I had the distinct privilege of being heavily quoted in a recent Broadly piece about beloved characters’ sex lives. It’s a fun article that is well worth the read. I sent a lot of info to the author of that article, and only so much of my response could make it into the piece. I figured it would be a shame to let much of thatnwriting go to waste, so I decided to share the entirety of what I sent to the author (with her informed consent, of course) below.
[Content note: If you have not seen the shows I reference, spoilers abound. This post also contains an upfront discussion of various forms of assault and partner violence]
What, in your professional opinion, are the most important factors in a good long term relationship? I’m trained in Gottman method couples counseling (I’ve completed level 2 training), and I really Gotrman’s rubric for what a healthy relationship looks like. I’m less enthused about their attitudes towards sex, porn, and non traditional relationship structures, but Gottman’s research on relationships is foundational to the field.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman created what they call the Sound Relationship House, which lays out the building blocks of lasting relationships, based on John Gottman’s 20+ years of “Love Lab” research.
The levels of the Sound Relationship House are as follows:
- Love maps (knowing your partner’s world),
- Fondness and Admiration,
- Turning Toward instead of away (meeting your partner’s bids for connection),
- Fostering positive perspective,
- managing conflict,
- making life dreams come true,
- creating shared meaning.
I’d also point out that while love is an important factor in building intimacy, it cannot be relied upon as the sole foundation for building a lasting partnership. As a mentor of mine once said, you can love someone with every fiber of your being and not be right in partnership. Because a partnership requires daily exercise of love, affection, and fulfillment of commitment, which not all relationships can sustain.
Successful relationships don’t always have to be houses. Some dynamics are better suited as relationship tents, or even lean-tos, so long as the parties involved share compatible expectations.
What makes two people sexually compatible? Is it just about attraction, or communication, or other factors?
Pheromones and Physical compatibility? There is a big difference between sexual compatibility and relationship compatibility, as I discussed above.
Do you think there’s any credence to the belief that couples that argue/bicker a lot have very passionate sex?
The answer to this question depends on the nature of a couple’s bickering. Again, I go back to Gottman. One of the levels of Gottman’s relationship house is “Turning towards instead of away.” This is accomplished by what the Gottmans call bids, which are invitations for connection. We humans, generally speaking, are wired to connect with other humans. A bid can be as small as adding someone to pass the salt, as big as asking someone for support during times of grief, and anywhere in between.
There are three ways people can respond to bids: Turning towards, turning away, and turning against. Turning towards is when you meet the bid for connection and respond in kind. Turning away is ignoring the bid, and turning against is responding antagonistically to the bid.
In healthy relationships, the is a 5:1 radio of bids that are meet vs bids that are turned away from or against.
What does this have to do with arguing couples? Well, not all bickering is created equal. Sometimes an exchange that looks like an argument is actually a set of bids on disguise: bids for intensity that take the form of verbal sparring. When bids for intensity are meet in kind, intense and awesome sex is a natural byproduct.
Benedick and Beatrice’s courtship from “Much ado About Nothing” is the archetype of this dynamic. Other examples from popular culture include: Kat and Patrick from 10 Things I Hate about You, the main characters in Secretary, and Luke Cage and Jessica Jones from the Netflix Marvel reboot, and Mona and Vinny in My Cousin Vinny.
The stereotype of the old Jewish married couple is another variation on this theme. What looks like a 30+ year argument is actually an ongoing exchange of bids.
So called “make up sex”, in my view, is a corrolary of this phenomenon. It is a bid for intense reconnection, which can, for better and for worse, be used to fast track a relationship repair.
If, on the other hand, arguments come from a place of genuine contempt, that’s a whole other story. Couples who live in a perpetual state of contempt usually see their sex lives slip away into oblivion once inertia takes hold. Either that, or sex becomes coerced/non consensual on one or both sides.
What do you think of these couples? Is there anything that strikes you about their relationships that would augur well/poorly for their sex lives?
Homer and Marge Simpson:
I love how Marge and Homer’s sexual relationship is portrayed in the Simpsons. It is rare to see a married couple portrayed in popular culture where the sexual attraction between spouses is so clearly portrayed. They also do things to cultivate their sexual relationship throughout the series, and do a very good job of repairing when things go wrong. As I learned in my Gottman Method Couples therapy training, the success of a long term relationship has as much to do with the ability to repair as anything else…
Buffy and Angel:
If Season 1/2 Buffy were a client of mine, I’d have to report their sexual relationship to child protective services, because the age of consent in California is 18. So there’s that. Since Buffy is not my client and, more importantly, a fictional character, let’s pretend the age of consent clause does not apply.
I came of age watching Buffy, so this pairing, to me, will always be tinged with some high school nostalgia. This dynamic spoke directly to the angst ridden angstiness of my, and countless other high school misfits. When you’re a teenager, angst is a byproduct of figuring out who you are and where you belong.
Their dynamic plays into the paradigm of the Star Crossed Lovers(TM). This is a great driver of plot and dramatic tension in a television show, but it’s not a sustainable basis for a real life relationship.
Our culture loves to romanticize this paradigm. We put Romeo and Juliet, the star crossed lover paradigm, on a pedestal. (I cannot for the life of me, understand why Romeo and Juliet is called the love story of all time. For crying out loud, she was 14 and he was on the rebound! But, I digress.)
Buffy and Angel, like Romeo and Juliet, are both outcasts in their respective worlds, it makes sense that they would form an intense bond. That kind of intense bonding is something that can happen at the start of a relationship. Different hormones fire in your brain during the initial courtship phase. Polyamorous folks refer to that phenomenon as NRE, or new relationship energy. When a couple pair bonds under a set of intense circumstances, that state of mutual infatuation can extend well past it’s expected expiration date.
For couples in the real world, transitioning from an intense courtship phase to a sustainable long term partnership can be really hard. Once all the shiny NRE endorphins subside, it can be hard to maintain an intimate connection when there are bills to be paid and dirty socks on the floor. Maintaining an active sex life starts to require work where none was needed before. Couples often have to find new ways of reconnecting once the initial phase of excitement abates. (For more on this, I recommend Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity.)
Buffy and Spike:
That thing I said earlier about how not all relationships are supposed to be houses? This is a case in point. As a viewer, I thought their dynamic was hot as anything, and fodder for many an “I’ll be in my bunk” moment. As a sex therapist, my views are more complicated.
Spike gets hit hard by a phenomenon called limerence, which Wikipedia defines as “a state of mind which results from a romantic attraction to another person and typically includes obsessive thoughts and fantasies and a desire to form or maintain a relationship with the object of love and have one’s feelings reciprocated.” He becomes obsessed with her, and experiences the intrusive thoughts and fantasies, which become all encompassing.
Their sexual relationship came out of Buffy’s feelings of disconnection post-reincarnation. She craved contact, intensity, and validation, and knew that Spike was willing to give that too her.
Their dynamic was not healthy, and the show made no attempt to dress it up as anything other than it was.
I think most of us who have been in the dating pool have had relationships we knew were bad for us in the long term, but satisfied an immediate need for closeness, touch, or validation.
Most of us have also been on the other side of that equation, where we take what we can get from a partner, even when we know on some level that we are more invested in them than they in us.
Spike’s obsession culminates in one of the more heart wrenching scenes of the show, where he sexually assaults Buffy in the bathroom, all the while insisting his love must be reciprocated. It is only after Buffy is finally able to push him off that Spike fully registers what he just did. The show did not shy away from how messy the aftermath of that kind of an assault can be, but that is a topic for a whole other article.
Ana and Christian from 50 Shades of Gray:
BDSM is all about playing with power and mindfully subverting power dynamics. These dynamics can be in turns erotic, cathartic, and even transformative. Ana and Christian’s relationship is… not that. I mean really, who gives a virgin a multi-page contract of things he expects of her, most of which she’s never even heard of, and calls it informed consent?!? Really?
For context, I give trainings to clinicians on how not only to differentiate between BDSM and abuse, but how to assess for abuse in BDSM dynamics. I use Ana and Christian as an example of what abuse in BDSM can look like.
Some red flags in their relationship:
- Christian acts as a gatekeeper of knowledge, and limits her ability to look to outside sources for information about kink.
- There are intrinsic power dynamics at play that impede Ana’s ability to give fully informed consent; age, experience level, socioeconomic status, social privilege/capital, and so forth.
- Christian uses his socioeconomic status as leverage, and creates a dynamic where she is financially dependent on him. This is a classic method of non-consensually obtaining power and control.
- There are (not sexy) consequences if Ana does not follow everything on his crazy pants contract.
- “I’m not a patient man.” Ewww…. just… eww.
- He restricts her social circle and gets insanely jealous of anyone else in her orbit with a Y chromosome.
Laurie Penny’s 50 Shades of Socialist Feminism is my favorite 50 Shades parody, which brilliantly deconstructs all the ways that Christian is problematic.
Fred and Wilma Flintstone:
Fred and Wilma are modeled after the Honeymooners. I think their dynamic reflects the values and gender norms of that era. Like the Cramdens of the honeymooners, there is an underlying current of love and respect for one another between Fred and Wilma, which is important in any long term partnership.
Your list left out possibly my favorite fictional pairing of all time: Gomez and Morticia of the Addams Family. All I have to say about them is #relationshipgoals.