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Some thoughts on love and sacrifice

I recently encountered, during the normal course of my regular trawling across the width of this thing we call the Internet, an essay posted on the Psychology Today Web site. The article is a rejection of the notion that adultery is okay (an argument made by a different essay on a different site) and, as far as that goes, I have no quarrel with it. If you're going to make a promise of sexual fidelity, keep it. If you can't,renegotiate the relationship or end it.

But the problem comes near the essay's end, where the author says:

More generally, the author doesn’t seem to appreciate that the value of commitment is based in part on the value of what is given up for it. Of course, sexual desire has a unique pull on most of us. But promises of fidelity would mean much less if we were promising to give up something we didn’t want! The fact that most of us want sex so much is why it means so much when we promise it to just one person...


And I find this argument to be very problematic indeed.

I reject this premise wholeheartedly. I do not--I cannot--buy the notion that in order for something to be valuable, we have to sacrifice something in order to have it.

This idea is one of the malignant gifts bequeathed on us by our Puritan ancestors, who believed it so passionately they never saw the hypocritical self-contradiction in it (they yearned for an afterlife in which there is no want, no suffering, and everything is perfect forever, and they thought the way to get there was by rejecting what you want, by suffering, and by working against basic human happiness...something they regarded with suspicion at best and hostility at worst.)

I think, rather, that the value of a thing is not what we give up in order to have it, but instead whether that thing is an authentic expression of who we truly are.

There is nothing noble in denying who you are in order to get something you want. Just the opposite: that is the most craven sort of commerce, exchanging truth for gain. We rightly deride dishonesty in politicians and businesses; we understand that pretending to be something you're not in order to get votes or money is a perfidious act. Why don't we understand the same thing about love?

There is no virtue in exchanging your true self for the affections of someone else. Love admits no such cynical transaction. Love is most meaningful when those who love us know who we truly are and love us anyway. It is not about what we can make those we love give up; it is about how we can help those we love be the most genuine, the most honest versions of themselves.

We do not make an act of fidelity meaningful because we don't want to do it. We make an act--any act--meaningful when it most truly represents who we are, when it most honestly shares what we actually desire. Believing that sex is valuable because we pledge it to one person when we really want to do just the opposite is the most crass kind of commoditization of both sex and love. Matters of the heart are not about artificial scarcity and transactional gain.


Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
serina_ds
May. 18th, 2014 11:30 pm (UTC)
I can understand how a lot of people come to this conclusion - our capitalist society tells us that the more we value the things we give in exchange, the more we value the things we receive in return (so things that have cost more financially generally represent higher status and people often value it higher and take better care of it). I dislike the idea of love or sex as a transactional token, but most people don't really acknowledge to themselves what that really means, if you take this 'I value your fidelity because of the loss it represents to you' idea to its logical extension.

Mind you, I don't really understand why happiness in a relationship could ever be considered a zero sum game anyway, with it being transferred between partners like currency.
(Deleted comment)
carldem
Jun. 30th, 2014 09:35 am (UTC)
my ex-wife was similar.

It wasn't enough to work together on something (like a house or a marriage or a future) It had to be seen by others, she had to make sure everyone else knew it belonged to her, and not to anyone else. In the end it was ok to her if her lies and storytelling destroyed my career, and that we never seemed to get ahead or have many friends - just as long as she knew I was dependent on her, that I would have to come to her if I needed something. That gave her security and reassurance (which meant my needs and pain could be safely ignored)

I told her I was poly the second time we met before we started dating. Later her I explained the "rules" and how it wasn't cheating. 10 years later, and 3 years after the divorce, I found out that she figured "if poly means he needs my permission, I'll just say no. That way I get what I want and he is still ok being poly".

Yes some people really are that egotistically, insecure and selfish.
terryo
May. 19th, 2014 12:28 am (UTC)
I would emphasize, in the second to the last paragraph, that "help" is an active verb and the help should not only be to support 'who the person is' ("most genuine and honest versions of themselves"), but who they might want to be, skills they may want to learn, things they want to try; to help them grow in directions they want to grow.

YMMV!
hugs
jeanniewal
May. 19th, 2014 06:17 am (UTC)
This is beautifully put. I've shared it - I'm aware I should probably have asked first and waited for your response but someone came up with the most staggering batshittery about "love" this morning and I really felt they needed to read this... or perhaps I just needed something to send them to refute their rubbish, and you say this better than I can.
ashbet
May. 19th, 2014 07:45 am (UTC)
Utterly, totally, and completely agreed with you. If self-abnegation were enough to buy the love of another, we'd live in a very different world -- and one that, quite frankly, I'd be pretty miserable living in. I want my partners to be with me because they want to, and to make any necessary sacrifices because they believe that the joy we find in each other is worth it -- not because they feel like our love wouldn't be worth anything if we didn't have to give up important or essential parts of ourselves. Frankly, love is rewarding *because* it increases happiness -- and that's enough to give it value, for me.

Heh -- I wound up writing more than I intended to, but there was some evo-psych meathead on Page 2 of the comments, insisting that "women have no sex drive after they've hooked their man," etc., and I couldn't resist. (Language choices are somewhat simplified, given that the majority of the reading audience wouldn't necessarily have been familiar with arcane poly complexities.)


* * *

While some primates are harem-keepers, others are not -- and we absolutely don't want the type of relationship structure that aping (heh) the primate-harem concept, because the end result would look a lot like religious patriarchal polygamy (similar to fundamentalist Mormons), where only the highest-status men got to have wives, younger men are driven out of the communities (or straight-up murdered -- children from previous relationships, or young males who might challenge for dominance, don't tend to survive terribly well in a harem environment), child brides are common, and women are kept cloistered to avoid escape and contact with men other than their husband.

Your generalities about monogamy being an unnatural state, based on your beliefs about male and female sexuality, are not based on any type of rigorous fact-gathering. For example, the idea that female sex drive automatically drops when a woman has "hooked her man" falls down in practice -- for one thing, if that were true, why would married women have affairs?

While I actually *agree* that enforced monogamy is unrealistic and undesirable, I'm not a fan of describing human sexuality in broad strokes like that.

I'm polyamorous -- ethically non-monogamous, and in my case, polyfidelitous (I have three partners of many years' duration, two of whom are involved with each other, the third had another partner for four years but is currently only with me.)

We have agreed, for various reasons, not to seek sex/relationships outside our existing partners (although the arrangement is negotiable, a new partner could be brought in if they were willing to be tested and to restrict outside sexual contact, and this has successfully happened in the past.)

And I'm not only female (as is one of my partners -- I'm dating her and her husband, and have been part of their relationship for a decade), but I'm also not going to be reproducing with anyone -- I have an adult child, my partners have a younger child, and we're happy with that.

So, the idea that women "barely have sex drives" is disproven in a single example -- if that were the case, why would she and I choose to have multiple partners? If it were only for the thrill of the new and forbidden, why are we still happily together after all these years?

(cont'd)
ashbet
May. 19th, 2014 07:48 am (UTC)
I don't think that polyamory is the answer for everyone (for one thing, it requires honesty, and there are a lot of people out there who aren't terribly trustworthy -- the same people who would cheat in a mono relationship would often do so in a poly relationship, too.) Some people seem to be hard-wired to be poly, some seem to be happiest when mono. Human variety is infinite, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

I'd like to see alternative relationship options become more societally-acceptable (you simply can't go around admitting to having a non-monogamous arrangement in many social circles, and it would be career suicide in any type of even semi-conservative profession), and I'd like to see more people agreeing to see what works for them, rather than believing that there is one correct way for humans to relate to each other.

I'd like to see more honesty, more communication, more negotiation, and more awareness of boundaries -- I'd rather see two people sit down and talk about what kind of relationship *they* want to have, rather than just assuming that it's going to be monogamous if they're "serious about each other."

We also need to abandon the cultural trope that changing the terms of an existing relationship is always an indicator of lack of love and a doomed partnership -- sometimes, people DO change over time, and their needs change as well, no matter how honest they were when they made their initial commitment.

While I don't think anyone should be forced to accept relationship terms other than the ones they agreed to (if it would make them unhappy to do so), right now, even the *idea* of re-negotiation is often treated as a breach of trust and a failure of love.

And, honestly, sometimes a relationship just needs to end, if the partners have incompatible needs and wants. We need to have a model for how to do that in a loving and compassionate manner, recognizing that in many cases, nobody is the "bad guy," but sometimes relationships aren't going to last forever.

I don't see partners/spouses as disposable/replaceable, but I do think that we don't have enough options open to people who are unhappy in long-term relationships, but who may have entanglements that are more difficult to separate than they can deal with -- there needs to be an option that involves honesty and acknowledgement that companionate marriage is an okay thing to have, as long as the parties can negotiate a way to have other relationships that fulfill sexual and romantic needs that aren't being met by the partnership.

Not everyone is cut out for ethical non-monogamy (in all of its flavors -- polyamory, "open relationships", DADT, polyfidelity, casual sex, swinging, etc.), just as not everyone is cut out for monogamy. Your needs may vary based on who your partner/s are -- you might be capable of being happily monogamous with one partner, and happily non-monogamous with another.

I don't think that the answer is that everyone should stay miserably married, and I don't think that dumping a loving partner due to a libido mismatch is always the right answer, either. I'd like the options to allow for more victory conditions than are currently available.

I *do* agree that insisting on monogamy while one partner no longer has an interest in sex is cruel, and comprises a form of emotional oath-breaking. I think that not everyone should have to agree to a non-exclusive arrangement if they're going to be desperately unhappy about it, but it's not reasonable to tell your loving partner that you're swearing off sex for life, and you expect them to, as well. (And that's regardless of gender -- I've been the higher-libido partner and the lower-libido partner, depending on what was going on in my life at the time. I sure as hell would not be willing to sign up for a long-term sexless relationship!)

So -- I agree that monogamy is not the natural state of humanity -- but I disagree with some of your hypotheses and conclusions. (I also think that whether or not something is a 'natural' state is less important than whether the arrangement is *working* for the majority of people -- I'd rather see each person/partnership figure out what kind of arrangement works for them, rather than having a huge majority on one side or the other.)
carldem
Jun. 30th, 2014 09:44 am (UTC)
the sexual drop off after marriage is quite a common theme. The old buttons in a jar the first year, then remove them all the years after that, is a popular anecdote.

Likewise the cheating partner seems to confirm rather than oppose the idea.

But the underlying reason is pretty straight forward. A mature relationship involves hard work, not flights of freedom and fantasy. Today's world is built around financial slavery. Therefore a long term relationship is going to involve "two or more" people having to involve the requirements of that financial slavery as part of their relationship - rather than being an escape from it. Most people aren't even aware of the nature of their slavery, so how can they as a group (aka family) seek to avoid the crushing and soul destroying results of it. No wonder partners become less attractive when we have to deal with them on that level as well....
ashbet
Jun. 30th, 2014 02:59 pm (UTC)
Well, I agree that our economic paradigm is a problem, and that financial stress is absolutely a factor in long-term relationships.

I'm not saying that sexual drop-off in long-term relationships doesn't *exist*, for some people or for many. I was specifically responding to someone who said that it was *inevitable*, particularly with regard to women's sex drives.

I agree that when you introduce cohabitation, entangled finances, and anything other than complete physical and financial independence, you're going to have to work out some compromises with your partner/s, and financial/household/family stresses that affect them will affect you just as much.

Any relationship requires some level of work, compromise, and good faith -- mature or otherwise. Successful relationships, especially long-term ones, are going to encounter some obstacles along the way, many having to do with finances/logistics or external factors to the relationship.

There is a place for freedom and fantasy in long-term intimate relationships -- but there does need to be some grounding in reality, as well. (Specifically, the concept of the relationship as an "escape" from Real Life is difficult to maintain in the long term, because Real Life has a way of intruding whether we like it or not.)

There are certainly options for long-term relationships that don't involve quite so much day-to-day entanglement (long-distance partners, for example) . . . but that still requires the money and freedom to travel, and a job change, or a health issue.

(Or, for that matter, a family member's health issue -- my daughter's major illness has kept me from seeing my partners for more than a year, but they understand that a kid with heart problems outweighs my ability to travel, because I'm financially wrecked by medical bills, even now that she's recovered enough that I could theoretically leave town.)

Regardless -- while all intimate, entangled, long-term relationships are going to be affected by various issues encountered in life, none of that has anything to do with the supposed "inevitable sexual drop-off based on female libido" that I was specifically critiquing.

-- A <3
carldem
Jul. 1st, 2014 12:56 am (UTC)
you say none of it...

I say all of it.
ashbet
Jul. 3rd, 2014 07:15 pm (UTC)
...okay.
carldem
Jul. 3rd, 2014 08:05 pm (UTC)
historically of course, the "relationship" is heavily weighted by those entering into a monogamous marriage, and after the first year it was common to have had a child.

Perhaps there something about having a volleyball sized human being shoved out your nether regions that tends to reduce the hormonal rush to sex.

To quote a female friend who sad similiar things to you. Her claim "It's not that I have a lower sex drive, it's just I don't really feel that interested in it any more"
ashbet
Jul. 3rd, 2014 11:35 pm (UTC)
Honestly, you heal up fairly quickly from vaginal birth (I have a child), takes a bit longer for a C-section, as my partner had.

She did deal with something that I didn't -- my sex drive returned once I was physically healed, hers seemed to be in remission for the first year after the birth. We were both breastfeeding, so it wasn't that breastfeeding automatically turns off the libido . . . but it can be a form of the body attempting to try to keep children spaced far enough apart that you won't lose your milk or put too much of a strain on your body by becoming pregnant while still breastfeeding an infant.

The main issues for sex with a very young child are sleep and privacy. With poly, it can potentially be a bit easier, because you may have a third/etc. person present to deal with childcare if you'd like some private time . . . but if you are a single parent or a couple, it's very difficult to spend extended periods of time alone without interruption, when you have an infant/toddler.

And, if breastfeeding, the mother is usually dealing with major sleep disruption -- newborns can want to nurse every 2 hours or more, and often can nurse for a fairly long time, leading to one-hour sleep breaks between feedings. (And it's hard to sleep through breastfeeding.) Even if not breastfeeding, bottle-fed infants still have frequent night feedings.

The loss of sex drive due to parenting is a different phenomenon than just general loss of interest in sex in a long-term relationship. Thankfully, it's relatively temporary, but it can be a long 3-5 years, particularly if the parents are unaware that this is *extremely* normal and actually seems to be the typical experience. (It's not always women that are affected in this way, though. Often, it's whoever is the primary caretaker of the kid/s, regardless of gender.)

Sleep deprivation and lack of privacy can cause libido problems in ANYONE, not just parents. But that's a different set of circumstances from the idea that partners will gradually lose interest over the course of a long-term relationship, and that primarily women are the less-sexual partners.

-- A <3
carldem
Jul. 4th, 2014 12:16 am (UTC)
It is a different issue, which is why it's important to remember that when looking at reports, statistics, studies and anecdotes because a huge number of times it won't be separated out.

you separate those factors out, you run into another bunch of factors, which tend to point to a similar loss of libido, often due to change of priorities and maturation of relationship.
And that's where it really does get interesting from the poly point of view especailly as the relationship basis is so different from the common twined coupled
khall
May. 19th, 2014 05:36 pm (UTC)
The idea that men have this huge sex drive and women don't is linked to the puriticanicalism again. It slut shames anyone who does manifest a large sex drive, it normalized dysfunctional sex lives, and it discourages women from enjoying and seeking sex.:/

K.
ixaphid
May. 20th, 2014 07:48 am (UTC)
Making sacrifices for another person can be a very powerful, euphoric, transcendent experience. It can be so compelling that some people sacrifice just for the sake of sacrifice, with only the flimsiest of pretenses allowing them to semi-believe they are doing it for the benefit of another person. I believe many cultures encourage and venerate this attitude because it seems so spiritual or virtuous, without admitting that it really is sacrifice for no benefit. (Although I guess maintaining the status quo, even a mutually destructive status quo, could be considered a benefit to some.)
aztecknight
May. 20th, 2014 03:21 pm (UTC)
Very well said. Why do some people think that sacrifice is all that matters ?
spirit_genocide
May. 21st, 2014 05:41 am (UTC)
so eloquently and accurately put...i couldn't agree more. would you mind if i linked to this on my tumblr page?
tacit
May. 21st, 2014 06:10 am (UTC)
Not at all! Please, feel free. :)
fallingupthesky
May. 21st, 2014 11:42 pm (UTC)
Yeah, no. One of the biggest problems of this attitude is that it's likely to result in one or both parties feeling like they're sacrificing/paying a great deal to keep the relationship going... and the other person isn't. This leads to years of piled-up resentment that cumulates in a very messy explosion that will probably end the relationship for no good reason.
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