Monday, April 6, 2015

Is Variety the Spice of Marriage?

Recently a woman named Robin Rinaldi published The Wild Oats Project: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost, the tale of her one-year experiment with an open marriage in her mid-40s. The result of that experiment highlights an important truth about marriage, fidelity, and sexual intimacy.

Feeling the passion seeping out of her childless marriage, Rinaldi decided to act on her craving for “seduction and sexual abandon” and sow some wild oats. She presented her husband Scott with an ultimatum about experimenting with other, purely sexual, relationships, and he reluctantly agreed. They lived apart during the weekdays, when Rinaldi saw other people; then she returned home on weekends to resume their marriage as if nothing had happened.

But quite a bit did happen. Rinaldi had twelve lovers and oodles of great sex in that year, but her “quest for passion at any cost” cost her her 18-year relationship with Scott. “After you open up a marriage and experience a whole range of sexual variety and aspects of yourself you’ve never had before,” she admits, “it’s hard to put everything back in the box.” No kidding?

Not that leaving him bothered her. She’s “grateful” she “experienced” her marriage, but she moved on to be with one of the partners she met, someone “from whom I can learn more.” [In my experience, people whose focus in a marriage is primarily their own personal growth never stay married – but that’s a topic for another day.]

Back to marital passion, or the lack thereof. In a recent article called “When the Best Sex Is Extramarital,” New York psychotherapist Lawrence Josephs asked, “What do you do when” – like Robin Rinaldi – “the best sex of your life is outside of marriage but you still want the emotional security of a stable long-term relationship with someone you love and trust?” Josephs says he’s worked “with a few couples over the years who have been able to make an open marriage work, but most people… are too insecure and jealous to do so… When it comes to our spouses, it seems most of us never outgrow being fundamentally childlike in our possessiveness.”

Insecure, jealous, childlike? Josephs seems to be suggesting that spouses who aren’t comfortable with their partners’ extramarital promiscuity simply aren’t mature enough to handle it. The implication is that a married couple who are okay with sleeping around are somehow exhibiting more adult behavior than a couple who demonstrate fidelity. The fact is that the vast majority of people believe marriage should be fundamentally a lifelong physical, emotional, and spiritual commitment to one other person, and they’re less than thrilled with the idea of that person finding intimacy and ecstasy with other partners – not because they’re too immature, but because sharing their partner erodes, if not demolishes, a marriage’s foundation of love, trust, respect, and unity.

Yes, marriages fail too much of the time, but pretty much everyone enters into that union under the assumption that their partner is the one. Commitment and fidelity are often put to the test, but that’s what commitment and fidelity mean: staying the course of your vow despite temptations.

And besides, is marital passion necessarily doomed? In another recent article, “Married Sex Gets Better in the Golden Years,” Jan Hoffman refers to a new study which concludes that, for couples who do hang in there, there is a payoff. While sexual activity among most long-married couples reportedly declines steadily over the years, those married more than 50 years reported an uptick in their sex lives – and the frequency continued to improve.

Samuel Stroope, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of sociology at L.S.U., said that in a long marriage, sexuality suffers from “habituation,” the familiarity that can dull a couple’s desire over time. At the same time, however, long-timers accumulate valuable “relationship capital.” In good marriages, he said, you’re “accumulating experience and knowledge about your intimate partner over time that builds on itself.” That leads to more intimacy, more meaningful sex.

Gerontologist Dr. Karl Pillemer, whose new book 30 Lessons for Loving is drawn from 700 interviews, discovered that older adults “place intimacy as a high priority.” He cites the example of Jennie B., now an 82-year-old widow who married her first and only husband when they were in their mid-20s, and were sexually active through their 47 married years before his death in 2003. Jennie explained,

There’s an intimacy that comes later that is staggeringly wonderful. You can hold hands with this person you love and adore, and somehow it’s just as passionate as having sex at an earlier age. There is such a sense of connection and intimacy that grows out of a long relationship, that touch carries with it the weight of so many memories. And many are sexual.

Indeed what she misses most as a widow, she says, is holding hands. “Sex was certainly an important and joyful and healing part, but I’m not sure that the connection through holding hands, which elicited such peace, was not a deeper intimacy,” she wondered.

Sex is a vital part of our humanity and our relationships. But more meaningful, and more human, is the intimacy that grows through a longstanding monogamous commitment – and sex is only one strand of that powerful bond.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 4/1/15)