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Tuesday, December 15, 2009 A Little More on Savage Love
I just can't quit this guy. If you want to see what I mean by calling Dan Savage the Better Business Bureau of the Sex and Relationships Mall, setting the rules by which rationally-optimizing firms enter into and depart from relations of mutual advantage, read the last letter he published last week and his response. Here's the letter:
I'm a straight guy in my late 20s. I have a girlfriend of several years whom I live with and I love very much. I just read your most recent column, in which you used the acronyms HND (honest nonmonogamous dude) and CPOS (cheating piece of shit), and it struck a nerve. I have never been an HND; I have in the past been a CPOS (though not in this relationship). My girlfriend is lovely, supportive, and generally GGG, and though the sex is good, I have a significantly higher libido than she does and I would like to have a little more variety in my sex life. I want to be an HND, but I don't know how to broach the subject with the girlfriend without ruining our relationship. We are very open about our sex life and our relationship in general, but I think this is probably a "next level" topic that may not go over very well. How do I bring this up without screwing up our relationship beyond repair? —Aspiring Honest Nonmonogamous Dude
I highlighted a few things that jumped out at me in this letter. The guy says only good things about his girlfriend of several years with whom he lives. He obviously wants to keep her. But he wants more sex than she does and he wants to have it with different people. He's cheated in the past and would like permission to do so in the future. So how do you answer his query?
A lot depends on how important you think it is to aspire to monogamy (the whole package--physical and emotional) as an ideal. This guy doesn't seem interested in that. He wants to keep his loving, GGG, open, live-in girlfriend but he wants some action on the side. So what does Dan tell him?
Based on what you've learned about yourself in past relationships, AHND, i.e., that you're a CPOS waiting to happen, I would encourage you to err on the side of screwing up your current relationship with an honest conversation about your mismatched libidos and your natural and normal desire for a little variety. Lies, damn lies, and statistics all demonstrate that, in time, one or the other or both of you will cheat. Better to toss that out there now, even at the risk of calmly winding down this relationship before you revert to CPOS form, than to see the relationship explode after someone, most likely you, winds up cheating.
A conversation about these things is a good idea--indeed, it's something I push in pre-marital counseling. But a conversation that can have only two possible outcomes--1) you let me sleep around or 2) the relationship ends--is not fair if you really love someone, live with them, and have taken up some years of their life. In other words, this guy really should prepare himself to take 'no' for an answer if, as he says, he loves this sexually open and giving and supportive girlfriend. Better yet, he should be open about his past failings (and they are failings) and talk honestly about what would help him avoid falling into the same behavior. My guess is that this would involve some compromise between the two libidos in question (more than she's eager for, less than he desires).
But that is what a real relationship requires. It involves putting aside some things we want (sex with various people) in order to have things that are more important (a trusting, open relationship with one person we love "very much"). A lot of people are bad at that and need to work at it over and over again, but no one will succeed if they give up in advance or define failure as either inevitable or not really failure.
And the sad fact is that unless Dan Savage and people who take this view manage to get a large body of people to feel crappy for wanting a sexual partner all to themselves, this CPOS-to-be will have a lonely life ahead of him. In the perfect free market of sexual relations, there are an infinite number of firms with which you can do business. In reality, however, you can't just comparison-shop until you find the perfect product. Look at what Dan is advising this guy to do if his "lovely, supportive, and generally GGG" girlfriend doesn't green-light any women on the side: to "calmly [wind] down this relationship." So he can do--what, exactly? Find another totally awesome girlfriend he loves very much, spends several years with, and shares a residence with but who doesn't mind him having sex with other women? Or the above with a libido that can match his at every point?
In case anyone out there is yearning for advice, here's mine: Nobody gets everything. Hell, even Tiger Woods doesn't get everything. You think he's having as much sex as he wants to have right now? I highly doubt it. All of us will learn this one way or another at some point in our lives (even if it's at the utmost extremity). I'll happily grant that sex is important, really important--indeed, part of the idea behind monogamy is that it ties sexual satisfaction together with the other good things in life. But it's not the only important thing. Trust and assurance and mutuality are important too, and for most of us those things relate to what their partners do with other people.
This doesn't mean that any of us should get on our high horses when we hear about Tiger Woods or anything else, or that we should view monogamy in punitive terms. People have never been very good at it and I don't expect us to get much better. But what we say about it matters. It speaks to who we are and what love is and what constitutes a real relationship between people.2:48 PM
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