrast becomes evident very quickly. Let’s take a look at some of the significant dualities in relationships:

Safety – Vulnerability/Danger
Love making – Dirty sex … “Fucking”
Calm - Excitement/Thrill
Assurance – Uncertainty
Compulsion – Freedom
Familiarity – Exploration into the unknown
Emotional bonding – Desire to discover and uncover
Unity - Separation

The dichotomy of such important qualities in relationships may be easier to maintain in the beginning of a relationship but over time and into a marriage, they become more challenging. Why is that? What happens when we get comfortable and familiar with anything? We tend to get lazy and complacent! Couples are generally very active before they get married and have children but then fall into a state of satisfaction. Couples begin to be nicer to their friends, dress up for others, and behave with more maturity at work. The home often becomes the place where people bring leftovers … not the best of themselves! But those two sides to ourselves never really go away, and when life unfolds, challenges are brought upon us. The routine becomes mundane, and it’s easy to long for the side that often takes a backseat in marriage. It’s also the side of us that may require more work on our own behalf to achieve or maintain.

As stated in Part 1, emotional intimacy in marriage, as a standard across most socio-economic groups in our society’s history, is a rather new construct. Terry Real states: “contemporary women want to be more than companions with their spouses; they want to remain friends and lovers. If the twentieth century marriage was companionable, the new marriage is intimate—physically, sexually, intellectually, and, above all, emotionally. While some men might be thrilled if their wives remain as sexually provocative and generous as a mistress, the rest of the new package—particularly emotional closeness—leaves them feeling inadequate and mystified, if not downright put-upon. And while women’s new empowerment may well equip them to stand up for themselves, it does a terrible job of teaching them how to stand up for the relationship.” (2016)

It is therefore especially crucial for married couples today to re-evaluate and re-negotiate the terms of their marriage every few years. It’s important to understand the erotic freedom of the other, to open honest conversations about the dualities of character inherent in all of us (i.e., the “good” and the “bad” side), to openly discuss how each is changing as a person, to disclose what you desire, what is lacking for you in the marriage, etc. We must continually refresh our relationships, and re-examine ourselves, in order to create enough flexibility and versatility to evolve and change as a couple through marriage. As Esther Perel (2016) points out: “Most people in the West marry 2-3 times, and some do it with the same person!” Since marriage has progressed to an intimate enterprise, we are required to work harder at it! But couples only tend to talk about monogamy when the so-called shit hits the fan, and there is a crisis such as an affair.

And so we reach the topic of Infidelity, the act that can wreck havoc in so many relationships. But it happens, and quite a bit. In fact, it is more the norm than the exception. Since loyalty is mostly shown with our genitals and not in other ways (sadly), infidelity becomes the ultimate betrayal. But is it? While divorce used to be the shame of the institution of marriage, staying with a partner who has cheated is now often considered the ultimate disgrace.

In part 3 of the blog series I take a closer look into why and how infidelity shows up in monogamy, and why it may be time to shed the shame and stigma it carries.

So, can you love and fuck simultaneously? You tell me. The answer to that question may be as complicated as relationships are.

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Dr. Olivia Schläpfer Colmer offers individual, couples and family therapy in Miami, FL. Her office is located at 4770 Biscayne Boulevard, Suite 1440, Miami FL 33137.

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