In Chapter 4 of Theo’s journey, an opportunity presents itself for a one-night stand. He’s at a beachside bar in Mexico – the music pulses, a warm breeze flows, tequila shots and bared flesh abound. Theo is engulfed by an intoxicating cloud of ‘Opium’ worn by an alluring late twenties noirette sitting next to him. She’s celebrating her upcoming wedding with wild abandon in tropical paradise. Theo’s girlfriend is three-thousand miles away. No one would find out.
Or as G.K. Chesterton pronounced:
“The idea of monogamy hasn’t so much been tried and found wanting, as found difficult and left untried.”
Earth is about 4.5 Billion years old. Sex only emerged 1.2 Billion years ago. If we divide Earth’s current age into twenty-four hours, it was not until three hours before midnight that we stumbled upon sex. No wonder we are still mystified by it. It is of recent “invention”.
To our confusion, let’s add that monogamy is not found in any social, group-living primate. Primates aside, only about three percent of mammals, and one-in-ten thousand invertebrate species can be considered monogamous. Birds are different: ninety percent are monogamous, or so scientists affirmed, until confronted with new, contradictory research results. Okay, whatever, we’re not birds anyway, last I checked. We are, as the authors of ‘Sex at Dawn’ suggest, the randy descendants of hypersexual ancestors.
To put it somewhat more elegantly: We are courtship and desire machines.
Nothing wrong with this, unless we insist on ignoring or repressing it, and so continue witnessing the failure of one-in-two marriages, or the tragic toll on young boys exacted by the mandate of clerical celibacy for those married to the Church.
Sex is one of life’s greatest pleasures
Do men cheat more than women?
Not anymore, according to a recent study by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, and confirmed by the National Opinion Research Center. They’re just more discreet and discriminating.
I am convinced that a woman’s libido is as potent, if not more so than men’s. The only difference is that theirs is more like the appetite of a gourmand: they don’t yearn to eat just to stop the hunger, but look instead for unique satisfactions presented in imaginative ways. By this, guys, I do not mean twisting yourself into a pretzel while attempting to impress your wives or girlfriends with the sexual positions you half-memorized from that worn copy of the Kama Sutra. That will only strain your back. She longs not for your acrobatics, but your inventiveness.
“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source.” – Anaïs Nin
Let’s be honest: sex is one of life’s greatest pleasures; it is evolution’s most ingenious hat trick. You wouldn’t be reading this if it weren’t.
Here, I make no distinction between a full-fledged affair, and, say, a seemingly harmless, yet sexually-charged text-message exchange. Both hurt.
In Matthew 5:28, Jesus proclaimed that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully, has already committed adultery with her in his heart, and yet, he once challenged those that were about to stone an adulterous woman, by saying: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” They all dropped their stones and walked away. So before anyone hurls stones at my inbox, be sure you’re free from all transgression.
If, on the other hand, you are as culpable as the rest of us, drop your stone, and let’s try to figure this out together.
The Origins of Monogamy
“When marriage was an economic enterprise, infidelity threatened our economic security. But now that marriage is a romantic arrangement, infidelity threatens our emotional security. It shatters the grand ambition of love,” writes author and psychotherapist, Esther Perel.
“Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, and so, too, the taboo against it,” she continues. “In fact, infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy, so much so, that this is the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible: once for doing it, and once just for thinking about it. So how do we reconcile what is universally forbidden, yet universally practiced?”
We’re back to the eons-old conflict between our desires and conventions; between Nature and Civilization.
Monogamy is a boon for Omega males. “It is a great democratizing institution,” evolutionary biologist David Barash asserts, “enabling men to have a wife and a chance at a family, the great majority of whom would otherwise be left out. The hypothesis thus goes that Western society (in particular) inculcated monogamy as a trade-off, whereby powerful men essentially agreed to forego polygyny – in which a man has more than one wife – in return for a degree of social peace and harmony. Monogamy is part of our egalitarian ethos.”
The Tenth Commandment does not say “Thou shall not covet another woman.” It is specifically concerned with protecting the rights of one’s neighbor, by keeping gallivanting men away from other men’s wives.” (Barash & Lipton).
Fidelity then, favors “weak” men, property rights, mothers and children. Civilization wins.
In ‘The Myth of Monogamy’, authors Barash and Lipton propose that even if monogamy isn’t necessary for civilization, it is clear that public adherence to monogamous ideals is necessary for success and survival in current Western civilization.
But it still doesn’t fully explain why we cheat (in the broadest sense), nor how, or if, to stop.
So What’s Really Behind Cheating?
In his book, ‘Love in the Western World’, Denis de Rougemont challenges: “If the breakdown of marriage has been simply due to the attractiveness of the forbidden, it still remains to be seen why we hanker for unhappiness, and what notion of love this hankering must hint at.”
“Affairs are an act of betrayal, and they are also an expression of longing and loss. At the heart of an affair, you will often find a longing and a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves, or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.” (Perel).
Infidelity is not about sex. At least not so for humans. It is more about longing and loss.
In his journey, Theo begins to realize what women long for:
“To be listened to, not simply heard; to be held in the gaze of desire. Not just looked at, or checked out, but seen, as with the halting and eager attention of a blind man. They don’t want our “rent”, as the poet Jane Cooper wrote, but the radiance of our attention. Not a roof, but a field of stars.”
It is the longing of any woman to not have her sensuality become invisible under the stack of dishes or mounds of dirty laundry.
For men, especially after our twenties, I believe it is more about loss – the loss of our magnetic power of seduction. We’ll do almost anything to confirm we still have it, and many will go as far as wrecking their/other marriages or relationships – even their lives – in the process.
But are men losing it as they age, or are they squandering it? Might we not simply be expending all our erotic energy, our Eros, which at root means to love and desire ardently, in feverish pursuit of money, career, fame, and power, having little left when we return home from work?
“Our erotic imagination is an exuberant expression of our aliveness” – Esther Perel
But if we feel dead inside – dull, inauthentic, and devoid of purpose – what passion can we possibly bring to our relationships?
What Turns You On?
For her research, Perel traveled across different countries and cultures, asking one question:
“When do you find yourself most drawn to your partner?”
Across cultures, religions, and genders, there was a striking commonality in the answers:
- I am most drawn to my partner when she/he is away, when we are apart, when we reunite, basically, when I get back in touch with my ability to imagine myself with my partner. When my imagination comes back in the picture, and can root that imagination in absence and longing.
- When he or she is in his element. When she is doing something she is passionate about. When I see him hold court. When she is radiant and confident.
- When I look at my partner from a safe distance – not too close or far – that she/he once again becomes somewhat mysterious, somewhat elusive. Between this space – between me and the other – lies the erotic élan (the vital force or impulse of life). Marcel Proust said that the mystery is not about traveling to new places but looking with new eyes. In this distance, there is no neediness. There is no caretaking in desire. Neediness is a powerful anti-aphrodisiac.
- When I am surprised, when we laugh together, when there is novelty, but not novelty in the sense of new positions, or places, but in the new aspects of yourself that you bring out, because sex is not something you do but a place to which you go. It is a space you enter.
Note how there’s no mention of “hot body”, “big-rack”, or “six-pack”.
Lovemaking begins long before consummation. It is sensuous, not just physical, and its sublimity is reached only between two vibrant selves; two lovers meeting in the fullness of their being.
Inviting the Shadow Lover
In ‘Civilization and its Discontents’, Freud said that civilization is built on the repression of the instincts. Barash and Lipton suggest that perhaps, we should adjust our ideals of monogamy to accord with human inclinations. That instead of taking monogamy as the norm, and thus being “shocked” by adultery, we should see infidelity as the baseline condition, whereupon we might be free to examine monogamy, dispassionately, for the rarity that it is.
How do we examine it?
In ‘Mating in Captivity’, Perel challenges us to “Invite the Shadow”. Some couples, she reports, choose not to ignore the lure of the forbidden, they subvert its power by inviting it in. They have chosen to acknowledge the possibility of the third: the recognition that our partner has his or her own sexuality, replete with fantasies and desires that are not necessarily about us. When we validate one another’s freedom within the relationship, we’re less inclined to search for it elsewhere.
I think what she is suggesting, is that we have the courage to share our deepest longings and fears of loss with our partners, before a transgression takes place.
Just Say No
Since Monogamy is not natural, it is not easy, the ‘Myth of Monogamy’ concludes.
“But perhaps it is precisely when – and because – the flesh is weak, that the spirit ought to rise to the occasion.
The crowning glory of Homo Sapiens is its huge brain. This remarkable organ gives us the ability to reflect on our inclinations and decide to act contrary to them [as hard as I know it is].
There may be no way to affirm one’s humanity as effectively as by saying ‘no’.
By establishing a durable, long-term relationship with someone who not only cares, but also shares an expanding history, who understands our strengths, weaknesses, joys, and despairs, the successful monogamist assures himself and herself a companion for life, long after the children (if any) have grown, when work is no longer an option, when even sex may be mostly a memory.”
What’s the alternative? To jump from one bed to another; one lover to the next, sating our body’s hunger, perhaps, but starving our souls.
Leave that to the animals.
“Animals have sex; eroticism is exclusively human. It is sexuality transformed by human imagination.” – Octavio Paz