(Marriage Under Siege Pt II)

The notion that the only proper way to fully express sexual love is within a life­long marriage is today under siege, both as a moral and a romantic ideal.

Not only is practical life challenging it, but many respected analysts are suggesting that the old ideas of sex only within marriage and marriage for a lifetime are historically and socially conditioned notions that life and evolution have now rendered obsolete.

Alvin Toffler, for example, remarks how some of the young people at Woodstock (some 25 years ago already) told him that they practised free love there because “we’ll never see any of these people again, so it’s OK! It’s not like our lives are irrevocably tied together. In a situation like this, sex is not something that follows a long process of relationship-building, it’s a shortcut to deeper communication!”

Toffler suggests that, given the high degree of mobility and transience within Western society today, perhaps what was true at Woodstock can now be true for the population at large. The former morality and mystique surrounding sex and marriage, he intimates, made more sense in a culture of little change.

Gloria Steinem, in her latest book, suggests roughly the same thing—the old ideas of sex and marriage are, for most people today, obsolete.

What’s to be said about this? In last week’s column, I suggested that this critique is not without its merits. Here, however, I want to examine its more negative underside.

Steinem, in her call for an end to the old absolutes regarding sex and marriage, submits that we can move on to a new paradigm within which sex can be given ideal expression outside of marriage and within which people can move on to new partners as they move on to new phases in their lives. This, she suggests, can be done in a way that “doesn’t hurt but only enriches.”

She illustrates this with her own story: Some years ago she met a man, they fell in love, became friends, then lovers and then, after some years, both moved on to take on other lovers—but, at the same time, were able to retain a deep and life-giving relationship with each other. She holds this up as possible paradigm for what love, sex and romance might be within a new order.

I am not one to dispute her experience, but I am one to claim that it is most atypical. What she describes rarely happens in such a way that it “doesn’t hurt but only enriches.” More often it leaves in its wake a broken heart, a broken life, bitterness, jealousy, emptiness, suicidal restlessness and depression.

The human heart and the human psyche are evolving and resilient, but they have limits regarding how much they can stretch and what they can healthily absorb. Feelings of fierce jealousy, bitter anger and obsessive depression at losing a relationship are not just culturally conditioned responses.

If they are then the great novelists and poets (Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kundera, Lessing, Browning, among others) are both wrong and naive.

Hearts don’t break through lack of enlightenment. They break when the contours of love are violated, when something unbending within them is bent. Fractured relationships, irrespective of the personal maturity of those who suffer them, often cause precisely this kind of bending.

“The heart has its reasons,” Pascal suggests. Love and sex have their own inner dictates, many of which are a mystery to the understanding. There are aspects of love and sex that simply do not evolve and move on, save for the tearing out of some deep roots within the heart. To suggest that this is not true is to ignore human experience.

Entirely independent of religious considerations, though these might fruitfully be considered, one must be careful in throwing away the old links between sex and marriage and lifelong commitment.

The anger, bitterness, jealousy, depression, chaos and not-so-quiet desperation that most always surround the “evolution to new relationships” are not so much a sign that we need a new paradigm for understanding sex and love, they are the heart’s protest.

The thesis that love and sex are infinitely adaptable, that they have no inherent boundaries that demand a certain exclusivity and fidelity in their most intimate expressions, might be an expression of faith in the evolutionary potential of humanity, but, in the end, it is mistaken, both in terms of morality and romance… and is, I submit, more naive than the naivete of traditional morality and romance that it seeks to enlighten.

The heart has its reasons. It also has it limits. The old morality of sex and marriage, I believe, protected that insight.