Often in marriage therapy, it’s common for a couple to come in with complaints of decreased intimacy, less frequent sex, loss of loving feelings, and overall lower levels of connection. These complaints are often wrapped up in surface level accusations, and the couple is familiar with the “dance” that ensues when the issues are brought up. This can be so defeating for each spouse as they feel as if they get nowhere in discussion. Getting bogged down in communication about frustrating events, and never quite getting to deeper, more hidden issues is a common experience.
So, why is it so hard to dive beneath the surface level problems and communicate on a level that addresses our real fears about intimacy? In his book Can Love Last?, Stephen A. Mitchell discusses the ways couples degrade romance in their relationship. It’s a common view that romance and loving feelings fade with time in long-lasting relationships, as the reality of bills, careers, and children take hold. Mitchell argues, however, that romance doesn’t fade, but that spouses intentionally and unintentionally degrade it with their actions. By doing so the familiar, perhaps dull stability of the relationship is kept intact. One of the ways this is accomplished is through the creation of unhelpful habits in relation to our spouse. Mitchell suggests that habituation can be a defense, a protective degradation against the vulnerability of being known in romantic love.
It’s risky to be known, perhaps more so in a committed, marital relationship than anywhere else. A large amount of extra-marital affairs and pornography use in our culture seem to point in that direction. It would be understandable if a reader looked at the last sentence and thought “aren’t affairs and pornography riskier than a sexual relationship inside a marriage?” To be certain there’s risk in the extreme damage that can be done by each, but to participate in the moment requires far less risk. Rarely do partners in an affair have the history and deep emotional connection of spouses, and pornography will literally be whatever the viewer wants it to be. There will never be rejection. There is no risk. In a committed relationship, there is vulnerability and potential for injury. It makes sense then that spouses may be protecting themselves from hurt and degrading romance and intimacy, the very things which require risk, in their marriage.
Thinking about limited intimacy and romance in a relationship in this way is a complete 180 for many. It requires each spouse to look at how they contribute to the co-creation of fading romance. Again, from Mitchell:
“When patients complain of dead and lifeless marriages, it is often possible to show them how precious the deadness is to them, how carefully maintained and insisted upon, how the very mechanical, totally predictable quality of lovemaking serves as a bulwark against the dread of surprise and unpredictability. Thus ‘secure attachment’ is not a terribly useful model of mutual, adult romantic love, except in its fantasy, illusory, security-bolstering dimensions. Love, by its very nature is not secure; we keep wanting to make it so.”
What ways do you protect yourself from risk in your marriage? Do any of your habits inhibit romance and connection? Do you fear being seen and known by your spouse? I hope you’ll speak with your spouse about your answers to these questions. The conversation certainly wouldn’t be predictable.