“Marriage,” notes Alain de Botton in one of many pithy observations in The Course of Love, “is a deeply peculiar and ultimately unkind thing to inflict on anyone one claims to care for.” And no more so, perhaps, than when it comes to sex.
De Botton suggests that there is a fundamental contradiction between love and monogamy:
“If love is to be defined as a genuine concern for the well-being of another person, then it must surely be deemed compatible with granting permission for an often harassed and rather browbeaten husband to step off the elevator on the eighteenth floor in order to enjoy ten minutes of rejuvenating cunnilingus with a near stranger. Otherwise it may seem that what we are dealing with is not really love at all but rather a kind of small-minded and hypocritical possessiveness, a desire to make one’s partner happy if, but only if, that happiness involves oneself.”
De Botton suggests that the near-universal value we place on monogamy (a value so ingrained that attempts at polyamory often founder on jealousy) has a religious origin:
“In the West, we owe to Christianity the view that sex should only ever rightly occur in the presence of love. The religion insists that two people who care for each other must reserve their bodies, and their gaze, for each other alone. To think sexually about strangers is to abandon the true spirit of love and to betray God and one’s own humanity. Such precepts, at once touching and forbidding, have not entirely evaporated along with the decline of the faith that once supported them. Shorn of their explicitly theistic rationale, they seem to have been absorbed into the ideology of Romanticism, which accords a similarly prestigious place to the concept of sexual fidelity within the idea of love. In the secular world, too, monogamy has been declared a necessary and crowning expression of emotional commitment and virtue. Our age has strikingly maintained the essential drift of an earlier religious position: the belief that true love must entail wholehearted fidelity.”
In an age where contraception has separated sex and pregnancy, shouldn’t such fidelity be unnecessary?
“It is, so its adherents conclude, just as absurd to suppose that one should only ever have sex with the person one loves as it would be to require that only those in committed couples ever be permitted to play table tennis or go jogging together.”
“This remains, in the current age, the minority view by a very wide margin… Despite the liberal atmosphere of our time, it would be naive to assume that the distinction between “weird” and “normal” has disappeared. It stands as secure as ever, waiting to intimidate and herd back into line those who would question the normative limits of love and sex. It may now be deemed “normal” to wear cutoff shorts, expose belly buttons, marry someone of either gender, and watch a little porn for fun, but it also remains indispensably “normal” to believe that true love should be monogamous and that one’s desire should be focused exclusively on one person.”
The problem, suggests de Botton, is that, for many people, love is “a quest to find love rather than to give it, to be loved rather than to love”. We want to feel special, to be the sole object of our lover’s attention, not one of many. Romanticism tells us that we should be all our lover needs. This value is so deeply ingrained in us that most of us cannot feel loved if we know that our lover is sleeping with someone else.
What’s the answer? De Botton concludes that there isn’t one:
“Adventure and security are irreconcilable, he sees. A loving marriage and children kill erotic spontaneity, and an affair kills a marriage. A person cannot be at once a libertine and a married Romantic, however compelling both paradigms might be. He doesn’t downplay the loss either way. Saying good-bye to Lauren means safeguarding his marriage but it also means denying himself a critical source of tenderness and elation. Neither the love rat nor the faithful spouse gets it right. There is no solution.”