Coming to Terms with What Cannot be Changed

We cry for justice, but what is deserved is not always given. Sometimes the unfairness is due to lying, cheating, or political opportunism. Many imperfect situations, however, are not based on intent to harm. These are human stories where no political or legal action is possible. No crime has been committed. In such cases we can only accept the terms life allows, make the best of things, and find whatever “good” is present.

Here is an essay I wrote in the early days of this blog, now revised. The story tells of a situation in which life offers raw, rude, unchosen materials and asks us, in effect, to build something worthwhile out of the resources at hand:

Dr. Gerald Stein - Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

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A beautiful, but not always wise friend once told me a story of infinite wisdom. She married a widower with children when she was in her mid-30s. The kids had fond memories of their departed mother, so the house was filled with art objects, furniture and photographic reminders of the deceased.

Additionally, the widower maintained relationships with many people who knew his late wife. The maternal grandparents, of course, wanted to spend time with their daughter’s children. The husband’s parents did as well, and lived close by. Everyone held the departed in high esteem and affection. She had been an extraordinary person, now achieving a kind of virtual sainthood due to her early death.

When my friend (who I hadn’t seen in years) told me all this, I asked what it was like to reside among the living reminders of her predecessor; in the midst of the physical mementos of…

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Haunted by Lost Love: Escaping Our Preoccupation with the World Inside Our Head

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We live in two worlds: the real one around us and the one we think about when we are by ourselves. The “inner version” contains past loves, loves unavailable now in the actual world. Within us we can access fantasy and memory, a bygone time of affection and its disappearance. Thus, those lost relationships can “live” inside of us, even if we never see the object of our romantic attachment again. By the end of this essay I hope you and I will share a clear idea of the differences between these two worlds; and a sense of what to do if you are captured by the troubling and stirring inner world of lost love.

I’ll concern myself with two kinds of love and the overlap between them:

  • Romantic love you once had and lost: love lost because someone broke your heart.
  • Romantic love you tried for but didn’t win: love unfulfilled. This category would include everyday unrequited love, as well as erotic transference toward a therapist.

Where does love begin? With reasons or emotions? Most would say the latter. Language is telling. We are “swept away.” We “fall” in love. We become “love sick.” Note the passivity of these descriptions. Love is not caused by logic or careful analysis. Romance “happens.” Once the love blooms, however, reasons follow and justify our feelings and continuing preoccupation.

The person preoccupied with vanished affection is also occupied by it: occupied in the military sense. An emotional army invades and takes control of our head and heart. These are the soldiers of the cruel King of Hearts, the man who now governs our internal life. The monarch makes sure the idea of the beloved — the image of the beloved, the fragrance and touch and voice of the beloved — cannot be escaped. The heartless King of Hearts insists we review our life of heartbreak. Review and review and review, enacting a repeated agony.

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The one we love now has two lives. She is “out there,” living a life on planet earth; and she is “in there,” living an existence unknown to her, experienced only by us. The manufactured being does not think and act identically to the being in the world. We only think so.

We spend time wondering about her. What is she doing now? Who is she with? Does she think about me? What does she think about me?

We are neither voyeurs nor mind readers. Her real identity is a mystery, while her created identity is made up of the language with which we form her life inside of us. The more enchanted our inner life of unreality (and the more distant we are in time from the relationship’s termination),  the greater the disparity between this person as she is now (outside of us) and who we imagine her to be. Ironically, the creature we most want to know we unwittingly make unknowable in the act of obsession. “Make,” however, may be too strong a word. Obsession is, perhaps, not a choice, but a thing that just happens to us, like the love by which we were captured.

In either case the lady leads a double-life, one-half of which is a false representation enhanced and enlarged by our emotional and mental process. We trap ourselves by creating a divinity, a goddess requiring worship, with an internal shrine of our own making. Meanwhile, our regular-sized existence is diminished by the outsized, manufactured mirage. How can we then fail to think we would be happier if only we were with this person, this entity who is more magnificent than humanly possible? Better, indeed, than she was when she was with us, in most cases. Did we filter out some unpleasantness from our memory?

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We are tortured in the process of obsession, including the endless review of small events. Things said casually, unimportant comments and facial expressions that meant nothing we make into something: something fraught with meaning, something important, full of sharp edges.

We run through imagined scenarios. What if I’d done X? What if I’d not done X? We kick ourselves over actions and omissions that, in reality, probably made no difference. Our preoccupation with this past keeps our love alive.

Our love is placed on life-support. So long as the ritual homage we pay to her continues she will not die as a love object. We exercise the terrifying curse of regret-filled imagination to create a posthumous life for the love we feel and the one we love. Thus, like a person traveling to see a sick relative (someone who remains barely alive), we journey to make internal “hospital visits” and drain our days of the energy and time needed to do anything else.

Once the love is history — when the act of chasing and wooing and trying to impress is over — the memory and fantasy stay behind as a cruel, unchanging mockery. Objects of memory don’t age. The longed-for beloved doesn’t get a cold or brush her teeth. She isn’t inconveniently tired. The target of our obsession can’t lose concentration or temper, fail to laugh at our jokes, acquire friends we don’t like, show-up late, or look washed-out before she puts on her lipstick. She is an ageless dream and daydream.

I would not recommend searching for the reasons we maintain the “romance” of a dead romance, to the extent it is a choice. We are not logical creatures, especially when in love. Perhaps we find sustenance in the possibility, however small, of a realization of the love we hope for. “She still might come around” (one says to oneself), acknowledge the error of her ways, plead for a second go. Perchance the lovely Frankenstein someday will turn gentle and reciprocate our affection.

We wait for the phone call, the email, the tweet opening romance’s door. Perhaps we keep love alive because we think this supersized version of yesterday’s love far surpasses what any real, mortal, new person could offer us today. No satisfaction can be found, unfortunately, either in regret or the hopeless hope of a happy ending.

Might we simply not have enough going on in our lives? Is the daily, dull, dreadfulness we think of as real life relieved by a remembered, glorious preoccupation? The fantasy never fails. The ghost is dependable, always there, ever ready to stir us. Pain, after all, can create its own ecstasy.

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And so we travel places where our lost love might still be observed or perhaps even met face-to-face. We seek those people with whom she has contact, friends of hers who might know what she is doing, share something she said about us, advise how to win back what we lost. The truth is, however, that every relationship in our life — business, family, friendship — pales in comparison to “the creature.” We suffer a preoccupied inner life at the additional cost of a diminished outer life, a life in the world of touch and taste, of face-to-face interactions and smiles and bruises and sweet perfume you can smell, not just imagine smelling.

What then? Say you’ve had enough pain and want to wrench yourself from all the tendrils holding you back. You go to a therapist. He will, almost certainly, recognize your need to grieve: encourage an emotional processing of the events revolving carousel-like inside of you. The goal is to end the spinning in your head, get you off the torturous wheel. The grief-work allows you to take the memories a step-further than you have until now: to give up hope; to shed tears with a compassionate human, not in isolation; to become angry with the ghost and finally to bury her. Only those we first reduce to human size can fit into a normal grave.

You might ask, doesn’t this “solution” just keep you in your head? Yes, and for that reason therapy is not yet complete. You still must seize the life outside. Treatment isn’t over until you return to the world of possibility and lived experience. The cure must diminish your use of fantasy and memory going forward. The process of burying your late love affair also requires the exhumation of a different person from another grave — a real person who can live in the world and act on the world.

Who might that be?

You.

Yes, you.

You must make history, not regurgitate it, and thereby escape the long reach of your past and present fantasy. You must tear yourself from the metaphorical hand holding you back.

You can do this.

You must accept the knowledge that some of what is in your brain lives only there; that some of what is in your skull could never and can never come to be. Fantasies are like that, otherwise we would call them by a different name.

In this awful truth is encouragement to get past your preoccupations and move on to your occupation with life, accomplishment, friendship, joy, learning, and growth: that which is still possible within the breathing world. And possible only in the lived experience, only in movement, only when you lift your eyes from the darkness to the sun.

Even, perhaps, to find new love.

The top image is called Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse (ca. 1897). Buddah Head Carved into Living Rock is a photo taken by Photo Dharma in Sadao, Thailand. Finally, Please Touch Gently is the work of Marcus Quigmire. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

On the Blindness of Love

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I witnessed something remarkable every day of my early life. At the time I wasn’t even aware of anything special. Indeed, the miracle only registered after the death of my parents in 2000 and 2001.

My father was “in love” with my mother for the entire time they knew each other. Over 60 years. Every day.

What do I mean by “in love?”

Being in love is like the Christmas morning race down the stairs of young children bursting to burst open their gifts. A smile starting from your heart and warming you down to your toes. The electric thrill of hitting the game winning home run. The embrace  of a departed, estranged old friend who takes the initiative to start over. The first time you taste ice cream. Waking reluctantly from the happiest dream you ever had — and then realizing you are living the dream.

Being in love is not the same thing as loving another. Rather, I’m thinking of a never-ending honeymoon love experience. You construct a mental representation of your darling better than she is: smarter, more beautiful, flawless; high-minded even in the absence of philosophical gifts and principled ideas about morality. You crave her scent, her touch, her gaze. Any wrong she does is reinterpreted, made good, scrubbed clean, or forgotten. You cannot bear to be away from her. Her voice is a balm. She seems to have created another world, one unknown until you met her — brighter, deeper, better, kinder because she is yours.

Your friends do not always understand this, even if they have themselves been in love. In Proust’s Swann’s Way, the title character falls for a faithless woman of dubious history and little intellect, the kind of individual who Woody Allen might say belongs “underneath a pedestal,” not the one Swann erects for her. A friend of Swann remarks:

“I do find it absurd that a man of his intelligence should suffer over a person of that sort, who isn’t even very interesting  — because they say she (Odette) is an idiot,” she added with the wisdom of people who believe a man of sense should be unhappy only over a person who is worth it; which is rather like being surprised that anyone should condescend to suffer from cholera because of so small a creature as the comma bacillus.

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The friends may, indeed, evaluate the beloved more accurately than you do. No matter, you cannot talk anybody out of love once “infected.” I do not mean to diminish the experience by borrowing Proust’s characterization, but only to say the condition does resemble a disease in at least the respects described. The incubation period can be short or long, depending on whether the sweetheart never loves you back or falls out of love first and finds another. And, no matter one’s awareness that such things happen, your pain is not less for the knowledge. Proust again:

At that time, he (Swann) was satisfying a sensual curiosity by experiencing the pleasures of people who live for love. He had believed he could stop there, that he would not be obliged to learn their sorrows: how a small thing Odette’s charm was for him now compared with the astounding terror that extended out from it like a murky halo, the immense anguish of not knowing at every moment what she had been doing, of not possessing her everywhere and always!

We are prone to believing we can imprison and safeguard our heart at the beginning of relationships, our brain keeping the key, until the heart bursts free and puts the brain in the box. Ironic to be taken hostage by a part of yourself even more than by another.

There are, believe it or not, downsides to being in love your whole life. I observed those clearly growing up. My dad could not imagine mom as a less than perfect mother, although she was not up to the job. Even the efforts of my brothers and me to enlighten him found him incredulous. When she inevitably came to dislike his friends or the couples they shared in common, he accepted her right and wisdom in the necessity of ending those relationships. The increasing number of barbs she tossed at him were also dismissed.

My siblings and I did benefit, however, from my father’s delusion. We witnessed a man smitten and devoted. True, he worked outside the home too much for her happiness and ours, still keeping the terror of another “Great Depression” at bay by so doing, but when he was present there was not a second of doubt about dad’s affection and fidelity. Read his Love Letters if you don’t believe me. The idea of a lifelong marriage — of being true to the one you loved — was firmly impressed on the three boys who saw my parents up close.

On balance, the bliss dad received from being in love was greater than any injury he suffered. Even as time transformed my mother into someone less kind and, of course, less physically beautiful, he unconsciously hung the memory of their early days over the reality of her present state. The image sustained him. He was (and considered himself) a lucky man.

We can do worse.

What Your Therapist Thinks About Your Marriage (But Rarely Says)

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In response to my recent post on saving relationships, the superb blogger Life in a Bind asked several questions about a therapist’s attitude toward marital problems:

As a therapist, did you find it hard not to give your view on a relationship; did you find yourself wanting someone to leave, or to stay, but being unable to say so? Did your clients reach different conclusions to the ones you were expecting or thought would be best for them? Were you frustrated if progress was so slow because your work together was undermined by a difficult relationship or lack of support outside therapy? And how do you deal with a situation where the party in therapy inevitably has more insight and self-awareness than the partner who is not, and so the entire task of resolution feels as though it is upon their shoulders? Particularly if they are the one who is ‘mentally ill’ and therefore the one ‘with the problem’?

I’ll try to answer those questions today.

Therapists certainly have opinions about a patient’s description of his or her marriage and much else. We attempt not to be judgmental, but are not indifferent to whether the reported relationship is “working.” Frank advice to stay or leave, however, is rare. Why?

  • You are a therapist, not a fortune-teller. You cannot predict precisely where the chosen path will end.
  • Major changes are the client’s responsibility to make. The counselor’s job is to empower the patient, not to lead him.
  • The decision to end a relationship, especially in a home with children, is like walking through a pottery store and knocking over a precious vase. If you break it, you own it. The spouse who leaves will be held responsible for whatever follows from the divorce. Since severing family ties is difficult, he risks being blamed for anything that goes wrong, whether the finger-pointing is fair or not. Disapproval can come not only from the mate, but children, parents, and other relatives. Friends, too, may express or act out their unhappiness at the decision. No therapist is able to anticipate the reactions of all the people unsettled by a relationship’s end.
  • One of the potential consequences of ending a marriage is regret by the individual who chooses to do so. As a rule I tried not to discourage patients from making every effort to save the union. To suggest a preemptive end (short of one coming in an abusive marriage) might leave the one who files for divorce saying “I should have tried harder” at some later time.

All that said, the counselor may still believe his patient would benefit from leaving the marriage. Yet, he must remind himself that he doesn’t know the spouse or have an unbiased description of life in the home. Were he to meet with the partner once, he still obtains only a snapshot of what is going on in the family. On the other hand, if the counselor were to attempt marital therapy, he leaves his patient without a therapist exclusive to himself.

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While such efforts can sometimes produce a good result, they are complex and avoided by more than a few in the professional community because of the complexity. The spouse who has agreed to marital therapy with the patient’s therapist might question whether the doctor remains aligned with his long-time client. A new goal of treatment, to save the union, alters any continuing individual sessions.

Life in a Bind wants to know if the marital relationship turmoil can frustrate the treatment and the treater. Without question. Freud, in fact, attempted to discourage the people he analyzed from making any big changes during the course of therapy, the better to simplify the process and keep his patients on target to unravel their early life knots. Life happens, however. All sorts of external events might impede the patient’s progress: job losses, illness to the patient or his loved ones, and work-related moves, to name only three. The doctor’s task is to enable the client to stay afloat in difficult moments: if possible, to use those changes, misfortunes, and hurdles to grow in resilience and insight. The counselor learns to keep a therapeutic distance and manage his own personal frustrations.

As Life in a Bind suggests in her questions, client’s decisions are not always in line with what a therapist might think ideal. Doctors can inadvertently betray their own biases. Once again, we are dealing with someone else’s life. An experienced therapist comes to terms with this. He is not a god or a tarot card reader.

The counselor might well, however, ask simple questions of a person in relationship distress or considering divorce. For example:

  • Do you still love your mate?
  • What are the positives and negatives of the relationship?
  • Why have you stayed until now? The latter question may evoke reasons to continue to stay or fears of ending things.
  • What would be the positives and negatives of a separation or divorce?
  • Are you prepared to take on the job of ending the marriage? What do you think that might be like? Have you talked to others who have been through it?

Finally, a look at Life in a Bind‘s last two questions:

And how do you deal with a situation where the party in therapy inevitably has more insight and self-awareness than the partner who is not, and so the entire task of resolution feels as though it is upon their shoulders? Particularly if they are the one who is ‘mentally ill’ and therefore the one ‘with the problem’?

First, the “identified patient” is sometimes the most insightful partner within the marriage. He or she can be a thoughtful, if unhappy person, who wants more out of the conjugal contract than the spouse who finds the current terms of the marriage tolerable. The latter might be obtuse, insensitive to the companion’s feelings, and domineering, even if he is perhaps more functional and not as troubled as his mate.

An important step in the treatment of the “identified patient” is for him to become able to shrug off the status of being a “second class citizen” or “damaged goods.” He must not, because of this “label,” accept the invalidation of his every thought and feeling. This does not mean he is permitted to inflict his dysfunction on the family, but rather to recognize he is not the only one who needs to work on himself and try to establish “a more perfect union.”

In the long-term, unless the partner Life in a Bind describes becomes enlightened, the marriage’s continuance may depend on the acceptance by the sole person in individual therapy of his or her discontent: in other words, a willingness to bear the largest part of the psychological weight of family life. While 50/50 sharing of the stress of home life is a goal impossible even to define, the sacrifice of oneself to a spouse’s vision of an acceptable marriage is a step toward personal unhappiness.

Were individual dissatisfaction the only concern, everything else being equal, a decision about continuing a relationship would be simplified. But, as they say, everything else is never equal.

If only it were.

The top image is called “No Escape.” It is the work of Judith Carlin and comes from Wikimedia Commons.

How Do You Know When a Relationship Can Be Saved?

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We all lose friends and lovers. We all hope there is a way — some way, some how — to recapture the companion, erase the slight, stitch up the wound and go back to the “days of wine and roses.” Time is spent thinking, dreaming, wondering, planning, and — very often, trying — to put the Humpty Dumpty relationship back together again.

Here is one possible guide to what might produce the loss and a second list of the signs suggesting you might succeed where “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” failed.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

  1. One or both parties blames the other, taking no responsibility for any part of the rift, and refusing to be enlightened by either the partner or a therapist. I am excluding frank physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, as well as alcohol and drug addiction from the list of causes. Any of these compound the problem of saving the partnership.
  2. A tendency to store things up. Some people are hesitant to express their discontent frankly, even as the years pass. Short of mind-reading, the partner then cannot be assumed to know of the brewing disturbance until the anger blows up.
  3. Lack of self-awareness. Such a person doesn’t understand the negative impact he is having on his lover or friend. He is the counterpart to the person just described who fails to communicate his unhappiness.
  4. The unwillingness to compromise or work on changing yourself if the companion does specify his misery.
  5. The practice of “counting” and weighing the various kindnesses, concessions, and compromises you make on behalf of the other, as well as his, always smaller number (as you perceive it). A rough equity is desirable, but absolute equality is impossible to achieve. As my friend John likes to say, “Buddies don’t count.”
  6. Jealousy of the other’s success or of his closeness to his life partner or additional companions.
  7. The failure to evaluate your own relationship history, including unresolved issues from childhood that might impact your behavior toward the friend.
  8. Excessive self-effacement. Putting the other first to the point he experiences a sense of entitlement and you believe you are taken for granted. The tendency to place another on a pedestal points to likely self-esteem issues  — in you.
  9. The expectation that what you do (perhaps your job, for example), whether in or out of the home, qualifies you for special treatment.
  10. The friend or lover is replaced with someone else, though the betrayal might be a secret.
  11. Faux apologizing. Political style apologies (“I’m sorry if I hurt you”) fail on several levels: the precise nature of the injury isn’t specified, no real responsibility taking occurs unless the “if” is removed, and one needs a concrete plan and desire to prevent more pain, as well as an offer of restitution.
  12. Low priority placed on the relationship. Partners can feel abandoned to the loved one’s dedication to work, substance abuse, favoring a child over the spouse, overcommitment to his family of origin, or hobbies.
  13. Unrealistic expectations of what a good relationship should be.
  14. A tendency to be critical and/or judgmental.
  15. Betrayal. This can take the form of secretly assisting someone who wishes to undermine your buddy; and other, more dramatic acts of infidelity.
  16. A successful grieving process. When estrangement happens, either member of the dyad can begin to mourn the loss of the friend/lover. If he finally comes to be at peace with the rift, his willingness to try again is substantially reduced. He has achieved the much-mentioned state of “moving on.”

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WHAT MIGHT SIGNAL THINGS CAN BE PUT RIGHT?

  1. Both parties want the relationship to resume. Yes, two people start a friendship or romance, and both need to work on putting it together, but only one is needed to end it.
  2. You still possess an abiding love for the other. If memories of the best of times bring a smile and affection, a rekindling of the contact may be possible.
  3. You share a history impossible to replace.
  4. Readiness on both sides to discuss the painful issues face-to-face.
  5. Willingness to accept responsibility. Remember, however, Cheech Marin’s famous line: “Responsibility is a big responsibility, man.”
  6. Self-awareness.
  7. A tendency to appreciate the good qualities in the partner, rather than a blanket vilification of him.
  8. Openness to compromise.
  9. The capacity to review your life and history — the patterns that become apparent — and change them.
  10. Understanding what a sincere and complete apology requires and the desire to deliver it.
  11. An agreement to alter the rules of the relationship, being precise about what the new guidelines require of you, careful not to agree to those conditions you can’t stomach, and putting in place a system that will evaluate the compliance of both people.
  12. Going forward, the assertiveness to communicate future unhappiness before it poisons the relationship.
  13. The capacity to set “counting” aside.
  14. Resolving any jealousies.
  15. Learning to listen and ask questions.
  16. Giving the partner’s well-being increased and abiding priority.
  17. Realism and acceptance of the fact that no relationships in life are ever perfect.
  18. Ultimately, there must be forgiveness, lest the couple take turns in using the past as a weapon. Whether intended or not, the past is as lethal to love as WMD are to nations.

This is not a complete list, but a starting point in your analysis of what went wrong and whether companionship can be put right. The union of two good people doesn’t guarantee a joyous and congenial match. Compatibility isn’t always present.

Redeeming a broken relationship is rarely an easy thing. Be prepared to work hard and hope your partner is equally prepared. If a resumption of your friendship is what you want, do what you can lest you live in regret for not having tried.

I’ll leave you with two quotes about friendship that apply equally to romantic love:

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
― Bob Marley

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
― Linda Grayson

The top image is Bromance at its finest, as sourced from Wikimedia Commons and created by smellyavocado. The second photo, called Strawberry Banana Smoothie, is the work of Courtney Carmody and comes from the same source.

When Sex is Too Much Trouble

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If you are young enough, the idea of sex as a chore is beyond imagining. You know you will change as you age, but the thought of sex as a job, obligation, or — worse yet — too much trouble, is inconceivable (pun intended). You’ve heard, perhaps, of those who lose interest, but don’t really think you ever will; and are too busy with the mating game to put your mind into an unattractive future (in both senses), whether due to the march of time or other factors.

Philip Roth tells us about a re-evaluation of the sexual project, as we read the viewpoint of his narrator in The Human Stain. Indeed, the character’s altered attitude toward sex drove him to move from the city to the seclusion of the countryside:

 My point is that by moving here I had altered deliberately my relationship to the sexual caterwaul, and not because the exhortations or, for that matter, my erections had been effectively weakened by time, but because I couldn’t meet the costs of its clamoring anymore, could no longer marshal the wit, the strength, the patience, the illusion, the irony, the ardor, the egoism, the resilience — or the toughness, or the shrewdness, or the falseness, the dissembling, the dual being, the erotic professionalism — to deal with its array of misleading and contradictory meanings.

The complaint is not unknown. Indeed, some men prefer sex with prostitutes because it takes care of the problems driving Roth’s narrator to isolate himself from sexual encounters altogether. For those men, the exchange of dollars for skin does away with the “misleading and contradictory meanings” and the emotional and behavioral role-playing they find so bothersome.

We do a lot for sex — at least for the connectedness and commitment we hope will come with it. Would the amount spent on cosmetics, hair supplies, skin creams, Viagra, sex toys, personal trainers, gym classes, face lifts, breast implants, hair plugs, mirrors, bar bells, watches, clothing, cars and jewelry total nearly so much without the hope of a sexual or romantic payoff?

How much time is spent choosing those items and activities? How much time in using them? How much time in wondering whether they have done the intended job? How much time observing whether anyone notices?

Sex is in the scent of perfume and pheromones and aftershave. Romance and seduction are on the air of radio broadcasts and TV programming. Sex sells cars, shoes, and itself. But don’t, please don’t point out the obvious: you would be considered crude. By comparison there is some honesty in the professional transaction of money for sex; one could argue, more than is inherent in the pursuit of a trophy spouse or the prospective mate’s willingness to become a sexual hood ornament.

Roth’s point, however, is more subtle than any of these things. He is referring to learning the steps of the mating dance and performing them to perfection, even when you don’t like the music. Part of his concern is the sheer effort involved, the fashioning of disguises, the worry that you are boring, the time to make yourself look good, the forced concentration on the other person while stifling a yawn, the calculations designed to impress, the compromises, the things said to promote yourself, and those unsaid to hide what is unbecoming.

Then there are the questions of strategies and tactics, the intracranial meeting of your own personal staff of generals to call the shots as if you were embarked on a military campaign: when to phone or text, when to touch, when to flatter or smile or laugh, when to be unpredictable and what you can predict about the target’s vulnerabilities and impregnabilities.

If one’s heart is aflutter, an attempt to comprehend what is going on in the relationship is inevitable, despite your flustered, pulsating state of body and mind. Your conception of the union’s status may not coincide with what the other thinks or hopes, but consumes much time and psychic energy. Curiously, Roth’s character does not mention the frank danger of sex. The dreaded risk of injury, the extraordinary vulnerability, the nakedness in every sense, involving every sense.

He seems more concerned with the way one is captured, thrown about, unbalanced by an enticing companion. The brain is pitched into the trash heap because there is no reasoning with all the impulses holding sway. Sex presses you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do and experience half-crazed feelings of pre-relationship desire, early relationship passion, and end-of-relationship desperation.

How do we maintain a full-time job with all this happening?

Some don’t, you know. The burden of the sexual road show can’t bear the tumult or spare the time to do those other things.

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Should you be young enough, the excitement of the chase, not to mention your raging hormones make the carnal marketplace seem the only place to be; an arena that might define you as popular, alluring, or powerful. For a few, this comes naturally. For most, the meat market is a little like being placed on a skating rink before you’ve learned to walk; too much, too soon. Still, our genetic programming pushes us into the fray.

Time strips away the appeal and ratchets up the cost sex exacts, just as Roth suggests. The hormonal flush diminishes gradually, while the desperation mounts. The psychic scars of failed relationships make one hesitate, but the clock is running. Not just the ticking biological time bomb, but the worry you are gradually becoming invisible to members of the opposite sex because your shining externals don’t have the glow of their best years. A receding hairline, or growing waist line tell you your “use by” date is approaching much too fast. Meanwhile there appears no end of competitors who want to take your spot; less weathered or younger or richer or just simply smarter and better looking.

All this is more than enough to make one nauseous, anxious, or depressed.

Some do, temporarily or permanently, throw in the towel — give up on the sex project. You can have a rich life without lust, but it certainly is different from the wildly urgent existence of the sexual being, where youthful animal instinct meets the combustible allure of the primordial creature in heat.

Celibacy meet-up groups exist around the world, although not all of the folks in these are abstinent by choice. Some are like Roth’s fictional character, choosing to be free of the trouble of sex. A portion of those who opt for continence may resist the lure of flesh as a kind of discipline or a way to concentrate on other things and grow personally; perhaps to sublimate their sexual energies, focusing on something beyond and above the narcotic of skin and the grip of Mother Nature’s hard-wired programming.

Resisting temptation is always an interesting and difficult project, so there is doubtless knowledge to be gained in it, much as any kind of philosophical or religious abstinence provides, like a day of fasting.

How long would you travel this solitary highway?

512px-Monique_Olsen

There are as many ways to live as people who are living. One such way could include a span of time without sex. The world is beautiful and forever new if you only look hard enough. Intimacy does not require some sort of penetration of bodies.

For myself, if I were to take a break, I’d schedule a winter in a forbidding place where everyone is covered up.

I’d have lots to do — things of importance to me.

When spring comes and the comely shed their coats?

That would be another matter.

The images, in order: Sexy Secretary Drawing by Dimorsitanos, With Reference to Sexy by Mickey esta en la casa, and Monique Olsen by Christopher Peterson. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This essay is a revised version of The Emotional Cost of Sex, published in 2012.

Levels of Infidelity

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Joe and Laura Hawkins are having marital issues. Laura just left the house without explanation. Joe wonders if she has a lover. He is alone with Anita, the family robot: a “synth” or “synthetic” (pictured above). After a couple of drinks, Joe “turns on” the robot’s sex program and makes use of it. This scene comes from the AMC TV series, “Humans.” The fictional possibility will soon be a present reality.

Question: was Joe unfaithful to Laura? She certainly thought so and kicked him out. The fact that Anita wasn’t “human” was a defense Joe offered — one dismissed by Laura. Where is the line? When do our thoughts, conversations, or physical interactions constitute infidelity?

The easy answer: unfaithfulness consists of sexual intercourse outside of a relationship based on monogamy. But let’s think about other possibilities. You be the judge whether these fit your understanding of “cheating:”

  • Oral sex. Bill Clinton’s statement, “I did not have sex with that woman,” was not especially persuasive.
  • Intercourse with a non-human, including not only an artificial life form, but any living thing. I once treated a lonely woman who copulated with a large dog. She was not being unfaithful (there was no human lover to betray), but her example offers an unusual extra-marital option for those with a partner who is drawn from Homo sapiens.
  • Mutual masturbation.
  • Naked kissing and fondling short of either oral sex or intercourse.
  • Making out and fondling while clothed.

The above five categories all include physical contact with a person who is not your spouse. Might interaction without touching the other be a betrayal of the monogamous promise? Consider the following:

  • Phone sex or other electronic forms of sex play.
  • Fantasizing about someone else while having sex with your significant other.
  • Masturbation to an image of another. Not just pornography — perhaps only a face or a person clothed.
  • Masturbation to the idea (memory) of another without using a visual stimulus.
  • Intimacy without physical contact, e.g. shared personal revelations, and mutual psychological support.
  • Emotional preoccupation with a former lover without any present communication with the person. Indeed, he needn’t be alive any longer.
  • Closeness between a parent and child where the offspring is pressured to be a kind of surrogate spouse, but without sex. The adult shares his troubles with the child. The latter is relied upon to help solve the elder’s problems. Roles are reversed.

As you ponder the question, consider the following true story. An old friend wrote a freshman college essay. The required topic was, “Something to Make the World a Better Place in Which to Live.” My buddy proceeded to describe a masturbation machine. He reasoned that our civilization is full of lonely people without a sexual outlet. Moreover, he believed his invention would cut prostitution and sexual assaults. Such devices now exist, but didn’t then.

What was his reward for an idea before its time? A mandated visit with the school psychiatrist!

Would use of a masturbation machine constitute adultery?

Let’s look at the issue differently. Should infidelity be permissible if

  • your spouse refuses sex? You have not copulated in years.
  • your partner is or was unfaithful, the latter in the recent past?
  • the loved one can’t engage in conjugal relations with you because of a permanent infirmity?
  • the spouse is abusive?
  • you are stranded on a desert island with only one other person. Is it OK if, after a period of years with no hope of rescue, the two of you become Adam and Eve?
  • the husband or wife back home (in the desert island example) at last gives up and begins to date after the same long wait?

In these six conditions, do the special circumstances make the behavior acceptable? In effect, we now have two queries before us:

  1. What is the definition of infidelity?
  2. Are there any conditions which remove the moral stain? Put differently, do you believe fidelity is a moral absolute or dependent on the situation? A moral relativist would refrain from a uniform ethical condemnation without considering the details. The Ten Commandments and similar religious prohibitions, however, exemplify an absolute rule: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

If you believe in any mitigating circumstance — an instance in which adultery is OK — remind yourself that infidelity usually involves hiding the truth or frank lying. The ingredients in an extra-marital potion are a combination of breaking with promised monogamy and deceit.

I’d be delighted to read your comments, short or long, on these questions. I hope you will indulge me.

Remember one other thing: where there are already robotic cars, there will soon be synthetic humans with artificial intelligence (AI) superior to mortals. Not to mention bodies impervious to aging (or replaceable with ones as good or better). Human flaws will have been programmed out, but the creation will possess emotions.

The concerns I’ve raised about extra-marital contact will only get more difficult.

Sooner than you think.