Is your love life the romantic equivalent of a suburb? All plotted and predictable bits of grass and shrubbery; quiet, controlled, and so boring you want to blow your brains out? Time to leave the suburbs—and head into the woods.
This lesson comes to you by way of an unlikely source: Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods.” The main story line is this: a childless baker and his wife, in a land far far away, are sent into the woods by a witch who promises to lift the childless curse she put on them if they bring back a few ingredients. Sort of like a very dramatic, life-or-death errand run. And it will require bravery, brains, and a little trickery to get it done.
The baker is a nice enough guy, but he’s a victim—of a spell, of circumstance (none of this is his ‘fault,’ etc.). Not the manliest of men. But all of that changes when he heads into the woods, which, here and in every other fairy tale, represent all that is dangerous and risky and unpredictable about the world and ourselves.
The baker’s wife follows her husband into the woods and is struck by what she sees. She sings in “It Takes Two”:
You’re different in the woods.
You’re getting us through the woods.
There’s something about the woods.
You’re blossoming in the woods.
She’s getting hot for him again, plain and simple. Not only because he’s being decisive and exhibiting a stronger, more manly appeal, but because, well, they’re not where they were. They’re not stuck in their little hovel with their same old worries and habits and flaws. They have risen to a new occasion.
At home I’d fear
We’d stay the same forever.
And then out here—
The woods has tested their relationship, and revived it. Then, together they go and rip off poor Jack by trading him five magic beans for his aging cow. But that’s another story.
My point is this: We spend so much time seeking comfort, order, predictable assurance in our lives and our relationships that we mistakenly beat back what remains of the woods with a lawnmower and call it adulthood.
In her fantastic book Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel tells us that “the challenge for modern couples lies in reconciling the need for what’s safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what’s exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring.”
We expose the deliciously dark shadows of mystery and domesticate every last bit of wild within us. Responsibility. Maturity. And with it goes our wilder, untamed, but undeniably exciting nature, our lustiness, our sensuality, and our passion.
Here’s how to get back into the woods:
Embrace uncertainty. One of my colleagues, Matthew Walker, coach and author of Adventure in Everything, teaches this concept in his workshops. He says that what we endeavor to do in our lives, careers, and relationships is made that much more rewarding if it has an uncertain outcome. Meaning: When you only go after what has a certain, predictable result, you don’t get a fraction of the fulfillment from it. If you’re single, it means throwing yourself in the dating wilderness and seeing it not as a chore or a dreaded, horrible thing, but as an adventure.
Explore fantasy. This is what Fifty Shades of Grey did for hundreds of thousands of wives (and husbands, too). It didn’t have to be a literary masterpiece to do what it did: Lured people into the woods of their erotic imaginations. Sure it felt a little wrong—that’s why it worked. Erotica is one way to do it, but even more fun is talking about your own darker urges, and possibly trying them out for real.
Go somewhere a little risky. Skip the tame pool-side excursion and opt for an adrenaline-inspired adventure (whether it’s literally hiking thru the woods, or rock climbing, etc.). You need to be somewhere vastly different than you’ve been. You may bring the partner you have known, but he (or she) may look a little different on the journey. A friend of mine goes away with her husband to far-flung places like Egypt and Peru every year. Seeing him in unfamiliar settings and sharing adventures keeps their relationship alive. If you’re single, take a solo trip. The sheer adventure of travel opens you up to all kinds of romantic interludes.
Create some distance. Perel writes, “There’s a powerful tendency in long-term relationships to favor the predictable over the unpredictable. Yet eroticism thrives on the unpredictable.” Do something out of character. Get dressed up, wear a new perfume, change your hair—whatever. Tell your partner you have plans, but be vague. Or, have him meet you at a restaurant where you haven’t been. Allow some silence, distance, mystery, and you reintroduce a little of the initial chase you had when you were first courting. Let him guess what you’re up to. Be coy. Sly. Inviting. As opposed to, say, peeing with the door open. Start acting like the person you were before you had a partner—the very person he or she was attracted to. Put yourself somewhere where he has to come find you. It’s hard to long for someone when they’re sitting right there. Make him follow you into the woods.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Proust
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