When we’re little we delight in simple stories. The characters are not complex and the implicit rules are easy to grasp. The Walt Disney Corporation has made many fortunes from exploiting our desire for easy-to-grasp.
The problems begin to appear as we grow older. The Western fantasy about finding “the one” and strolling happily off into the sunset hand-in-hand do not prepare us in any way for adult interactions and in fact set us up for painful failure. Human nature is the result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, of selection pressures that shaped our brains just as much as they shaped our bodies. Human nature is in no way reducible to a Disneyesque fantasy.
I’ve always been struck by the American phrase “he cheated on me.” It implies that relationships are akin to a children’s board game. No one likes a child who cheats at monopoly; no one likes an adult who cheats at the game of relationships.
Except of course real life isn’t a children’s board game and the rules are very different from what we’ve been told. As a result, millions of people each year experience confusion and pain instead of being able to understand what’s really going on. “If she loved me enough, she wouldn’t have cheated” and “if he wasn’t afraid of commitment we’d have a perfect relationship” are merely two out of many false conclusions based on faulty but unquestioned assumptions.
The fact is, human behavior is dynamic and complex, capable of adapting in some degree to different circumstances and yet also quite predictable and fundamentally fixed for the most part. As we begin to understand human behavior better, the Disneyeque fairytales fall by the wayside and can be replaced with more adequate notions. And when we do this, not only do we avoid a lot of unnecessary confusion and pain but we can also expand ourselves to become more human, more humane, and more connected with one another.
Rather than write about abstractions I’m going to draw on my own personal experiences to convey a little of what I mean, because we all learn better from stories than from academic theses.
A few years back I was traveling with my second wife around Europe. We were in Venice for three nights and we spent the days walking everywhere, enjoying its splendors and all the tiny architectural details that draw the eye so unexpectedly. On the second day we had lunch in a restaurant about a kilometer from our hotel. As we left the restaurant my wife told me that when she’d gone to the toilet our tall handsome waiter had followed her in, gripped her firmly, and kissed her passionately while running his hands all over her.
“Was it exciting?” I asked.
“So why don’t you go back there and see what happens?”
What happened was, she returned to the restaurant and had what turned into a two-hour adventure that was thoroughly enjoyable for both of them. And when she returned to our hotel later, we had three hours of our own very hot catch-up sex so everyone gained from the experience.
I didn’t torment myself with questions about why love wasn’t enough, nor obsess over whether he’d have a bigger penis or more stamina, nor believe that there was a fundamental flaw in our relationship. I simply recognized that an erotic situation had presented itself and we had a choice: run away or run towards. Growth comes from the latter. Her experiences helped her become a fuller version of herself, which in turn enabled me to enjoy her more.
When we stop thinking about relationships as a child’s board game, we become capable of being so much more than stunted and fearful people trying to control our partners lest they discover “better” options elsewhere.
Of course, not everyone will either want nor have the emotional stability to be open to this kind of approach. My marriage was atypical in that we enjoyed each other greatly as people, our sex drives were compatible (even after six years of marriage we averaged three times per day), and we both had low jealousy and low insecurity. We’re all different, and we need to learn by trial and error what works for us and what doesn’t. There’s no one-size-fits-all. Yet I do believe that we could all use a little more honesty and bravery when it comes to fashioning our adult relationships.
I read a report a few years ago that said in the USA 90% of respondents would never risk sharing their sexual fantasies with their partners lest they be judged or be thought perverted. I’ve always shared my fantasies and encouraged my partners to share theirs. It’s how we learn and grow. Sometimes fantasies are best left as wonderful acts of imagination; sometimes it’s empowering to make them come true. One of my partners liked to masturbate while fantasizing about licking my semen out of the pussy of another woman I’d just fucked. We had the opportunity to turn this into reality and she loved it even more than she’d imagined.
We also had our share of things that didn’t work out as we’d hoped. We learned just as much from these experiences as from the ones that were hot and wet and provided lots of mind-blowing orgasms.
When we learn to stop being afraid we can find a much larger and safer world than we ever thought possible. The first step is to understand that we can’t cheat at real life. We can just make choices.