Progressive relationship norms and human nature collide

Thanks that was fun
Don’t forget, no regrets
Except maybe one
Made a deal not to feel
God, that was dumb

— Barenaked Ladies, Thanks That Was Fun

2012 bears almost no resemblance to 1912. We have technologies now that our forefathers never even dreamed of. Thanks in large part to the advent of contraception, we also have what seems like a million new options for how to define our sexual relationships. Traditional marriages. Same-sex marriages (where legal). Civil unions. Commonlaw marriages. Open marriages. Domestic partners. One-night stands. Friends with benefits.

I’m a pretty progressive guy, and I have no moral objection to any of these options. I certainly don’t like it when religious (or, worse, governmental) authorities try to dictate sexual behavior. Do what you want to do. Knock yourself out.

The problem with some of these options, however, is the murkiness. Call it hubris if you like, but I’ve watched so many people who thought they could defy the odds end up in a world of emotional pain when things don’t work out according to a neat little plan. Friends who attempt to add in “benefits” often shatter their friendships.

The fact is that people are not robots, and we invariably become emotionally invested in our sexual partners to some degree. Sex is an intensely intimate thing, and it can get really messy really fast. No set of rules and no sophisticated contract can cover up our human need to have and to hold.

This is not to say that you cannot possibly sustain a string of meaningless sexual dalliances, but A) that can leave you feeling empty and B) you can’t assume that the other participants feel as detached from you as you do from them. (I also happen to think those who pretend that their sexual encounters are meaningless are just kidding themselves.) And today’s absolution from obligation can quickly become tomorrow’s jilted lover or even a stalker.

I believe the sexual revolution has been a positive thing overall, but it does come at a cost. In addition to the precautions we take to protect ourselves from diseases and unintended pregnancies, I believe we must also be more sensitive to one another’s emotional needs.

I have a tendency to talk about a lot of issues in the abstract sense, but there is a huge chasm between my “in theory” philosophy about sex and my actual behavior / desires. I don’t fault someone for pursuing the kind of sex life that he or she wants, but for some reason — probably a combination of my traditional upbringing and my emotional makeup — what I actually want for myself is a far more traditional bond than my 2012 beliefs would dictate. I suspect being detached would make my life a lot easier, but the reality is that I’m still looking for a specific her to wake up next to.

Addendum: I started to write this post back in February 2012 but couldn’t quite complete the thought. Some recent discussions I have had plus my new foray into the dating world bring this issue back to the forefront of my mind.

When it comes to dating, honesty is such a lonely word

Think of this song as a promise you can do what you want,
If you decide you wanna move into a new stage,
Deleting me from pages in your mission statement,
My love is unconditional, make no mistake,
I don’t ask for much, just be honest, with me.

Jason Mraz, "Be Honest"

So after a four-year courtship, a six-year marriage and a three-year relationship, I am out on the dating scene — really for the first time ever. (I don’t think high school counts.)

Of course there are opportunistic people out there — men who lie so women will have sex with them; women who use sex to get something else they want — but, for the most part, I think people want to treat others with at least respect. No man wants to be thought of as an asshole, and no woman wants to be considered a bitch.

So what unfortunately happens is that people behave insincerely to spare the feelings of less desirable candidates who approach them. It’s hard to do what Jennifer Garner did in The Invention of Lying when she answered the door and told Ricky Gervais that she was “equally depressed and pessimistic about [their] date tonight.”

Most of us were taught by our parents that, if we couldn’t say anything nice, not to say anything at all. So sometimes we tell little white lies just to be nice. And sometimes it means we really don’t say anything at all.

While it certainly makes us feel less guilty when we say something nice (but meaningless) or when we say nothing, perhaps this may be the cruelest approach of all. Allow me to demonstrate with the dialogue at the end of a date.

Man: I had a nice time with you. Would you like to do this again Saturday night?
Woman (lying): I had a nice time too.
Woman thinks: But you have a heinous breath problem. And you’re cheap.
Man thinks: Maybe I should swoop in for a kiss.
Woman: Oh, I’m sorry. I have a cold, and I don’t want to pass on any germs.
Man: Oh, I see. Well, good night. See you soon.
Woman (lying by omitting when she will see him again): Good night.
Woman thinks: See you never.

The man walks away from the exchange thinking that the woman is just not feeling well but wants to see him again (at some indeterminate time). He wonders why he does not hear from her. And then he wonders why other women don’t respond to him either.

If the woman had the courage to be honest with him instead of trying to spare his feelings, he wouldn’t waste his time waiting for her to make a call she will never make and he might become aware of what is holding him back with women in general: his breath and his flintiness. If a woman asks how her really bad hairstyle looks, should you compliment her (thus encouraging her to keep getting the same bad hairstyle)? Was withholding the difficult truth really more humane?

Of course, there is a difference between things a person can control/improve and things they cannot. There’s certainly no point in telling someone that you are not interested because he or she has been gruesomely disfigured. What is that person going to do about that problem?

So, all of you ladies out there, in order for me to become a more complete, appealing person — please do me this one favor. I don’t ask for much, just be honest with me.