Soulless Relationships

Thomas Moore, the philosopher and former monk who wrote the bible on sex (“The Soul of Sex”) and the bible on love (“Soul Mates”), has a lot to say about what happens when erotic experience is absent from life. Life, properly lived, he passionately explains, is itself an erotic experience, an act of love, and what happens in the public sphere is entirely and indelibly connected to what happens in one’s bedroom. Essentially: if your sex life sucks, that soils everything else (and by sex life we mean erotic life, because one can actually experience eroticism without sex).

I once knew a guy in such a predicament. He was out of touch with himself, and thus made bad decisions about whom to try to love. After suffering a horribly traumatic ending of an 8-year first-love relationship, he ended up in a dysfunctionally cold relationship, with someone who seemed to match up to a short checklist of concrete requirements (“likes my sport”, “not in a position to leave me”, “doesn’t expect much of me”, “conveniently lives near me”). He endlessly complained about feeling like he was missing something in life, that he was dissatisfied with his professional life, not very attached to his family, ambivalent about his friends and extracurricular pursuits, and unclear about his basic life path and future. Sadly, he couldn’t recognize that this restlessness stemmed from his lack of a fulfilling relationship.

The household they had set up was one characterized by a basic fear of vitality, a lack of life. She feared children, as she feared the joyful responsibility of a puppy, feared making plans for the future, feared sharing intimate details or talking about feelings and weighty topics — and she imposed all those fears on him. The pair functioned moderately well, but without much apparent joy. Each day was more or less the same as yesterday, with both telling themselves that such routine and stasis was positive. Moreover, the woman was entirely ambivalent about sex, never asking for it, placidly tolerant of him like she was doing him a favor, conservative and closed-off.

Funnily enough, this girl he had picked had the trappings of sexuality (athleticism, wild unfettered hair, tattoos of fertility goddesses, a cultivated reservedness that people interpreted as mystery), but lacked what Thomas Moore would call erotic intelligence. She struck others as unremarkable, uninspired, safe, quiet, and making little wake in the world. It didn’t bother her that her partner was left with his sexual and sensual needs entirely unmet, and she shut him off from any attempts to open a conversation about the problem. He had signed up with someone whom he had thought was an exciting source of life, and gotten instead a sort of living death.

He had gotten into this predicament — Moore would argue and I would concur — by being dishonest with himself about what really matters. He had let his ego, as opposed to his soul, take over, and gotten snagged on a transient need (in this case, a need for someone to rescue, so that he could feel like a hero, and she could end up dependent enough on him to avoid a repeat of his last relationship where he was left). This guy ended up dependent on his rescue-ee, ironically. He bemused his friends by making endless excuses for her not wanting to do this or that, and not providing him this or that. Those who knew him well were puzzled, but decided he was an adult and should be left to his own devices.

Many people suffer through such soulless relationships. They do it for the kids, for propriety, out of guilt, out of fear or inertia or convenience, because they have baggage, they are tired, or because they don’t have proactive enough friends and family to save them from themselves.

So, what should you do if you find yourself in such a situation?

  1. If you feel that in your partner you have the raw material to cultivate real love, and an erotically-charged, vital life…then you do the work to make that happen.
  2. If you have tried that, and gathered enough data to realize that in that partner you don’t have the building blocks for what you really desire in life…then you find a way to unwind it and move on.

Yes, we live in the real world where both #1 and #2 can be far easier said than done. But, we also all have a grave responsibility to ourselves to live an authentic, bold, and complete life in our short time on this earth. The worst response is to do neither #1 nor #2 – to persist in misery, become an angry person, develop a porn addiction, compensate via power abuses at work, or seek cowardly and reckless escape through adultery.

At Christmas we celebrate the powerful idea of transcendent Love — as embodied by a dude who lived a couple thousand years ago and made a big stir in the world (a dude to whom some now ascribe supernatural qualities, but that is a matter of personal mythology and not something you have to agree with to grasp my point here). The spine-tingling Christmas Eve benediction I grew up hearing in a candlelit church at midnight: “Jesus Christ is the light. Follow him….if you dare!”

And so to everyone who has ever found themself in a soulless relationship: Desire represents the soul’s longings. Listen to it…if you dare!


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