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Edith Wharton and the Nine Rooms of Happiness

Sex and Eros

The average adult heterosexual man, in the average relationship with an adult woman, doesn’t ask for so much –   and doesn’t have so much to give.   He’d like a good meal, a little appreciation for how well he replaced the lightbulb in the bathroom yesterday.  Then he wants to be left alone to watch the Jets.

This is the source of much tension among heterosexual couples.

It extends to the sexual realm as well.  In my work as a sex therapist in Manhattan, one of the complaints I hear most from heterosexual women is that their male partners lack the capacity for erotic engagement.

Not just sex.  But real eros.  Where the man truly yearns for the woman — body and soul.  As I have discussed elsewhere, the Twilight series of books and movies depict this kind of erotic engagement very well.   Not just having sex. But taking full notice of each other.

The researchers tell us that this erotic dimension wanes in any marriage.  But that’s not a satisfying answer.  I feel strongly that a couple needs to keep an erotic edge to their relationship.   All sex therapists have their favorite techniques for this, and I have mine. Some of them I’ve described in previous blog articles, such as “Sexual Arousal for its Own Sake,”and “Dining and Differentiation.”

But so often the problem seems to be bigger than any technique.  Many married women in my office tell me they’ve given up hoping their husbands will desire them in the way they need to be desired.


Edith Wharton and the Nine Rooms

So it was with considerable interest recently that I encountered Edith Wharton’s story “The Fullness of Life,” written about a hundred years ago, which details pretty much the same issue, essentially unchanged despite the passage of a century.   The story is quoted in Lucy Danziger and Catherine Birndorf’s The Nine Rooms of Happiness, where it supplies the book’s central metaphor.

In “The Fullness of Life,” a woman has recently died.  In the after-life a Spirit allows her to reflect on her disappointing marriage to a man who never really noticed her.  Her reflections culminate in the following passage — the emotional center of the tale —

“I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall, through which everyone passes in going in and out; the drawingroom, where one receives formal visits; the sitting-room, where the members of the family come and go as they list; but beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors perhaps are never turned; no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”

“Your husband,” asked the Spirit, after a pause, “never  got beyond the family sitting-room?”

She returned, impatiently; “and the worst of it was that he was quite content to remain there. He thought it perfectly beautiful, and sometimes, when he was admiring its commonplace furniture, insignificant as the chairs and tables of a hotel parlor, I felt like crying out to him: ‘Fool, will you never guess that close at hand are rooms full of treasures and wonders, such as the eye of man hath not seen, rooms that no step has crossed, but that might be yours to live in, could you but find the handle of the door?'”

How startling.  A century or so ago.  The same quiet tragedy that I hear every week in my office.  How little has changed.


A Curious Twist

At the story’s end, its nameless heroine is offered a partner who will fulfill all her romantic dreams.  And she refuses.  Instead, she decides to wait at heaven’s gate for her husband to die, so that they can resume the same disappointing routine that distressed her all her married days.

Not so simple to understand.  Masochism on her part?  Internalized oppression of women?  Did she suddenly realize she loved him, after all these bitter years?  What about her loneliness with him?  Her unexplored rooms?

There is a tragic dimension here that seems almost part of the blueprint for heterosexual love.  The story’s apparently timeless truth is that often a man doesn’t come near to engaging his female partners’ emotional and erotic capacities.

Her mind, like her body, simply has more rooms than his.  It’s beyond simply advising men to take time to explore their wives’ other rooms. Believe me, they won’t.  Most will never make the journey from sex to eros.

The message of the The Nine Rooms of Happiness is that a woman can decide for herself what she does with her rooms.   Which is valid.

But still Wharton’s story haunts me, as I sit in my office listening to women’s experiences of marital loneliness and wonder where one might find the secret magic to spark a husband’s erotic sensibility.

stephen snyder md author photo Stephen Snyder, MD

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