Throughout our upbringings and well into adulthood, we’re taught the same fairy tale plot line that’s reinforced by various movies, TV shows, books, family, friends, religious institutions, tax codes, and laws: We find a lifelong partner, soul mate, and ideal lover all wrapped up in one person.
We have an amazing amount in common with them, they meet most of our needs and vice-versa, and we spend the rest of our lives with them. Forming the standard two-adult, two-child family unit with this person is seen as a sign of true adulthood.
But that seems like a lot to expect from one person. Especially when there are many types of intimacy.
Nonetheless, many of us do find what seems to be the perfect person, or at least someone with whom incompatibilities are mutually acceptable, and we spend the rest of their lives with them.
Long-term monogamy obviously provides some practical and emotional benefits over having more than one partner at once, e.g., less communication to manage, less need to worry about STDs, and a sense of security from being each other’s one and only. On an emotional level I’m still relatively attached to these pieces, even though I’m stepping well outside my normal comfort zone in these blog posts.
But a large proportion of us do not find happy lifelong monogamous relationships, even when we put great efforts into our relationships, seek counseling, accept that there will always be some challenges and obstacles, and so on.
Many of us go through multiple marriages, wondering if the next one will finally be “the one.” The first time around we might be red-hot lovers but match poorly in other areas, and the next time around we might sizzle as soul mates but fizzle in the bedroom.
Others maintain their long-term partnership(s) but also have a secret sex life behind their partner’s back, which damages their integrity. If we find a partner with whom we can make things last happily for even 5 or 10 years, we shouldn’t take it for granted.
Even Ryan and Jetha (Sex at Dawn, also referenced in other posts here) don’t seem to dispute that we have a tendency to pair bond, or to find one individual with whom we prefer to spend a good portion of our time and energy—including sex—over a given period of time.
Their argument is that even if we have a particularly strong emotional attachment and preference for a particular person at any given point in time, or even for a very long time including life, it’s in our nature to be non-sexually exclusive and form bonds with other people as well, even if those bonds aren’t quite as strong.
Nonetheless, we feel the need to secure and lock down each relationship with a combination of monogamy and “till death do us part.” We don’t want to imagine ever losing our partner, especially given how much we will–and probably already have–invested into that single relationship compared to most others in our life.
The irony is that when we find out a partner can’t satisfy all of our needs for a lifetime or vice-versa, we often sever our ties with them altogether in pursuit of a new person. Even if we’ve been in a 10-year relationship, and we complement that person in many areas, we may be expected to jettison all involvement and attachment to avoid provoking the jealousy of our next mate.
After all, that new person may expect our unwavering loyalty and commitment, just as we do from them–until we, too, eventually realize that we can’t be all things to each other.
Ecological Considerations of the All-in-One Mate Expectation
How does the expectation of finding the right one for the long haul tie into ecological sustainability?
If you’re seeking that perfect long-term person, you may be willing to move around a bit more to find them. It takes a lot of time, money, and energy to haul all our stuff from place to place, but lust and loneliness, especially when combined, can be powerful motivators.
Perhaps the town you grew up in, or the community you currently live in, just doesn’t seem to have enough singles—most people are already exclusively committed to another person, leaving few options. And of the options that do remain, finding one that meets the long requirement checklist for lifelong partner seems slim indeed.
So for school or perhaps work, you move to a place that seems to have more singles, including “all in one” lifelong partner candidates.
Sure, there may be other important motivators like career options, or the perception that there “just isn’t enough to do socially” in a given location, but the desire to find that perfect mate is likely lurking somewhere. And even “not enough to do socially” often translates to, “I’m single, and most of the people I know are settled down in committed relationships.”
As you continue to seek that very special person, you may accumulate a lot of unnecessary and perhaps even wasteful material goods—especially if you’re a heterosexual male—because you’ve been taught that it will help you to attract that perfect mate. We’ll be saying a lot more about sex-related competition and environmental impact in an upcoming post, as this is a big topic.
If you’ve moved a significant distance from where you grew up, you now expend more energy visiting family, who may be one of your main supports until you find that special, one-and-only lifelong partner. If your eventual partner has done the same, then you expend even more energy for family visits. And if you’ve moved around a lot, your face-to-face relationships are increasingly replaced with email and internet-based friendships.
If we had more options for relating to others intimately, where there weren’t so much pressure to find one specific person who fulfills so many of our needs, how might instances such as the above be different? How might the geographic distribution of our social networks look different–perhaps less diffuse? How would this impact the environment?
Psychological Considerations of the All-in-One Mate Expectation
Part of the puzzle is distinguishing between passionate lust and long-term love, and asking whether sacrificing one is necessary for maintaining the other.
Even with couples who are initially relatively well matched sexually, the purely physiological drivers of lust generally weaken over time. This is true even if both people are exceptionally attractive and have exceptionally amazing personalities. Alongside this, various life stressors such as having children can create additional challenges for the couple. The higher sex drive partner may come to rely on sex even more for bonding, release, and renewal amidst the stressors the couple faces.
At the same time, the lower sex drive partner may be less in the mood, because they’re tired and stressed out. This means that long-term couples must put conscious effort into maintaining their erotic connection, forming a deeper psychological base for it.
As sex therapists like David Schnarch point out, there’s almost always a lower sex drive person, and most couples do face sexual difficulties at some point. However, these challenges can provide opportunities for personal growth and development of even more profound connections, and passion can be ramped back up if the couple is willing to take on the challenge.
Schnarch’s approach has worked with many couples—this includes working with them to bolster their differentiation (kind of like independence or autonomy, the opposite of being overly emotionally fused or dependent upon one’s partner) while simultaneously being less reactive, more flexible, and willing to respect their partner’s needs and separate identity.
As the two individuals strengthen their self identities, they often find the other person more desirable, and are capable of desiring the person without feeling they’re desperately needing them or giving up part of their autonomy.
This is somewhat related to some of Esther Perel’s ideas on familiarity being the enemy of lust and passion. She argues that in order for a couple to maintain their initial spark, it’s helpful for them to maintain enough time apart from each other so that they still have some degree of “mystique” to one another.
I also agree with Perel’s opinion that we shouldn’t treat our partners as though we own or “have” them—but perhaps more like their presence is on lease to us, so we don’t take them for granted.
Schnarch also talks a lot about the concept of “mind mapping.” This isn’t the same as the mind mapping I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, which is a way of graphically visualizing one’s desired results, action steps, or other concepts.
The mind mapping Schnarch discusses is an ability to map out what another person is likely thinking or will think, feel, and respond. (If you were a psych major, it’s a bit like metacognition.) It increases in ability as you get to know someone better, along with the ability to hide it.
We sometimes use this ability to engage in what Schnarch calls “normal marital sadism,” which are mean things we all do to our spouses in an attempt to get our needs met. We may engage in such behavior just because it’s what we grew up with and are used to, even if we know we’re doing it but just don’t want to admit it.
For example, I might be a bit jealous of my partner because other men were flirting with her at a party, even if she didn’t return the flirting. When we get home, I know that she’ll likely say no to sex because her favorite TV show, which she watches every week, is coming on in 15 minutes.
Nonetheless, I make an advance, and complain about her putting the show above me, even though she offers to have sex—a whole hour of sex, if I want—right after the show. I know that she means it, especially as the show often has racy scenes that turn her on, but I ignore her.
Then just before the show is over, I inform her that I’m going to bed early and am super tired. In a very nice-sounding way, I let her know not to worry about sex, as I’m no longer interested tonight.
Secretly I’m not that tired and would actually love sex after the show, but I know that declining it out of my apparent sense of rejection will make her feel somewhat guilty. And possibly somewhat frustrated, given that she’s likely to be in the mood after the show. But it gives me a false sense of control.
I also know that later in the evening, she’ll likely try to wake me up for sex anyways. At that point, I make her feel a bit guilty about waking me, but explain that I’ll gladly go along with sex as a favor to her. This, I believe, will fulfill my need to appear as a generous spouse, safeguarding me against the other men flirting with her.
I made up the above example, but does it sound like anything you’ve ever done or experienced?
You might ask, if couples often twist and manipulate each other so much once they really get to know each other, then why stay with someone over the long term at all? In Schnarch’s approach, working with a couple to confront their normal marital sadism can be an opportunity for growth. It forces them to learn to relate to others without this manipulation, and instead interact with more honesty and integrity. If every relationship is short-term, we never get to the point where we’re forced to confront ourselves in this way.
There are many couples who strongly prefer the advantages of long-term monogamous relationships (or, in some cases, what their partners perceive to be monogamous relationships), and ideas such as the above may be helpful to them. It’s hard to deny the benefits of long-term partnership, as there are many joys and advantages to being with a partner over an extended period.
By supporting each other through many life challenges, and experiencing many wonderful things together, two people build a very strong bond. I know that many of the challenges I’ve endured with my partner have forced me to grow, sometimes in unanticipated ways.
However, are we setting ourselves—and sometimes even our environment—up for problems by taking things to the extreme? Are we really better off by attempting to transcend our biological nature in this area, through psychological reframing or otherwise?
Can individuals still enjoy the growth opportunities of having one or more long-term partners, even if the relationship isn’t entirely monogamous? If we really thrive off of mystique, could it be better to generate it simply by having more partners, in addition to relying upon creative techniques with our closest partner(s)? Would such arrangements reduce the need for “normal marital sadism” somewhat, or at least diminish its adverse impacts upon any given person?
As we’ve already started to discuss, alternate arrangements could have environmental benefits, in addition to boosting happiness for many people.
Revisiting Some Food-Sex Connections
My recent thinking in this area runs parallel to some of my thoughts on veganism. When I discovered many of the arguments for becoming vegan several years back, I jumped wholeheartedly on board. Although I knew I’d never be perfect, I initially aimed to be as vegan as was realistically possible.
I still believe it’s vital to reduce our overall animal consumption significantly, and to be mostly plant based. I see an important role for vegan events, cookbooks (I’ve written a sexy one for couples), and the like.
However, after opening my mind to additional reading and viewpoints, I concluded that the philosophy didn’t hold water for me when taken to its purest and most consistent form. I now refer to myself as a “conscious consumer” who practices a mostly plant-based lifestyle. Even though I have a lot in common with those who are totally vegan, and support them, I no longer advocate a totally vegan lifestyle for everyone.
In the same way, I’ve begun to wonder if monogamy taken to the extreme–that is, advocated as an absolute way of life for everyone–really makes sense. Even if it’s still what I’m mostly comfortable with.
Interestingly, when I first started using the label “vegan,” many people inquired about what led me to take such an extreme approach. “Vegan extremists” is a commonly used and unfortunate term. However, I never hear people talking about “monogamy extremists,” even though that’s basically what many of us preach.
I’ve seen people who take a black and white view of veganism beat themselves up when they slip with their veganism, going into extended dialogs to justify their behavior. I feel bad for them, because they’re usually exceptionally kind and well-intentioned people.
Often, the problem is that they’re just trying too hard to be perfect. Another problem is that their self-flagellation sometimes gets in the way of their being fully present with others. The shame often results in emotional distancing. This represents only a small number of vegans I’ve met–many are quite joyful. But at certain points, it included me.
I wonder if many of us set ourselves up for the same thing with our sexual pledges. Instead of promising to give up absolutely all animal products in a world with myriad animal products, we’re promising to give up all but one sexual option in a world where there are many people to relate to.
As with the veganism example, dynamics like perfectionism-driven sexual shame can cause people to distance themselves from each other, and to become unhappy. This is an unfortunate irony, as sharing food and sex are some of the most powerful ways in which people bond.
And just as giving up absolute veganism certainly doesn’t equate to gobbling down animal products with every meal, or forgetting about they underlying ethical considerations, renouncing societal norms surrounding sexuality doesn’t mean hosting wild orgies every weekend, or giving up guidelines for treating others with respect.
When I talk about looser relationships, I don’t endorse making a relationship agreement with someone and then flexing the rules behind their back. I think it’s important to be as faithful as possible to rules you set up front; and if you can’t honor them, have a talk with your partner(s) about changing them or end the relationship.
If wonder whether we should be open to different expectations up front. From that starting point, we can take more liberty to consciously define different types of relationship arrangements. This may well include complete monogamy for both people. But if one of them wants something different, they can be honest about it from the beginning.
We’ll be talking about possibilities in upcoming posts, and reasons for considering them.