Love lasts, desire doesn’t.
I can’t describe my marriage fully without sounding like an asshole. I avoid describing it even to myself. It’s so hard to separate the things that I want to be true, that are sometimes true, from the things that are also true that I wish would disappear. In fourteen years of marriage, seventeen years of togetherness, nineteen years of knowing my husband — a lot of things have been true. Doesn’t it come down to what we choose to focus on?
Here is what I mostly choose to focus on. I love my husband. When I look around my life, there is almost nothing I cherish about it that does not exist because of him, depend on him, or flourish in a better state because he is here: our marvelous children, our pretty house, my job doing what I love even when it doesn’t pay, our shared delight in entertaining friends. He is trustworthy, smart, handsome, strong, capable, tidy, and kind but with a teasing edge. He makes me laugh immoderately. He has a good job and he is good at it, but he has never put his career ahead of his family — ahead of me. I love that he pays attention to me, wants my attention, loves to hear me talk, believes his life is richer because of my insight and interests, my stories, the sense I make of things. Not that he doesn’t make his own sense. Sometimes I’m still surprised by his depths, the thoughts he thinks that are not at all like mine, that wouldn’t come to me without his bringing them. The idea of my life without him — if he died, or, maybe worse, stopped loving me and left — is a lonely, half-destroyed thing. I can’t imagine anyone I would rather share my life with. I do not covet my friends’ marriages. I think a few of them secretly covet mine.
Here is what I don’t like to focus on, and don’t know what to do with. I no longer crave my husband’s touch. Sometimes I barely tolerate it. Too often, my instinct is to shrug him off, push him away, elude his grasp. I have to remind myself to stand in his embrace, lean in, accept his affection. It’s not the affection I mind. I still love the way he looks and smells and feels. I touch him the way I touch our children — to convey my fondness, my deep love, my gratitude. There’s no heat in it. More often than not, when he touches me, there is reproach. I want you, but you don’t want me back. I wake up before him in the mornings and try to warm myself with sexy thoughts so when he reaches for me I’ll be ready. If I’m not, if he wakes me with a caress and a squeeze, I am irritated. When he strokes my crotch I push his hand away so I can do it myself. I can come to him when I’m ready, and the sex we have then ranges from fine to excellent, but he can’t make me want it by touching me. Almost the opposite. I’m critical of the way he approaches me, but I think he is not the one who has changed. Or if he has, it’s my fault. I have made him tentative and unsure with me.
In the beginning, his hands were pure magic. They sent desire flaring, jolting through me. He was and is, by far, the best lover I have ever had. I spend so much time now in denial or defensiveness — feeling like a careless, thoughtless person who somehow didn’t take care of our best thing, and broke it — that sometimes I fail to mourn this loss that is a tragedy for me as much as for him. It’s not that I am without desire. There was a period, when our kids were little and very physically needy, when I lost all interest in sex, when the only thing I longed for with any passion was sleep. That is no longer the case. At forty, I am more interested in sex than I have ever been. I think about it, read about it, write about it. I make up erotic stories about imaginary people. I wallow in fantasies about non-imaginary men — the fantasies I used to guiltily deny myself, afraid that if I thought about adultery I would commit it. So far, I haven’t. I’m having more sex now than I have ever had. Some of it is with my husband. The vast majority of it is solo. I wait until he’s not around and do things to myself that I don’t allow him to do to me, though he would love nothing better. It’s not as bad as an affair, but it is surely a betrayal.
Why do I deny him? I am a deep well, and he is parched with thirst — this man I love, whose happiness is inextricably linked to mine. What makes me so unable to share with him this thing that delights us both? How is my reluctance compatible with my love for him?
When I was a kid, I was in love with my neighbor, whose family was and is like my other family. He is three years older than I am and his earliest memory is of listening from the back seat of a car while his mother and mine, who was pregnant with me, discussed what my name would be. He loved me back. We played games in which we were married and it was night; we lay in bed holding each other, kissing each other’s faces. When I was 12, we French kissed for the first time on a camping trip, and he touched my new breasts. As we got older, we kept missing each other. He was somewhere else. He was with someone else. But the summer before I left for college he was around and we almost dated. We couldn’t quite figure out how. We said to each other, half-jokingly, that we’d been dating our whole lives, and the only way to up the seriousness was to get engaged. (We didn’t.) Sex barely seemed to occur to us. The evening we ended up naked in his bed together, it was completely unclear whether we were going to have sex or a nap. My attention kept wandering. Every time I took my hand off his erection, it stopped being one. Eventually, the hour got late. We got dressed. I went home. When we talked about it, not the next time we saw each other but a few years later, the only explanation either of us had was that we were like the children of an Israeli kibbutz, raised communally from infancy, who don’t grow up to marry each other because it feels like incest. I will know and love him all my life, as I believe he will know and love me. We spent our childhoods planning to get married. But it turns out that’s not the kind of family we are to each other.
I worry that something similar has happened to my marriage — that my husband has become so close, so much my family, that he’s more brother to me now than lover. If this is what has happened, it is cruelly one-sided. He has not lost his desire for me.
The wise and fascinating Esther Perel writes that intimacy and desire have opposite requirements. Intimacy is having and desire is wanting. It is impossible to want something you already have. Desire requires distance, a gap for the spark to leap across. The solution, she says, is to change our perception. If we think we have another person, we are deluded. We are never as close as we imagine ourselves to be. We could lose each other at any time. If we remember this, we can feel desire even for the people we are most intimate with. I like this explanation. It is hopeful. But I haven’t been able to use it to get my desire for my husband back. Imagining my life without him makes me sad, not horny. For horny, I have to imagine that he is someone else.
Esther Perel also says that the imagination is the greatest erogenous zone. This is certainly true for me now. My imagination may be my one remaining erogenous zone. But I remember when I imagined that the man who is now my husband could never be more than a friend. Then he touched my foot down in the crack of the couch where no one else could see, and kindled my body like a sudden, unexpected Christmas. Desire surged up and overwhelmed my imagination, leaving it far behind. Now, imagination tinkers in fits and starts and eventually manages to spark the body. It is not the same at all. I want my old, unruly, bodily desire back, the kind that trumps all the objections of my mind. My husband, frequent victim of “The kids might walk in,” rejections, wants it back even more.
There is no solace in speaking any of this out loud. My husband knows, but talking about it humiliates him. He blames himself, no matter how many times I tell him that it’s not his fault. My women friends, who are smart, empathetic, vulnerable, and wise from having their hearts broken a few times, want to shush me. I must be thinking about it wrong, doing something wrong. They tell me stories about other couples they have known who achieved life-long passion. (These other couples are inevitably dead, and not of a generation to discuss their sex lives. Their unwavering desire could be inferred from their public actions.) Once, when a friend did this, I cried and said, “I don’t want you to fix it. I want you to listen.” My friend got quiet for a while, and then she apologized. “I didn’t want to listen,” she confessed. “It’s too painful.”
There is a name for the pain in the reactions of my friend, my husband: Shame. We are all so ashamed! How can it be true that we do not desire or are not desired by or will at some point stop desiring the people we most deeply love? Doesn’t it mean we’ve failed? Weren’t we promised that if we chose well, loved well, didn’t let ourselves go, communicated through the hard times, admired and trusted our mates, the reward would be life-long marital happiness and loins that kept the home fires burning? Didn’t someone promise that? Don’t we know people who have achieved it? Don’t we?
I’m beginning to suspect we don’t. Recently I read Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire. Bergner just came right out and said it: Monogamy kills desire, especially for women. I think it might be true. Sometimes I think the entire history of human gender relations has been an attempt to cover up this troubling truth. Modern marriage is only the most recent form of denial.
But if it’s all a big lie, what then? We’re so invested in it! If I were forced to choose between the love, comfort, and sense of belonging I have in my marriage, and that flare-up of bodily desire I miss so much, it’s no choice at all. What kind of an idiot would exchange a momentary spark for an entire happy life? Not being idiots, most of us choose the happy life, and are less happy for having faced the choice. Or we choose both, and lie.
Or some people choose both and don’t lie. A pragmatic couple might throw open the doors, elicit promises not to bring home anything nasty, and wish each other luck out there. But my husband is neither a pragmatist nor a polyamorist. If I had an affair it would break his heart. And — I love him: I won’t break him any way that I can help. So for now, we go on as we do, me weaving my second-rate desire on the loom of my imagination, trying to share it like a too-small blanket that won’t quite cover us both.
But I can’t help feeling there ought to be a better way.