Saturday, April 20, 2024

A Few More Reasons I Need Somebody New (Just Like You)

Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).  — MILAN KUNDERA, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Remember how Phil said he felt “high” when he was with his new lover? “Colors were richer, food tasted better.” There’s a reason for this intensification of sensation, but it’s not love. As their testosterone levels decline with age, many men experience a diminishment of energy and libido, an intangible distance from the basic pleasures of life. Most attribute this blurred distance to stress, lack of sleep, or too much responsibility, or they just chalk it up to the passage of time. True enough, but some of this numbing could be due to ebbing testosterone levels. Recall the man who had no testosterone for a while. He felt he’d lost “everything I identify as being me.” His ambition, passion for life, sense of humor… all gone. Until testosterone brought it all back. Without the testosterone, he said, “you have no desire.”

Phil thought he was in love. Of course he did. As suggested above, one of the few things that reliably revives a male’s sagging testosterone levels is a novel lover.32 So he felt all the things we associate with love: renewed vitality, a new depth and intensification — a giddy thrill at being alive. How easily we mistake this potent mix of feelings for “love.” But a hormonal response to novelty isn’t love.

How many men have mistaken this hormone high for a life-altering spiritual union? How many women have been blindsided by a good man’s seemingly inexplicable betrayal? How many families have been ripped apart because middle-aged men misinterpreted the surge of vitality and energy resulting from a novel sexual partner as love for a soul mate — or convinced themselves they were in love to justify what felt like a life-affirming necessity? And how many of these men then found themselves isolated, shamed, and devastated when the curse of Coolidge returned after a few months or years to reveal that the now-familiar partner was not, in fact, the true source of those feelings after all? No one knows the number, but it’s a big one.

This common situation is heavy with tragedy, but one of the most painful aspects may be that many of these men will realize that the woman they left behind was a far better match than the one they left her for. Once the transitory thrill passes, these men are left once again with the realities of what makes a relationship work over the long run: respect, admiration, convergent interests, good conversation, sense of humor, and so on. A marriage built upon sexual passion alone has as much chance of enduring as a house built on winter ice. Only by arriving at a more nuanced understanding of the nature of human sexuality will we learn to make smarter decisions about our long-term commitments. But this understanding requires us to face some uncomfortable facts.

Like many men in the same situation, Phil said he felt as if he faced a “life or death” decision. Maybe he did. Researchers have found that men with lower levels of testosterone are more than four times as likely to suffer from clinical depression, fatal heart attacks, and cancer when compared to other men their age with higher testosterone levels. They are also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and have a far greater risk of dying prematurely from any cause (ranging from 88 to 250 percent higher, depending on the study).33

If it’s true that most men are constituted, by millions of years of evolution, to need occasional novel partners to maintain an active and vital sexuality throughout their lives, then what are we saying to men when we demand lifetime sexual monogamy? Must they choose between familial love and long-term sexual fulfillment? Most men don’t fully appreciate the conflict between the demands of society and those of their own biology until they’ve been married for years — plenty of time for life to have grown very complicated, with children, joint property, mutual friends, and the sort of love and friendship only shared history can bring. When they arrive at the crisis point, where domesticity and declining testosterone levels have drained the color from life, what to do?

The options most men see before them seem to be:

1. Lie and try not to get caught. While this option may be the most commonly chosen, it may also be the worst. How many men think they have an “unspoken agreement” with their wife that, as long as she doesn’t find out about it, it’s okay for him to have a casual relationship on the side? This is like saying you have an unspoken agreement with the police that it’s okay to drive drunk — as long as they don’t catch you. Even if there is some understanding along these lines, any lawyer will tell you that unspoken agreements are the worst possible foundation for any long-term partnership.

  1. Gentlemen, you are going to get caught sooner or later (probably sooner). You have as much chance of getting away with this as a dog has of following a cat up a tree. Ain’t gonna happen. One reason: most women’s sense of smell is significantly better than most men’s, so there’s probably going to be evidence you can’t even sense, but that she’ll pick up on. Need we even mention the much-vaunted powers of female intuition?
  2. This requires you to lie to your partner in life. To deceive the mother of your children, the person you were hoping to grow old with. Is this really who you are? Is this the man she chose to share her life with?

2. Give up on having sex with anyone other than your wife for the rest of your life. Maybe resort to porn and Prozac.

  1. Antidepressants are the most prescribed drug in the United States, with 118 million prescriptions written in 2005 alone. One of the most prominent side effects of these drugs is the dampening of libido, so maybe the whole issue will just fade away — chemical castration. If not, there’s always Viagra, with well over a billion tablets doled out in the decade since it was introduced in 1998. But Viagra creates blood flow, not desire. Now men can fake sexual interest too. Progress?
  2. It’s not the same, is it? And isn’t there something humiliating (not to say emasculating) about sneaking off at night to look at porn on your computer? This course often leads to serious anger and resentment that can destroy a relationship.

3. Serial monogamy: divorce and start over. This option seems to be the “honest” approach recommended by most experts — including many relationship counselors.

  1. Serial monogamy is a symptomatic response to the issues posed by the conflict between what society dictates and what biology demands. It solves nothing in terms of snowballing male (and thus, female) sexual frustration in long-term sexually monogamous relationships.
  2. Though often presented as the honorable response to the conundrum, the serial monogamy cop-out has led directly to the current epidemic of broken homes and single-parent families. How is it “adult” to inflict emotional trauma on our children because we’re unable to face the truth about sex? Susan Squire, author of I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage, asks: “Why does society consider it more moral for you to break up a marriage, go through a divorce, disrupt your children’s lives maybe forever, just to be able to fuck someone with whom the fucking is going to get just as boring as it was with the first person before long?”34 A man who pursues long-term happiness by leaving behind a string of hurt, embittered women and emotionally wounded children is little more than a dog chasing tail — his own.

And if you’re a woman whose husband is “cheating,” your options are no better: pretend you don’t notice what’s going on, go out and have your own revenge affair (even if you don’t feel like it), or destroy your own family and marriage by calling in the lawyers. These are all losing scenarios.

Even the term we use to describe this betrayal of self and family, “cheating,” echoes the standard narrative of human sexuality in its implication that marriage is a game that one player can win at the expense of the other. The woman who “tricks” a man into supporting children he thinks are his has, according to this model, cheated — and won. Another big winner, according to the standard narrative, is the “baby-daddy” who manages to impregnate a string of women who then raise his children while he’s already on to his next conquest. But in any true partnership — married or not — cheating cannot lead to any sort of victory. It’s win-win or everybody loses.

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