Relationships and Their Discontents

At this point, I’ve witnessed around me countless relationships form, blossom, implode sometimes, fossilize often. I’ve gone through my fair share, experienced the great highs and the great lows, felt my heart detonate from triumph, lived through the unreciprocated crushes, approached time and again those endlessly fascinating cornerstones of the human experience. At first, when things inevitably hit a rough patch, the emotions involved are so raw, primitive, powerful, our ego so vulnerable, it’s like we approach an emotional singularity that distorts judgement, elicits self-delusion, even bends character. Fortunately, iteration does seem to smooth the experience, elevate above the maelstroms, keep character steady, perfect truthfulness, teach greater compassion. After all, aren’t we down here to hop onto the lion’s mouth and realize how much of life is a self-made theatre?

Couples therapist Esther Perel, whom I listened to the other day on the Tim Ferriss show, is well known for her promotion of erotic intelligence and her analyses of infidelity. I was charmed by the wisdom and warmth of her words, and would recommend giving that conversation about modern love a listen (an inexhaustible topic if there ever was one). Esther argues that the longevity that modernity bestows on us, combined with the emergence of the nuclear familial model, and the triumph of romantic love that confuses love and desire, is at the source of much contemporary misery, a major symptom of which is the endemically high divorce rates (this is the well-known statistic that the odds of a marriage ending up in divorce are fifty-fifty). Less well-known are the odds of a second marriage ending in divorce: 64%. This is the perfect time to place the Oscar Wilde quote: “Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.”

Why our enduring attachment to marriage in the face of such odds? It seems like it is one of the few remaining social institutions people like to cling to, something solid in the midst of our liquid modernity. A “barrier against the improbabilities” (that’s how Philip Roth described family in American Pastoral). Although there’s no statistical evidence that it helps success in love, it nevertheless is a way to buttress it, and get the implicit backing of society. The job is a tough one though. The modern married partners face a very long time together (50–60 years), are expected to uphold fidelity throughout, are left raising their 2–4 children by themselves in the big, impersonal, modern city, and end up being responsible for a large share of each other’s happiness (or lack thereof). Such difficult setup is not how humans were ever meant to live, but it is what modernity saddled us with, and is perhaps the main reason that only well-to-do couples seem to be relatively successful at marriage.

What Esther and Tim focus on during their conversation, though, is not so much a critique of the nuclear model of family as a discussion of how one negotiates coupledom in this setting. While we all recognize the intense satisfaction of successful love as the “deep and meaningful connection with someone with whom you weave a story at the different stages of life” (as Esther puts it), in practice it seems so hard to sustainably achieve. What gives?

Creativity as the central virtue

People inevitably change, and their expectations change along. Age, illness, success, children, weight loss, new awakening — you name it — all are potential triggers that are futile to ignore and that may make people want to change their relational arrangement. And then there is the vagaries of desire. Desire, which thrives on risk, transgression (there’s something inherently erotic in the forbidden), novelty, foreignness, is — if not squarely at odds with — fundamentally in tension with the closeness of intimacy (can you want what you already have?). How does one navigate inexorable change and waning desire?

During their conversation, Tim tells Esther about this interesting arrangement between an older gentleman in his 60s, and his wife. They have an open relationship, where he exercises his outside options much more often than his wife (or maybe she’s just not interested in outside options). However, as part of the arrangement, the wife gives the husband a quarterly report card, rating him on 1–10 scale in 4 categories: lover, provider, father, husband. He’s allowed to have a low score in any one of those as long as the average is good. Such an arrangement might repulse some, intrigue others. There’s nothing good or bad in itself about this arrangement. What’s good about it, Esther argues, is that it shows creativity, thoughtfulness, imaginativeness, resourcefulness, and a shared complicity. And that’s what a lot of couples tend to lack, when it should be the central virtue they cultivate. It is actually a central virtue in many contexts, but for some reason people tend to forget about it in coupledom. Healthy relationships show flexibility, are able to review their relational arrangement, negotiate, experiment, check in. The lazy or fear-driven alternative is that a couple keeps going until it can’t anymore, and then just ends there. More often than not, relationships settle into some kind of way and stay in it for decades, the fidelity imperative driving the suppression of conversation around the struggles of desire and the reality of changing expectations. Esther compares relationships to entrepreneurial pursuits. Those wouldn’t go very far without innovativeness, change, experimentation, self-disruption, wouldn’t they? Well, isn’t coupledom a form of entrepreneurial pursuit? People often bring the best of themselves to work, to their friends, even to their kids, in the form of creativity, energy, and innovation, only to bring their leftovers to their partner. The seal of marriage too often is taken as a license to behave subpar.

What then makes for a healthy arrangement? How does love not devolve into mere codependency? How does work not devolve into rituals? How does health not devolve into fitness? Esther hammers the point that there is no single, absolute right relational arrangement. What matters is whether it is decent, caring, adaptive, rather than driven by fear. Trust, loyalty, and attachment come in many forms. A general principle, though, is that there should be a fair distribution of power. Do both people feel that they have equal power in their ability to say what works for them? In the case of the older gentleman and his wife, whatever he does, she gets to assess him. He has the power to philander, she has the power to evaluate. She has the authority to ensure her assets (lover, provider, father, husband) do not get devaluated. They play with this; they pass power back and forth. Such power exchange, as opposed to secretive power maneuvers, is what makes relationships healthy in general. Good conversation amongst friends passes power back and forth, gives everyone the opportunity to shine. Same at work. There’s love and compassion in the ability to pass the baton, to hold and relinquish status. Such power negotiation in coupledom can be highly subtle. Bringing a naively transactional spirit to it will not be successful. Trying to achieve symmetry in every dimensions of the relational arrangement in order to equalize odds of “leaving”, in a logic not unlike MAD, is not just futile but also driven by fear, not compassion. Creativity shines in the fluidity in which power is exchanged.

Opening up

Creativity is also necessary in how you negotiate around desire. As a first step, though, we need to do away with this notion that love and desire necessarily go together. While they certainly influence each other, one by no means entails the other. Just as sexual problems are not necessarily a sign of the absence of love, a loving relationship does not automatically translate to satisfying sex. The fluctuations of desire should not be taken fatalistically as the ultimate judgement on a relationship.

Creativity here can take the form of trying out alternative arrangements, from “monogamish” to polyamorous. While growing in popularity in some circles over the past few years, such arrangements by no means constitute the only solution. Marital statistics have been so disastrous for so long that people have started taking notice. One movement claiming to be more in touch with our nature argues in favor of opening up relationships. This idea that, as Esther puts it, “lasting love may include other lovers”, that thwarting desire is futile. Can that work? I wouldn’t know, I’ve never tried. While I’m intrigued and find many arguments compelling, I’m not particularly keen to give it a shot. It’s not a panacea either: no matter how open your relationship is, there’ll always be a fence to climb over, an appealing transgression to go through. I consider such “opening up” highly difficult and believe many people dabbling in it are doing it for the wrong reasons or don’t have the extraordinary maturity it takes. As a result, my guess is that in many cases it can take a disastrous turn. I’ve always imagined successful practitioners of polyamory to be more “evolved” than regular people. I do believe the level of confidence, self-knowledge, and emotional fluency it takes is something to aspire to, but also believe it can easily devolve into self-delusion, suppression, and even light psychopathy. It can be driven by greater self-discovery or by fear of abandonment; it can be experienced as additive and enhancing, an overflow of self-peace, or as as an unhealthy way to relieve anxiety; and it can lead to becoming more in touch with ourselves or to running away from ourselves.

In Esther’s words, coupledom is a balancing act between the fear of losing the other (fear of abandonment) and the fear of losing oneself (suffocation). “Opening up” is a negotiation taking place straight in the middle of that balancing act. Would you engage in such a negotiation? The truth is, there is no escaping this negotiation. Even the dominant relationship model of “proclaimed monogamy, clandestine adultery” is nothing but a negotiation with oneself (private and secretive), but a negotiation nonetheless. In many ways, the “opening up” movement aims to make this negotiation a part of the conversation of couple-making and brings to the fore what is usually swept under the rug. It can be an emotionally difficult process as it involves confronting our fear of abandonment, and realizing that one’s partner never really belongs to us, that a relationship in fact is earned every day. For some people, opening up is backed by the understanding that it does not mean that they’re not enough or that their partner won’t come back. For others, opening up is excruciating, an emotional regression to childhood and all its insecurities.

Again, there does not seem to be a right or wrong way to open up a relationship. But just as creativity is a general virtue for navigating a relationship, reassurance seems to be a strong guiding principle for opening it up. Everyone has a fear of abandonment, no matter how psychologically “evolved” you are, and therefore everyone needs reassurance that they won’t be abandoned. Expressing such fears, in more or less direct ways, is not a sign of weakness but a way to elicit the process of reassurance. In fact, Esther reminds us that whoever expresses a fear is not necessarily the one where that fear is the greatest. Sometimes it is greater in those sufficiently emotionally out of touch with themselves that they don’t even know about it. Others attempt to preempt their fear in a zero-sum fashion, pushing to open up the relationship so as not to be surprised by the other leaving. That kind of behavior, by the way, falls under power maneuvering, and not healthy power exchange.

In any case, that fear of abandonment is more or less inescapable. And whether you adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy or practice “radical honesty”, what matters, at the end of the day, is that you continuously signal reassurance and commitment. This of course does not need to take the form of explicit proclamations — choose whatever love language works best for you. In fact, more often than not, explicitness is cheap, and at times can even be a tell. There’s no situation in which talking the talk doesn’t pale in comparison to walking the walk. And the more hyperbolic the talk, the more insignificant it becomes. Try guiding your partner without them feeling your hand. Try being a source of soft power, a gravitational pull that keeps them in orbit without them feeling a loss of freedom.

Healthy communication

We’ve established that coupledom is hard. People change and desire drifts. Given that, how should a couple communicate around those things? Radical honesty, the idea that telling the truth all the time is always better, has become fashionable as of late (especially in the polyamorous scene). Is that a good thing? Is sharing always caring? Is secrecy always duplicity? Is honesty always intimacy? Does hiding things from your partner mean you don’t truly love them?

Esther’s guidance around healthy communication is it should be motivated and meaningful. Say you cheated. Do you tell your partner? Again, there is no right or wrong answer here (are you starting to see a pattern?). Honesty is not black and white. There’s a spectrum, from simple omission, to partial truths, to white lies, to blatant obfuscation, to gaslighting. Secrecy can be cruel, but it can also be benevolent. Sometimes you lie to protect yourself, sometimes you lie to protect your partner. One needs to examine not only why one cheated but also why one wants to tell. And those two things can take a while to figure out.

Transparency is not the only thing to index on. Sometimes, upholding privacy, or a form of secrecy, is the more difficult, decent, and compassionate thing to do. True honesty is wrapped in compassion and intention, and as such, it discriminates and minds consequences. One needs to be wary of degenerating into merely sharing facts, akin to unburdening oneself, inflicting something on the other. This “confessional model” is a one-way street. Worse, radical honesty can sometimes be a way to demand information from the other. Equating lack of sharing with lack of commitment or intimacy can be a tactic to coerce the other into sharing information, Esther reminds us. In such instances, radical honesty actually comes from a place of insecurity instead of the purported place of care and confidence. The point is not that radical honesty is bad (it can certainly work for some people), but that, like everything else, it can be hijacked. Every good thing has an evil twin. And when something turns into a rigid ideology, like radical honesty has become in some quarters, one should raise one’s skepticism.

“Sharing must remain an invitation”, Esther insists. Hold back, make space, search for meaning. Why did you cheat? Did you choose it, or did you stumble into it? Did you hope for it, or were you surprised by it? Why are you feeling guilty? Are you feeling guilty because you don’t feel desire for your partner anymore? Because you have been lying to yourself all these years? Did you fall in love with someone else? There are countless questions to look for the meaning behind an act. If an act is meaningless, there’s probably little point in sharing. Just as scientists do not (or should not) publish every spurious correlation they observe, not every random act of libido, every projectile of the simmering id, needs to be shared. Then search for your motivations: why do you want to tell your partner? What do you think would be their reaction? Do you think your partner wants to know? Are you just trying to relieve yourself of guilt without understanding your guilt first? Responding to an impulse to relieve yourself of something awful might not even relieve you; au contraire, the exhibitionism inherent to the confession might just increase your misery.

None of this is straightforward, of course. If life prompts you to look for meanings and motivations, more often than not you aren’t in the best place and haven’t the clearest head. Who’s immune to self-delusion? Who hasn’t fallen for one’s own complexity? What of the painful baggage? The lurking darkness? So yes, look into yourself, but do not stare for too long into that beleaguered inner life.

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