Patrick Sullivan responds to Ben Machell’s Love & Sex: The End of Monogamy?
All my life, I’ve believed in marriage. The idea of being with one person for the rest of my life and being happily in love appealed to both the idealist and the romantic in me. While I could see that forty-two percent of marriages ended in divorce, I’d focus on the fifty-eight percent which stayed together. I’ve convinced myself the latter were happily married couples, both parties satisfied with matrimony. But what do I know? I’m not even married myself.
And then I read the Times Magazine last Saturday, as I do every week. If you recall, it was a special “Love and Sex” edition for Valentine’s Day. What ensued was an eye-opening experience. My ideals of monogamy were thrown into a jar full of lust, infidelity, the devil, and Tinder, all shaken up, and then poured back over my delicate, red-velvet-cake-of-a-life philosophy with all the palatability of gravy. No article in the edition had more of an effect on me than Ben Machell’s. (Well, maybe the one with the married couple who actively used Tinder and told each other every single detail of their frivolous, extramarital dates.) And the worse thing about this article?
It nearly convinced me.
Dubious at first-- the idea of dwindling intimacy in a marriage is not exactly a Dyson hand-dryer in terms of originality-- my interest escalated when Dr Helen Fisher’s TED talk was mentioned. An anthropologist, her inclusion in the argument brought a much needed shift away from the overused concept that “in many long-term relationships the supply of sex is low” towards how polyamory is developing within our society. Fisher’s ideas about how female empowerment and Darwinian theories have contributed to the sharp increase in infidelity made sense even to me, the greatest of objectors.
Yes, males need to spread their genes around for the species to survive and all that, but surely the survival instinct is lesser now as one of a multi-billion population? Well, apparently, that’s counterbalanced by the near gender equality in earnings. The more parity in the income of men and women, the less reliant wives are on their husbands. It all makes sense.
And we’re all living longer. So suddenly “I’ll love you for the rest of my life” actually means “I’ll love you for the rest of my life and then those extra thirty years we get when we self-indulgently prolong ourselves in a high quality NHS care home, where we can not only share our lives, but also our antibiotics.” A lot harder to do when you put it like that. We continue expecting our lifestyles to improve throughout our longer lives, not only to stay alive, but to experience new things and people, remaining both mentally and physically active. What we demand of ourselves, we seem to demand of others more.
Our long, long futures make monogamy seem restrictive, perhaps unsustainable. They give us the sort of self-importance needed to think maybe more than one person deserves our ever-so-fruitful love, which, as Fisher remarks (I was compelled to watch the whole TED talk), is something we’re very capable of. This is because different hormones: testosterone or oestrogen (gender dependent), dopamine, and oxytocin control lust, romantic love, and attachment respectively.
But what I picked up from Fisher’s talk (which Machell didn’t) was the great George Bernard Shaw quotation: “Love is a gross exaggeration of the difference between one person and everybody else”. Phwoar. Mind blown or what? When in love, it feels like that. If I get married, that’s what I want to feel anyway. Even though I’m sure he meant it in the most cynical of ways, Shaw summed up for me what distinguishes love from admiration.
But was Shaw’s view an exaggeration of difference or similarity? Drawn together by their research, Marie and Pierre Curie shared a love for science and each other, enjoying a marriage until Pierre’s tragic death in a road accident. They worked together with extraordinary rewards, their chemistry leading to success in… well, chemistry. Marie had endured an arduous journey before meeting Pierre, arriving in France a poverty stricken student from Poland. By finding him, she found the passionate and inspirational basis needed to fulfil her potential as a scientist.
And that’s my trump card in defending the traditions of marriage. The classic, historical, rags-to-riches tale involving love, success and happiness, the sort of story which established my unrealistic expectations and the sort I go to when in need of assurance. This was what I was brought up with; I was indeed raised with the wishful mentality that for everybody on this planet, there is one person for them, who they will marry, living happily ever after. What worries me is this could be usurped by the sex-friendly generation who take glorified fan-fiction ahead of C.S. Lewis in the all-time book sales. (Yes, that’s right: I don’t like 50 Shades of Grey. That’s awful, I realise. I’m a terribly narrow-minded individual.)
But then again, four years after the death of her husband, Marie Curie had an affair with another scientist- a married scientist at that. She was infatuated with him. Before I delve into what happens to true love when one person dies and the other stays alive, I’m going to stop because my bubble’s already been burst. My argument’s in ruins.
The truth is I know nothing. I don’t think any of us do- those who have been married for years then divorced, those who claim to be wildly in love, or those who seem to be eternally single. We know nothing. But we can still believe in something. And, no matter what evidence is thrown in my face, I will always believe that marriage can be relevant, even if merely the expectation of it is keeping us decent.
Either that or I’m still just being a stubborn idealist.