No one is emotionally grown-up all the time. Our earlier selves are not filed away as memories but cordoned off like a half dozen smaller siblings who think it isn’t fair that the biggest makes all the decisions. It doesn’t take much for any one of them to climb the furniture and take over. Marital maturity is not about suppressing these earlier stages, but recognizing when they show up in ourselves and in our partners, and then, before coaxing them back into the highchair, gently remove any sharp utensils they may be welding. As grown-ups, we protect our marriage from ourselves.
Good role models are hard to find. Although no marriage is perfect, we need to have a vision, however ideal, toward which we can direct our appetite for order and adventure. That is what this is: A simple five-course menu to satisfy the circumspect as well as the exploratory palate, with minimal disruption and mess.
Safety is built into the environment. There are no windows left open for someone to fall out of, and the air is fresh and free of pollutants. Marriage is no place for criticism or put-downs, however well intentioned. The unbreakableness of the bond, a kind of necessary illusion, is assumed. We are securely attached. We need a solid base. Emotional safety is a foundational tenet of both Imago Relationship Therapy and Safe Conversations. You can afford to take risks because you know the house won’t collapse. The freedom to deeply depend on another and the privilege of being deeply depended on is a kind of shared amnionic fluid. When we inevitably do let one another down, we recognize the hurt and quickly repair. In this way, the small woundings and salves can foster a growing sense of resilience. The mechanics of safety are commitment and trust. Not just trust in the upper case issues of Money and Sex, but in the small moments of on-going availability and responsiveness. It also helps to know that we interest our partner enough that we can draw on their prolonged undivided attention.
Roll the word erotic off your tongue and notice how it changes your mood, energizes your senses. It’s utterance evokes an electrical charge that makes an ordinary room or a meal magical and otherworldly. It provides energy, promotes focus and transcendence. If that sounds like a drug, it’s because it is. But this addiction is delicate and needs regular feeding. We mustn’t take desire for granted. Sex therapists report that low sexual desire is the fastest growing sexual dysfunction. Among the many contributing factors the one we can immediately do something about is laziness. Good chemistry takes planning. The more we scheme to give pleasure, the more pleasure there is to receive. If desire is already low, sex experts encourage us to simply bypass this first stage and move on to the second stage of arousal by engaging in pleasurable touch.
Even the greatest pleasure can become irritating with mindless repetition. Human beings are, as more than 100 studies show, prone to hedonic adaptation, an innate—and measurable—capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes, positive or negative. Our senses grow dull to what is most familiar. Intimacy and desire have always felt mutually exclusive, even to researchers. The workaround is enlisting the imagination to discover the strangeness of our partner. Their familiarity is actually a comforting illusion designed to make us feel safe, but we are all ultimately unknowable and unpredictable. Looking at them as if we don’t know them can feel slightly dangerous. Looking at them the way others might see them, as a sexual object, can feel stirring and somehow off limits— in other words, erotic.
Dan Savage has a simple directive for keeping the flame alive: simply be Good, Game and Giving, that is, develop some basic sexual skills, be open to whatever your partner proposes, and in addition to focusing on their pleasure, I would add a fourth G of Greed, for the simple reason that desire begets desire.
Marriage is often mistaken for the end of possibility. But if you list and compare the activities of dating singles to committed couples, you will explode the myth of the spontaneity and daring of the dating scene. Dating activities are actually quite predictable and highly planned. When you don’t know the hidden desires and fears of your date you are likely to play it safe because doing otherwise is courting disaster. How were you supposed to know that a class in the seductive art of Japanese bonding would bring on a full blown panic attack? or that the skydiving instructor would remind her of that ex-boyfriend? Dating, to be successful, is a rather conservative game of trial and error. Married couples can experiment and push the limit because they know so much about each other’s threshold for excitement.
Novel experiences release dopamine, which elevates our energy and mood, and generates bonding. The research of social scientist Sonja Lyubomirsky names adventure as a key ingredient for happiness, especially between couples.
Although adventure can certainly promote eroticism, it’s also about tapping into that child-like curiosity toward everything around us. Experience has a tendency to contract on us unless we step out of our comfort zone and explore. Whether international travel, hang gliding, scuba diving, checking out sex shops, trying new restaurants, or trapeze lessons at the Santa Monica Pier, breaking with the safety of routine and habit opens up a depth of bonding that imprints pleasurable associations between people.
This one emits a sigh of relief. The project of self-improvement, when applied to our partner, has a limit. As important as it is to strive and grow, it is equality important to relent and relax into the human mess that we ultimately are.
If you have ever tried to teach your partner how to improve their ways hopefully, your experience with whatever aftermath that caused has guaranteed you will not try again. Believe it or not, acceptance is the best device there is for promoting change.
We all struggle with bad habits, bad attitude, rudeness, carelessness, self-righteousness, prejudice, narrow-mindedness, etc. Each one of us is a piece of work. We would do well to remember that we are the primary pain in the ass to those we love. These imperfections are what Dan Savage calls The Price of Admission to be with an otherwise wonderful person. Alain de Botton writes that in marriage “we must choose which sufferings we wish to endure.”
Focus on your partner’s assets and overlook their shortcomings. This applies to physical appearance, personality traits, and behaviors. Make a list all the things you adore about your partner in each of these three categories, review, and share it often. Allowing yourself and your partner to be flawed is liberating, and spurs unexpected growth. Relaxing on the behaviors we want changed, in ourself and our partner, is the first step, but not the last, to crafting new more effective ways of living.
How long is it reasonable to hold a grudge against a toddler who made you late for work because of a car seat inspired melt-down? Imagine what it would be like if you let your so-called adult partner off the hook just as quickly. Not easy. But with practice the ventral vagal nerve complex becomes toned and develops a wider range of responses, allowing you to actually choose how to respond to stress or hurt. If you want to let more things roll off your back, you have to practice. Choosing to let it go or address it is up to you, so long as it is a choice. Forgiveness can be learned. Choosing a posture of generosity toward your partner will create the goodwill required for them to switch out the behaviors that hurt you, for those that feel caring. Letting your partner off the hook doesn’t encourage bad behavior, it prevents it.
The easiest way to forgive is to see beyond the adult mask into the eyes of the child. No one is always grown up. Regression is nature’s evolutionary phase of rest before and after developmental strides. If you know your partner well enough to marry them, you should also know that they have no intention of causing you pain. It happens as a result of their own pain.
As grown-ups, we don’t get triggered, at least not often. And when we do we have the ability to listen to complaints while resisting the powerful urge to defend ourselves. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a defense, however well reasoned, only deepens the hole we have dug, or stumbled into. When we grow big our issues get small.
For a personal view into how Thea and I repair from a breakdown, see our Couples Repair Playbook.
Attending to any one of these five menu items makes each of the others easier to absorb. What your grown-up marriage looks like will be up to you. No two relationships are the same. The complexity of flavors we bring out in each other cannot be replicated. The romantic notion of lovers that their connection is absolutely unique is absolutely true. And most of the time that irreplaceable bond wants to grow up and be taken seriously because that’s where the real fun is.