One hundred years ago, marriage was simply a foregone conclusion. An unmarried person was treated with suspicion. After the advent of effective birth control, human reproduction became unlinked from the act of creating life. It is no accident that the Playboy Ethic and Feminism sprang up at roughly the same time. Men could “play without paying” and women “could have it all – motherhood and career”. Since then, American and Western European men and women found themselves needing to re-invent the wheel when it came to defining their roles in marriage.
Just a few years ago, a friend of mine, who is an academic at a local liberal arts college, taught a course on the History of Science Fiction Movies. In one film, the hero and heroine have escaped the clutches of some monster. The danger has temporarily passed and during a moment of passion, the heroine professes her deep love and commitment to her man by saying something like: “I knew from the first that I loved you. You’re the only one I ever wanted. I love you darling. I want to have your baby!” This line was met with gales of laughter. Her students could not fathom the link between romantic love, sex, commitment and having children.
I have seen similar erosion of understanding this link in my private practice over the years. A number of my younger clients describe sex in much the way Joe Kennedy described sex to his sons (allow me to paraphrase): “Sex is an itch. You can always find someone to scratch it.” This is a bit different than previous generations where serial monogamy existed that implied an ongoing emotional bond or commitment. As a result, recent generations of young men and women, will partner up in a form of serial monogamy that has become “a friendship with benefits”. In a way, this “friendship with benefits” has become an attempt to do away with the pretense that an emotional bond exists and tries to keep each partner’s expectations of the relationship more in line with the temporary nature of the partnership. However, rather than being a “marriage with training wheels”, the older generations model of serial monogamy, this arrangement only seems to increase the suspicions of young men and women regarding the impermanence of relationships and marriage. At the end of it all, each generation after the sexual revolution has become more sophisticated about sexual technique and more clueless about the emotional needs of the opposite sex.
One has to ask that with all this sexual sophistication, why didn’t free-love,
open marriage and the other forms of sexual experimentation of the 60’s and 70’s last? The answer is simple. Unfortunately, most of us are simply not biologically hard-wired to live in a serially monogamous relationship. I’m talking science here and not Puritanism. There’s this little neurotransmitter called oxytocin that gets transmitted during intimate encounters. Oxytocin gives us the experience of feeling bonded to an individual. It doesn’t take many sexual encounters with the same person for the exchange of oxytocin to occur and sufficiently build up to create the feeling of emotional bonding. And so, when we talk about personal chemistry occurring, we’re not kidding. As a matter of fact, there are three circuits in the brain that seem to govern the feeling of love: one governs lust (we all knew that), one governs the feeling of romance (this is the feeling that no one else other than my partner will do) and one governs bonding, that feeling of comfortableness and oneness with another person.
So, how does this get played out with the serial monogamist? Typically a single person, usually male, comes into my office and says: “I have this problem with my girlfriend. I love her; but I’m not in love with her. Do you know what I mean?” I usually stop the person there and say: “Let’s see if I understand this. When someone tells me this, they usually have a story that goes something like this: I was lonely. I met this woman/man. I wasn’t all that attracted to them at first. They weren’t bad to look at, but I wasn’t all that attracted to them in the beginning. I was lonely, and frankly I was celibate for too long. And so, we just kind of fell in bed together. I didn’t think it was going to last for more than a week or two. But, one thing led to another and we have been together for about six months. I tried to break it off after about the third week. But, I couldn’t. When I tried to break it off, I discovered that I had a lot more feelings for this person than I expected. We get along ok in bed and we seem to have this strong emotional bond. But, the romance just isn’t there. It’s at this point that I explain that I’m not psychic and explain how Oxytocin operates. If we take Oxytocin into account, we now understand that 2 out of the 3 neurotransmitter circuits for love are firing whole heartedly in this client, but the third circuit, the romantic circuit, is weak. I believe this explains the reason why the client feels they love, but are not in love with the individual. Fortunately, there are ways to kick-start the romance in a relationship where a deep bond exists. However, my point here is that if you want to avoid bonding without romantic love, there is no such thing as casual sex.
Reproductive choice is a woman’s personal decision. And, the pleasure one takes in sex should be free of guilt. However, the decision to make love, by either a man or woman is inevitably made with the very real possibility of creating or expanding a family as a consequence. As reliable as birth control may be, there are still plenty of parents who, liberated from the constraints of bourgeois guilt and shame, accidentally gave birth to a child.
Let me put it another way. If you are a heterosexual of child-producing age, the words sex, making love, intercourse and all the cruder variations of naming this act are euphemisms for the ecstatically pleasurable process a man and woman engages in to create a new life. Let’s try a thought experiment here. It seems to me that if you wanted to rid yourself of ambivalent and commitment phobic partners from your life, all you would need to do is to eliminate these euphemisms from your vocabulary. For instance, the phrase: “How would you like to come up to my place tonight and mess around a bit?” would have to be rephrased to: “How would you like to come up to my place tonight and create a new life?” That would be enough to strike more terror into a commitment phobe than 10 science fiction movies. Ambivalent candidates would quickly get winnowed out, leaving you with the heartiest candidates and liars.
I understand that for the great majority of my clients and myself included, sex before marriage is pretty much a foregone conclusion. However, I do believe in personal awareness and individual responsibility. Let’s understand what the whole of lust, romance and commitment is all about. Why should saying: “I want to have your baby” to a lover sound like science fiction?
Fisher, Helen (1992). The Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray. Random House, NY.