I used to have a friend, several years ago when Mark and I were first married, who liked to give me marriage advice. I remember that she described a technique for staying faithful, for ensuring a successful marriage. She called it self-sublimation. What she meant, I think, was that to succeed at marriage, you need to put your partner’s needs and desires ahead of your own. At every turn, you must consider your mate first and act on that consideration, not your own interests or feelings.
I think she had a good point. For many years, I followed her advice. You know what? It worked. My marriage has been very happy and successful. Putting Mark’s needs first became something that made me happy. It was as if witnessing his personal successes and happiness vicariously made me happy and successful. Although I might have from time to time felt frustrations at whatever I might have been giving up or trading off on, as long as I could look to Mark and see him happy, all was good.
In our marriage, I think this dynamic went both ways. Mark has always managed to give me what I want, whether it’s a vacation, a bigger car, or even a third child. For many years, self-sublimation worked for us. The key is having a willing partner who reliably, truly, wants you to have what you want. Each partner must feel that they are both making the other happy by fulfilling their desires, and having their desires fulfilled happily by the other.
Earlier this year I read something. It was short and simple. And–I have to admit this–it threw a wrench in my system. It was this: Monogamy is hard. My first reaction was “No, it’s not.” But those three words stuck. I started to rethink self-sublimation, this time as a negative. What have I overlooked or ignored about myself in the interest of my marriage? What, by the rules of my marriage, do I want that I should not want?
I’ve spent some time this year poking around under those rocks, and I’ve found a number of things. Some of them are acceptable within the bounds of my marriage, and some are not. Some things, like rekindling my career, are relatively easy. Mark is completely supportive. Some things, like finding a place for spirituality in my life, are rockier. Mark’s mind is closed on that subject, so I have to go it alone. And some things, like my desire for sex with other people, are outright outrageous within my marriage. Here lies the limit of self-sublimation: When it becomes self-annihilation, it fails.