I Love My Husband, and I Love My Wife
The erotic, toe-curling early love with my wife died too soon for both of us.
Posted March 30, 2019
I love my husband, and I love my wife. Although we’re no longer married, I still refer to her as my wife, because she’s the only one I’ve ever had, and I doubt that I’ll ever be looking for another one. I also love my husband, whom I have been with now for 33 years. When I hear the term ex-wife, I see the word wife with a big red slash through it, but both my wife and my husband are important parts of my life and history.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I went out to dinner with a good friend, who was a classmate of mine in medical school, along with his second wife. I also invited my wife. He and his first wife and my wife and I had all been good friends early in our professional careers. I said to the server, “This is my husband . . . and this is my wife.” At first he looked shocked, but then his expression changed to “Oh . . . now I get it.”
I also love puppies and ice cream, my kids and grandkids, my friends and family. While no one expects me to love puppies and my husband in the same way, some do reject the idea that I can love both my husband and my wife.
Although we use the word love in all these situations, we can’t understand the nature of that love without naming what it is we love. Sanskrit has nearly 100 words for love, depending on the object of the situation.
In English, we have primarily one word, love, a nearly meaningless word unless we name the target of that love.
When someone says, “You couldn’t possibly have loved your wife, because you’re gay” — I’ve heard that many times — they’re flat-out wrong. They don’t understand that love is much more nuanced and ambiguous than the categories suggest, and the categories often blend into one another.
After I published Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, I sometimes heard this comment: “You had to know you were gay before you turned 40. You used your wife as a shield just to protect yourself.” The server at the restaurant seemed to have a better understanding. He knew that I love my husband, but that I also still love my wife. In fact, my husband and my wife seem to love each other too.
The Greeks had four words to describe what we call love: eros, or romantic love; phileo, or friendship; storge, or family loyalty; and agape, or unconditional love. These distinct categories help us understand how I can love both my husband and wife as well as loving dill pickles, but love is not easily categorized. I have loved both my wife and husband in all four categories to varying degrees and at various times in our relationships.
Although these categories help explain how we can love more than one person at the same time, when categorizing another person’s love, we often arbitrarily assign it exclusively to one category. But love is not stagnant; it is a dynamic process that changes over time.
I interviewed my wife about our sex life when researching Finally Out. Her response resonated with me: “We thought our sex life was as good as it gets, but we were naïve and inexperienced. Now we know it wasn’t enough for either of us.”
Erotic love tingles our bodies. It incorporates sexual urges and lust. Although we often hope — or mistakenly believe — it will last forever, its intensity cannot sustain a relationship. Some suggest that because this type of love is so exhausting and all-consuming, it cannot last for more than about a year. But we’re thunderstruck when it happens.
As the erotic components of love diminish over time, other kinds of love must either replace some of those erotic elements, or the relationship dies. But even while continuing to love the person who previously made our body tingle, as the erotic love diminishes and conflict enters the relationship, people begin to hunger for someone else who will make their toes curl again. Some seek only erotic love, opting for short-term, serial lovers.
Phileal, or friendship-like, love expresses our tastes, preferences, culture, and beliefs. This love is rich, emotional, and enduring. As I reflect on my relationship with my wife, it had a great deal of phileal love, but not enough erotic love. Although early in our relationship, we both felt the exciting, toe-curling love of a more erotic variety, that love died too quickly for both of us.
Phileal love with my wife was easy; we both came from small towns in Nebraska where people looked, thought, and believed alike, so we made deep connections from the beginning of our relationship. Our marriage could have been arranged by our parents. This love continues to draw us together.
Agape love is more of a parental, mature, and sacrificial kind of love. Many, if not most, parents will say that they would be willing to die for their children; I certainly feel that way about mine. This unconditional love is what children hope for and expect from their parents, and when absent, the lack of agape often cuts deeply into their self-esteem.
Like erotic love, agape love is idealistic and unrealistic, and it can lead to exceptional self-sacrifice at a considerable cost to the bearer. This is perhaps most easily seen in the enabling behaviors of people who wish to protect their family members from suffering the consequences of their substance use disorders.
Storge is a love of community and family. More dutiful than emotional, this category has the power to suppress the other forms. It comes from living by a set of values we inherited rather than ones we’ve chosen. I came to the relationship with my wife with a tightly wound set of those values. These can be a hindrance when culture and family hold back our growth, as shown in these slightly edited comments left on an earlier essay called “The Messy Realities of Bisexuality”: I occasionally sought out oral satisfaction from other men. I would beat myself up after each time, primarily based upon "religious" beliefs, but would always seek out more satisfaction in a week or so . . . My personal feelings about homosexuality caused me great personal anguish and self-loathing even though I continued to seek sexual pleasure from other men.
For this man, erotic and storge love are in competition with each other and mutually exclusive.
As I wrote in “The Opportunities of Aging” and “3 Essential Steps to Lasting Self-Esteem,” maturity offers us the freedom to reexamine how we love. We begin to understand two truths: Eroticism has no “best if used by” date and persists well into late life, and while erotic attraction to any one individual is exciting, it does not endure.
While storge love gives us a sense of duty to the values we inherited from others, these values also can bind us to a life of inauthenticity. Parental and cultural values are a starting point for our personal values, not an end point.
Agape love can lead us to sacrifice too much of ourselves to meet what we believe are the expectations of others whom we love; sacrifice and compromise are a part of all loving relationships, but sacrificing too much will lead to anger and resentment.
With maturity, we learn that erotic love by itself holds the false promise that passionate love can last forever, and phileal love without erotic love can lead us to seek erotic love elsewhere. We know that erotic love in our primary relationships will diminish over time, but with a bit of work we can sustain some of it. We also learn that, depending upon the nature of the relationship contract with our partner, we will always struggle against other erotic attractions.
Each of us may be drawn to erotic, phileal, agape, or storge love to the near exclusion of the other types of love. But balancing these loving forces allows me to love both my wife and husband, puppies and ice cream.