Let me state off the bat that I generally enjoy Bill Maher and agree with many, though not all, of his viewpoints, and I don’t mean this article as any sort of personal attack against him.
Recently, Irene and I were listening to an episode of Maher’s podcast, Club Random with Bill Maher, featuring Jordan Peterson, that was both interesting and revealing – not about Peterson, but about Maher – and I felt there were some important points that got missed.
I thought that Dr. Peterson, normally not at all shy about challenging someone on their viewpoint, could have explored the topic I’m presenting here a bit more deeply, though at the same time I understand why he did not, as a podcast may not be the best vehicle for challenging someone on a deeply personal issue.
They get into the subject of relationships, provoked by Bill’s bristles going up at Jordan’s statement that marriage – or at least long-term, committed relationship – is an essential component of sustainable happiness and success in life.
Bill, an avowed bachelor, takes exception to this remark, stating that actually, the statistics show otherwise. According to Bill, the majority of people get bored with long-term relationships after the passion fades, and the norm is to then cheat, end the relationship, or suffer on. And he’s not wrong.
This is the truth when it comes to the majority. However, that does not mean that this is the ideal.
Though he doesn’t explicitly state this in this podcast, I’ve often heard Jordan Peterson maintain that long-term, committed relationships are, at best, a powerful catalyst and container for personal growth and self-mastery, which only can happen by passing through the stage of boredom that comes after the novelty of new love and attraction fades. And I agree with him.
Sure, the beginning of love is exciting, rapturous, passionate. And yes, that does not last. What lies beyond? Hard work, commitment, and true intimacy that is rare, precious, and powerful.
Sharing The Shit
One remark that really illustrates Bill’s preference for staying at a surface level of intimacy, is when he says that most relationships don’t last after the woman washes the man’s underwear.
There’s a lot to unpack there.
First – why should men’s underwear be especially nasty? Is he referring to the fabled skid mark? And why should the woman be washing his underwear – does he not know how to do his own laundry? Is he not also washing hers?
In this first level of unpacking, there is an assumption revealed that is archaic, even if sometimes accurate. The assumption is twofold: that men are dirty, nasty beasts incapable of cleaning their own asshole properly (which would indeed require a level of intimacy with oneself that may be avoided by many men), and that it is the woman’s place in a relationship to do the laundry, though I would be surprised if Bill Maher believes this second part. He’s never struck me as that much of a caveman.
But there’s something deeper going on here. It’s our all-too-frequent avoidance of the animal side of human nature and the possibility that those aspects of ourselves should be shared.
He states around the same time that no one wants to see their partner taking a shit – these kinds of things should be private. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with preferring to attend to your bodily functions in private.
But if you’re in a relationship where you are living together with someone (or even if not) and you have to be private; if you hastily close and lock the bathroom door when you hear your partner coming; if you repress burping or farting while together (another thing that Bill states will justifiably end a relationship); if you need to keep all such processes under wraps or otherwise you feel filled with shame, or that your relationship is threatened – that’s some surface-level shit going on there.
At this point in the podcast, Irene and I had to pause and roll our eyes at this, frankly, childish level of intimacy that is, as Bill says, the norm.
The capacity to be in the presence of each other’s basic bodily functions without shame or judgment is actually a sign of deep intimacy and acceptance for each other (hence the image for this blog – taken by Irene while we were in a little apartment in Croatia) and if you don’t have this, you are simply skating the surface of what is possible.
It takes years and years to truly get to know a person in all their genius and imperfections. If you can’t share basic bodily functions with each other, how can you expect to share the deepest nooks and crannies of each other’s emotional life? How can you expect to step into their shoes, and learn from the journey you take? How can you expect to know each other’s souls?
The Salad Exists!
At one point, Bill says to Jordan, “No one who is in a long-term relationship is gonna say, ‘oh yeah, 20 years on and we still, like, attack each other when we walk in the door’” (and to be clear, by ‘attack,’ he means making out voraciously).
“That’s true in my case,” replied Peterson.
“You still attack each other?”
It was this exchange that really sparked Bill’s incredulity.
It has been my experience that, yes, the lusty, passionate novelty of new love and sex fades over time. I think Bill is right that everyone in a long-term relationship will have to face that experience, and I can certainly understand wanting to find a new partner when that happens. It is, after all, a delicious, powerful experience.
That is the point, it seems, at which people in a committed relationship start to feel unfulfilled, to cheat, turn to porn (or some other compensatory behavior), end the relationship, or just suck it up and live with it.
That’s what Bill says, and I think that’s all true. What bothers me about his attitude though is that he seems to be saying, essentially, ‘Hey, that’s normal, that’s what most people do, and any other possibility belongs to the realm of mythical, heroic figures who achieve the impossible.’
To make an analogy: imagine there’s an insanely delicious, nutritious salad available.
You do have to climb a mountain to get to the restaurant where it is being served. It takes work. It takes consistent and considerable effort for a while. But it’s really worth it. It’s the best damn salad on the planet!
It’s cool if you don’t want to make that climb – just understand that you are turning away from something delicious, nutritious, and totally achievable. All it takes is a bit of work (okay, a lot of work).
Over and over again in this podcast, Bill says, ‘You do you, and I’ll do me,’ and I totally respect that. This kind of acceptance of difference is extremely important and, sadly, often lacking in our relationships these days.
But it also sounds to me like he’s saying, ‘Look, that salad doesn’t exist, or if it does, it’s only eaten by the gods.’
Not true buddy. That salad exists, and is the birthright of all humans.
The Struggle Against The Toxic Norm
I’ve had to struggle with these things myself in my relationship with Irene. We both have. We have talked openly about the possibility of fulfilling the desire for novelty by exploring open relationship, or having periods away from each other to do what we want, or by engaging sex workers…it’s a real issue.
As someone who used to have an addiction to porn, it would also be very easy to scratch that itch by turning to the screen.
But there’s so much more depth and possibility in staying together and working through it. And that’s the choice we always return to. Mind you, I don’t want to paint the picture that we have this issue totally figured out! We’re still working on this piece but that’s the point – we’re aware of it, and we are working on it, and that’s quite different to denying, cheating, ignoring, or just grinning and bearing it.
I feel there’s a way in which communication and really knowing the other person can facilitate a deeper form of intimacy and lustyness that is even more rewarding than the quick rush of novelty. Working through the blocks to this kind of vulnerability and examining our patterns (that are generally rooted in societal imprinting and unresolved trauma) is deeply enriching for both parties – and enables a level of healing and closeness that goes way beyond sex.
There is also so much goodness available in a long-term relationship that has nothing to do with sex.
Being with someone who unconditionally has your back, no matter what, who knows you so well that you can’t get away with shit that you otherwise could, who holds you accountable to your own highest potential, with whom you can share the deepest and scariest corners of your soul, and the brightest, most joyous moments as well…that is invaluable.
That is something I feel that you, Bill Maher, may be missing out on.
I hear you saying that you have fulfilling friendships (and yes, a really good friendship can provide a similar mirror), but in my experience no friendship can stir up the depths of our being the way a long-term, committed relationship can.
If pursuing romantic relationships merely as a vehicle for sexual fulfilment is truly what you want, that’s cool. You do you, for sure. But know that, should you change your mind, there is much more available to you. So much more.
And it’s gonna mean facing wounding in yourself that it sounds like you just don’t want to face.
You speak about how terribly you were bullied as a child. How you spent your childhood riddled with anxiety and fear, and didn’t feel right in the world until you became an adult, which to me sounds like you were able to compartmentalize and pack away the wounds of childhood.
I’m really sorry you went through that, and I can totally relate because my childhood was similar – only my bullying and fear was in the home, not at school.
Just like you have, I avoided deep, intimate relationships for a long time, because the idea of making myself that vulnerable to another person, after experiencing what I did growing up, was just way too scary. I wonder whether you’ve considered that you may be avoiding messy, scary, vulnerable intimacy for similar reasons?
It is true that the kinds of relationships you seem interested in are the norm. It is true that many, if not most couples lie, cheat, hide things from each other, and generally feel unfulfilled together, or split apart.
It is not true that this is a good thing, or that it should be normal. There’s plenty we’ve accepted as ‘normal’ which is antithetical to true goodness and a thriving, healthy human race.
At this point, thanks to what I’m calling ‘the toxic norm,’ a person has to work very hard not to be poisoned in and by this world!
It also takes a lot of effort to resolve the poison within us; to heal those wounds that tell us to stay away from deep vulnerability and intimacy, and keep us endlessly searching for the next shiny thing instead.
If you don’t want to do that form of work then yes, by all means, you do you.
Not everyone needs to be interested in that particular vehicle for personal growth, and there are all sorts of other ways a person can evolve and be content in this world. Not everyone needs to eat that particular salad.
But please acknowledge, for the benefit of your wide audience, that you are choosing not to partake in something that is both possible and wonderful – rather than merely brushing off the healing power of deep intimacy as something only achievable by outliers.