3 Books To Help You Make Love Last
Thousands of stumpy olive trees zing by as we race up the toll road to Barcelona. We’ve been traversing the Spanish countryside for almost a week, the graveled, grey mountains alternating with lush, expansive orchards. I take a bite of my new favourite chocolate bar, Leon, and lick the melted chocolate from my fingers, returning my attention to the book in my lap:
‘…there is no one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry.’
Ain’t that the truth.
The passage reminds me of my late night plea some months earlier.
‘Don’t let me stuff this up,’ I say, asking more of him than he could give. ‘I won’t survive a third heartbreak so soon.’
What I really meant was: I love you but I don’t trust myself in relationships.
I look back at the olive groves, soothed by their orderly lines, and reach across the center console for the comforting warmth of his leg. He flicks a smile my way and squeezes my hand.
‘This book is amazing,’ I tell him. ‘Can I read you some?’
We binge on information like we binge on Netflix. Or in my case, those delicious chocolate-coated biscuit sticks. There’s a scroll-fest of never ending entertainment at our finger tips. The latest trend, the newest research, the viral meme. What’s hot and what’s not. Who’s saying something we should listen to?
Just this month I’ve begun two philosophy books, one fictional novel, one book of short stories, and three marketing/business/motivational books. I’ve finished one. Gah!
To restore my sanity, I’ve stepped away from all the half-dones and refrained from sampling any new books. Instead, I’m revisiting the three books that taught me how to be a better version of myself in love and life.
Why blow off the dust? Because sometimes it’s not about what’s new, it’s about what endures. The themes and lessons in these books are worthy of revision every time you feel like you may have lost your way.
These are the books I’ve enthusiastically and repeatedly insisted others read but couldn’t properly explain why. My most dreaded question is ‘what’s it about?’ because my re-telling never does the story justice, nor does it explain how it feels to read the words. And that’s what I’m interested in — the transformation that comes when we see our world with fresh eyes.
1. The Course of Love, Alain de Botton
Kirsten and Rabih accompanied us on our Spanish soiree. They are messy, flawed, and the realest of real humans.
‘Ideally, art would give us the answers that other people don’t…But too often a realistic sense of what an endurable relationship is ends up weakened by silence…We end up believing that our struggles are indications of having made some unusual and fundamental error, rather than evidence that our marriages are essentially going entirely according to plan.’
I appreciated the realistic depiction of the mediocrity of marriage and the gentle encouragement to take off my Romanticism glasses. Would I have wrested them from my face had I not experienced the failings of the institution? Maybe not. But even so, there’s solace in managing expectations.
‘Good listeners are no less rare or important than good communicators. Here, too, an unusual degree of confidence is the key — a capacity not to be thrown off course by, or buckle under the weight of, information that may deeply challenge certain settled assumptions. Good listeners are unfussy about the chaos which others may for a time create in their minds…’
This paragraph sparked courage to graciously tolerate, and even explore (on a good day), the sharp edges of someone else’s preferences. I’m the first to admit that my sensibilities have been too delicate, and as a result I’ve constricted personal expression in others, kept soulful intimacy at arms length, and limited my capacity to play. In the past, disgust deafened me and silenced him.
Once upon a time there was a boy who longed for the freedom of exploration. After many years he bravely tested the water with a simple request that lay just outside the box. The girl crinkled her nose and turned her pink-cheeked face away from the boy. The end.
Years went by and he didn’t raise it again, I’d made sure of that. Until it was mentioned during a parting conversation that ‘he had needs I wasn’t willing to discuss.’ True.
Morals of the story:
> Marriage is hard but it’d be easier if we measured our own relationships against a realistic yardstick.
> Shutting down conversations doesn’t make the uncomfortable stuff go away. It lurks and festers until it finds air to breathe, with or without you.
> A worthy goal of love is to try and put our listening ears on and our moral judgement to the side, at least some of the time.
2. Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel
There’s a powerful tendency in long-term relationships to favour the predictable over the unpredictable. Yet eroticism thrives on the unpredictable. Desire butts heads with habit and repetition. So where does that leave us?
‘We don’t want to throw away the security, because our relationship depends on it. A sense of physical and emotional safety is basic to healthy pleasure and connection. Yet without an element of uncertainty there is no anticipation, no frisson…passion in a relationship is commensurate with the amount of uncertainty you can tolerate.’
I learnt about the psychology of desire from Esther. For the first time in decades I was liberated from the mercy of an abstract, non-compliant libido. And man did it feel good!
Once my desire was singing from the rooftops, I knew I could never go back to those numb, apathetic days. The days where I felt burdened by responsibility and conservatism to a point where I couldn’t feel a thing. Sustaining desire is something I’m prepared to fight for and Esther showed me how to fight a good, loving fight.
My rediscovered vitality has brought me clarity of purpose, new job opportunities, and expansive experiences. I cultivated a consciousness that allows space for desire to bloom and for pleasure to unfurl in amongst all the doing. It’s brought an ease to my daily life. When I’m filled up with pleasure from all facets of my life, I feel like I’m enough and that I have enough. The spring in my step proves it.
‘Our need for constancy limits how much we are willing to know the person who’s next to us. We have invested in having him or her conform to an image that is often a creation of our own imagination. We narrow down our partner, ignoring or rejecting essential parts when they threaten the established order of our coupledom. We also reduce ourselves, jettisoning large chunks of our personalities in the name of love.’
My greatest fear realised itself when he left all those years ago — the person with whom I’d shared a bed with for more than 12 years was not who I thought he was.
‘How can you be married to a gay man and not know it?’ I’ve heard this out loud and implied more times than I can count.
My answers: because he wasn’t always. Because he was good at hiding it. Because I didn’t want to see it. Because it suited us both to ignore it for awhile. Because of the kids. Because we loved each other once.
“Betrayal reveals the lies you’ve been telling yourself”
— Danielle LaPorte
I’m still walking the tightrope of known versus unknown. It’s not easy. Occasionally I’ll crack and say things like, ‘I don’t even know what you’ve been thinking or feeling these past few weeks. You could be looking at anything on your phone, talking to anyone. How would I know?! You never share anything with me without me asking.’
My tolerance for disconnection is as low as a Limbo stick on the winning round. Staying curious and open to all the parts of each other, not just the ones that feel familiar and safe, is the key to maintaining togetherness.
Morals of the Story:
> Curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. It keeps the cat from betraying and from being betrayed.
> Letting go of the need to control is ongoing work. Some days you’ll feel secure enough to dip a toe in to the depths and longings of your partner, and other times this will feel like a threat to everything you hold dear. Be gentle. Begin with this question: do you feel free here?
3. Daring Greatly, Brene Brown
‘There are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough’.
I’ve been afraid for over a year now. Afraid of the real world consequences of speaking my voice. Some days it’s a gentle simmer. On other days it’s a shaky hand and a gnawing nausea. Yesterday it was a car accident.
We’re facing each other only a few nose-widths apart. The twinkling fairy lights woven around our iron bed frame make the room feel magical and intimate. The light dances in our eyes and I can feel his breath on my skin. ‘I can’t reach you when you’re like this,’ he says.
‘The form of betrayal that emerged most frequently from my research and that was most dangerous in terms of corroding the trust connection, I would say disengagement. Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears — the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable. What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous that something like a lie or an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain — there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness.’
Morals of the Story:
> You may feel as if he’s not present but maybe it’s you that’s not fully there? Yes, you’re trying your best to be everything for everyone and you’re doing a bloody good job, but if you’re not ready to be seen, he can’t show up for you.
> Being brave sucks but it’s the only way to deep, meaningful connection, and that’s what we’re here for.
We make eye contact as the coins clatter into the wire basket of the toll booth and we jolt out of the boom gate. I close the book hoping he heard the meaning beneath the words: I’m willing to loosen my stranglehold on love and consistency and knowing so you can feel free to be you.
I’m awake now and there’s no going back.
‘the important books should be those that leave us wondering, with relief and gratitude, how the author could possibly have known so much about our lives’
— Alain de Botton