“You are a pain in the neck
To stop you giving me a pain in the neck
I protect my neck by tightening my neck muscles,
which gives me the pain in the neck you are.”
– R.D. Laing, “Knots”
Intimate relationships are the site of some of life’s sweetest and also most painful experiences.
Relationships don’t just melt our hearts—they also melt away our illusions. Relationships are uncomfortable because this process of disillusionment always involves vulnerability, active risk-taking, and acute perception of our own shortcomings.
Relationships in other words are for growing humans. They force us to move through our fears to get what we most want. They are the nests where we can find comfort and, at the same time, the rude push that forces us to fly.
Relationships proceed in phases, but those phases can be combined in almost any order. One phase doesn’t necessarily lead to another.
Being in love is highly enjoyable, unsustainable life experience. It tends to last at full intensity two months to two years, but can be kindled and renewed for longer. It requires courage to begin, courage to let it fade, courage to grieve its passing, and courage to welcome its intermittent return. “Being in love” is not a required phase for a long-term, loving relationship, but many people in the West expect it. Clinging to the initial highs of a relationship will not help a relationship expand and endure.
Love is a one-sided choice to support someone else’s spiritual journey. Love is an action, not a feeling. Love is not about getting your own needs met. Love can be sustained forever and can endure even when a relationship ends.
Commitment builds trust and creates the foundation for a long-term working partnership. Unlike love, which is one-sided, commitment is two-sided. Broken promises shred trust and make relationships unpleasant and often impossible. Love is unconditional; commitment is conditional.
Civil marriage is a specific legal commitment between two people. Because the state makes marriage deliberately-difficult to undo, it is a commitment with particularly high stakes. Marriage does not create love nor workability in a relationship where these are absent.
Relationships last over the long haul when the couple’s inner resources, outer circumstances, and long-term goals are compatible, and when both partners commit to loving each other and themselves. Even the best relationships involve frequent hurts and misattunements. Like anything human, relationships are imperfect and dynamic. They require large amounts of ongoing energy on the part of both participants to survive and thrive.
Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch. This book describes how apparent sexual incompatibilities create a “crucible” for spiritual growth, and, ironically, even more exuberant and satisfying sex. The relevance of this book extends beyond its ostensible topic: the psychological dynamics described here come up in many different kinds of partnerships. (For example, I draw on this book all the time, usually without mentioning it, when I work with startup co-founders.)
Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, Love at First Fight by Bruce Muzik, and The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Popular descriptions of how and why breakdowns happen in a relationship, with practical advice on how to solve them. These resources can tend to be a bit prescriptive in their advice-giving, but they are wise and good company, and many people find them useful, myself included.
Principa Amoris: The New Science of Love by John Mordechai Gottman. John Gottman has created the current leading paradigm for couples counseling, and all of the Gottman Institute materials are excellent. This book is my favorite, a genuine masterwork that goes deep into the empirical research and fascinating mathematics behind Gottman’s approach. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail is a shorter, more accessible summary of the same research that skips the math.
Conscious Weddings e-course by Sheryl Paul. Excellent resources for navigating major life transitions, including engagements and weddings, which can trigger distress and second thoughts even when ostensibly, nothing is wrong. Sheryl Paul’s course is an excellent antidote for relationship anxiety, and her depictions of marriage and wedding planning are realistic and grounded. The novel A Perfect Marriage by Kate Kerrigan, which she recommends, explores some of these same themes in an engaging, memorable way.
The Highly Sensitive Person in Love by Elaine N. Aron. In this book, Aron describes the peculiar joys and challenges of being in a relationship with someone who is highly empathetic and attuned to emotional nuances. Many readers (self included) will see themselves in these pages. Note that being sensitive is not a flaw and is not changeable. Our goal in relationships is not to toughen up, but to become, as David Richo describes, “defenseless and resourceful.”
What it feels like
Every relationship is unique. In a long-term relationship, we are constantly losing and finding ourselves. Wise descriptions of this maze, this dance, include:
Sex can feel very good. But sex can feel good even when it’s unsafe, a partner is untrustworthy, it’s being used addictively, or a relationship is unsustainable. Exciting and enjoyable sex cannot in and of itself sustain a relationship.
Sex fosters closeness. Some people do not like to combine sex with emotional closeness, hence they would prefer to pursue no-strings-attached or serial sexual relationships. Some people can enjoy emotional closeness and sex together, but still have no desire to make a commitment or pursue a relationship.
Sex can last. In a long-term relationship, a choice to love, and express that love through sex, can overcome any emotional or physical obstacles and keep sex important and exciting over time. The risks of being vulnerable go up as relationships deepen, so keeping sex vital requires increasing courage and commitment as relationships mature.
Sex is both meaningful and meaningless. Because sex fosters closeness, and closeness fosters vulnerability, sex in a long-term relationship tends to mirror the general if hidden emotional dynamics within the couple. In that sense, it has inherent significance. At the same time, we all project additional meanings onto sex based on our personal history and received ideas from the larger culture. Stripping sex of these added layers can help us see sex, nakedly, as just a wonderful if ordinary part of being human. We can then choose freely what meanings we assign to sex, or combine with sex.
Monogamy can be a fulfilling life choice, a source of stability, and a mechanism for spiritual growth. So can non-monogamy: we all have built-in programs for both. Preferences and circumstances vary—it makes sense in any case to understand our conflicted biological inheritance.
The insightful if speculative book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha describes from the perspective of evolutionary biology the many ways in which we are hard-wired to seek sexual novelty and polyamory. It’s a playful and fascinating read. Sex at Dawn is a bit of a continuation and critique of Matthew Ridley’s The Red Queen, which is in turn a continuation of Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene. All recommended.
Desire is part of life. It doesn’t obey the rules, and it doesn’t go away. Desire for anything—a cupcake, power, vitality, achievement, a neighbor’s wife, cocaine, a specific sexual fantasy—can take us into a slipstream of vitality and growth, or it can wreck our lives. The trick with desire is to have a mindful relationship to it. We don’t have to ride the streetcar named desire nor do we need to avoid it. Open to Desire by Mark Epstein describes how desire—acted on or not—can become a vehicle for self-transcendence. The movie I Am Love dramatizes the same themes.
Sex can be spiritual, but it does depend on bodies, and when bodies aren’t working as expected, sex can become a cause for distress. Sexual dysfunctions can be upsetting for couples, and yet sound medical information, and attuned medical solutions, can be hard to come by. Excellent resources to deal with sexual issues are Resurrecting Sex by David Schnarch, San Diego Sexual Medicine, Male Pelvic Floor, and Our Bodies Ourselves. Physical and emotional trauma also affect the body, and therefore sex: healing from trauma can expand or restore our sexual well-being.
What and who we desire sexually is heavily informed by the larger culture. Two contemporary books that are particularly insightful about the relationships between desire, drugs, media, class, race, and gender are A Taste for Brown Bodies: Gay Modernity and Cosmopolitan Desire by Hiram Pérez and Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era by Paul B. Preciado. The recent article in The Atlantic “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” by Kate Julian is also surprising or not, depending on one’s circumstances.
One last book that deserves a quick comment is The Ethical Slut. I see this book on many shelves in my hometown of San Francisco, where open relationships are reasonably common, particularly in the gay community. It’s well-intended, and its advice is good as far as it goes… but personally I am not a big fan of this book. I think the danger of any kind of etiquette manual is that it can easily become a controlling list of “shoulds,” not a guide for intimacy, connection, or self-awareness. Self-awareness is freedom, polyamory is not. (And likewise: Celibacy is not. Marriage is not. Divorce is not. Promiscuity is not.)
Following a script for your relationship will deny you the sensuous reality of your own experience. Ultimately, the most important book of love is not the one you read, but the one you and your partner write yourselves.