One sunny afternoon in early autumn, while I was busy dissecting the reproductive organs of the Arctic Skate (Amblyraja hyperborea) for my Zoology practical when my biology teacher, Mr Ernest Neal, famed for discovering the phenomenon of delayed implantation in the Badger (Meles meles), leaned over my shoulder, took one look at what I was doing and commented dreamily ‘You know Read, sex is a wonderful thing’. Momentarily caught off guard, I replied, ‘Yes sir, I suppose it must be.’ It was 1963. I was just 18. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had told us, ‘we had never had it so good’. That was all very well, but some of us – late developers sequestered in private schools, had never had it at all!
Falling in love is for many the most exciting time of their lives: that first frisson of attraction, those awkward conversations, the agony of waiting for that special call, then the joy of being together and finally the thrill of discovering each other: body, mind and soul. Intimate relationships are so powerful: caught between desire and despair, people in love can feel blissfully confident and happy one moment only to be cast into a pit of despair the next.
Something magical happens when we fall in love. It is like we have drunk a love potion, but in reality, we have been suffused with the love hormone, oxytocin, released from the posterior pituitary gland by the touch or just the presence of the beloved. Oxytocin enhances the sensitivity of the erogenous zones, the breasts, genitalia, lips, the side of the neck and the back of the knee. It modulates the activity of the autonomic nervous system, allowing encroachment without resistance and immobilisation without fear. Any residual sense of wariness and distrust is abolished in that red glow of desire. Oxytocin breaks down personal boundaries and lets another person approach, touch and even penetrate one’s body.
Sex is the climax of courtship, but it represents so many different things. For a man it may be conquest and possession; the culmination of ‘the chase’. For a woman, it is more a matter of trust, an opening out and letting-go, feeling safe, valued and cared for. Such sexual stereotypes may seem a little outmoded in 2017; nevertheless, for both men and women, sex is an affirmation of their relationship, an unspoken contract which binds them together, but it comes with conditions. The culmination of all one’s yearnings has, in one impetuous spurt of semen, become beset with expectations and obligations.
So sex can indeed be a wonderful thing, but it also carries with it powerfully ambivalent feelings of desire, anxiety, possession, doubt, distrust and even boredom.
“And at home by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be— and whenever I look up, there will be you.”
The quote was spoken by Gabriel Oak to Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. One senses that the sturdy walls of Gabriel’s Dorset farmhouse have closed around Bathsheba. She will never again be a free spirit. Sergeant Troy is but an exciting memory.
So, what happens when sex turns from being the joyous culmination of frustration and desire to a ritual, beset with expectation, obligation, worry and boredom, not to mention the occasional admixture of shame and guilt? As couples grow together, live together, bring up children together, go away together, does the merging of their personalities, the consolidation of their partnership, induce a familiarity that eclipses their individuality and their attraction? We want our partner to think like us, but if they are too like us, it can become predictable and boring. How can you stay in love with somebody who is just like you? There has to be a degree of separation and distance to sustain our interest. All too often, that heady excitement of discovery is sacrificed for what may turn out to be a suffocating routine. No longer can you do just what you like; everything is a joint decision.
I may be an old cynic, but I am not implying that this happens in all relationships. Some happy couples manage to remain themselves within their partnership, retaining their own interests and friendships but still enjoying the comfort and interest of being together.
But so many other couples become so close they lose themselves in each other. Such interdependency requires absolute trust, but how possible is that? Little acts of autonomy, like meeting friends, differences of opinion, negotiation over money can so easily be magnified into big issues that may threaten the whole partnership, but are, if they could only see it, ways of asserting their independence in a relationship that has become stifling. As doubts creep in and disagreements magnify, such couples come to learn, with some sense of alarm, that their partner is a different person; they cannot trust ‘the love of their life’ to think or behave as they do. Every sign of difference can become a threat, a sense of betrayal that carries with it a risk of rejection and isolation. After all the expectations and hope, they come to realise they are still fundamentally alone. Nevertheless, they hang on in a partnership that doesn’t fulfil their needs for trust and companionship, putting up with the daily frustrations, demands and irritations, partly because of their loyalties to the children, but often because they fear the devastation of divorce, the loneliness and the anxiety of dating again.
And so, the petty grievances, frustrations and disappointments mount up behind a mask of indifference, adding to the burden of tension and depression which cannot never be properly expressed, but just tire them out, make their head ache and wrench their guts out of kilter.
This post was inspired by Susie Orbach’s excellent book, entitled ‘The Impossibility of Sex’ , though it is my own take on it.
My next two posts will explore why and how some people can find themselves in difficult relationships, how these can undermine their health and what they can do about it.