Sexless in the City

Sometimes reading romance novels doesn’t quite prepare you for a love life...

For this 30-year-old urbanite, love is always a misadventure: The Harvard Lickwit, Hippie the Groper, the 5% Man, and the Ad Weasel. These and many other men wander in and out of her life — but never her bed.

Monday, August 29, 2005

When seeing is deceiving

Dahlings, continuing last week’s examination of love-life challenges encountered in a relationship, today I address a married reader’s query:
while I am happily married, I also do find that I am easily attracted to many of the opposite gender. i’ve not acted on any of that, and believe it wrong to. while temptations and feelings are just a part of life, i’m wondering if u can think out loud w/ me on a few things. what have u found helpful to manage feelings of attraction (besides a cold shower)? where do u draw the line btwn flirting and impropriety? is it ever safe to talk about feelings of this kind (attraction, romatic sparks) w/out jeopardizng relationships?

-Easily Attracted
Dear Easily Attracted:
First off, I commend your honesty. If you are this candid with your wife about such struggles, there seems to be a good chance you will remain “happily married” a long time. In keeping with my suggestion to Almost Bored, however, I do think it’s important to be careful about the attitude in which you share this with your wife. Hopefully you have already done this, but think through how your honesty can be a means of drawing you two closer together as a couple, and dealing with issues and friction between you. If you are committed to your marriage, but find that you might use disclosure to hurt your wife and increase the distance between you, take a serious look at why you consciously or subconsciously desire to hurt her. Bottom line: honesty is crucial, as long as “truth” is wielded and disclosed for the sake of unity and intimacy, not harm and a grab for power.

As to the substance of your question, I’m tempted to quote my father, who has often remarked, “my body doesn’t know I’m married.” Depending on your integrity and commitment to marriage, that’s probably just as vexsome and grievous to you as it is to him. For it means commitment to your marriage will require a fair degree of ongoing self-control. Given how often human desires are practically worshiped as some sort of internal psychic (the goal being to eliminate whatever background noise prevents us from accurately interpreting said cravings/needs/appetites), self-control might seem repulsive and oppressive.

But surely we all have some positive experience base of mastering our bodies to good and healthy results. Good posture doesn’t come as naturally as slouching may, but the simple discipline of holding in one’s gut pays off in reduced injury and better quality of life in the latter years. (I’m sure a chiropractor or doctor could more fully expound on the virtues of erect carriage.) Likewise, a person who desires optimal health learns to avoid overeating. As part of this, he or she learns to stop eating before the body registers a feeling of fullness. The body has various protective mechanisms in place to prevent us from egregious abuse, but we have to work with those mechanisms and respect the time involved to experience their benefit. That takes self-control and a degree of self-knowledge. You learn to know the reliability and limits of what your body, your needs, your desires can and cannot tell you.

As you seem to recognize, the ease with which you are attracted to others beside your wife does not necessarily mean anything is wrong with your marriage. That’s key. But also crucial to safeguarding the perpetuation of your current happiness is keeping in mind the end goal. Friday I talked about how I have come to avoid activities that would lead inexorably to orgasm. If your goal is to maintain a happy marriage and to avoid ever falling into a full-blown sexual affair, it’s not enough to ask where the line is “between flirting and impropriety.” Every other woman might as well be like a sister, mother or daughter or to you. Surely you would never flirt with any of them, would you?

Even flirting involves a degree of sexual energy. Don’t we all know this? It’s why so many guy-girl “friendships” have a tendency to fizzle into nothing once one or the other gets into a relationship. The now-dating person no longer needs the friend as an outlet for sexual energy, so if that’s all that was binding them together, nothing will remain. Likewise, the more that the so-called friendship was defined by a fair degree of unacknowledged, sublimated sexual tension, the more likely to produce jealousy on the part of the new partner — further reason for contact to die out between the one-time “friends.” Be very careful how you conduct interactions with other women. Just as a marriage can collapse under the pressure of meeting all your relational and emotional needs, it can be damaged by draining the cup of sexual energy only your wife should be allowed to drink from.

Now I realize, at this point, you may be inclined to say, “But Anna, what about my desires? I want to deal with them honestly!” While I agree with that in part, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about envy versus gratitude. For a long time I didn’t think I had issues with envy, which I considered akin to coveting — jealousy for someone else’s impersonal goods or status. But more and more I think envy is just the desire for things you don’t have — the very engine of our capitalistic system. Desire, that is, which lacks the ballast of deep gratitude for all one has.

Think of this something like living in a high-rise apartment building. It’s very spacious and comfortable, fitted out with another number of adequate amenities. But I see this lovely, abandoned shirt hanging out on the neighboring fire escape of a vacant apartment. And by God, I really want that shirt! Reaching out to try to get it is not so bad in and of itself, provided there’s enough holding me back into the apartment where I live. But as that desire hardens into envy — as I become convinced I must have that shirt in order to be happy — I become reckless. I may reach so far out of the apartment window that the gravitational ballast of gratitude and common sense cannot hold me back from exiting the window. I may come closer to the shirt but possibly lose in the process all the good things I had.

Certainly there are times it’s worth taking risks and giving up what you have for an uncertain reward. To some extent my move to New York was like that. But if you want to stay in this marriage, it would be better served by focusing on all it provides that you can be truly thankful for. The more you focus on gratitude, and dealing with the real issues even any healthy marriage will have, the more I think you will find the desires which threaten your marriage losing their strength to pull at you. They will never totally leave you alone, but whether or not you let them master you has much to do with your focus: is it what you have, or what you lack?