Why does good sex fade even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever?
Without a preamble, this is how Esther Perel’s widely shared 2013 TED talk—almost 11.5 million views on TED.com—titled “The Secret To Desire In A Long-Term Relationship” begins. Why is the forbidden erotic? When you love, how does it feel? When you desire, why is it different? What are you most drawn to in your partner and why? The Belgian psychotherapist and best-selling author interlinks the questions into a sticky web that seems so real that I imagine her live audience must want to scream its way out of it with a loud chorus: “Tell us!”
Perel’s primary argument is that the spread of a new brand of romanticism is spelling a crisis of desire. In her 2017 book The State Of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, she unpacks these ideas further, questioning the new romantic ideal in which we turn to one person to fulfil an endless list of needs—effectively diluting the share of sex and desire in the mix. “Marriage used to be for economic and social status…we still want that, plus we expect our partners to be our greatest lover, best friend, trusted confidant, best co-parent, emotional companion, intellectual equal…and we live twice as long,” she says. “We want from one person what once an entire village used to provide.”
When Siddharth Mangharam, co-founder of the singles community Floh, told me about their new launch, Floh For All, it immediately resonated with Perel’s hypothesis. I asked if he had listened to Perel’s TED talk, and Mangharam said it was her debunking of this “Superhero Partner” that Floh For All seeks to address. Just out of its testing phase, it is a platform comprising different communities of people looking to meet others in the same life-stage: new-to-the-city professionals, empty nesters, expectant mothers, patients (and their caregivers) with rare diseases like haemophilia and so on.
Lounge was one of the first publications to report on Floh, in February 2012, less than a year after it had launched. In the cover story, Mangharam, a management graduate whose first start-up, Peek, was into cloud computing, had said Floh was positioning itself as a clutter-breaker in a market crowded with wedding-oriented websites. Cool, urban India wanted to find love, and while marriage could be a long-term goal, they did not want it to colour all their relationships.
The business strategy came from Mangharam’s own real-life meet-cute: He had met his wife Simran (co-founder of Floh) at a party in Bengaluru over a platter of Roquefort. The idea was to go one step ahead of dating apps and websites and facilitate meetings for singles over strategically-curated group events. His lofty mission then was the “business of catalysing serendipity”.
Seven years later, “love” only has a supporting role to play in his business plan. What prompted the evolution of a singles dating platform into a community network? The answer, as the 2018 Floh Single In The City survey results corroborate, is that people prize everyday companionship slightly higher than romance, with emotional support a close third, when asked about the top 3 things they want from a relationship. The bottom-line is that it’s not all moons and bedrooms.
“Our biggest insight after running Floh all these years is that people, regardless of their relationship status, are desperately seeking human companionship,” says Mangharam. There were two inflection points. Around three years ago, Floh did away with the idea of playing matchmaker. It started focusing on “people having a good time and being themselves”. A few months ago, the idea of building a community that privileges companionship based on personal needs came up. “Specifically, to include those looking to connect with like-minded people in the real world, but not in a romantic context,” he says. Mangharam shares instances of couples who met at Floh (or elsewhere), but have been regularly attending Floh For All events. Activities range from sushi-rolling workshops to single-malt tastings and, free from the trappings of heteronormative couplings, are open to people who identify as queer, polyamorous or asexual—as opposed to restrictive dating apps . So, while earlier it appeared distasteful if a dating network aimed at the upwardly mobile put marriage upfront, it is now undesirable for them to have even love and sex upfront. “Floh now defines itself as a singles network and not a singles dating platform, while Floh For All is ‘family and fun oriented’. It’s about putting yourself first,” says Mangharam.
Is the crisis of love today that we love ourselves a bit too much? Are we sacrificing romance at the altar of self-love? As many as 66.6% of the respondents said they were dating less now than they were a few years ago, with little variation between male and female respondents.
“I find this response very interesting—despite the surge in dating apps, both men and women are dating a lot less than they were earlier. We are seeing this as a trend in the West too and the reasons are broadly linked to screen addiction and social media. Ultimately, a sharpening of this pattern leads to social isolation and depression. In the US, where there’s a lot of data on this topic, the number of youth dying of suicide has increased significantly.... This could be an even bigger issue in India, where our awareness around mental health is woefully inadequate,” says Mangharam, adding, “In a lot of ways, we intuitively felt this and thus launched Floh For All to help a broader set of people. It’s great to see strong data to back our hypothesis, though, personally, I’m concerned, and believe that we’re heading towards a loneliness epidemic.”
Additionally, there is a mismatch between ground realities and expectations of what is “normal”—an overwhelming majority of respondents, 62.6%, believe sex “multiple times a week” is the prerequisite for a fulfilling relationship. But few count themselves in that number.
Too ready to mingle
For those in relationships, the crisis of love takes a different beat. One of the things that Perel explores in The State Of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, and a second TED talk by the same name, is how infidelity, which earlier threatened our physical security, now threatens our emotional security. It comes back to the idea of the “Superhero Partner”. One’s self-worth is so tied to a single partner that a partner’s infidelity threatens our very self-identity.
“It’s never been easier to cheat and it’s never been more difficult to keep a secret and never has infidelity exacted such a psychological toll on us. Infidelity hurts differently today. It is the ultimate betrayal. It shatters the grand ambition of love,” says Perel in her talk.
It doesn’t help that the definition of infidelity and cheating is mutating so rapidly—sexting, pornography, staying active on dating apps well into a relationship —that Perel estimates the figures for infidelity in committed or married couples around the world vary from 26-75%.
This blurring of boundaries might explain why survey respondents said they found it harder to reconcile if their partner engaged in an emotional affair rather than a physical affair.
As Perel says, we would, earlier, divorce to be happy. Today we divorce because we could be happier. Choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame as we live in an era where we believe I, not we, deserve to be happy.
One must pay attention when even people who used to be in the “business of love” have shifted focus. “At Floh, we emphasize on an individual’s need to be known, self-expression, and a positive self-identity,” says Mangharam. And if all of this can come without love as we knew it, then it has its takers.