Thursday, July 25, 2024

Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being “in love” which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away…  — Louis de Bernières, Correlli’s Mandolin

There is a cost… for the society that insists on conformity to a particular range of heterosexual practices. We believe that cultures can be rationally designed. We can teach and reward and coerce. But in so doing we must also consider the price of each culture, measured in the time and energy required for training and enforcement and in the less tangible currency of human happiness that must be spent to circumvent our innate predispositions. — E. O. WILSON1

So now what? Having written this whole book about sex, we’d like to confusingly suggest that most of us take sex way too seriously: when it’s just sex, that’s all it is. In such cases, it’s not love. Or sin. Or pathology. Or a good reason to destroy an otherwise happy family.

Like the Victorians, most contemporary Western societies inflate the inherent value of sex by restricting supply (“Good girls don’t”) and inflating demand (Girls Gone Wild). This process leads to a distorted vision of just how important sex actually is. Yes, sex is essential, but it’s not something that must always be taken so seriously. Think of food, water, oxygen, shelter, and all the other elements of life crucial to survival and happiness but that don’t figure in our day-to-day thinking unless they become unavailable. A reasonable relaxation of moralistic social codes making sexual satisfaction more easily available would also make it less problematic.

This appears to be the overall trajectory of history. While many are perplexed and disturbed by the “hooking up” culture, the sexting of racy images back and forth, full recognition of all legal rights for gay male and lesbian couples, and so on, there’s not much they can do to stop any of it for long. In terms of sexuality, history appears to be flowing back toward a hunter-gatherer casualness. If so, future generations may suffer fewer pathological manifestations of sexual frustration and unnecessarily fractured families. Concerning the Siriono, with whom he lived, Holmberg writes, “The Siriono rarely, if ever, lack for sexual partners. Whenever the sex drive is up, there is almost always an available partner willing to reduce it.… Sex anxiety seems to be remarkably low in Siriono society. Such manifestations as excessive indulgence, continence, or sex dreams and fantasies are rarely encountered.”2

How would it feel to live in such a world? Well, we all know how it feels to live in this one. Apart from death itself, what causes as much human misery as the ongoing demise of marriage? In 2008, almost 40 percent of the mothers who gave birth in the United States were unmarried. This matters. As reported recently in Time, “On every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success, children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households. Longevity, drug abuse, school performance and dropout rates, teen pregnancy, criminal behavior and incarceration… in all cases, the kids living with both parents drastically outperform the others.”3

“Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing,” observed German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “A confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.” Indeed. By insisting upon an ideal vision of marriage founded upon a lifetime of sexual fidelity to one person — a vision most of us eventually learn is highly unrealistic, we invite punishment upon ourselves, upon each other, and upon our children.

“The French are much more comfortable with the idea that their affair partner is just that — an affair partner,” writes Pamela Druckerman in her cross-cultural look at infidelity, Lust in Translation. Understanding that love and sex are different things, Druckerman says the French feel less need to “complain about their marriage to legitimize the affair in the first place.” But she found that Americans and British couples seemed to be reading from an entirely different script. “An affair, even a one-night stand, means a marriage is over,” Druckerman observed. “I spoke to women who, on discovering that their husbands had cheated, immediately packed a bag and left, because ‘that’s what you do.’ Not because that’s what they wanted to do — they just thought that was the rule. They didn’t even seem to realize there were other options.… I mean, really, like they’re reading from a script!”4

Psychologist Julian Jaynes described the commingling of terror and exhilaration one experiences upon realizing that things are not as they’d seemed: “There is an awkward moment at the top of a Ferris wheel when, having come up the inside curvature, where we are facing into a firm structure of confident girders, suddenly that structure disappears, and we are thrust out into the sky for the outward curve down.”5 This is the moment too many couples struggle in vain to avoid or ignore — even to the point of choosing bitter divorce and fractured family over the daunting task of confronting the sky together, with all the “confident girders” behind them in the past.

The false expectations we hold about ourselves, each other, and human sexuality do us serious, lasting harm. As author and sex advice columnist Dan Savage explains, “The expectation of lifelong monogamy places an incredible strain on a marriage. But our concept of love and marriage has as its foundation not only the expectation of monogamy but the idea that where there’s love, monogamy should be easy and joyful.”6

To be sure, toe-curlingly passionate sex can be an important part of marital intimacy, but it is a grave mistake to think it’s the essence of long-term intimacy. Like every other kind of hunger, sexual desire tends to be smothered by its satisfaction. Squire says that thinking of marriage as an enduring romance is unrealistic: “It’s not like you want to rip your clothes off with somebody that you’re sleeping with for the thousandth time. We should know going into it that the nature of love and sex changes from what it begins as, and that a great love affair doesn’t necessarily make a great marriage.”7 High-libido sex can just as easily be an expression of the utter absence of intimacy: consider the notorious one-night stand, the prostitute, basic physical release.

Couples might find that the only route to preserving or rediscovering intensity reminiscent of their early days and nights requires confronting the open, uncertain sky together. They may find themselves having their most meaningful, intimate conversations if they dare to talk about the true nature of their feelings. We don’t mean to suggest these will be easy conversations. They won’t be. There are zones where it’s always going to be difficult for men and women to understand one another, and sexual desire is one of them. Many women will find it difficult to accept that men can so easily dissociate sexual pleasure from emotional intimacy, just as many men will struggle to understand why these two obviously separate (to them) issues are often so intertwined for many women.

But with trust, we can strive to accept even what we cannot understand. One of the most important hopes we have for this book is to provoke the sorts of conversations that make it a bit easier for couples to make their way across this difficult emotional terrain together, with a deeper, less judgmental understanding of the ancient roots of these inconvenient feelings and a more informed, mature approach to dealing with them. Other than that, we really have little helpful advice to offer. Every relationship is a constantly changing world that requires specific attention. Other than warning you to be wary of those who offer one-size-fits-all relationship advice, our best counsel echoes that of Polonius to Laertes (in Hamlet): “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man [or woman].”