Sexless in the City

Sometimes reading romance novels doesn’t quite prepare you for a love life...

For this 30-year-old urbanite, love is always a misadventure: The Harvard Lickwit, Hippie the Groper, the 5% Man, and the Ad Weasel. These and many other men wander in and out of her life — but never her bed.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Sexual balance, pt. 3: Romantic caution

Dahlings, my apologies for the delay in this week’s blogging. But now to continue with last week’s theme, a return to Sincerely Curious’ response to last Wednesday’s post. He goes on:
... [W]hat about those connections with people (presumably beyond mere friendship and familial bond) that also include romantic attractions, aka chemistry, skyrockets, etc. ... I guess your response might be, fine enough, if after 2 years a relationship is hitting on all the non-physical cylinders, then get married and get going on the physical components. Give yourself — entirely — once and for all. Is this your reply? Fair point, if it is. Although, I guess in all honesty, I have to say that, first, I think those non-physical depths can be achieved in far fewer than 2 years and, with a person that might or might not work-out in a long-term way. And secondly, I’m sorta repulsed on a gut level that 2 people would get married for the primary reason of being able to have sex “according to the Bible.” Seems to reduce the marriage license to a sex license.
Dear Curious:
As always, dahling, no lack of issues to address here! :) First off, let’s talk about your implied progression from singleness to marriage. It starts with romance/skyrockets, progresses to deeper intimacy and involvement, concluding with a solidification in marital bonds. Somewhere between stages B and C there is evidently a period of consideration to determine/reaffirm the suitability of the romantic partner/intimate for the lifelong (or at least longer-term) partnership of marriage. Analogized to the business world, this is similar to temp-to-perm hiring situations, or other arrangements whereby an employer tries out an employee for a period of time before formally committing to a fully vested relationship (including benefits, retirement, vacation, etc.).

Now since your model proceeds from the notion that attraction leads to commitment, let’s talk about attraction/desire/romance. The presumption seems to be that attraction can solidify into commitment, or that it’s a good harbinger of the commitment-worthy. You will be attracted to what’s best for you, in other words. Does it really work that way?

Not in my experience — at least not generally. In the course of my attractions to men I have been attracted to: a man who messed around or slept with another man’s fiance, an actual adulterer, a man who paid for his ex-girlfriend to get a boob job (suffering under the mutual delusion this would somehow resuscitate her ego), a serial womanizer, and a host of other men who had issues with intimacy, confrontation and so on. I am by no means claiming to be less than seriously messed-up myself (after all, these men all exerted varying degrees of appeal to me), but these aren’t exactly banner candidates for husband material, now are they? They all had some serious issues of character, judgment, courage, communication, and so on. Which is not to say that they couldn’t experience growth and change in these areas — but as one person I heard once said, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half-closed thereafter.”

Some people may have better-honed relationship radar than I do, but if we were all to look through our romantic pasts, how many of those broken relationships would be due to bad timing, and how many due to bad judgment? I can only think of maybe one or two cases I’d chalk up to to the former.

And here’s another thing: sometimes we tend to be attracted to someone because we’re either a) so miserable in our current state that any escape will do, or b) looking for a relationship in general and this one is the first (or likeliest) candidate to come along. For instance: my freshman year of college, I had the dubious fortune of attending a very small school in rural Iowa. Not quite the ideal setting for an urbanite such as myself, no? Conditions proved so miserable that after a year I transferred to a large public university in a sprawling Arizona suburb. This was a marked improvement, but by no means the cosmopolitan NYU surroundings I had once dreamed of learning in. I had five good years in Arizona, but the whole time I knew I wanted to get out. And so every time I went on vacation, the places I visited always held out an exotic allure.

After trips to Berkeley, London, Denver and Singapore, I started to get a little dizzy. So many places! So many places that seemed very cool! How was I to know which had a legitimate call upon my heart? Which place really made sense for me and would satisfy and stimulate beyond the initial glory days of vacation? My heart was unreliable, for it proved seduceable by any larger, cooler, cosmopolitan city with more of an urban core than Phoenix.

It was about this time I introduced the index of desirability. Drawing off some tips from an old copy of What Color is Your Parachute? I drew up a list of qualities my ideal city would have. I didn’t even weight them (though this could be advisable; weather might matter more than good museums). Some twenty items later, I began to put my various cities through the index. I rated them on each quality, giving a score of 1 to 5, then found the city’s overall average — its index of desirability. Not surprisingly, Phoenix got a paltry 2-point-something. However, New York rated over 4.0. So too did Berkeley, but at that time I didn’t feel ready for that town again. So I chose New York.

I had visited the metropolis, and certainly liked what I saw, but the initial phase of decision-making was made much less by New York’s romantic appeal for me, and much more based on its practical virtues — what I deemed important to a city. While I have never claimed to love New York, I generally have been very happy here. Thus, my index proved a fairly good predictor of the romantic appeal that resulted. Furthermore, my period of pre-commitment consideration largely preceded the romantic phase.

So let’s circle back to the commitment question. When we first meet someone, it’s easy to ask questions like, Would I want to get to know this person? Would I want to sleep with this person? But I’m coming to think such questions aren’t very useful. Since what I really want is to marry and have a family, it makes more sense to ask, Would I want to have children with this person? Would I want to grow old with him and be part of who he will be in 20 years? Those questions may seem unromantic, but they have everything to do with trust. And I’m finding that who I trust enough to show the uglier parts of me is more crucial to whether or not I could give my whole self to that person than whether I want to wrap myself around him and make out for a while, pushing cups and saucers off the bar table to make room for us. To give oneself with abandon requires either very deep trust or considerable carelessness.

To come back to your original question, I am more and more of a mind to say the initial phase of a relationship might be fairly serious-minded in structure — concerned with these fundamental questions of compatibility, suitability and practicality. The more this can be hashed out in the presence of community (those who know both parties well), the better. I don’t know how long that consideration stage would take, but after the couple has decided to proceed, I see no reason movement toward engagement and then a reasonably brief engagement might commence. If one plans to spend a lifetime with someone, surely there’s no need to rush the romance (which will blossom in its own right soon enough), but how long does a determination of suitability really have to take?

I agree marriage should not be a license for sex, but I think where that is the case, far too much emphasis is being put on the fireworks and romance to begin with. It all depends on what you want. I want marriage and a family, for which things intense romance is not at all the most important ingredient. This is not to say I’m ruling out attraction, either. But here’s where (for me as Jesus-freak, anyway) a little trust comes in. One of the hardest issues I’ve had with trusting God on relationships is that I thought He was somehow opposed to romantic delight and good sex. Sure, the Bible claims He invented that stuff, and made sure erotic poetry was included as part of the sacred text (i.e., Song of Solomon) ... but really, how could God know what I like? I put the fun before the obedience long enough and so far I don’t have much to show for it. I figure it’s about time I reverse that order and trust God to secure the fun. After all, if He supposedly knows what’s best for me, doesn’t that include the sexual best? Either He does know what’s best (and that includes sex), or He doesn’t — in which case I’ve got way bigger problems than all the supposedly great sex I’m missing out on.