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Can Affairs Make Marriage Better for Women?

Marriage and motherhood make it harder for women to focus on their own needs, to feel spontaneous and sexually expressive

Your spouse had an affair — can that benefit your marriage? According to renowned therapist Esther Perel’s new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, maybe.

Ceasing to feel like women

As Perel writes,

Home, marriage and motherhood have forever been the pursuit of many women, but also the place where women cease to feel like women.

Sound familiar? It does to me. We go from being a desired being to a domestic one.

She challenges the common assumption that women’s sexuality is primarily dependent on relational connectedness — love, commitment and security. … Meana suggests that women are not just “touchy-feely” but also “saucy-sexy” — in fact, “women may be just as turned on as men by the novel, the illicit, the raw, the anonymous, but the arousal value of these may not be important enough to women to trade in things they value more (i.e., emotional connectedness). … We interpret the lack of sexual interest as proof that women’s sexual drive is inherently less strong. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think that it is a drive that needs to be stoked more intensely and more imaginatively — and first and foremost by her, not only by her partner.

And therein lies part of the problem — the stuff of domestic life doesn’t always make us feel all that sexy. So, even if we have a hubby who is romantic, cooks and cleans and adores us, we need to connect with our erotic self, too, otherwise …

From selfishness to selflessness

She quotes psychotherapist Dalma Heyn in describing the “deadening of pleasure and vitality” that happens to some women after they wed:

“A woman’s sexuality depends on her authenticity and self-nurturance,” she writes. Yet marriage and motherhood demand a level of selflessness that is at odds with the inherent selfishness of desire. Being responsible for others makes it harder for women to focus on their own needs, to feel spontaneous, sexually expressive and carefree. For many, finding at home the kind of self-absorption that is essential to erotic pleasure proves a challenge. The burdens of caretaking are indeed a power anti-aphrodisiac.

Monogamy just may not be a woman’s thing, as I’ve written before, and perhaps marriage and even intimacy — what we’re constantly told we need to have and maintain in a romantic partnership — isn’t working well for us either.

First, the institutionalization of the relationship — a passage from freedom and independence to commitment and responsibility. Second, the overfamiliarity that develops when intimacy and closeness replace individuality and mystery. And lastly, the desexualizing nature of certain roles — mother, wife and house manager all promote the de-eroticization of the self.

Managing love and desire

Yep, yep and yep. It sounds bleak, right? But as Perel notes, some couples can integrate the contradictions of love and desire, but first we have to acknowledge that we’ll never eliminate the dilemma — it’s not a “problem to solve; it is a paradox to manage.”

Written by

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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