What If Maintaining Desire Isn't a Major Goal of Your Marriage?

"One of the things that's great about marriage is that it frees you from the constant, incessant treadmill of sexual obsession."
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How do you maintain desire in a long-term relationship? How can you keep that edge of excitement and danger through long years of monogamy, convention and familiarity? How do you keep rutting like horny adolescents when you're pushing middle-age?

Daniel Bergner, author of What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, is asking readers to contemplate such questions at Slate's Double XX. Specifically, he asked, "How can women maintain desire within long-term committed relationships?" In response, readers have written in with a series of predictably titillating responses from the familiar grab-bag of shocking alternative lifestyles and fetish. You've got threesomes, you've got costumes, you've got group sex, and so forth. As of this writing we haven't gotten to bondage or S&M yet, but presumably something along those lines will show up before we're done.

The almost ritual tour of kink suggests strongly that Bergner's question is less an interrogative, and more an excuse. The way the issue is framed—how to maintain desire?—makes the answers inevitable. This is, clearly, good copy—everybody likes to read about sex. But it seems like the predetermined nature of the exercise might, possibly, be leaving something out.

Specifically...is it necessarily true that everyone, in every marriage, wants to maintain desire? Obviously, pretty much nobody wants their sex life to completely roll over and die. But, on the other hand, one of the things that's great about marriage is that it frees you from the constant, incessant treadmill of sexual obsession. I was single for quite a while, and the worst part was not the lack of sex (since really you can have sex quite efficiently with yourself) but the waiting, the hoping, the crushes, the uncertainty, the self-doubt and self-loathing—in short, that thing that some religions call the wheel of desire. When Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins tells me that I could maintain desire by dating outside my marriage, all I can say is, hell, no. I hated dating. I was bad at it, it made me miserable, and I'm sure it wasn't particularly enjoyable for the folks who had to share my misery either. My wife rescued me from that, bless her. No way am I going back.

Bergner's book argues, in part, that women are worse at monogamy than men are. So, perhaps, he would reply to me by suggesting that while I may be happy enough with a marriage that is not flaming with desire, my wife is not. However, I do talk to my wife on occasion, and as far as dating being a hideous burden that we are well out of, we are in accord. Of course my wife is attracted to other people occasionally—but her reaction to such crushes is not exactly what Bergner seems to think it should be. On the contrary, the last time my wife was truly, thoroughly smitten at first sight by a dashing, androgynous indie hipster, she didn't want to have sex with him. She wanted to get away. "It's like being 18 again," she said. "Yuck."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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