If Sex Is So Great, Why Does It Screw Up So Many Lives?

Where we have strong emotions, we’re liable to fool ourselves.
– Carl Sagan, American author and scientist (1934-1996)

Let’s deal with the most obvious example of the truth of this quote, marriage.

In most western countries, the rate of failed marriages (as determined by the rate of divorce) hovers around or above fifty percent. That means that at least half of the people who entered the ceremony believing that they were deliriously happy because they had found their soulmate for life were wrong. What they found was beautiful romance which lasted about as long as most romantic relationships, from two to eight months.

Why the huge failure rate? We humans are built for two fundamental kinds of relationships. Romance worked well for our prehistoric ancestors because it allowed them to find the mates that would produce their children. The other kind was more akin to friendship, a healthy and lasting kind whereby a man and a woman would raise a collection of children, most of which were the direct descendants of one or both of them.

This worked well in tribal conditions where mating happened frequently between various combinations of couples. It wasn’t important to the tribe who birthed the children once they were there, it was important that the whole village or band contributed to the raising of them. Having everyone take an interest in raising the children meant that the kids would have built into them the values of the community.

Prisons were non-existent. If punishment was necessary, it was administered often by means of social ostracization from the offended party or from the tribe for a period of time. As everyone knew what everyone else in the tribe was doing most of the time, crime within the tribe was rare. While there might have been fights between men over who would mate with a woman at a given time, there were usually enough females so that each male had one or more of them available. This is true today in bands of our nearest genetic relatives, the great apes.

Even when couples had paired off to live together and to take responsibility for raising the children for which they adopted obligations, mating took place with others. Maybe with others who didn’t have mates, maybe with some who did. Of course they didn’t copulate around the community campfire. What mattered was that the male and the female came “home” when they were supposed to be home to fulfill their other responsibilities.

Today we continue that pattern, though our religions and our media have tried to pretend that we humans were built for monogamy. We aren’t. No species of primate or even of mammal is totally monogamous, according to recent scientific studies. What the animals are is committed to a monogamous home relationship, not a monogamous sexual relationship.

Romance was natural, especially for those in their teens years, because each person looked for the mate who would father or mother their offspring, the strongest and healthiest possible children. As mating and pairing off for living purposes were often two different matters, no one was surprised when the natural mother of a child did not live with the natural father. Living together as a cohesive group was, after all, what the family was all about. Sexual intercourse existed within the family, but was not necessarily restricted to the family.

Judging by what we see on television, the most common reason why marriages break up is sexual infidelity. Yet sex with various different partners was in our genetic and hormonal makeup for tens of thousands of years before religions and the media made us believe in monogamy and sexual fidelity within a marriage.

Do we even today, in what we believe is an advanced condition of humanity, have the tools, the skills and the knowledge to maintain sexual fidelity within a marriage? I submit the unequivocal answer to that is an emphatic No. Women, especially in the early years of raising children, often do not have enough energy left by the end of the day for their bodies to produce enough hormones to have a strong interest in sex. Every few days, maybe, but not every day for most. The male, however, is built for daily or even more frequent sexual experiences during his years of maximum sexual strength.

As the male gets older and adopts more responsibilities, it’s apt to be him who loses the energy battle, resulting in insufficient body strength to produce hormones to have regular interest in sex. While the male reaches his sexual peak around age 27, when his body tells him to have sex with every female he can get his penis into in order to spread his genes around, the female doesn’t reach her sexual peak until at least age 33, sometimes several years later. When the male’s interest in frequent sex is slowing, the female is more rarin’ to go than ever before in her life. By then her kids may be past the high maintenance stage so she has more energy.

We don’t have the social structures to match our rising and falling sexual interests (pun noted, I almost said mate our interests) with our basic physical needs. This is the environment into which we place “Till death do us part.” And the public social commandment of sexual monogamy (which has never, ever, been widely accepted in private).

Where does emotion come into this? In this case, the response to a rush of hormones is what we call romance, which is a strong emotion. We can be madly in love with someone we want to mate with because that’s how our hormones cause us to react.

As you can easily see, our social structures are not equipped to deal with public social demands which do not jibe with private hormonal/emotional needs. This gap will not soon be resolved or closed. We are in the midst of trying to cope with a chasm that has opened up now, but not ready to put the broken social fabric back together into a new form of arrangement that is as widely accepted as the old arrangement was in our tribal times of the past. The old one won’t work and we don’t have a new arrangement ready to take its place.

We are in the midst of a transition period in human history, in many ways, but one of the most important regards our interpersonal relationships. No one knows how it will shake out. Right now it seems chaotic.

The best we can do as parents is to make our children aware of the realities of this human condition and to give them the social, emotional and family tools and skills to manage their personal affairs with their heads up, knowing what to expect. And being prepared for what to do when they reach each stage of a relationship with another person.

We may one day end up with three phases to our adult lives, first romance and mating, second the raising of children (families) and the third a pairing for living together through old age. There is evidence for the beginnings of that possible structure for the future even now.

It’s exciting if you see the transition happening before your eyes around the world. Scary as hell if you don’t realize that our species is in the midst of a transition which will likely firm up long after we who read this are all dead. We need to see the big picture.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want their growing children to be ready to face head-on and to cope with the changes that will happen in their lives as they pass through adolescence into adulthood and beyond that into old age.
Learn more at http://billallin.com

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4 thoughts on “If Sex Is So Great, Why Does It Screw Up So Many Lives?

  1. Bill – You’ve made some good points in this post. I note particularly your suggestion that mates could be found for each phase of our lives. I would imagine because the goal for each relationship would be much clearer & shared then there would be much more chance of success. Unfortunately being human comes with the tendency not to conform to logical goals. And relationships are often the product of unconscious motivations and therefore the results are often a mess. Paying attention to our own unconscious motivations & urges would certainly assist us in having successful partnerships with others. Matchmaking can be a wonderful way to identify & clarify what our initial goals are for a relationship at any stage or age & therefore can assist in the successful outcome. This is my speciality, check out my blog http://www.astramatch.com/blog.
    Pemo

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