Sunday, June 12, 2011

Without Addition or Diminishing

Jessica Bennett:

Surely everyone in a relationship wrestles at some point with an eternal question: Can one person really satisfy every need? What we’ve learned, it turns out, is that the answer may be no. But if you believe Haag, that doesn’t mean the end of marriage—it simply means a revision of our norms. “Giving ourselves the license and permission to evolve marriage is perhaps the unique challenge of our time,” she writes. In other words: Weiner may indeed be an ass. But, as Haag puts it, perhaps we can have our cake and eat it, too. Let's just be honest about our marital motives.

In many ways, I agree that the venerated ideal of lifetime, monogamous pair-bonding is unrealistic and the source of no small amount of human misery. I agree that no one person can satisfy every need (more on that in a bit). But what struck me about this article was the apparent assumption that people are compelled to be as intimate as possible with those who share their deepest interests, that "evolving marriage" necessarily means sleeping around. I don't think of myself as the ne plus ultra of stoic resignation or ascetic renunciation, but I have no problem with the idea of having close friends that I choose not to sleep with because I already have a partner that I want to be exclusive to. Yes, that could very well be just me being weird. Casual sex has never been my thing, and that's likely due to my shy, withdrawn personality. But it seems like the principle is simple enough to be attractive to others: we are not in any way obliged to push things as far as they can possibly go.

I can't help but wonder how much of this mindset is an offshoot of our narcissistic, therapeutic age in which our own self-esteem and gratification are what matter most, where the idea that we should ever have to be deprived, voluntarily or not, of something we want is an intolerable offense to our sense of entitlement (those primal urges being our truest nature expressing itself, after all). Looking around at society in general, it seems to me that learning to tell the difference between wants and needs is far more imperative than worrying over how precisely to customize your soulmate.

There is no one person who meets my every need. How could there be, aside from simply being a projection of my own wishes, rather than an autonomous individual? But not all needs are created equal, obviously. One of the most valuable qualities I enjoy in others is when they're different enough in taste and temperament to be challenging and interesting. I don't want to surround myself with clones; what fun is it to have conversations with people who you already know agree with you on everything? There's a few core needs which have to be harmonized for a relationship to be stable, but it seems to me there's a lot of others which aren't nearly that important, and it's not a betrayal or failure if they're not being met.