Why do so many couples fall out of love? What makes the passion ebb, the magic vanish?
Could it be the saggy sweatpants, or the shapeless flannel nightgown? The shaving stubble in the sink, or the makeup residue? The angry outburst, or the silent fault-finding? The shared bathroom and shared exhaustion? The insidious effect of familiarity?
Is it, ultimately, the Invasion of the Little People?
Or, cumulatively, all of the above?
And does it even matter, really, why it happens, if it's just plain inevitable? That, in fact, seems to be the prevailing wisdom among therapists and counselors. Not only is the ebbing of passion inevitable, we are told and consoled, but a necessary evolution. It is merely love's next phase.
Most love songs and stories, after all, celebrate only love's initial, incendiary phase. But mutual combustibility cannot be sustained forever. For a relationship to grow and mature, the white-hot fires of passion need to subside, to be banked into a steady, comforting glow.
Are they right? Is that why passions ebb? Because they must?
The Big Lie
Rather than answer that question, I prefer to ignore it. Because it's irrelevant. Because passion doesn't ebb, magic doesn't vanish. Sex energies are the fastest in the body, and they don't go away just because a marriage cools down.
I presume to speak only for husbands now--not all of us, of course, but enough of us, I suspect, that my generalizations will prove useful--and embarrassing. Because not many husbands will willingly admit to the dirty little secret I'm about to betray: Our fantasy lives continue unabated, but increasingly focused away from our wives.
Isn't it amazing how some men who are so romantic before marriage can become so unromantic afterward? asks psychologist Gary Smalley.1
No, not amazing at all. These are not modern behaviors, but the products of millions of years of evolutionary engineering. Down on the most instinctive level, for the male of the species, romance equates to the stalking-hunting phase. The pickup lines have been updated from caveman days--clubbing, for instance, has a very different meaning--but underneath the trendy trappings, the primal instincts are almost unchanged.
This may sound like cartoon pop psychology, but it's true. The successful chase still culminates in capture and impregnation (as far as the evolutionary imperative is concerned). At that point, the romance is complete--for the male. His next big assignment is to stand at the cave door with his club, ready to bash away any saber-toothed tigers, rogue males or other wandering predators. Safely back there in the cave, meanwhile, the female can get on with the messy and mysterious business of perpetuating the species.
And, all the instinctive string-pulling notwithstanding, it is romantic. It's the miracle of love--and commitment. As author George Gilder puts it: Women manipulate male sexual desire in order to teach men the long-term cycles of female sexuality and biology on which civilization is based.2
And thank God for that!
Just how she manipulates this dumb brute, who is interested only in sex, so she can count on him to stand by while she's in labor, is one of the wonders of nature. The problem is, while he's doing his dutiful guy thing--scanning the bushes for danger or dinner on the hoof--he's not immune to other stimuli. The spoor of a passing she-creature, for instance. He can't help it. His receptors have to be wide open--which means subject to hormonal triggers--or he wouldn't be any good out there. So right in the middle of his stalwart sentry duty, our happy husband and soon-to-be father is prey to random, reproductive yearnings. Unseemly, but true. Males never outgrow their fantasies, the thrill of the hunt.
Men, as Dr. Laura informed one of her callers, are dogs!
Except it's not their noses that human males follow, but their eyes. In most cases, our libido is triggered by visual stimuli (with other senses ready to kick in). Men are verbally abused for looking at all women as sex objects. It's true, of course, but we're supposed to! It's in our DNA, our sealed genetic orders. In Star Trek lingo, you could call it our Prime Directive: Go forth and seek out all females of nubile appearance, with hips ample for gestation and childbirth, breasts ripe for lactation and suckling.
Guys don't think of it in those terms, of course, but you get the general idea. Unconsciously, our ideas of female beauty derive from biological specifications. When man the hunter is culling the female herd, his priorities are neither quality of mind nor personality.
Hey, a husband will protest, if I wasn't looking at other women, I'd be dead.
This hallowed Neanderthal defense, while not usually effective, is again essentially true. In a contemporary social setting, a roving male eye may be objectionable or intolerable, but it is biology, not pathology. It's also true that men are constantly bombarded and manipulated by visual erotica, images of the female anatomy used to seduce and sell. Not that I expect any sympathy for our plight. Unlike children, most adult males are willing victims of this media titillation.
My point is that it is difficult for a husband to keep his fantasy life faithful, to cast his wife in every R- and X-rated movie in his mind. Just as it's difficult--and damnably unfair--for his wife's body to be matched against those of swimsuit models and centerfold girls, eternally youthful and cosmetically enhanced. But men do make that comparison, instinctively, compulsively.
But Even Jimmy Carter Did It!
Does real damage to a marriage occur when the husband's fantasy life strays from his wife? If your fantasies leave your mate coming up short, then fantasies may not be helpful to your relationship, admits family therapist Pat Love.3 If you are fantasizing about Michele Pfeiffer, you are missing an opportunity to bond with your partner. Can such erotic diversions cause the sexual thermostat to turn down at home, the intensity and frequency of intercourse to diminish?
Not necessarily. But increasingly likely--if it leads to sexual gratification outside of marriage. A Playboy in the office drawer, or Netporn on the browser, may constitute a minor infidelity of the imagination, yet serve to whet the appetite for wifely delights. But damage does occur if the stimulation leads only to auto-eroticism rather than passionate conjugal love-making. To masturbation instead of marital combustion.
Definitely not good! It's not a matter of morals here, but what works to strengthen a marriage, and what doesn't.
Too often, of course, mental or emotional infidelity can lead to real infidelity--or to chronic masturbation, solo and secretive, which can rob a marriage of its binding energies.
The Jerkov Compulsion
No, masturbation won't induce blindness or sprout hair on the palms. The consensus among health professionals is that self-gratification is not only harmless, but healthy--particularly for hormone-crazed teenagers. But a husband who indulges in this little unshared pleasure may start to feel increasingly defensive and quarrelsome toward his wife and not even know why. Subconsciously, at least, he may realize that he is cheating the marriage, siphoning fuel from the combustion chambers. That all those energies are owed to his wife. That lust and loyalty should be united, not separated.
Many is the time I wondered why my husband didn't feel like sex, only to realize later that he had probably already had it, with himself!--One wife's complaint
Am I exaggerating the problem--or its prevalence?
I don't think so!
Masturbation is by all accounts the most common human sexual practice, and statistical trendlines on frequency of male masturbation tend to be off the charts. Apparently it's even popular on honeymoons. Ninety-nine percent of men of all ages masturbate regularly, claims sex educator and counselor Sue Johanson, and the other one percent are liars.4
In Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, Dinner With Friends,5 two husbands, discussing sex and marriage, have the following exchange:TOM: I must've masturbated more than any man in history.
At the performance I attended, this detonated raucous laughter from the men in the audience. Did women in the audience wonder at this explosive reaction from their husbands or boyfriends?
I laughed, too. But not as nervously as I might have done just a few years back.
That's when I began to sense something gone slightly south in my own marriage. Not a crisis--at least I hoped not!--but a definite drop-off. A decline in passion and in frequency of lovemaking. My sexual fantasy life was no longer riveted on my wife. Worse, not only had I entertained vagrant erotic fantasies, but--excuse me for getting personal--I had masturbated to them, while too often neglecting the erotic prize at home.
Okay, that's as embarrassing and confessional as I'm going to get. But there's a reason for doing so.
Was I unfaithful? Technically, perhaps, no. But as far as the spirit of the marriage vows I had pledged, yes. No contest. I was guilty. I had strayed. The gulf I sensed opening between my wife and me--including the actual sleeping distance between us--was of my own making.
And with that shaming, seismic realization, I did see a real crisis looming. A crisis which precipitated immediate action, or the need therefor. I had to do something.
Marriage Vows Revisited
I made a vow--a marriage vow: From that moment on, to keep myself only for her. But what exactly did that mean? I couldn't quarantine erotic thoughts of others. Sorry, not possible, as I damn well knew. But, I told myself, I could prevent diversion of my sexual energy away from our marriage bed. Which meant no masturbation. No orgasm--without my wife's participation.
Let lust and love be rejoined.
Noble and admirable sentiments, you will agree. One small problem arose at this point, however. For most males, masturbation is a lifelong habit (I seem to be avoiding the word "vice"), which starts in early adolescence and usually just continues--right on to senescence. And right through most (or too many) marriages. And so it was for me. Which puts it right up there with other addictive or compulsive behaviors--smoking, drinking, maybe even breathing! What made me think I could go cold turkey? At the very least, I thought, I would require a twelve-step program, a support group. At the most, divine intervention.
But try as I might, I couldn't quite rationalize myself out of my resolve. Because I passionately wanted to do this. Because I loved my wife and wanted to be in love with her again, head over heels. Because I'd somehow lost my way and wanted things to be as they had been--heck, even better than they'd been.
And because I sensed, if only I would do this, if only I could do it, it could be the catalyst for recapturing the magic in our marriage. For turning up the thermostat, heating up the marriage bed. For recapturing honeymoon fever, returning my wife to her rightful place as Eve to my Adam--my seductress, my enchantress, my wife.
Making her my fantasy.
How this actually happened for me, and how it can happen for you, is the subject of the next chapter.
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