Relationships are strange, shape-shifting beasts. As time and circumstances change, we expect and count on attraction remaining a constant. So what happens when your partner tells you they aren’t attracted to you? What if they never really were, but still love you? Horrifying or acceptable—inevitable, even?

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In an essay excerpted by Salon, Sarah Einstein writes about the desire she feels when looking at her husband’s long blond hair and nice ass—and that she doesn’t seem to float his boat in the same way:

This is not how he looks at me. I’m on the cusp of fifty and look it. He’s on the cusp of forty and doesn’t. My body has aged hard and I’ve not treated it well. Even in my youth, I was plain, perhaps pretty for a year or two in my early twenties and maybe again a little elegant during a stretch of good months in my thirties, but being beautiful has always been beyond me. If people find me so, it’s only after they’ve come to know me. I have never turned heads. I minded this quite a lot in my teens, when it seemed that only beautiful people mattered, that it was a prerequisite for a good life. But it isn’t, and it didn’t take too many years out in the world to realize that it’s more important to be interesting than beautiful, and interesting is something I can manage.

That said, what strikes me here is that Einstein’s husband admitted that he found her attractive for other reasons than her looks. And even though the essay sets you up to think her no-good rascal of a dude told her straight up he wasn’t digging her bod, the truth is that she asked him bluntly:

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My husband is honest enough to say that he has never found my body particularly desirable, but still he asked me out on our first date three years ago because he found my way of being in the world, my sense of humor and my intelligence, sexy. “That matters more,” he says, “and makes you beautiful to me.” Sometimes that to me breaks my heart a little bit; sometimes it makes me feel loved.

It took us a while to arrive at this understanding. It was only once I thought to ask, “Do you not find my body sexy?” instead of simply, “Don’t you find me sexy?” that he could articulate the difference. These weren’t conversations we wanted to have, but they were necessary. And I know that it’s our ability to talk about the hard things that is really the strength of our marriage, that this matters far more than who reaches for whom in the night.

Falling in love with anyone often involves conversations of the what-were-you-drawn-to-about-me variety. People often offer such things up on their own in that stage; it’s hard to resist recounting the way you felt the first time you saw them, the way they looked on such and such night, and other memories that could double as smarmy love song lyrics.

But I’m fascinated by this author’s distinction, because most of us take and savor the things other people find alluring in us—your eyes, your neck, your ass, your smile—and do not focus on the omission. In other words, we don’t necessarily ask “So does this mean you found my calves, elbows and cheekbones hideous?”

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I’m not suggesting that is what this author did, but I have to wonder why she felt the distinction was necessary—what part of her insisted on knowing her husband thought she was sexy but not necessarily physically desirous apart from her personality? And further, I have to wonder how many of us really are sexy, apart from our personalities? Are they not inextricable? The hottest piece of ass around, divorced from brains, charm, wit, and identifying traits that are singular to that person, would quickly lose her allure.

It may sound like I’m being hard on Einstein, and later parts of her essay give more context to why she would care about such distinctions. For instance, if you were married to someone and felt you were doing the lion’s share of initiating sex, as Einstein does (particularly when you’re the woman, and most people have internalized the idea that this is the man’s role), this might lead you to believe there was a lack of attraction:

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Still, it’s taken some getting used to, this being the one who desires rather than the one who is desired. Being the one to say,”I want you.” The one to extend the goodnight kiss beyond sleep well and into let me touch you. The one who mutters in the middle of it, my god, you are beautiful. The one who sometimes whispers, thank you. The one who afterwards makes up the outside part of the spoon.

Why any one person chooses to marry is based on a complex mix of factors, many of which are unknown even to the person doing the marrying. One person may look for fire in the sheets, another for fire in the brain. Another might insist on both. One may see the abundance in one area as simply that, and not as a deficit in another.

I’ve known couples where the physical attraction alone was not mutual—one person was swoon-y for the other, while the other was, well, attracted to the other on a lot of levels, sure, but it was not particularly their body. And it’s worth arguing here that we may all deal with this at one point or another—for certain people, simply getting old, gaining weight, enduring illness, the ravages of time, or even a bad haircut could knock the wind out of our lover’s lustful gaze. While I think everyone has the right to a partner who is equally wild-eyed about you as you are about them, in many relationships, over time, the dynamics of attraction are bound to change.

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And in Einstein’s case, there’s also the gendered aspect of the situation to take into account—it’s not widely accepted that a woman can be not only the partner with the higher sex drive (which we know is the case for plenty of women), but that she can also be the subject, rather than the object, in their sexual dynamic. So in Einstein’s case, even though she describes an ultimately happy marriage, it’s not difficult to understand why doing more of the initiating would still compound her feelings of being less attractive—especially since, as opposed to men, women often experience “responsive desire,” or feeling more into it after things get going.

The other gendered aspect here is that women on the whole are, to a relentless degree, expected to be beautiful. Men are not. And while they certainly don’t seem to mind being lusted after, culturally there is no imperative to let a man know how good looking he is in the way men know to constantly remind women of their beauty, whether genuinely felt or not. When you reverse the roles, and express more physical desire for a man than he expresses for you, it can understandably feel out of time, out of place, out of order.

Einstein’s essay, which she describes having characterized to her husband as being “about what it’s like to be a person who is older and plain married to a person who is younger and beautiful,” is actually not about a person who is older and plain, it’s about a woman who is older and plain. Because a story about a man who is older and plain married to a woman who is younger and beautiful is not much of a story. It’s totally commonplace.

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Neither men nor society at large are likely to go out of their way to change this story for women, who must find a way to reconcile being cast as objects in a sexual narrative we didn’t write. But the first step, and one that the writer seems to have embraced wholeheartedly, is to stop shoving ourselves (or allowing ourselves to be shoved) into boxes wherein we are defined entirely by our looks. Clearly, love can be found outside of them.

Image via USA/The Duff.