Thursday, April 29, 2010

Don't Think You're the Exception. The Excitement Won't Last

In a survey conducted by AOL Living and Women’s Day in 2009 52% of women surveyed say that their husbands are not their soul mates, 72% of the women surveyed said they had considered leaving their husbands at some point or another, more than 50% said they are either bored in bed or can't remember the last time they had sex, 60% said that they rarely or never have date nights, more than 50% said that they wished their husbands either made more money or made more time for them, and nearly 50% said that their husbands had changed for the worse since they got married.

Despite all this, 71% of the women surveyed expected to be married to their spouse for the rest of their life!

Are the women who are not fully happy in their marriages masochists? Probably not. It is more likely that they simply have realized that if you decide to enter a long-term monogamous relationship, you are in some sense settling. Things are not always going to be a dance on roses. The extreme excitement, obsession and ecstatic madness won't last. And why would you want it to anyway?

Well, apparently people do want it to last. The Pew Research Center and the National Survey of Families and Households report that couples become bored and unhappy sooner than was expected: more like three years into their relationship than seven, just after the end of the "honeymoon" phase of the relationship.

This is not to say that in a long-term monogamous relationship love couldn't continue to grow but only that people confuse madness with love. Or they write off calm and rational love as love-gone-away. Even when the madness is gone, love could continues to ripen (until it falls off the tree and rots in the ground).

When love ripens, it doesn’t feel the same, most of the time it doesn’t feel like anything at all, because love in its ripening phases is an in-between state of love. It has its ups and downs.

Over half of monogamous relationships suffer from one partner or the other becoming involved in an outside relationship. They miss the madness and excitement of the beginning phrases of the relationship. The secrecy and excitement of having sex on the side resembles the maddening phases of obsessive love. Cheating temporarily brings back the madness which so many people are addicted to.

The truth is, love starts out strong and intense only to fade or ripen a few years later. Later on it's never going to be the same again, unless the lovers actually separate for an extended period of time and re-kindle at a later point.

This is what happened for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Richard and Elizabeth fell in love when they played Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the movie Cleopatra. They got married after divorcing their spouses.

But their marriage didn’t last. Ten years and many tempestuous arguments later, they divorced, only to remarry in Africa less than a year later and divorce once again after just 11 months.

Love doesn’t always fade but when the ecstasy and extreme longing lasts a lifetime it is usually because the lovers were barred from being together.

One of history's most famous everlasting love affairs is that between Abélard and Héloïse, who were prevented from being together by Héloïse’s uncle.

In 12th century France, Peter Abélard, a French Aristotelian philosopher and one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century, persuaded Canon Fulbert, a priest of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, to hire him as the mentor of his beautiful and highly gifted niece, Héloïse.

After Abélard had moved into Fulbert's home, Abélard and Héloïse became lovers. Though they tried to keep their relationship a secret, Fulbert eventually found out and was furious. He demanded that the lovers physically separated.

But their separation did not make them love each other any less, on the contrary: "the very sundering of our bodies served but to link our souls closer together; the plentitude of the love which was denied to us inflamed us more than ever," Héloïse later wrote.

And sure enough: shortly after their separation Héloïse told Abelard that she was pregnant. Héloïse stayed with Abélard's sister until her son Astrolabe was born.

Longing for his lover Abélard proposed a secret marriage to Fulbert, who agreed. But Héloïse turned down the proposal. She was well aware of the opportunities Abélard would be passing up if he tied himself to a family.

However, Abélard insisted and shortly after their son Astrolabe was born, he returned to Paris to get married to his lover in secrecy. The couple separated immediately after the wedding, seeing each other only in rare private moments, in order to give the impression that they were no longer involved.

But Fulbert was determined to ruin Abélard’s career and refused to keep the marriage a secret. When his niece denied the marriage, he beat her.

To keep Héloïse safe, Abélard took her to the convent at Argenteuil. Héloïse’s uncle thought that Abélard had forced her to become a nun and arranged for his relatives to take revenge in the most gruesome fashion.

One night while Abélard was asleep in a secret room in his lodgings, the relatives ambushed him and cut off his penis.

After Abélard’s tragic injury Abélard could not stay in Paris without being subject to extreme ridicule. He decided to become a monk, and he convinced Héloïse to join the cloister. She agreed out of love for her husband. She wanted no other man.

But Abélard’s and Héloïse’s love affair continued in the form of letters, which were later collected in book form. In a letter to Abélard, Héloïse wrote:

You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you.

After many years Héloïse and Abélard briefly reunited at a ceremony in Paris but never saw each other again afterwards.

They love affair nonetheless went on for 20 years. Six hundred years after their death Josephine Bonaparte ordered that the remains of Abélard and Héloïse be entombed together at Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris.


  1. Interesting blog from an academic philosopher! Questions I hope you'll answer:

    I'm in a monogamous marriage that's a mere shadow of its former self. I doubt it's a coincidence that my wife's love for (or at least her devotion to) me diminished when our first child was born. In fact, I think it began to diminish once she began relating to the fetus. It diminished further once our second child came along. I'm now certain that I rank at best third in her affections (after each child) and probably at best fourth if you include the job she loves. Am I irrational to resent these demotions -- or to expect her love for me not to diminish as kids come along?

    I've often told her that I regard her as the most important person in my life: yes, ahead of the kids, although of course I love them too. She can't understand that attitude and thinks I'm wrong to expect her to put me first in return. Her official position is that there can't be any such "ranking," although in practice I know where I fall in it. Am I irrational to expect spouses with kids to put each other first?

  2. Dear Anon,
    It's very common for women to fall in love with their newborn and young children. For the first few years the children will take priority.

    Add to that that it takes years for a woman to recover physically from a child birth. Your wife may not feel as attractive as she did before she had children.

    Young children are not interested in how their mother looks but only in her as a person and caregiver. So, your wife may simply feel that the children can give her more affection and make her feel more loved than you can. In normal circumstances this is just a phase.

    I would give her some time. If it doesn't pass, bring up the issue in a sensitive way. Don't make it sound like a criticism. It's better to convey how you feel. Mention that you feel left out and would like to spend some quality time together with her after the children go to bed.

    It's also important to introduce regular date nights where the two of you can spend some alone time together away from the house.

  3. Disclaimer: Hey there, Anonymous. Obviously I don’t know you, and I only have two paragraphs to go on, so the following advice is either broad strokes or more detailed suggestions based on assumptions which may or may not apply to you. I’ve worked with a lot of people with similar problems, and these are my most common answers. In other words, no offense intended.

    K. Here we go…

    I think it’s important to work on doing away with, or at least redefining, that rating system in your head. The dangers of over intellectualizing a relationship, be it romantic or otherwise, with tops and bottoms and pros and cons, can be seen in the story “Stage,” when the protagonist’s endless attempts to create a list that will lead him to a rational conclusion on whether or not to leave his wife, turns even more nefarious:

    * * *

    “When you’re trying to decide whether or not to kill your wife,” Charlie says, “You have to consider the payments made and the debts owed. Is it worth eating her shit cooking and pretending to like it, raving over it, in fact, if you get to squeeze her tits afterward? Is an afternoon with the mother in law really a fair price for anal sex? And, if you were to kill the mother in law instead of your wife, would the price of anal sex raise or lower? Before you make plans to bury anyone in the backyard, it’s essential to ensure you’ll be able to get whatever they’re giving you better, faster and cheaper from someone else.

    “Every person you’ve ever met is only a list of goods and services. The most important question you’ll ever ask another human being is, ‘How much?’”

    * * *

    Once we see love as something owed to us, either through daily exchanges of favors or the duty of a vow, it becomes a bartering system. And the selfish nature of a marketplace mentality tends to destroy the selfless ideals of romance. At the same time, we live in the real world, and oft times some sort of balance is called for.

    Brit has some great suggestions, however if something like having a date night is only an obligation for one or both parties rather than a legitimate pleasure, it can do more harm than good.

    I would suggest not only trying to get your wife to agree to more private time, but to also make an effort to involve yourself in the things you’re worried she’s putting ahead of you. Make suggestions for new things the two of you can do with your children. Take time to ask her about her work, and really listen. Don’t just wait for your turn to talk. Instead of, “Oh yeah, that reminds me of what happened to me today…” continue asking, and probing for further details of her story. It’s pretty easy to tell when this is just annoying her and it’s time to back off, but I’ve found that even when people start off with one syllable answers, if you keep your questions caring, positive, supportive and brief, they’ll discover they have all kinds of things they want to say. This technique can be used when talking about the kids, or thoughts of your relationship (if you think you can keep yourself from jumping in too soon) or anything else. I’m not saying you should suppress your opinion, but give her the chance to say everything she has to say, and show her you are legitimately interested in hearing it before bringing in your own thoughts on the matter or moving onto another subject.

  4. Part 2

    (my word count got a bit long)

    It’s also important to realize that every day is different. There’s never one right answer or system of answers that won’t eventually fall apart. So do your best to learn to read her moods and factor in external circumstances. If she’s called saying it’s been a hell of a day at work and she’s going to be late, maybe take the kids to a sitter, cook her a meal (or order some nice take out if you can’t cook) and setup all the fixings for a nice bubble bath. At the same time, whenever you go out of your way for someone like this, don’t get angry with them if they’re not up for it. In fact, make sure they know there’s no pressure right up front. It was a surprise after all. So be sure to let her know if she just needs to crash or perhaps spend some time alone in the tube with a bit of takeout, you understand. Anyone can order takeout and grab some bath beads, but putting her needs above your effort and expectations shows that your love for her is much deeper than a pallor trick. Likewise, if you have a date night scheduled and you’re sensing she’s really not into it, ask her if she’d prefer to make it a family thing and take the kids out for pizza, or just stay home and maybe watch a movie together.

    It’s one thing to tell her she’s the most important thing in your life, it’s quite another to show it. If you do, hopefully she’ll respond and the love you spoke of, or a new version of it, will return.

    Just remember, the real bitch and beauty of true love is that whether or not it’s reciprocated is insignificant. As Charlie Kaufman wrote, “You are what you love, not what loves you.” and so, until you go to a psychiatrist and get pumped full of so many drugs you don’t know which way is up (and that didn’t even do the job for me), you’re stuck putting them, their wants, their needs above all else, even if they don’t know who you are. That, or you become a serial killer.

    Either way, best of luck. And I’d recommend the song “You Don’t Know Me” by Ray Charles, for those hard nights before things get better.

  5. Hi Anon,

    A bit late in the day, but hopefully you will get to read this.

    Interestingly, my husband and I were talking about the 'ranking phenomenon' just yesterday. We have a similar situation here: I always say that our two daughters come first, and then him, whereas he says that the three of us (me and the girls) come first together for him. So I guess it is a man-woman thing, at least to some extent. At the same time, I know that, in the long run, the kids will grow up and move on with their lives, and that my husband will be the one to stick around (if all goes well!). And the fact that we are both deeply involved with the kids is in fact something that brings us closer.

    This being said, it's definitely worth investing in the relationship, creating moments when it is NOT about the two of you being parents. But that takes some time (I don't know the age of your children); here, it was only when my second child was 1 1/2 years old that we managed to start establishing the good health of the relationship again.

  6. Brit, Steven, and Catarina: Thanks for your comments. They give me a lot to think about. A couple of replies for now:

    @Steven: Your advice is interesting, but I worry that it's pathological: "Just remember, the real bitch and beauty of true love is that whether or not it’s reciprocated is insignificant.... You’re stuck putting them, their wants, their needs above all else, even if they don’t know who you are." That sounds like the fucked-up ideal of courtly love in the medieval troubadour tradition. Are you seriously recommending I follow it? Cuz I won't. (The Ray Charles song is fantastic, though -- as art, not as model of relating.)

    @Catarina: "But that takes some time (I don't know the age of your children)...". Hold on to your hat: my eldest kid is 13. I've been demoted for well more than a decade.

    Let me press you. You say you now rank your husband second (at best). Did you ever rank him first? If yes, how come he got demoted? If no, why not? You *chose* your husband as your life-companion; you didn't choose your children (even if you chose to *have* children). I can understand the influence of hormones and natural selection: a woman's investment in a child exceeds her investment in her spouse. But we aren't slaves to our biology.

  7. Hey Anon,

    It may be abnormal, and you can call it a disease, I was just summing up what came to mind when the term “true love” cropped up. I’d say both Ray and Courtney were trying to do the same. That line was meant to be descriptive, not instructive.

    Oh, I happened to be listening to Nirvana when I read your post ;)

  8. Hey Anon,

    It may be abnormal, and you can call it a disease, I was just summing up what came to mind when the term “true love” cropped up. I’d say both Ray and Courtney were trying to do the same. That line was meant to be descriptive, not instructive.

    Oh, I happened to be listening to Nirvana when I read your post ;)

  9. Hi Anon,

    I think my husband was demoted to number two the moment my first child was born, pretty much... I suppose it has to do with the fact that the kids, at this young age, need me so much more than he does. On the other hand, I absolutely needed HIM to help me take care of the babies, and the fact that he's a dedicated father definitely contributes to him staying at his solid number 2 position! (or 3, if you count two kids as each occupying one position...)

    If I may, not knowing much about you and your life: I suspect that what's going on is NOT only related to the kids and them being in between you and your wife. It might have been the trigger, but now the lack of connection between you and your wife has become a phenomenon on its own. I suggest that you look at it not as something that was 'caused' and kept in existence because of the kids; in a sense, they might even be something of an excuse to cover up something that is much more general. I can imagine that it must feel terrible to see yourself as the number 4 in her life (after kids and job), and I hope you manage to change that somehow!

  10. Catarina: Thanks for your candid reply. You said earlier that your husband maintains you in the top spot, although now you're "tied" for top. I'm not sure how that works, since "most important person in my life" can't apply to more than one person.

    Anyway, do you think your asymmetric treatment of him is fair? More important, does he resent being demoted?

    In my own case, I think you're right that my initial demotion triggered the growing-apart of my wife and me that's lasted more than a decade. How could it not have? Which returns me to my original question: Am I wrong to resent the demotion?

    I know, these are questions we're not supposed to ask, but what's this thread for then?

  11. Anybody there? It's me again. I'll give my previous question another try. I fully admit that being demoted by my wife some 13 years ago has rankled me ever since and caused (or worsened?) a rift between us. Should I just get over the demotion? I'm waiting for Catarina to say, "My husband realizes he's no higher than #2 in my affections now that the kids are here, and he's perfectly OK with that." (I say "perfectly OK" because it's hard for me to imagine being "mostly, but not perfectly, OK" with that situation; it would rankle a lot if it rankled at all.)

    Eagerly awaiting feedback,


  12. Hi anonymous. I don't know what Catarina is going to say, but, of course it's not OK to be second or third or fourth in your wife's eyes. It strongly signals that something is wrong in the relationship. I must admit that the hectic few weeks after the birth of a child is an exception. But it should not be an ongoing situation in a long-lasting, committed relationship.

  13. Hi anon,

    Sorry for disappearing, somehow I seem to have gotten distracted by lots of things lately. Anyway, here it goes:
    "My husband realizes he's no higher than #2 in my affections now that the kids are here, and he's perfectly OK with that." I think I can endorse this in all letters. It may sound crazy (as Brit suggested above), but I really do think it is true. In fact, I think he even loves me more for being so committed to the kids, I suspect in a way he feels more loved himself (because they are HIS kids). For quite a few years after having the kids I was extremely involved with parenthood, I read a lot about it, participated in forums helping other parents etc. Now it's been a couple of years that I'm back to 'me', and I can even say back to 'us', as we've both been very much involved with each other. But in these years when I was so turned towards parenting, it still wasn't a problem, there was still enough of 'me' left for him, apparently. If anything at all, what did cause trouble in our relationship was when he took up a new position at work, with a lot more responsibility, just around the time our second child was born. He was so absorbed by work that there wasn't much left for me or for the girls (not enough, in any case). Now things have been back on track for 1 and 1/2 years, and it's been great.
    I'm not sure I'm helping, but that's how it's been for us here...