Authors and lovers Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson team up to create an erotic, intimate and all around wonderful guide to successful long-term love. Their book Partners in Passion: A Guide to Great Sex, Emotional Intimacy, and Long-Term Love, is an excellent guide to making your marriage last both in and out of the bedroom. The two touch on topics of communication, sexual health, intimacy, and of course, love. I got the amazing chance to get to know this married couple a little better through a fantastic interview, where they let me in on what it’s like to work with each other on such an awesome project. See what I learned about love and intimacy, and make sure to pick up your copy of Partners in Passion: A Guide to Great Sex, Emotional Intimacy, and Long-Term Love just in time for Valentine’s Day!
How did you start up on the idea for the book? Was there any particular person or event in your own life that has inspired you to write?
There was no single event that inspired us to write Partners in Passion. It had been brewing for a long time, and when Tristan Taormino recommended us to Brenda Knight of Cleis Press (which is the perfect home for this book) we had an opportunity to pitch our idea. Much of the material is rooted in content we’ve been presenting in lectures and teaching privately for years. The responses of people who attended our workshops led us to believe that our perspective is important and original and that our message is worth sharing.
We’ve written several books on Tantra and wanted to reach out to an audience that might never pick up a book on that subject. More importantly, we wanted to stretch ourselves and write something that expressed our philosophy about sexuality and relationships – a philosophy influenced by our background in Tantra, our own experiences as partners, and our work as teachers over the past fifteen years.
Mark had already done a good deal of writing before we started our first book – poetry as a teenager, plays, legal and scholarly articles. As far as single individuals who inspired this book, our teacher, Dr. Jonn Mumford was a pioneer in introducing authentic Tantra to the West. He is an ongoing source of inspiration for us.
What has the writing process been like? What are some of the challenges and some of the successes you have had?
We take the process of writing very seriously, and the process we have developed has served us well. We didn’t write formal proposals for our first two books, The Essence of Tantric Sexuality and Tantra for Erotic Empowerment. We sold Essence on the manuscript, Erotic Empowerment is based on an online course we had developed several years before. We pitched that verbally and provided a small sample. The next two, Great Sex Made Simple and Partners in Passion were sold based on standard non-fiction proposals. We took a workshop on writing book proposals at MediaBistro some years ago, and we find the process of proposal writing to be very valuable, since it forces you to focus and get very specific from the start.
In terms of the specifics of how we work together, we typically start by discussing a topic, often while we are driving. Patricia touch-types the conversation and later writes a very preliminary outline of the subject that incorporates her notes. Mark then writes the next draft, and we take turns editing that draft. Patricia prefers to get Mark’s feedback in a redlined document, whereas its easier for Mark to sit side by side and hear Patricia’s comments, while looking at the unedited document, because he wants to understand the intent behind the suggestion. The comment box in Word doesn’t feel sufficient. We work though the book section by section in this manner.
Once we’ve completed the first draft, we read the manuscript out loud to each other a minimum of ten times and edit as we go. We’re diligent about delivering a high-quality and well-edited manuscript, and we often beat our deadlines. This is something that makes publishers and copy editors very happy.
Because we write about relationships and the writing process is one that involves a lot of vulnerability and potential blows to the ego, we have to apply the relationships skills we advocate in the process itself. It’s probably one of the most dramatic examples of having to practice what you preach that we can think of. We’ll often take a time out to breathe together and eye-gaze for a few minutes in silence, before getting back to work.
As for successes, our books have all be favorably been reviewed and have won multiple awards. This is very gratifying because we care so much about the quality of our writing. Hearing personal stories from individuals about how our work has transformed their relationships and enriched their lives is almost indescribably satisfying.
How has working together on this book strengthened your own personal understanding of intimacy and sexuality?
As we said, the process of writing together is incredibly intimate and requires us to use all of our relationship skills, but beyond that, writing about sex means that we’re always talking about it and always conducting research. This forces us to be almost constantly open to discovering something new. And we believe that remaining curious about your partner and cultivating the capacity to be surprised are key elements of keeping relationships fresh.
Writing together is a way of constantly discovering each other.
What is the publishing process like? What are some of the challenges and some of the successes you have had?
We’ve worked with two different publishers, and each has its own way of working. One thing that people often fail to realize is that writing the book is just the beginning. The hard work really starts during the months before publication and thereafter. Publishers, no matter how supportive, have limited time and resources and can only do so much to promote and help you sell your book. We had very unrealistic expectations when our first book came out. Even though we were prepared to work very hard, we still didn’t have a clear sense of how challenging it is and how rare it is for books to remain in print for years. The fact that our first two books, published in 2006 and 2008, are still in print and still selling is a huge success, a much bigger one than we could have recognized in 2005.
Can you compare your writing process for this book to one of your other works? What has made this experience unique?
Our process has evolved over the years, but the changes have been fairly modest. Partners in Passion was far more ambitious than any of our previous titles. It took much longer to write, required more research, and Cleis played a far more active role in the editorial process. That was new and different and at times challenging, but in the end, we are very pleased with the outcome.
Your second chapter addresses 10 big myths about relationships. Can you tell me about a couple of them and why you think they send the wrong message?
One of the biggest is that you need to find a soul mate, that there’s someone out there to complete you and you won’t have a truly satisfying relationship unless you find that person. The old cliché “too many fish in the sea” is far more accurate. There are plenty of potential partners out there. Seeking the perfect mate will only lead to disappointment. Some measure of compatibility is important, but developing relationship skills matters even more. Living happily ever after is another big myth that permeates our culture. The origins really have to do with class and economics, not with emotional satisfaction. Everyone knows that things don’t end when you become a couple, decide to move in together, or get married, but we get the happily ever after message from childhood on, so we’re conditioned to believe it, at least on an unconscious level. The truth is that relationships are dynamic, and even the happiest ones change, evolve, and go through difficult periods. That’s something to celebrate and embrace, and if we’re buying into ‘happily ever after’, it’s not possible to at worst accept and at best embrace the inevitable changes and ups and downs.
You also describe the idea that monogamy is “natural and optimal” as a myth. Do you have something against monogamy?
No. We have nothing against monogamy, but we do have a problem with unconscious monogamy, with monogamy as a societal default that’s undefined and unexamined. Monogamy is valid and can work well, when it’s consciously and mutually chosen, when there are clear agreements about what it means and how it will be expressed, and when there’s an ongoing discussion about those agreements and definitions. The same goes for non-monogamous relationships. By now there’s ample evidence that humans, of all genders, evolved to form pair bonds and also to seek variety in their sexual partners. It’s safe to say that some form of monogamous relationship structure is one natural expression of human biology, but monogamy as it’s currently constructed and idealized in our culture is hardly natural. For one thing the human life span is much longer than it was a century, let alone a millennium ago. There’s no one size fits all when it comes to relationship styles or measuring relationship success.
You use the term “Designer Relationship.” Can you explain what that means?
It was coined by Dr. Kenneth Haslam, one of the founders of the polyamory movement. Very simply, polyamory is a form of open relating that stresses emotional connection between or among partners. We discuss a variety of approaches to relating in our book, from monogamous to open, and we fell in love with Ken’s term because it’s so open-ended. Terms like monogamous, polyamorous, and swinger all strike us as being overbroad, limiting, and exclusive, and sometimes people in these groups look askance at those who belong to the others. Designer relationship is a liberating term because it implies you can choose, tailor the relationship to your mutual interests and desires, and redesign it when and if necessary. It’s your relationship; you don’t have to belong to any particular club, and someone else’s choices may not be the same as yours, but that doesn’t make them better or worse.
You define love as “profound interest.” Can you elaborate?
We love this definition. It comes from our Tantra teacher’s Indian Guru, and it’s a huge life-lesson that applies beyond the realm of partnered relationships. Bearing it in mind can be the key to having a more satisfactory social life in general. In the realm of a partnership, both in and out of bed, approaching every encounter – from the first date on — with the intention to be truly and profoundly interested in what the other person has to say and in who the other person is, you create a context in which that other person feels recognized and appreciated and therefore becomes infinitely more likely to respond to you in kind. Perhaps more important, you are likely to change your own experience dramatically. It is common — in love, and in life in general – to approach others with a self-serving mindset, a tendency to think “what’s in it for me?” or “what can I get from this person?” While this self-seeking tendency is normal, it is often self-defeating because it deprives us of the fullness of the experience of being engaged with someone else. Approaching another person with genuine interest is not only likely to make that person more willing to open up; it also creates the opportunity to enjoy the process of learning about that person as an end in itself. In long-term relationships, cultivating and renewing this interest in your partner is a key way to sustain mutual respect, appreciation and parity. All it takes is a subtle and intentional shift in your consciousness.
In your book you describe your experience as subjects in an fMRI study of orgasm and the female brain and the challenges you encountered, can you talk a little bit about what happened and how vulnerable people can be when it comes to feeling sexually competent?
Our friend Nan Wise is a doctoral candidate in Neuroscience at Rutgers University studying orgasm and the brain. Patricia had previously been one of her research subjects for a study on non-partnered orgasm. She asked us to serve as guinea pigs and help establish the parameters for her doctoral project, which involves partner stimulation. The conditions were challenging, to put it mildly, even though we had practiced on a massage table. There was no possibility for eye-contact, or verbal feedback, and the physical arrangement was unusual and uncomfortable – the machine is at chest height, and it was very hard to find an angle that worked for digital stimulation (which was the only option.) Mark finally found a method that worked, but it took a while. We both knew it had been a challenge, but it was still hard for us to come to terms with the fact that the orgasm rated 5 or under on a scale of 1-10. Giving the feedback was hard, and so was hearing it, even though it was expected. We’re obviously unusual when it comes to sex, and this experience made us acutely aware of how difficult these conversations can be for people whose profession doesn’t require a high level of openness and communication.
You say that communication is important, but talking is overrated, can you explain what you mean?
There’s a very strong current in our society that stresses verbal communication as the central component in a good relationship. There are various models for how to communicate well – active listening is among the best known. There’s obviously a place for verbal communication in any relationship; people need to be able to express their feelings, to ask for what they want, to set boundaries when necessary, and most importantly to express their love and appreciation. We’re not against verbal communication at all, but we think non-verbal communication is actually more important, especially when there’s conflict or disharmony. In these situations, expressing your feelings, trying to get your needs met, or trying to set a boundary can very easily lead to polarization, and active listening techniques, which involve a neutral mirroring back of what your partner is expressing, can easily seem patronizing. We’re convinced that establishing a non-verbal connection, using techniques like eye-gazing or breathing together are important to employ before you begin to express yourself. This is not always easy, especially if emotions are intense, but because verbalizing involves the narrative, logical part of the brain, it can often lead to more polarization not less. If you can connect non-verbally before starting to talk, you can quiet the mind a little, get into a state of more emotional and physiological harmony and then address the issue as partners not as adversaries. We use these techniques frequently in our own lives, and they really work.
You have some interesting ideas about honesty. You seem to think it’s not always the best policy; is that right?
Honesty is a really interesting and complicated subject. Overall, we do think it’s the best policy, but it’s not that simple. Honesty begins at home, and the first step is to do your best to be honest with yourself, which is often a challenge. In the context of a relationship, we are against what we call “promiscuous honesty” in the book. This kind of honesty is often brutal and can lead to a lot of suffering. When someone begins a sentence with “to tell you the truth”, it’s usually followed by some kind of negative expression, so there’s an exercise in the book we call “over the top” honesty in which we ask people to praise each other to the point of embarrassment. If it’s necessary to be honest about something that’s more negative, we advocate tempering honesty with kindness – trying to express whatever it is in the least damaging way possible. Timing is really important too, so saying something critical, no matter how honest, when the other person is vulnerable – right before going to sleep or during or after sex – is likely to do harm. Better to wait for an appropriate time. Of course, when it comes to certain matters, sexually transmitted infection status for example, being fully truthful is an absolute must.
I came across a totally unfamiliar word in your book: compersion. What does it mean?
Compersion is like empathy on steroids. It means taking pleasure in the pleasure that another
person is experiencing. A friend of ours described it as “driving around looking for a parking space, seeing someone else pulling into the space you were hoping to get, and feeling happy for that person.” So it’s not a feeling that necessarily comes naturally or easily. It’s most often used by people in open relationships, and for many, cultivating it can be a way of counteracting jealousy. We actually use the term a good deal more broadly and suggest that it can relate to taking pleasurable experience your partner may have that doesn’t directly bring you pleasure. In that sense, it’s related to profound interest. You don’t necessarily have to share your partner’s passions, but if you can celebrate the fact that she loves to windsurf, for example, you can experience some of her delight without having to get on the board yourself.
Kink is getting a lot of press these days and you devote a chapter to it. It seems odd that you have a background in Tantra, which is supposed to be spiritual, and here you are writing about a subject that a lot of people consider ‘dark’. How do you reconcile the two?
Well, spirituality isn’t necessarily all sweetness and light, but we had some of those ideas ourselves before we got some exposure to people in the kink scene who were doing it really well. We discovered that good kink practitioners bring incredible awareness and attention to their encounters, far more than many mainstream people and even than some self-proclaimed Tantric lovers. There’s actually research that suggests that couples who engage in kinky practices feel deeper intimacy and connection and have reduced stress hormone levels after a scene, even one that doesn’t go well. Certain kinky practices also enable couples to explore aspects of themselves that they might otherwise avoid and can bring unconscious relationship dynamics into sharper focus. Of course, there are things that some people may not enjoy, but kink is a smorgasbord, and chances are most people will find some things they like. You don’t have to become a dedicated participant in the scene to use a blindfold or do a little spanking. And spanking your partner doesn’t mean you love him any less, as long as he enjoys it. In fact, it’s likely to make your sex life a whole lot more fun. And trying new things, whether they turn out to be turn ons or not, is a great way to nurture your connection.
What is ‘maintenance sex’ and why is it a good idea to have it?
It’s commonly believed that sex should be spontaneous (in fact that’s one of the big myths), and that desire is an essential element. The truth is that when we’re dating, sex is not at all spontaneous, and research is showing that desire often emerges simultaneously with sexual arousal, especially in women. Waiting for sex to happen spontaneously or insisting that you must be ‘in the mood’ before an encounter is a prescription for disaster over time. We advocate making dates, and choosing to be sexual. This may seem ‘unromantic’, but it’s actually the key to maintaining a strong sexual connection. This becomes increasingly important as we age, when sex is less hormonally driven. Being sexual and interacting sexually are things we can choose and must choose repeatedly. Sex is like a muscle, and regular exercise will keep it strong.
This is literally true of the pelvic muscles, which can atrophy without regular exercise. One of the couples we interviewed are real champions at maintenance sex; they’ve made love every morning over the course of a 26 year marriage (except during brief periods of physical separation.) That’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, but the concept is valid for everyone, and in the case of this couple (who also happen to be swingers), their happiness with and affection for each other was palpable.
How has your view of romance changed through writing this book?
Absolutely. We have been together for fifteen years, and we have always believed that long-term couples should continue to romance each other. We define love as profound interest, and romancing someone is really about showing profound interest. One major theme in Partners in Passion is that relationships and people change. We are not who we were when we first got together. We’ve evolved, developed new interests, and have acquired belongings together. While it may have been romantic to get each other gifts at one time, that’s no longer true. We only give each other things when we’re truly inspired. We’ve come to believe that the things people often consider romantic – flowers, chocolates, champagne, candlelit dinners – are really just the trappings. They’re great, but the key to romance in the long term lies in cultivating and communicating interest and appreciation, in knowing specifically what it is that makes your partner feel special. That may not be a grand gesture; it may just be a matter of taking five or ten minutes to listen intently and have a conversation about something your partner thinks is important; it may be as simple as a kiss on the back of the neck, giving each other massages, or bathing together. Without this kind of everyday romance, the more conventionally romantic gestures are not likely to mean much.
What do you want your readers to really take away from your book after reading it?
We feel that it is a fundamental human right to experience a fulfilling sense of personal and relational sexuality. Partners in Passion provides readers with tools to help them create rich, collaborative, and erotically engaged relationships. We want readers to make use of those tools and have healthier, happier, sexier lives together.
Find out more at TantraPM