It’s one of the great modern questions: how do you keep desire alive in a long-term relationship? You know, in a marriage.
Many young people believe that if they have found “the one” and if they are both totally in love, that desire will always be there. Older people know better, but prefer not to disabuse the young of their illusions.
Now, Daniel Bergner offers what seems to be a paradoxical suggestion: the belief in, expectation of and longing for unconditional love is “the ultimate assassin of desire” in such relationships.
The idea feels so strange that it is probably true.
After all, if the therapy culture is prescribing unconditional love as the cure for all that ails you, you can be confident that unconditional love is a problem.
Bergner has just written a book called What Do Women Want?, so he has done what we like to call field research.
He formulates his idea in a chatty paragraph:
What I've been saying—and what, all self-mockery aside, I do believe, based on the years I've spent listening to researchers and therapists and just living life—is that the longing for unconditional love is the enemy of lust, that the ideal of being loved no matter what is the ultimate assassin of desire in long-term relationships. From our parents we can hope for the unconditional, but with our partners we have to constantly earn love and win lust or love will fade and lust will disappear for both partners.
But, Bergner asks, why should this be so?
I would say that unconditional love is infantilizing and patronizing, and that it is very difficult to continue to lust after someone who treats you like a child.
I would also say that someone who loves you unconditionally must ignore both your virtues and your vices. It may feel like win/win, but it is also lose/lose.
If you gain nothing by doing well and lose nothing by doing poorly, then you are being diminished and demeaned. You are being told that it doesn’t matter what you do. And if it doesn’t matter what you do, why do anything?
Someone who loves you unconditionally will love you even if you are a scoundrel, even if you betray his or trust, even if you are disloyal.
In your experience, is such behavior a turn-on or a turn-off?
To look more closely, I would modify only one point in Bergner’s argument. Perhaps this shows how old I am, but, in times of yore, unconditional love was the province of mothers, more than fathers.
Traditionally, mothers have loved their children unconditionally while fathers expect their children to earn their affection.
To clarify the point, a child expects to be loved and nurtured by his mother, regardless. At least at first, at a time when a child is most vulnerable and most in need of his mother, she will naturally love him unconditionally. As he grows, her love will also need to be earned, but he will always know that, if push comes to shove, his mother will love him no matter what.
A mother’s nurturance does not need to be earned. It does not require compensation. In many ways, it’s instinctive behavior and it is, like virtue, its own reward.
When it comes to fathers, things change. A child really needs his father to be proud of him, and pride must be earned through achievement.
Won’t his mother also want to be proud of him? Yes, she will. And won’t she expect him to earn her pride? Yes, she will. For her, however, her feelings of pride will never eradicate her willingness to offer unconditional love.
The more a child functions in a social world, the more he will need to learn how to earn love, not to expect it to be given with no strings attached.
In truth, a child will be better motivated to improve his behavior if he knows that his mother will always love him but that his father will not.
A child who receives unconditional love from both parents will be more likely to believe that he can get away with anything. A child who receives conditional love from both parents will be more likely to believe that he must never fail.
Mothers love their children unconditionally because their relationship normally contains no sexual desire. As a sidelight, if this is true, then Freud’s belief that sexual desire originates in a taboo against incest turns out to be nonsense.
Mothers nurture; fathers socialize. Of course, mothers also work to socialize, but they never lose the feeling of nurturance.
But, what happens when a school offers children unconditional love. It becomes a nurturing, but not a socializing environment. If it is stoking their self-esteem and protecting them from the possibility of failing is, pardon the expression, mothering them. This will naturally make it more difficult for these children to take their place in society. It will also make it more difficult for them to experience the pride in achievement.
If the possibility of failure has been eliminated, then the chance of building pride, to say nothing of character, has also been eliminated.
If you cannot fail you cannot succeed either. You will become demoralized, feeling that you gain nothing by getting things right. Once you know that you cannot get it right or wrong you are more likely to give up, thus falling into depression.
As we know, depression stifles sexual desire. When people are depressed they lost their confidence and their pride, but they also, notably, lose their appetite, for food and for lust.
If a woman offers a man unconditional love she is, effectively, treating him like a child. This level of disrespect will demoralize him and cause his desire to wane. No man wants to be treated like a child and no man lusts after a woman who treats him that way.
If a woman allows a man to believe that she will forgive him anything, she is sacrificing her self-respect by trying to make herself purely motherly.
We expect that a wife will stand by her husband in time of trouble. But that does not mean that she should stand by him no matter what.
If she stands with him it’s not because she loves him unconditionally but because she has a moral obligation to remain loyal, even to a fault.
Loyalty, given and received, might be confused with unconditional love, but loyalty has limits. If someone betrays your trust, you are under no moral obligation to continue to be loyal.