Thursday, March 24, 2016

How to Narrow Your Love Down to One Woman

[Photo credit:]

Quinn made this thought-provoking comment about yesterday's post:

I am a recovering addict, but I completely empathize with Jeanie [who feels so bad about her husband's lusting and porn habit].

I get what she's saying, and yet, I don't want to let go of noticing other women, of feeling that rush of excitement and novelty. In fact, my mind rushed to defensively say "dude, we're biologically not made to be monogamous, it's a societal choice most of us make and yet, we're not entirely happy with being with 'just' one woman for the rest of our lives."

Perhaps it's the addict in me speaking, or guilt ... that would make a lot of sense, actually. Perhaps there's more to this than meets the eye and it all boils down to choices:

#1 we either enter a relationship and forsake all others in body and mind. And that can go at least two ways:
1.1 we're entirely happy about our choice.
1.2 we're not sure/miserable about our choice. (that's where I'm at, not sure if I can do this, not sure I want to do this just yet, although in most aspects, I have a great partner)
#2 we change partners for as long as we can and hope to have somebody care enough for us to share their lives with us when we're old and frail.

Wow Quinn, you make so many great points here!

I don't think it's just "the addict in you speaking." I've never been addicted to porn or lust and I would agree that the male brain (okay, at least your brain and mine) does seem to respond to our noticing beautiful women with a feeling almost of "Thank you!!! THIS is what life's all about. That other routine crap you deal with all the time? Barely worth your while! Thanks for getting back to doing what you were made for!"

Even as I write this, I find myself wondering how women who know me, whom I respect immensely, might feel reading it. Would they think, "So he's one of the creepers!" I know my wife won't have a problem with it because, given my profession, we've talked about it a lot. Early on she asked, "What is it about men who have such a big issue with lust?" My answer: "You say that as though there are some of us who don't."

Now a few men might react to this by saying, "Don't lump us all in there!" But most of us can relate to those who struggle with porn, even if we haven't personally. One friend I really respect sincerely claims we can get to a point where we have no more reaction to a beautiful woman than we would when we look at a blank wall. And I trust that he and others may have arrived at that point.

The fact that I personally have not doesn't stress me out or seem to diminish the quality of my life. To the contrary. The facts are that female beauty abounds in the world and I have the privilege of carrying around a noggin that lights off of little bursts of fireworks when it detects that beauty. Please don't misunderstand here, I'm not talking about undressing women with my eyes or always being on the lookout for sexiness. Sparks of appreciation fly when I hear an angelic alto voice behind me at church singing "Sweet Hour of Prayer". When, driving by, I catch a glimpse of a mom struggling to get a stroller out of the back of her SUV and notice a daughter giving mom a hand by holding the baby on her hip. When I see an elderly woman lying in her sick bed, skin thin as paper, her body weak and wrinkled but her eyes still sparkling and spirit beaming. And at times a feature, a curve, or a feminine movement strikes me in just as profound a way. I would no sooner deny these latter forms of beauty than I could the former.

However, whenever I grab after what I notice, letting my mind cling to it as though it will somehow meet my needs, there's a slight and distinct diminishment in my level of contentment and clarity. Fortunately, I have a choice. I don't have to get caught up in entertaining my attraction. I can also keep myself moving on with  life. I can stay with my life on its own terms rather than dwelling on the things I could covet about my neighbor's wife (or daughter!) or getting enticed down into the rabbit hole of lust. When I'm managing to stay on the higher plane, female beauty is one of the most amazing and uplifting facets of life, and one that only adds sparkle to all the others.

But this doesn't seem to be a destination to which I can simply arrive once and then forever abide. It's more a sweet spot to keep finding and developing the discipline to better maintain. Two factors come to mind that I personally find helpful. One for the heat of the moment and the other more as a preventative.

1. When I catch my brain starting to drink in female beauty like a smitten puppy or wanting to feed on lust with the tenacity of a Rottweiler, I've found that scolding myself doesn't work worth beans at putting out the fire and it also makes me feel like crap.

It helps me to think of my reaction as a natural one, but from a part of my brain that's not fully up to date on exactly what life is like for me now. My testosterone fueled brain reactions can't be expected to be up to speed on the other more important and rewarding things to which life is simultaneously calling me. So I give that woman-crazy part of me a mental nod and smile, as if to say "Oh, so it's you again huh old friend?" I don't usually talk under my breath to myself to "him", it's more a feeling, but if I had to put it into words it might be:

"Hi there mate-seeking brain. Glad to see you're still alive and well. And since you're here I do want to thank you again for the amazing job you did for me 28 years ago. I have it pretty good thanks to you. So do my kids. But I can see you're not about to opt for early retirement and go quietly into that dark night. That's okay. I can live with you. Your job is to point out potential mates to me; my job is to stay rooted in reality. And frankly, if I were to actually pursue any of the candidates you nominate, the results would make more for bad comedy than sweet romance. So don't expect me to buy into any of your sales pitches. And by the way, my wife could go looking, too, you know. Let's spend more time worrying more about how pleasing I can make myself to her than who else might please me. To keep trying to win her over is more fun and more productive anyway! And I feel great after pondering how to keep courting her and acting on the ideas, instead of feeling empty, dissatisfied, or sheepish."

2. I recently heard world-renowned marriage expert John Gottman give an amazing presentation on the science of trust. He emphasized that happily monogamous couples don't necessarily feel so content and infatuated with each other that they naturally act all lovey-dovey. Rather, activities like snuggling, texting now and then throughout the day, conversing at the end of the day, and gazing into each other's eyes produce in our brains and bodies more oxytocin. This hormone deepens the sense of attachment we feel and strengthens the bond we share. Which, in turn, keeps sex exciting. (In Gottman's book on the topic he shares research that debunks Esther Perel's opposite view on this topic). In other words we don't have to keep wondering whether we picked the right woman. Instead, we can do these things with the woman we've already chosen: wonder how she's doing and check in to find out, snuggle for twenty minutes most days, talk together about how the day went, and spend some of the time you do these and other activities together looking into her eyes. Every week you live this way nudges your needle in the direction of contentment with your wife and away from feeling the need to wonder whether you've made the right choice.

I personally find this approach to be very compelling and helpful. However, I don't know if my perspective on the topic is very representative because, to put it bluntly, I'm spoiled rotten. I married one of the greatest women on the planet. Either that, or this process has worked wonders in my life. Then again, maybe it's some of both.


  1. I would like to understand this post better, to see if there is common ground that applies to women generally. For me, lust is not a response that shows itself in ordinary life. This is all part of that fundamental difference between men and women, I suspect.

    The situations that you list are indeed forms of beauty. I see beauty all around me in that same way. But do those examples really apply here? For example, wouldn't you be equally interested in hearing a lovely tenor singing in church behind you? And what about a dad repairing a bicycle with his child? Or an elderly man with that same sparkle in his eye? Shouldn't/wouldn't these situations provide you with the same sense of wonder? And if the answer to that is no, then perhaps there is a sexual pull in evidence after all. Does that make sense? Those kinds of examples almost seem like a justification for noticing the second type of beauty you describe.

    I fully agree that it's the "grabbing" that all of us, men and women, need to avoid. I also like your suggestions for helping ourselves stay on track. And if we are staying on track then perhaps it doesn't matter if it is a male or a female that draws our attention.

    1. Hi blossom! Thanks for keeping this conversation going.

      And thank you for encouraging me to think about masculinity. It brought me to tears on my drive to work this morning. I thought of my sons and the boys on their soccer teams testing themselves against other teams and the camaraderie they share. And the men who coach them, challenge them, teach them, yell at them, love them. I also thought of seeing my elderly neighbor friend, Brother Thornley, in the last days of his life. His body was frail and yet he radiated pure light just as my friend Rose had when I last saw her in the nursing home. I remembered a discussion in a men's meeting at church, half a dozen of them sharing with the rest of us ideas about how we could be better husbands and fathers.

      It's different in a way. When I admire men and appreciate masculinity it's from a familiar vantage point. Femininity feels mysterious, almost exotic, and maybe that's why it more often catches my eye and takes my breath away.

      Is some of it sexual? Good question. Maybe that's where the appreciation gets some of its potency. Or could sex get some of its potency from that appreciation?

      All I know is I can either respect it for what it is as a naturally occurring dynamic in its natural element and fully enjoy it without feeling guilty or controlled by it... or I can try to grab it, as you said, and try to ride that feeling like a killer whale at Sea World. And that seems to make the difference for me: to be content to let it simply be what it is rather than try to wring out of it something that can fill up an empty space in me.

  2. I watched Ester Perel's TED talk, and I'm curious how her view differs from Gottman's. I have read one of Gottman's books but not the one on trust. I thought that Perel's contention was that passion diminishes over time and that can ultimately lead to an affair if steps are not taken to keep the passion current and alive. Is Gotten not in agreement with this idea? I thought it was commonly held that passion must be fed, in ways like those you suggest, in order to maintain contentment in a relationship. I'm just curious why you disagree with Perel.

    1. Oh yeah, I forgot to make that important point! I don't remember whether it was in her TED Talk or elsewhere, but Perel discourages couples from snuggling! She says all the hormones it dumps foster familiarity and contentment but spoil mystery. Gottman cites research in his Trust book and in his "Gott Sex?" program that suggests the opposite: snuggling improves the sex lives of long-term monogamous couples.