Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Men, women, and what-ifs

Andrew Sullivan has a couple good posts up, in response to Douthat's piece, about "premature monogamy." Before discussing those, I'll make a plug for Léon Blum's Du mariage, summed up, for those who can read French but are not about to track down the whole thing, here. The idea that it's dangerous for men and women to marry the first person they sleep with was not invented in 2011.

Anyway, here I'm with Sullivan 100%: "What I find unpersuasive is Ross's dichotomy. There's either pre-marital monogamy or everything else: 'casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.' In real human lives, isn't this a spectrum rather than a binary choice?" That, yes, and as Dan Savage correctly points out, one-night stands can lead to serious relationships, even ones that lead to - gasp - families, whereas waiting some socially-acceptable amount of time does not mean two people will reveal themselves to be compatible, sexually or otherwise. In a sense, there's nothing worse than two people deciding that theirs will be a Serious Relationship, that they're Serious Relationship people, who go about things in a Serious Relationship way, only to realize that they should probably be having their serious relationships with other people, and have been wasting time with each other.

Here, not so much: "Many men especially, to my mind, should be wary of marrying the first person they fall for or have sex with." Why "men especially"? Madame Bovary, people! Women, being human and all, will of course wonder what else is out there if they marry the first guy who comes along, and what might they do in such situations? Cheating comes to mind, as does filing for divorce. I guess the myth that women innately want to marry and reproduce with the man they lose their virginity to lives on, because otherwise I can't see where Sullivan is getting that there would be a gender difference on this.

If we do as everyone from Savage to social conservatives to anyone who's seen the mess of (many, not all) divorces when kids are involved urges and Think of the Children, what we ought to want is for the relationships in which people actually have children to last. Which means we should care less about the durability of relationships among high school juniors, and more about those of couples in their mid-20s and up, people likely not to be in their first-ever relationships. (Our hopes for 16-year-olds should be that whatever it is they do, children don't result.) And for adult men and women, a great way not to wonder what else is out there is to know what else is out there.

Skeptics will claim that see-what-else-is-out-their-first suggestions are asking young people to be too picky, or to believe that they will find The One if they only sort through every other person on earth first. Meanwhile, some young men and women do interpret it in this way, which becomes more of a problem for the women, who will go, within the span of five minutes, from too-young-to-settle-down to (being labeled as) too old. Which maybe explains Sullivan's point about it being more dangerous for men than women to settle down too soon - it's not so much that women are delighted with the first guy who comes along, that they're immune to the what-ifs, but that the consequences for women if another guy doesn't come along soon are greater than those for men if they dump their first girlfriend and have to wait half a decade for the second.

What should really happen is... a couple things. One, experience, not age, should be the central factor in determining what's "premature" when it comes to settling down. Two, "experience" need not be defined by a particular sex act. It's entirely reasonable to want to reserve the riskier ones (and different people draw the line different places) for certain relationships. Then you avoid a lot of the what-ifs, while at the same time allowing couples who are "so young" (under 30-35, that is, with variety according to region/subculture) to stay together without constantly reminding them there's more out there.

Caveat time: I don't think, in the cases when a first love is going swimmingly and neither party is experiencing what-ifs, the couple ought to break up to see what else is out there. They'd be well-advised not to reproduce before attending prom, but there's no reason for them to end things out of principle. Even following Savage's dictum (why does that sound dirty?) and accepting that there is no "The One," but many Ones, the fact is that some people aren't that curious in this area, or that compatible with that many people, and would be well-advised to stick with the first viable partner they find, even if that is, indeed, their first ever.

No comments: