(About a 5 minute read)
Few problems are more apt to distress us than sexual ones. STDs, unwanted pregnancies, break-ups, frozen zippers on prom night — all can be life-altering challenges. Some scientists have concluded that even seemingly wholly positive events, such as a marriage or birth of a welcomed child, can be major stressors capable of leading to a breakdown under the wrong circumstances.
In a sense, then, it should not surprise us that so many of us think how we ought to conduct ourselves in a sexual relationship varies considerably from how we should conduct ourselves in a non-sexual relationship.
“All’s fair in love and war”, ought never to be regarded as more than a joke in my opinion, and yet, I have known numerous people who thought it was a truism, a maxim to live by.
Please consider that for a moment. How can it be that someone who feels they are in love with someone else honestly believe “anything goes” when it comes to how they ought to treat them? How do you reconcile the thought you love someone with the thought you can — at least potentially — treat them like dirt?
I think to understand how that might be so, we must take note of a painful truth of human nature. Loving someone is usually associated with feelings of pleasure, especially in the early stages. Many of us — perhaps most of us at times — can be distracted by those feelings into loving, not the other person, but the pleasure the other person gives us.
When that happens, the tendency is to attempt to control the other person so as to maximize the pleasure they give us. This is possessiveness in action. And it is a testament to the power of our craving for pleasure that so many of us who have advanced to this state of affairs think just about anything is permissible to maximize, or at least maintain, the pleasure we get from the other person.
It should be obvious, I think, that it is not merely desirable, but absolutely crucial, to reduce the risk of mistaking the pleasure we get from someone for love of them. But how can we do that?
In my experience, it is virtually useless to tackle the problem head-on by attempting to deny ourselves any pleasure in the other. That ascetic approach actually strikes me as the height of folly. Not only is it unlikely to work without a nearly superhuman effort, but it amounts in the end to a denial of life. It’s on the same level as refusing to look at the moon in order avoid being overtaken by its beauty.
Instead, I believe the key lies in avoiding becoming emotionally attached to the pleasure the other person brings us. This is not easy, but it is much easier than attempting to deny the pleasure, and it is far and away healthier.
The trick is not to cling. Not to try to maintain or nurse the pleasure we receive. We often do that both mentally and through our actions. For example, we might daydream about how much fun we had the night before. That sounds innocuous enough, but it’s playing on the edge of a slope. We are usually, in such cases, already thinking more of the pleasure they give us than we are thinking of them.
In my experience, it can help greatly to bear in mind the impermanence of all things when considering the pleasure someone gives us. Sooner or later it must end, and a thorough recognition of that fact can become our ally in loving someone for themselves, and not merely for the pleasure they give us.
“All’s fair in love and war.” To that dangerous doctrine I would oppose the notion that we should treat those we love the same as we would treat anyone else we respect – with dignity, kindness, and consideration for them.
Beyond that, I believe Dan Savage’s “Campsite Rule”. Savage coined the rule explicitly for application to older partners in relationships where there is a great disparity in ages. He asserted that the older partners were responsible for leaving their younger partners like a good camper would leave a campsite, “better off than he or she found it”.
I would merely modify the rule in two ways. First, I would say the responsibility is to leave the partner “just as good or better off than one found them”. I would like to imagine it was reasonable to require us to leave people better off, but that depends on so many factors, many of them either out of our control, or unknown to us until we are well into a relationship, that I do not think it’s a realistic requirement.
Second, I would apply the rule to everyone — even couples with no great disparities between them, including disparities of age. And I would apply it to both partners equally.
To sum, the notion that “all is fair in love and in war” strikes me as emotionally immature — the consequence of not adequately dealing with our human tendency to psychologically focus more on the feelings of pleasure we get from someone than on them themselves.
On the contrary, I believe we should both take measures to counter-act that tendency and treat the other person with at least the decency we would accord nearly anyone we respected.