I was an arrogant 23 when I started asking friends if they acknowledged poop and other bathroom-adjacent topics in their romantic relationships. If they said they did, that they found the hiding of bodily functions oppressive, I’d nod along eagerly, as if I’d always agreed. If they said they didn’t, that they preferred to leave a little room for “mystery,” I’d ask what was so shameful about having a working human body, as if I hadn’t spent most of my life feeling that shame.
Growing up, my family always practiced a polite coyness around bathroom stuff, and I carried that attitude well into adulthood. It was well-intentioned I suppose, but there came a point in my feminist awakening that such a coyness took on a sour note. I was in a relationship at the time that in many ways blossomed alongside my self-acceptance. My partner’s preference for laying it all out and encouraging me to do the same changed me fundamentally. I became less secretive, less ashamed; it felt like a huge weight off my chest, and our relationship seemed better for it.
The experience gave me new eyes. I’d never found potty humor particularly funny, but that it seemed relegated to the likes of men suddenly struck me as unfair. I became retroactively offended by the whole culture surrounding bodily functions and gender: all the times I pretended I didn’t have a working colon, all the jokes high school guys made about girls “shitting flowers,” all the years I’d assumed female attractiveness was predicated on some mystique of angelic purity.
I was angry at our culture, but also angry at myself for falling for it. When I asked my friends about their relationships, it wasn’t out of genuine curiosity; the question was loaded, and there was only one right answer. It became a go-to rant of mine. But even if I now shake my head at my former self-righteousness, I understand in hindsight why that shift in perspective affected me so profoundly. It was an odd hill to die on, but I wanted everyone to feel that same freedom. To see themselves as whole people who didn’t have to conform to some otherworldly ideal.
As with most lessons of my early twenties, my feelings have since evolved and softened. But even so, the concept of “keeping the mystery alive” has continued to irk me. The words conjure in my mind the image of a woman not letting a man see her without makeup, lying that she doesn’t have a horrible stomach ache, denying she has festering insecurities or dark thoughts. I see self-inflicted isolation. Isn’t the idea of maintaining mystery in a relationship outdated?
When I recently read Mating in Captivity, a book about eroticism by sex and relationship therapist Esther Perel, I was shocked to find that one of the enduring themes of the book is the importance of maintaining mystery in love. As the title suggests, the book endeavors to challenge the widely-believed idea (at least in America) that desire and passion inevitably fade over the course of long-term monogamy, and per the introduction, it “encourages you to question yourself, to speak the unspoken, and to be unafraid to challenge sexual and emotional correctness.”
In the book, Perel details the many relatable problems she’s worked through with her patients and also explores the historical mechanisms that drive our modern notions of love and coupledom. Off the bat, she points to the clichéd distinction of the new, exciting relationship, rife with unknown, versus the old, comfortable relationship, defined by security.
“There’s a powerful tendency in long-term relationships to favor the predictable over the unpredictable,” Perel writes. “Yet eroticism thrives on the unpredictable. Desire butts heads with habit and repetition. It is unruly, and it defies our attempts at control. So where does that leave us? We don’t want to throw away 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 longing, no anticipation, no frisson.”
At first blush, her idea that uncertainty and a sense of “separateness” in relationships is an important component of desire seemed counter to everything I believed about love and intimacy. Isn’t the deepest, most honest kind of love one that encourages complete openness, honesty and vulnerability? Isn’t to be fully loved to be fully known? Forthrightness has long been a staple of how I’ve measured the quality of my relationships. Didn’t more intimacy mean more love mean more desire?
Perel thinks not. She posits that to love is to have, and to desire is to want, and a balance of the two makes for a more enduring connection. To her, mystery, or seeing the other person as an individual you can never fully know or “have,” is an important part of healthy, long-term love. “Introducing uncertainty sometimes requires nothing more than letting go of the illusion of certitude. In this shift of perspective, we recognize the inherent mystery of our partner.”
Obviously her version of “keeping the mystery alive” is much broader than turning on the fan and quietly locking the door when using the bathroom, but I don’t think they’re unrelated. I think her point is: Intimacy does not always beget desire. We do not owe our entire selves to our partners. The nuances of how we share ourselves is not a zero-sum game. Vulnerability and uncertainty are important components of commitment, and those look different for everyone.
Her thesis initially made me squirm. My stomach must have dropped ten times as I waded into the book, but when I closed it a week later, I did so with a more optimistic view on sex and love, and a newfound openness to the idea of separateness within relationships. I don’t have a strong opinion on what all of this means about bathroom stuff, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts on “mystery” in relationships, generally or specifically.
How has privacy — in ways big and small — manifested in your romantic life?
Feature photo by Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast/Contour by Getty Images.