Forget Universal Love (Pt2) – A Case For Healthy Sexual Possessiveness

Though Pt1 of this rant encapsulates the majority of what I wanted to communicate (and thank goodness, given its length) I have nevertheless stumbled on some better ways to express the general idea, thanks in no small part to the comments from Paul and Joe, my friend Jacque, and the books of Roger Scruton and Rollo May.

It has been a pervasive misunderstanding in our post-sexual revolution world that sexual possessiveness is unhealthy; that to love something you must not just be willing to set it free, but to in fact set it free. After all, if you don’t actually set it free, how do you know that you were truly ever willing to; that you were not just paying someone with cheap feeling? This line of reasoning leads one to conflate all feelings of possessiveness, all feelings of having rights to another person’s being, as somehow sickly, needy, and codependent (in the clinical sense). Thus the lovers of our generation strive with ascetic resolve to not need their partners, which plays so nicely into the game of the sexual marketplace: if I show interest, you lose interest, as we only pursue that which retreats from us. What a wonderful way of eliminating exposure, gaining interpersonal power, of never truly committing to anyone, or having to demand commitment in return. Living in this strange schizophrenic position, where our true feelings (we are told) are not true at all, but some vestigial genetic inconvenience, some biological trick that nature is playing on us in an attempt to pass on genetic material, we approach loving relationships with a deep longing for intimate connection combined with a stolid conviction that such a connection might be severed at any time despite whatever rights we may (mistakenly) feel we are entitled to. In loving relationships–erotic and otherwise–we are thus placed in the position of the Tibetan monk who carefully crafts a mandala, caring about it and investing in it, but all with the perfect certainty that it will be destroyed upon completion. The monk does this to acclimatize himself to loss and impermanence, to practice non-attachment, but let me ask you this: can that monk possibly love his creation as much as someone who (the monk will claim at least) is pathologically addicted to the illusion of its permanence? Of course not. The very point of his exercise is to feel less intensely and passionately about the things of this world. Oh he can still feel compassion towards people, probably even more “universally” than the non-Buddhist, but then again he is spending most of his time making and destroying his own art, meditating, chanting, reading, and in some slightly more genuine cases purposefully abusing his body, instead of going out into the world and loving people, deeply, and yes, sometimes possessively. (If you are getting nailed by your “Buddhist” guru, I would consider questioning his non-attachment, but I digress….)

We realize that even when in a loving romantic relationship we still get curious about other potential partners, we sometimes have crushes and innocent fantasies, and thus we too would like to be set free to pursue our every impulse, as if this was the best way to promote well-being. However, as Roger Scruton notes, “The thinking here embodies a fallacy that is replicated whenever the desire for good things impetuously cancels any attempt to understand the connections between them.” This ‘aggregation fallacy’ is easy enough to spot, and is deeply rooted in New Age ideas of universal love and compassion. Having a friend is good. Having two friends must then be twice good. Thus, having a thousand friends is exactly that many times better! Right? Of course not. Pizza is good, ketchup is good, and chocolate is good, but the combination would be noxious and disgusting because we have failed to be discerning about the causal connections between these things that we have haphazardly thrown into the “good” box without making note of any other attribute they each may have. Truly having a thousand (actual/close) friends would be a nightmare and certainly wouldn’t be very edifying for any one of those thousand to know that they are a “friend,” equal in every way to all others, and having rights to equally one-thousandth of your time.

Many anthropologists assert that human beings can only cognitively handle around one hundred and fifty meaningful human connections (without the aid of modern digital technologies and online social networks, which ease the cognitive load involved in juggling larger numbers)–a theory known as Dunbar’s Number. However, ignoring the obvious cognitive limitations and the limitations on our time, we must also recognize that inviting all one hundred fifty of our close friends to our birthday party will not produce the desired one hundred and fifty times the fun/intimacy/good that the aggregation fallacy would have us believe. Half of our friends might hate the other half, for example. Each person brings such a rich diversity of attributes to the mix that it is extremely difficult to predict what kind of soup will result from combining people in such numbers. Though our modern digital age allows us to thwart Dunbar’s Number to a certain extent, ultimately one only has so much time, energy, and patience to give, and thus the greater exposure offered by the online social network does much to stir the pot; stirring in ever more ingredients haphazardly. Serendipity most often results, of course, but not always. A friend doesn’t answer her phone for a week and later claims that she simply didn’t have time, but we can see that she did have time to post to Facebook four hundred photos of herself making sexy faces at her own camera in the bathroom of some nightclub. How could we not feel snubbed? But nowhere is this complication of modern life more apparent than in romantic relationships. Not only will we accidentally run across more information about our lover’s previous romantic partners than is healthy, but we can also “creep” their profiles, compare ourselves with them, post things in public places where we know they will accidentally run across them, or even reach out and contact them directly (never mind their ability to do the same to us). In this way, the digital age has actually added much more to our social information load, however much it speeds up communication and collaboration. Moreover, we likely have to spend much more mental energy sifting through the facade of digital “self-expression” in order to discern the real person underneath.

Returning to our point about sexual jealousy, why can’t we just decide to have sex with people without getting attached? Buddhism sounds pretty cool and its all about non-attachment, right? This way, nobody gets jealous, because nobody is getting attached to begin with, but everyone gets to experience sexual love. Sounds great, right? Buried in this twisted logic is the evasion of one very simple truth: sexual love just is romantic love. The assumption of their separability has been a profoundly damaging misunderstanding (thanks a lot Plato!). There are two forms of human intimacy, which are of course deeply and intricately connected: physical and spiritual (verbal/emotional/intellectual, etc). Erotic love requires both, where the love between friends (agape) requires only spiritual intimacy. The only way that I see a romantic relationship working properly is if massive sanctions are placed on physical intimacy outside that relationship, and lesser sanctions placed on spiritual intimacy outside that relationship. To justify the latter claim, just imagine that your lover’s friends know her, know where she is at both intellectually and emotionally, know her dreams and plans way better than you do. If this doesn’t make you a bit uneasy, then you are just not in love with your lover. Now of course your lover should not be burdened with the responsibility of being your “everything,” or your sole confidant, or the only person with which you are completely honest. However, the fact that you are physically intimate, discounting even the complications and obligations related to pregnancy, nonetheless makes your lover’s plans, emotional states, values, and beliefs and so forth your business in a way that is unjustified in mere friendship.

Once you open up physical intimacy to persons outside the romantic relationship, what actually remains that makes your romantic relationship special, unique, or valuable? Does it not become of equivalent value as any other close friendship that you have? While that is not a total disaster on the face of it, don’t we like the idea of some relationship that is more special than friendship? Friendship is great and all that, but it’s so cool that we can have something even better than friendship! The tradeoff is that we must necessarily limit our other friendships for this “something greater” to even exist! Moreover, this is not just a matter of creating this unique, special relational space above the space of friendship, it is also about appreciating the limitations of human nature that we tend to ignore in favor of the aggregation fallacy. The ‘free love, open relationship, screw any of your friends that you find attractive’ equation is nothing short of mutual prostitution and cannot help but run afoul of human nature for two reasons:

1) it dilutes the amount of time you spend with each partner (lover) and dilutes the amount of intimacy of a physical and spiritual nature that you can derive from any of these “friendships.” After all, how many times and with how many people do we really need to share an interesting experience, idea, or perspective? Even those arrogant enough to write a blog get sick of the sound of their own voice eventually. Furthermore, even a nymphomaniac has their limitations when it comes to sexual output (to say nothing of nerve sensitivity).
2) it disregards the possessiveness and sexual jealousy that are ineradicable from the human condition–ineradicable, that is, unless you seriously undermine the value of the objects that you delude yourself into believing you are valuing in your supposed egalitarianism

With this in mind, it is my opinion that at any given time one lover should be “enough” for you in terms of physical intimacy, sexual stimulation, and romantic affirmation, provided that all of the following are satisfied:

1) you have been with other lovers and satisfied some of that natural curiosity which can only be sated with experience

2) your lover is sexually compatible with you (is not sexually dull or defective in some way)

3) you are heterosexual as opposed to bisexual (bisexuality being a subject I do not understand very well at the moment)

4) your lover is available to fill your quota of affection, sex, and emotional intimacy

5) you both have previously discovered your core passions and interests (such that there is no need to invest in the other every hope of spiritual fulfillment)

What is the litmus test for whether your lover is “enough for you”? Simply that you are not suffering or even moderately uncomfortable when in the presence of an innocent crush or someone you are attracted to sexually. If you are truly in love with someone, deeply in love, you have everything you need to sit in front of another attractive person without needing them sexually at all; staring back at them with complete confidence, power, and freedom. Yes, freedom. Freedom does not mean the absence of all restriction because sometimes greater freedom is attained by means of imposed boundaries and limitations. Civil society is a good example.

“There is and always will be love outside marriage. But it is love, and not some other power, which requires the forms of marriage. In these forms the violence of love is ended, while its strength remains.” -Scruton

Now I don’t think that modern marriage contacts are exactly what are required here, but some form of commitment is required, even if just a verbal promise of one’s intentions to give it a fair shot, in order to lessen the violence of romantic love that is otherwise under implicit threat at every turn. Perhaps nuptials are another case of being “forced to be free” (Rousseau)? If you find yourself deeply drawn to other potential lovers, there is something either wrong with you or something wrong with your relationship. I do not mean “wrong” in a moral sense, but in the sense that you are out of alignment with the project of a long term romantic relationship. This becomes morally wrong if kept from your partner, however, as you are leading him or her on under false pretenses. If you indeed love the other person, this is the time to practice letting him or her go. “But why,” you may ask, “do I strongly feel like cheating when I am already in love?” You could be feeling weak or insecure because of family trauma in your past or a failed career in the present, and this may draw you sexually to someone outside your romantic relationship, drawing you powerfully enough that you are actually suffering for not capitulating to your desires, but this is no reflection on the adequacy of your lover to be enough for you! Perhaps you aim to level the playing field by using your sexuality to your advantage, but that is your problem and would be your problem regardless of who you were with romantically. Insofar as your romantic partner has committed to giving it a shot with you, it is your moral obligation to both suck it up for the time being, deal with your erotic transference, and work on the underlying problem (which rests with you alone), or simply fess up and leave. If we do not hold this moral obligation as sacred, then we have lost the very foundation that preserves romantic love, which is a unique love that aims at the possibility of a lifelong connection of soul mates, which though rare, are only more valuable for being so. The corollary to the above litmus test is that (provided the above five conditions are met on your end) you should not feel insecure, jealous, or possessive if your lover is treating you right and taking your feelings into account when he/she acts. Jane Austin makes this point better than I could:

“No man is offended by another man’s admiration of the woman he loves, it is the woman only who can make it a torment.”

This is the only way to be both free of the feeling of romantic jealousy, etc, while placing your relationship on a path that has a chance of lasting. You are free from these feelings not because you have ceased to be possessive or jealous, but because jealous or possessive actions have been rendered irrelevant. These feelings lose their relevance when they are properly attended to. What a beautiful picture: intensely passionate love that remains entirely fulfilling while ceasing to be attended by violent feelings of jealousy or insecurity.

Social psychologist Robert Vallerand found that unbridled or obsessive passion, passion in which a person subjugated his own sense of self to an “excessive” attachment to the other person, was patently unhealthy. But what is “excessive”? After all, our significant other does add quite a bit to our social identity, to say nothing of the myriad ways in which that person becomes an extension of ourselves–especially when they help us grow in ways we otherwise wouldn’t have. Couples can rely on each other in healthy ways, provided they have their own interests and passions that allow a separate identity. Roger Scruton makes an interesting distinction here between consumption and possession. Consumption involves a commodity that is expendable and replaceable, whereas a possession is desired as an end in itself and thus becomes an extension of the possessor. Scruton’s book, for example, has become an extension of myself and is thus never consumed. Today’s culture views sexual passion through the lens of consumption, filling the soul with illusions in the same way that Marx warned of the “fetishism of commodities.” Romantic love and marriage have possession rather than consumption as their end, granting each person a right not of ownership of the other person, but rather ownership of the relationship, which is something greater than the two of them.

This entry was posted in Free Will and Responsibility, Human Movitation, Morality & Ethics, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Forget Universal Love (Pt2) – A Case For Healthy Sexual Possessiveness

  1. Michael says:

    Buddhist concepts are easy to misunderstand in an intellectual context. They quickly become theoretically extreme and bizarrely esoteric. The practice is meant to be used for personal development within your own life. The goal of non-attachment doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have committed relationships. Their is wisdom in emotions. Jealousy has its place. A better example of non-attachment in a Buddist view would be to not hold onto feelings of lust for a woman outside your marriage. Cheating in your relationships will lead to chaos and unhappiness eventually.

  2. Michael, agreed. My comments were a function of living in San Francisco at the time and being exposed to far too many “diet-Buddhists” I think.

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