Mrs. Satchel: On passion (in White magazine issue #32)

Mrs Satchel.: On passion (for WHITE magazine)

“All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
White issue 32. Cover by Lara Hotz.
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of love,
And feed his sacred flame.”
“Love”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In the Greek language, there are four words to describe love: “eros” (sensual, passionate, erotic love), “philos” (affectionate, virtuous love for friends, family and community; loyalty), “storge” (natural affection and empathy and acceptance, as with parents and children) and “agape” (selfless, unconditional giving; to want what’s best for the other). In a marriage, it’s “agape” love that we’re shooting for (aim at the stars and you may land on the moon).

Passion, in a sensual sense, is a strange bedfellow in a marriage; a perplexing paradox requiring some serious contemplation. On the one hand, you absolutely need it to have a healthy marriage. Your sex life is like a garden that needs constant maintenance to preserve intimacy and protect the marriage from any outside pests in the form of another person.

But, at the same time, this whole matter of passion also puts a lot of pressure on marriages to be spectacularly on fire – hot, hot, hot! – all the time, which they cannot possibly be, because as humans we are prone to just want to mooch around the house in our comfy Bonds clothes, not get all Victoria’s Secret sexy about things (and, gentlemen, at certain times of the month, it’s wise to grant your lady a reprieve and opt for a cuppa and cuddle instead).

According to the eminent psychologist Elaine C. Hatfield, who with her research partner Ellen S. Berscheid has studied passion for more than 50 years, people in passionate love show activation in brain areas associated with motivation, euphoria and reward, which is similar to the pattern of activation seen in another all-consuming condition: drug addiction.

In those heady days of a new relationship, when your every waking thought turns to the object of your heart’s affections, you’re as close to getting a glimpse into the life of a drug addict as you’ll ever be. Preoccupied, irrational, paranoid and full of despair when things don’t quite go right (or you can’t get your “fix”), common sense is thrown to the wind in pursuit of passion.

Exhilarating and exhausting, isn’t it, those all-consuming early days of a blossoming relationship where you are driven more by desire than common sense, so eloquently phrased by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge? My husband and I often joke that we simply do not have the energy to go through all of that again (great insurance against divorce!).

During the 18 months we dated long-distance, bursting with youth and hormones, my husband would drive 12 hours to Sydney during the night after work to spend the weekend with me, and return bleary-eyed to work the next week. Each and every interstate meet-up was full of intense, exuberant anticipation, only to be followed by the gut-wrenching, back-to-reality check as we said goodbye for another month or so.

I would fall asleep with my clunky Nokia phone in my hand, drooling over the pillow, as we filled the intermissions with long phone conversations and endless text messages covering all manner of topics and variations on “I love you” (this was pre-emoticon, SnapChat and Skype!).

Attraction, and subsequently passion, might fuel the early stage of your burgeoning relationship, which serves as the Clag glue between you, but they alone will not sustain it. As with our work lives, passion will only carry us so far in our relationships: that's where commitment, conviction and dogged hard work come in to pick up the slack.

Yet we of the Gen's X and Y and Z, are set up to believe though our Disney-fied cultural conditioning (thanks, Ariel, Cinderella, et al) that passion is where it's at. But, as CS Lewis once wrote, "Mortal lovers must not try to remain at the first step; for lasting passion is the dream of a harlot and from it we wake in despair." To make passion your foremost marital mission and expectation is to set yourselves up for an almighty fall (see also: Romeo and Juliet).

The philosopher Alain de Botton, author most recently of The Course of Love, says, "In a secret corner of our mind, we picture a lover who will anticipate our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly and make everything better. It sounds ‘romantic’; yet it is a blueprint for disaster.” Just ask any exhausted couple who's tag-teamed nappy changes, cuddles and feeds into the wee hours of the morning.

This makes married life seem very ordinary, a characteristic that has become the butt joke of many-a Hollywood film. But it’s absolutely not. Dedication, tenacity and wisdom together with passion make for a formidable team. Hardship and difficulty only causes our passions to become refined; not quite so unwieldy. Passion needs to be put on a leash.

While commitment without passion or intimacy looks like a goal sentence and intimacy without passion or commitment looks like friendship, when you get the balance of passion, intimacy and commitment right, you’ve reached the pinnacle of what psychologist Robert Sternberg, in his triangular theory, calls “consummate” love.

Consummate love differs from “companionate love”, in which the couple is intimate, in a long-term commitment and has deep affection for and mutual understanding of one another but no passion, and “empty love”, in which there is commitment but no intimacy or passion.

The hallmarks of consummate love are delighting in each other, having a high regard for one another, the mutual desire to make each other happy, communicating, helping, nurturing, overcoming difficulties gracefully, increasing in devotion and…passion!

“The truth is, it does need a bit of work to bring back that spark in your love life once you have kids, a mortgage and renovations to attend to,” says photographer and popular Instagrammer (#housefrau) Sabine Bannard, who has been married to her school teacher husband, Martin, for nearly 20 years.

“My solution is just decide to bring it back whenever it gets lost. As simple as that. When you think everything is dull and grey, just put flowers on the table, wear something pretty, cook a nice meal and, most important, make time for each other and listen! The key is not to grow apart from each other, but to grow together with simple pleasures like mini road trips through the glorious countryside creating happy memories together while listening to a mixtape. Martin can spend hours creating a mixtape for a road trip. That alone can be a reason to completely fall in love again.”

When entering a marriage, you have to have a remedy for those times when passion has given way to the mundane (think pedestrian sex, zoning out after dark on Facebook, rarely smiling at each other, let alone flirting) before the disconnect leads to actual marital issues.

In her excellent book covering the fleeting nature of creativity, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes of one couple, both illustrators, who rise an hour before their children to sit in their studio and draw before the household becomes busy and they trot off to their respective “real life” jobs. That is both sacrificial (of sleep), marriage affirming and intimate. And I bet they are better parents and human beings for it.

Fulfilment of a passion, creative desire or dream isn't always convenient; but better still if you can find that fulfilment together or at least support each other wholeheartedly on the journey.

The idea of the "sweet spot" or “flow” can be transferred to a marriage, I believe: those times when you are both operating with a singular sense of purpose and revelling in not only your relationship but also your work, friendships and extracurricular activities.

It is possible to reach some sort of "climactic"*, complementary human experience driven by passion for each other, and your marriage, which in turn creates benefits for the world inside and outside your home. With passion, impossibilities seem not so impossible.

But passion misdirected can get us into an awful pickle. I'm pretty sure Hitler and Stalin were passionate people (passion + egomania + ideology = yikes!). Jealousy, rampant ambition, outrage, addiction, selfishness and hate coupled with passion have led to some heinous human atrocities.

But what happens if passion is stifled? Not able to manifest? Constricted? Not given freedom of expression in some material, physical or emotional form, as would have been the case for many-a-woman pre-Suffragettes under the proverbial thumb, or the breadwinning bloke who brings home the bacon from the insurance firm but really wants to write books for kids. I think you might explode.

And your marriage might implode for lack of it.

A passionate marriage - one of dogged, I'll-de-damed-if-we-do determination to see it through until you're old and grey and saggy - allows us to reach our full potential. From the safety of knowing we are hedged in within the security of our marriage, we can find solace in our weak moments, encouragement for droopy spirits and belief when our personal stores of passion run dry.

It is our partner’s role to help us flourish, to see what we cannot see, to look us in the eyes and say, “I DARE you to dream that dream that lies dormant because I know that if you don’t at least TRY, you will die a thousand times every time you think about it.” And dying in any way, shape or form - other than to purposely subvert one's will ("I want to eat all of my hot breakfast, so get your mittens off!") for the good of another ("Okay, I can see you're still hungry, dig in") - is not good for our relationship.

Of course, some dreams and passions simply must fall by the wayside as we go about creating a home, bringing children into the world and investing more of ourselves into other relational avenues. Often, your passions will have to shut-up while you devote more of yourself to practical matters, such as sick children and parents or getting the house cleaned. Real life together is a whole bunch of inconveniences, troubles, hardships, clusters of disappointments, uncertainties and domestic necessities.

But without passion, those flying sparks and tremors of the heart that occasionally occur when your partner enters the room or you glory in your partner shining like a disco ball in their moment of achievement, we would be bereft of a wonderful human feeling and the opportunity to be fully alive. And while it can come and go, we shouldn't expect that passion will pass completely beyond our honeymoon. Passion matures, like a good wine, and serves a greater human purpose than simple self-gratification.

*See what I did there?

Read the original piece here.