When the Best Sex is Extramarital by Lawrence Josephs, a New York psychotherapist, chronicles the study of one patient, Cynthia, who, though married to a devoted husband and father of their two young children, begins an affair with a co-worker. Sex with her husband is reported as “boring” while she claims to have had the best sex of her life with her lover, Neal. When Neal suddenly dies of a heart attack, she is left to mourn him in secret, which drives her to the therapist, Josephs, who makes her realize that her work is in reinvigorating her sex life with her husband.
Other than the therapist’s inserted judgment of the deceased Neal, which I found disconcerting, the article drew intriguing insights into that long-perceived dichotomy of good love vs. good sex. Apparently a Freudian, Josephs cites the good father of psychotherapy on love and lust:
Freud claimed that people often split love and lust. It is not uncommon to have great sex with someone who isn’t lovable, or to have a trustworthy loving relationship with someone with whom the sex is boring. Recent empirical research shows that individuals who exhibit high degrees of narcissism, like Neal, have difficulty integrating love and lust in a single relationship. This is also true of individuals, like Cynthia, who are “avoidantly attached” — they can’t tolerate the vulnerability of being intimate with someone on whom they are dependent, and so they create a self-protective distance from their partner.
The latter term “avoidantly attached” is not a phrase with which I am so familiar and since Dr. Josephs does not define his term or discuss how he reached the conclusion that Cynthia was “avoidantly attached,” I had to research.
Avoidant attachment yields two different separate behaviors: “fearful” and “dismissing.” Fearful avoidants have a negative self-image, but are also passive and dependent; they actually want intimacy but they are also desperately afraid of being hurt and distrust others. Fearful avoidants are the hardest category of insecure people to deal with in a relationship since they send out a mixed bag of signals. The dismissing avoidant has a more positive self-image but would agree with the following statement: “ I am comfortable without close emotional relationships, It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient and I prefer not to depend on others and have others depend on me. “ These working models affect individuals in myriad ways.
In the article with the above excerpt, Avoidant Personalities Destroy Relationships, author Peg Streep later notes what we all know: people marry their opposite sex parents. Hearing this early on in my dating days, I thought I was safe in that I married someone so different from my father. But having lived with my father the last few years, I realize I am mistaken.
My father, when physically present on those rare occasions he was not working or sleeping, was not a warm, accessible guy when I was growing up. As an adult, I was more relatable to him and he showed a very warm, sentimental side amidst his general crankiness and abusive language to not only my mother but all of his five children.
But that overly sentimental side lurched between the nasty brutal cutting side, which later showed me that he is simply incapable of relating to others, incapable of truly attaching. He either loves you or hates you depending on what you have done for him lately. Then again, how could he have learned how to attach when he was one of 9 children of scraping by parents?
So it’s no wonder I married someone devoted yet aloof and emotionally unavailable, he coming from parents who were the same. My mother, at least, was very warm and affectionate, but very busy with five children. I, being the middle child, fashioned my world, my niche in this enclave, as the independent one who needed her least so as to caretake her some. I still do.
All arrows point to the “dismissing avoidant” in the mirror, but the arm chair self-analyzing therapist is a lousy therapist indeed.
What do you do when 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? I’ve worked with a few couples over the years who have been able to make an open marriage work, but most people, even those who think they might want such an arrangement, are too insecure and jealous to do so.
Interestingly, Josephs does not discount that an open relationship could work, only that most people are too insecure and jealous to succeed. But how about two people forced into honestly engaging with each other about their needs and inability to fulfill them? What about those forced to stay together despite a lousy sex life because they have higher responsibilities to fulfill, like kids and aging parents?
Cynthia decided to work on her sex life in couples therapy, but how often does that “fix” an ailing sex life? I don’t have the data, but I do have a couple dozen years in divorce story land. My gut and experience tell me that many couples do not work out a sex life even after proper diagnosis and willingness to do so.
Sex is as mysterious as it is natural or primal.The complex of psychological, emotional, intellectual and physical cocktails that make some sex the best and some the worst is rocket science or voodoo to me. Honesty is critical to a healthy sex life but not easy. How do you instruct someone you love how to kiss you or please you, especially if you don’t really know how to instruct or what you need–for example, young teen or twenty something starter couples?
Sometimes the circumstances are such that two people want to stay together, perhaps at first for the kids, but later for more reasons than that; maybe there is no one out there to go rushing to that’s any better suited or as time tested as their marital partners, despite the dead sex life. Though the two may feel jealous and unwilling, they both know and are open to sex outside the marriage. And when they do so, in time both parties become acclimated. Exigencies make it work at first and time settles everything else afterward.
Freud claimed that children are emotionally possessive and jealous creatures who don’t like sharing their parents’ affection with anyone else. As a clinician I try to keep an open mind about romantic partner sharing, but when it comes to our spouses, it seems most of us never outgrow being fundamentally childlike in our possessiveness. At our best we learn to refrain from doing things that would make our spouses jealous and insecure, despite our temptations, and when they make us jealous we try to restrain our hostility, despite our hurt.
This would describe the majority of people most of the time and some of the people some of the time. I can remember being jealous of my husband’s friends, the coveted time he spent with them. When we separated and I dated someone else, he was jealous. And later when we reunited and then agreed to an open marriage, we were both jealous at times, but knew it had to be this way and so became inured to seeing other people come and go in our communal lives. The other option was divorce, which was clearly unnecessary.
We talk about our lives, but do not open up to each other much emotionally. He has always struggled with articulating what or that he feels. Yet, we provide each other the steadfast support that allows security, safety and adventure too–time tested love and respect–immeasurably comforting.
The best sex of my life has been with those I have been most emotionally connected to, felt the most love for–at that moment of enjoyment. With some, it has been easier to have great sex due to chemistry (scents, voice, hormones) or physical compatibility, similar aims, fantasies and spirit. Those relationships that afforded the greatest sex were firm, committed, yet clearly not forever. Perhaps the attachment avoidant in me has made that so.
Emer O’Toole’s Ten Things Feminism Has Ruined for Me in the Guardian is a well-written satiric yet sincere read on what feminism has spoiled–mostly fun–for this writer from her cat to Catholicism to marriage and monogamy. While humorous, she raises some insightful conundrums in compromising that space of the political to enter the more relaxed place of “Hey, it ain’t correct, but it feels good, so I’ll just shut my mind off.”
More than the insights and complaints, I love how she works through her queries in writing, watching the process of working through each dilemma. Here is just one example:
You’re a feminist. You’re questioning the gender-related norms in the world around you, trying to figure out which ones are oppressive (eg, sexual objectification; domestic violence; workplace discrimination) and which ones are OK (lipstick). And you begin to feel that a social system in which people claim rights of sexual ownership over each other’s bodies, and get very angry when these exclusive rights are violated, is a system so deeply imbued with patriarchal capitalist ideology as to make gender equality impossible.
So she recognizes the inherent intransigence of an institution, monogamous marriage, so deeply embedded in the larger socio-economic practice and mindset of a country that values possessions including others’ bodies, which is rife for abuse of women in a patriarchal society. Men still run things around here. Marriage based on ownership filters down to men owning women and children, which was literally true only about a hundred years ago. Women were chattel as Kate Chopin’s ‘”Story of an Hour” reminds us.
Though, I do not doubt that two people can agree that they each have equal “ownership” rights over each other’s body and enjoy those rights, even with jealousy and possession as the basis of policing that arrangement. Two individuals cognizant of their needs and boundaries and respectful of the same in the other certainly can make monogamy work within the patriarchy of capitalism and monogamy. Like everything, it depends on the people entering into and honoring the agreements they make with continuing communication and monitoring about their arrangement when it is not working.
You take your head out of the theoretical clouds and look at the grounded reality of monogamy. You see lying, cheating, shame, even violence, and you think: is this because of love? Or is it because of the idea that we own the sexual function of the people we love? Love should make us happy (I’m looking at you, Anna Karenina). Yet jealousy, so often an excuse for abuse, is romanticised by the logic of monogamy, while love is vilified. Surely, with compassion, commitment and communication, we can find the courage to love differently. Polyamory is the future!
I do not know that romanticizing jealousy correlates to vilifying love, unless she means generally monogamy leads to jealousy and people focus on the keeping possession of bodies rather than the love that binds each to such an arrangement in the first place. Unless she means that love that someone can give to others is curtailed by having it wrapped up in only one other being. There are so many people one comes across in life, many lovable people, and yet many bargain away their love in an exclusivity contract, which seems rather unnatural and doomed as insurmountably contrived and unnatural.
Polyamory, she applauds as the solution, though too quickly. The same kind of honesty and open communication, continual monitoring and negotiation that works for monogamy pertains even more so, even more than doubly so, to polyamory where there are more moving parts to consider. More people means more agreements, which inevitably means more of everything good and bad. Polyamory is not for the lazy or the self-deluded. It is not an excuse to go fuck anyone you want as some do parading under the banner of polyamory. You know who you are.
Compassion, commitment and communication are a lot of bloody work, though. Primary partners, secondary partners: all replete with complex emotions. Sometimes, at 1am on Friday night, when you just want to be out dancing with your friends but are, instead, “processing” with a partner new to poly, you wonder, ‘When did life become one long conversation about everyone’s feelings?’ You remember being 21, and trying to stop your boyfriend from punching a bloke who asked for your number while he was in the jacks. Brutal, yes, but alluringly simple.
Right. Sometimes you want to just fall back into easy patterns, even ones designed, implemented and perpetuated by patriarchy. The familiarity of it is enticing and the noble notion of chivalry is romanticism we have been fed since birth.
Conscious choice to engage in agreed to relationship roles is what it is all about. A feminist is someone who believes in entering into relationships of any form or context, personal, career or academic, armed with information and analytical skills to see through the sedimented, unthinking practices of our culture. That practice does not have to be a battle within the self so much as a vigilance, an intellectual awareness directed to many aspects of life, not just spotting abuse. We are not dupes to advertising when we know what advertisers are up to, and yet we submit and purchase what’s for sale knowingly and willingly.
Relationships of any kind are no different. I may submit my body to my partner’s jealous possession knowing all the implications and consequences thereof, and still sleep at night. The problem is not so much monogamy as much as it is about fairytales’ forever after. Humans want to nail down something for life: this is the way it’s going to be so that I don’t ever have to think about that again. It’s an insecurity thing. Again, it takes honesty and constant checking in with the self to see if the same old patterns are actively and consciously working or just mindless habits. That practice of checking in is a constant of good living. That is feminism in practice.
I was just a girl then,
no street sense at all,
not about boys, sex or love.
My mother warned, “Beware of them;
they just want between your legs.”
My father didn’t say anything;
his voice was my mother’s,
his opinions hers.
He worked all night of 7 days,
so she spoke for both of them.
The aim was not to get pregnant.
Since she had four daughters,
the first at sixteen,
and had to marry then, she knew.
Her drive was singular,
her message the same.
Don’t let them near enough to you,
for temptation is deep and wide.
Once you start, there’s no stopping.
And when I kissed my first boy, I sighed,
his lips were soft,
and my stomach felt a jittery sick,
while his face remained stoic.
I couldn’t tell if he felt the same,
the mystery of he-ness exposed.
My world was closed,
exclusively inside my head.
I had no perspective, no insight.
I was 12 only, then.
Later, with interest running high,
I craved the unknown compelling,
like claws to the depths of me,
ripping up sacred rites of initiation,
summoning darkness before light.
Too much love for the flame,
I slunk too close, singed my wings.
He was 8 years older than I.
A former love, the one that cracked my heart,
for I couldn’t believe he would even look at me,
that he did and was so beautiful,
and I was so flustered,
as we walked along Candlewick Road,
under the moon half lit in the sky,
split by clouds,
when I repeated my mother’s words,
“I am waiting until I get married,”
which didn’t fit, but I had nothing else.
I wanted it to be right, to keep him.
I thought he’d sense a romantic heart,
the sincerity of pure intent.
But he disappeared after that night,
and I tore open, needed to throw down,
discard a piece of me to the gutter.
So when he told his drummer friend,
so much older than us, a man,
“She doesn’t give,”
and that friend took it up,
made it his challenge,
I lay down, no mistake this time,
and he prevailed.
I bled in fear.
Why didn’t she tell me,
arm me with something more,
she with no belief
but the curse?
Sayat Nova is an Armenian-Georgian 18th Century poet and musician whose creativity abounded as seen through a short portrayal of his life’s work as poet, musician and troubadour, and according to the scant information I found in lightly researching his name. His life’s work/biography apparently is not readily accessible to American culture judging by the comments to this Youtube slice of the larger 1968 work entitled The Color of Pomegranates, a film depicting the poet’s life, in a stream of consciousness that appears more like a series of still life shots, courtesy of Russian director Sergei Paradjanov.
Admittedly ignorant of the poet’s work other than the short film on Youtube and a shallow delving into Internet write ups on Amazon, Wikipedia and Youtube, I am fascinated by this clip for its sheer intensity of suggestion and superb acting. Only vaguely familiar with folkloric representation through symbol, I can see just the glaringly obvious like the mechanically spinning Cupid, the overt machinations of demonstration of love, purity or wisdom (white flower over the man’s face), the book (probably references to the poet’s writings) and projections of desire.
My uninformed interpretation (and I am loathe to do more research until I have fully delved into and purged my initial uninformed impression) is the immediate interplay of the male and female characters, one as object of adoration–the woman–and the man’s supplications to her with his offerings, but concomitantly, the other–male–as the projected object of desire. The words, “I search for treasure, something a little bigger or greater” (my rough translation from the subtitled Italian) are the only lines overlaid by the flashes of stills of faces and seemingly incoherent actions of winding, circling and supplicating.
The words evoke a lack of fulfillment, a seeking of something valuable, perhaps in another human being or in life generally. Thus, the book, flower and other artifacts, including earth are thrown before the seeker as demonstrations or offerings. I thought of how we seek something more in our relationships, especially long term relationships, due to boredom or the temptation of forbidden fruit or the need to fill a hole inside of us that cannot be filled with another human being or things. Perhaps the search is for spiritual fulfillment.
The final act of this clip (from the larger movie) is the holding up of the ring by each, another circle and symbol of marriage or betrothal of some sort, whether to each other or to some idea. So, it seems that all of the communication between male and female actors, is a kind of courting with the male trying to figure out what floats her boat, what will make her heart turn to him, both being so taciturn and severe in expression. The flatness of character isolates the ideas from the personalities/characters, which effectively underscores love, connection and the projection of desire on to the other.
I particularly like the mechanical production reminding me that sometimes courting and relationships–or searching in general–can be a mechanical application of relating, manipulating, knowing what makes another tick, what moves the other to come to love, another human being. Being in the gaze of the other produces fantasy and desire as the object of the gaze becomes the screen of another’s projections of what she wants to see based on her needs and wants.
Before I spoil my initial impression with reading more qualified opinions on this clip, the movie, the poetry and life of the creators of the words and film, I wanted to share this piece, raw and untainted by more informed parsing of the presentation, which I enjoyed tremendously in its peculiarly stylized overly dramatic presentation reminding me of the Kabuki theater of the Japanese.
This five minute clip is worth a few spins to get over the initial offputting oddity and appreciate the artistry of the production. Happy Sunday. Namaste.
Here’s me being you (simply so):
I pull out of you, expelling seed
crash-down heavy, a filled need
with a groan and a sigh of relief
satisfaction of weariness sweet
I croak, “You’re so good to me,”
and then close my eyes to see
the vision still coursing headily
inside you, mouth to your ears
deep in silk skin-soaked tears
licking drops from your cheeks
like swallowing the salty seas
with your joy, your melted glee
all wrapped in arms so lovingly.
Here’s you being me (deftly so):
A hand slides across your spine
as you leave my warmth behind
and lie beside me in heavy sigh
of deep satisfaction and release
in closed eyes; in smiling peace
you rest in muscle soft respiring
in mind less darkness dreaming
of you, me and endless teeming
pant and chuff, a heart pounding
too softly now in brimming chest
a storm passed by, ocean’s rest
calmed to gurgling stream’s lies
unheard above a chasm’s cries.
A small voice nags inside persistently some days, pecking at her brain like the woodpecker’s drum, “This cannot go on.”
But then it does: the constancy, the clinging-to-life braided bodies in sweet scented addiction blind, the quelled fiery imagery, soothed, enraptured in repose, all dissolved in calm lines of the heart’s monitor metered in metronomic jive of the universe’s mysterious patterns dancing.
“How do stars live so far from one another and yet reverberate from their mates’ light?” They seem so close and crowded all at once in the blanket black. At least it seems to those far below, minds upwardly poised to glean the wisdom of the sky.
“They just do.” Finding their light, knowing they are there is enough for them, he believes.
Some days the abyss yawns loudly from eons below my ribs. The aches gathered in bits and sounds from all who ever lost and lived creeps in through my ears, slides the canals and permeates the tissue so all that I hear is gaping vacancy inside the hiss and hum of respiring pumps of tedious be.
You toss me up like a rocket launched to space, not by chunky booster hands alone but the aid of my twig arms in slingshot urgency, and the quickness almost kills me, knocks my senses clear removed from silky parachutes’ inevitable return.
And when my feet finally alight upon the earth again, the descent is steady, deliberate and long, my lungs filling fat in measured whiffs of the dirt and stained ammonia air. Hitting me slice-wise along the spine is the reminder that we watch the enemy from opposite sides in distant trenches, staring down perceptions from a line never crossed.
You see me in my blindness. I blind you with my sight.
When all the stories of girlfriends and guyfriends collide and correspond, life unfolds in parables and tales of the universe. There are certain constants that run true in human behavior throughout time regardless of fashion, trends and technology. Listening to one friend over coffee yesterday and another few in email and text conversations, I awoke to a story of everyone, everywhere at some time, whether the relationship bespeaks love, career, worship, family or community. As parable, story figures take on symbolic feature to encompass the whole of humanity’s experience in some slice of its manifestation.
Today’s offering is called: A parable of the universe (Tell me if I am wrong).
I met a man when I was two thirds of who I had become that far. Too many rough years rubbed away the grit of my guts and solidity I had sewn together lo those many years prior, going to school, building a career and family–taking care of the world I had made and made securely well.
So when this man met me (I had gone looking for someone to top me off), he ministered to the two thirds left of me by being smart and witty, entertainingly soft and kind. The game of push the right buttons, turn the right knobs to nail the target and earn points had begun. He paid attention to me with admiring eyes that bathed me in light and filled missing space in the darkness of me. And he grew in me. He filled time and moment with his persistence and my quest for completion.
But then life struck again, and I lost another third. I was down depleted low. This gave urgency to him–to pour more into me, even more, to fill up that space as I, nearly eviscerated, crumpled to the ground at his feet. He saw opportunity and I felt lost. And he called it love and desire and support. He called it us and we and forever. And I fell back long, long with eyes closed until my body hit the sheets, which flew up from the force of the fall to cover me whole.
And when I awoke, I found replenishment–just enough. I could stand. I opened my eyes. The world was dull but constant. And one foot followed the other as it is wont to do. No meteor split the earth. No fire engulfed the city. Exhale followed inhale.
So when the flow of movement filled me up a little more, I found the man’s residence in me too much, too tedious and frantic. I would vomit. “Please pull back and rest inside yourself some,” I pleaded. But he could not hear. He had already made plans, made a home inside, expanded there to fuel his reason and his way.
Then the truth of the matter was plain. He was not a man at all. I had been fooled just as I had been all my life about what was life–doing hoops and carrots. I was wrong about that too. Separateness is an illusion. We don’t fill each other; we are one another. Only, some truly are tapeworms until they understand.
“These things cannot be written with a quiet hand or dry eyes.” Nelly Ternan
Sometimes it pays to be the mistress, especially to someone famous. Though the movie is a couple years old now and the biography much older, the Nelly Ternan story is a prime example of the sometimes advantageous position of the mistress–or so it would seem. In reading on the web, the facts vary slightly but all agree that she moved from actress to mistress to the rest of her life and onto fame and history without so much as a hitch. Of course there is so much to flesh out of these bare facts of Ellen Lawless “Nelly” Ternan, Charles Dickens’ mistress. If there is punishment, divine or otherwise, meted out for playing the role of mistress, this one seems to have gone unpunished.
According to Claire Tomalin’s biography, Ternan is born to a family of actors who tour the country even after the father dies in an insane asylum. One day Ternan, later acting in a burlesque show, is spotted by Dickens who casts her and her sister in his production of The Frozen Deep. Dickens, then 45 and married with 9 children (later 10), falls for the 18 year old Nelly, and they end up having a 13 year affair–though biographers differ on the nature of the relationship as Dickens himself took great pains to keep the circumstances of his estranged wife and his contacts with Ternan Victorian scandal proof secret–yielding one still born child from Dickens, who later dies, leaving his mistress money in his will. Ternan then moves on to marry a clergyman ten years her junior, with whom she has two children before he dies and she goes on to join the anti-suffrage movement. She dies of cancer at 75 years old. In 1913, that’s a pretty good long time. Much later, in 2013, a movie about her, The Invisible Woman, airs detailing her affair with Dickens, based on Claire Tomalin’s biography.
She lived 75 years, got married, had children and a long term love affair with a famous author that yielded her money and fame as long lasting if not as ubiquitous as Dickens’. She even got to campaign for her own political beliefs in her retirement. What a great story of American come uppance by being in the right place at the right time. The facts tell the story of a game with the score: Nelly 1, wife Catherine Dickens 0. Mrs. Dickens does not get her own write up and movie. No, her story is told through Dickens’ viewpoint. She goes down as the fat, grumpy woman with whom Dickens had 10 kids and then became dissatisfied for her lack of “ardor,” which is how he characterized his failing marriage at the time of meeting 18 year old Nelly.
Fame, fortune and history are random that way. Nelly’s story seems to reinforce that idea. Although, who can read between the mere hollow facts to see the story beyond the margins of the biography: the strife of being a young mistress to a much older demanding man of fame, his stress and the risk of both their reputations, or even the probable contentment of Mrs. Dickens being set up in her own apartment away from her dissatisfied husband who impregnated her ten times and left her to raise kids who likewise suffered the mortification of this hardly contained, much as Dickens tried, affair. One can only imagine the story behind the story. Unfortunately, the love letters between Dickens and Ternan were destroyed. In those letters lies the real story, I would like to believe, which is the story of passionate, irresistible love.