Willa Cather was the world renowned author of “O Pioneers”. Edith Lewis was editor of several of New York’s better known publications. Over time, Lewis also edited all of Cather’s work. Eventually, the two of them moved in together. The world assumed they were two writers functioning as each other’s muses. In reality, though they hid this from many people, they were also lifelong lovers. But two became three. Later in life, they added socialite Isabelle McClung to their triad. The three of them traveled the world and reveled in their unique love for each other.
Virginia Wolfe was another famous author in love with another female writer, Vita Sackville-West. But this time, both women were married to men. Both couples had open marriages and both husbands approved of their relationship. In time, though Vita and Virgina did not have sex with each other’s husbands, a deep bond formed between the four of them. Eventually, they split up, which actually caused more pain for the husbands than the women.
Janeane Garofolo and Bradford Cord are much different people, one an actor and the other a singer. They are both asexual and very proud to be so. Though they have had many loves, each of them describes how they enjoy living as a person for whom sexual attraction has never been part of their lives. Because of this, both of them have met confusion and opposition from other people. In interviews, they both regret how their asexual status has closed doors for them in their professions and in life.
What do all of these famous people have in common? In essence, they have all bucked a belief system that almost all of us were given as a legacy. It’s called Amatonormativity. It’s a word you may not have heard before. Most people have not.
Amatonormativity is a word author Elizabeth Brake coined in her book “Minimizing Marriage; Marriage, Morality and the Law” to describe the widespread assumption that everyone is better off in an exclusive, romantic, long-term coupled relationship, and that everyone is seeking such a relationship.
There are so many implications of this for our modern world. Amatonormativity marginalizes so many groups of people: singles who want to stay single, asexuals, polyamorous, open relationships, triads and quad relationships, long-term nonsexual friendships, aromantic married people, divorced people, etc. In our American cultural setting, our laws are geared toward those who are in Amatornormative relationships.
Triads cannot have the same parental rights as couples.
Asexuals and single allosexuals are not afforded the same rights as renters compared to amatonormative couples.
Abiding friendships often must relinquish inheritance rights if adult children contest wills in court.
But beyond the legal stipulations against all these individuals, the culture itself looks down upon all people who do not buy into the idea that the ultimate goal in life is to find one person, fall in love, have children, and stay married until you die. Though most adults in our culture do NOT fit into this scenario, most movies, television shows, books, and songs have this concept as a bedrock belief.
In the 90s sitcom “Seinfeld”, the main characters were always quizzing each other on whether they had found “The one”. At times, they played around with other options, like never having kids, open relationships, remaining single. But they ultimately rejected all of those options. In one case regarding open relationships, Jerry remarks caustically,
“Don’t you know what it means to become an orgy guy? It changes everything. I’d have to dress different. I’d have to act different. I’d have to grow a mustache and get all kinds of robes and lotions and I’d need a new bedspread and new curtains I’d have to get thick carpeting and weirdo lighting. I’d have to get new friends. I’d have to get orgy friends.”
Joanne and Mick made out in the car at the drive-in every Friday and Saturday night. They made sure they were in all the same classes together. They ate lunch at the same time, in the same place, facing each other. They drove to school together and drove home together. They did homework together.
They shared every moment of their senior year of high school with each other.
And for some inexplicable reason, both of them resented all that time together. At the same time, they loved each other deeply and without reservation. This confused each of them so much–but their love blocked them from ever talking about it.
Mick decided to work longer hours at his after-school and weekend job. He told Jo that he had no choice, but he had volunteered to do it. Joanne had her own phone line in her bedroom–this was before the Internet age–and she chose to leave it off the hook more often in the evenings.
By the end of their Senior Year of high school, they saw each other less and less. This made Joanne sad and she started to put her phone back on the hook. This made Mick sad, so he told his boss he needed to work less hours so he could focus on end of the year exams.
By May, they were back to spending all their time together. It felt right and they were both happy to do it. But then again, in July, they both started to pull away. This went on until Mick went away to college and Jo got a job at a local food coop. They were still in the same town, but now their time was completely given over to post high school necessities. This made them all the more desperate to be together.
Finally, after months of yearning for each other, Mick proposed marriage. Joanne accepted.
Throughout the 44 years of married life, they have gone through many of these seasons of intimacy followed by isolation. In the numerous counseling sessions and marriage seminars they’ve attended, they have sought to figure out why they alternate between wanting to be with each other fanatically, and also wanting to isolate with the same amount of vigor.
Some day, I’d love to write an essay on the psychoanalyist, Erik Erikson. Even though he taught at Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley, his academic accomplishments consisted of a certificate from a Montessori school, and another certificate from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. He earned no advanced degrees.
But his understanding of human nature and the human condition far surpassed most of his contemporaries.
His most significant contribution to psychology was his chart of the psychosocial development of the human being. He broke down the human condition as a learning process of eight parts. Each of these parts highlighted a different tension between two opposites:
Trust and Mistrust
Autonomy and Doubt
Initiative and Guilt
Industry and Inferiority
Identity and Confusion
Intimacy and Isolation
Generativity and Stagnation
Integrity and Despair.
I want to focus attention on his sixth stage of development: Intimacy and Isolation. He recognized that all of us have this growing need to be connected to others. In later years of the development of Psychology, Dr. William Glasser would identify Love and Belonging as the second most basic human need behind only Safety and Security. After Glasser, others would notice that our early years define how we will attach to others–or in some cases, seek not to attach.
This gave birth to the Attachment Styles movement.
But no one denies we have a need for others in our life. This is the Intimacy Stage in Psychosocial development. At the same time, as Jo and Mick discovered, there are so many things that can make this stage difficult. We may have been betrayed by intimate friends or family, lied to, abandoned, rejected any number of ways, abused, neglected, or marginalized. Individuals may do this to us or collective groups may hurt us.
In addition to this, most people try to control our lives either actively or passively, and this makes us afraid or aggressive toward them.
In addition, a lot of time spent with another person can invoke boredom and a sense of over-familiarity.
Therefore, along with the need for intimacy we also develop a need for isolation from others.
All of our life reflects this tension between wanting to be close to others and wanting distance and agency from others. Each person finds their own path to it. But the balance of both intimacy and isolation is not easy. The reason we struggle with this path is that too much emphasis in our society is placed on the supremacy of intimacy.
Psychologist Esther Perel notes that
“I see others who believe that Intimacy means knowing everything about each other. They abdicate any sense of Isolation, then are left wondering where the mystery has gone.”
Esther Perel, “Mating in Captivity”
This is the problem that has plagued Mick and Joanne for years. They have a pendulum swing toward total intimacy, but it leaves them without any autonomy. When they swing back to isolation, they lose a sense of closeness.
Within Christianity, the goal of monogamous marriage is stated this way: “That a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife. And the two of them shall become one flesh.” Many modern interpretations of “one flesh” teach that this one flesh concept applies to more than just bodies joining together sexually. The idea is that two people would be dyadic–which means they will find all of their emotional, sexual, and psychological needs met primarily through this person they married.
Since this ideal supposes that the couple will meet most, if not all, of their psychosocial needs through each other, isolation feels like failure. Even couples who take a break from sex, sleeping together, or even hanging out with each other are seen as “in trouble”.
But many couples find seasons of isolation from each other to be rejuvenating and restorative. This is not just true of people in long-term relationships, but can apply to friendships, family relationships, and even co-workers at job sites.
I have spent many hours with couples in crisis in my counseling practice. Though I don’t give this advice to many of them, I have suggested some pairings do in house separations where they do not spend much time together. Almost all of them found this period of time therapeutic.
Perel writes about this in “Mating in Captivity”. In working with one couple, she noted that the husband was doing so much care for his sick wife that they had lost the closeness seen in other elements of their relationship. Here is what she advised them:
“To John I said, “You are such a caregiver that you can no longer be a lover. We need to reestablish a degree of differentiation and re-create some of the distance you had in the beginning. It’s hard to experience desire when you’re weighted down by concern.”
In the next few months Beatrice did move out. In a remarkable turnaround she found her own apartment, sent in her application for a PhD program, took a trip with her friends, and started earning her own money. Gradually, as John became convinced that she had two feet to stand on, and as it became clear to Beatrice that she did not need to abdicate her own person to merit love, they created a space between them into which desire could flow more freely”
Excerpt From Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence
Not every couple needs that degree of separation. There are many reduced levels of isolation that can be helpful.
Here are a few:
Have one day every weekend where each person just does their own thing with no expectation of getting together and no need to account for what was done.
Adopt markedly different hobbies
See your own therapists, not for relationship work, but for personal growth and fulfillment
Take separate vacations occasionally.
Many people reading that will immediately think this is a recipe for people having affairs. But that fear is based on a false presupposition. Many affairs are chosen because a couple already feels isolated from each other. Rarely do affairs happen with people who feel too close to each other.
I worked with Jo and Mick on two occasions. Once when they had been married just over 30 years and the second time coming up on their 40th wedding anniversary. They both noted they felt over-enmeshed with each other’s lives and were becoming bored. During our discussion, Jo mentioned she had always wanted to take a three-month sabbatical. Her profession allowed for paid time off to do this, so she asked Mick what he thought.
He answered, “But I can’t take that amount of time off.”
“I know” she said.
“That’s why I want to do it.”
In the end, Mick agreed to her sabbatical and to the relative isolation from him this would bring.
During those sabbatical months, Jo did a lot of things that Mick was not included in. I met with them at the end of that time, and both of them told me it was so refreshing. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t see each other, but that they felt no pressure to spend time together. Several times, Jo went away for a weekend with friends or by herself. She went mountain biking and slept in a tent for three days without Mick.
He told her when she returned how impressed and turned on he was with her independence.
They are still going strong together at 44 years. Perhaps we do need a balance of intimacy and isolation in all our relationships.