In one sense it’s kid stuff: college students trying out new lifestyles because they, in their extraordinary genius, refuse to be chained to the old lifestyles. They are so smart that they can reinvent human institutions. In the best cases they can change human nature itself.
One sympathizes. If college is not the place for unbridled adolescent narcissism, what is?
On the other hand, reinventing the wheel does is not a risk-free enterprise. Many people do not walk away from their adolescent follies in one piece. It seems not to have caused Eliza Kennedy too much pain but it does not always have a happy ending.
As a college student Kennedy had a serious boyfriend. They lived together. They had a home together. But, her boyfriend was an aspiring philosophical genius. His brilliant mind had told him that they needed to have an open relationship. Otherwise theirs would not be true love.
Apparently, his adolescent notion of freedom allowed each of them to fool around with other men and women.
In reality, Kennedy followed the terms of the agreement, not so much because she wanted to wallow in her boyfriend’s conception of freedom, but because he had persuaded her that it was the best way to show how much she loved him.
In another context this would be called: pimping out your girlfriend. Since no money was exchanged in Kennedy’s romantic extra-relationship trysts, we will call it the postmodern version of pimping out your girlfriend. It used to be called: free love.
Kennedy explains what she did in a Modern Love column in the New York Times:
During college, I spent a few wonderful evenings making out with a longhaired poet. I spent a few weeks messing around with a gentle, funny religion student. I even briefly, if accidentally, dated a high school student (since when do 17-year-olds have beards?).
This is what you do in college. No longer tethered to childhood routines and unburdened by the judgments and prejudices of people who know you best, you explore and experiment, sampling new ideologies, new points of view. New people.
One might say that today’s college students are also unburdened by the judgments of the people who care about them the most… but that would be caviling. Don’t you think?
She continues to explain that she got the idea that she would allow herself to be pimped out from her deep thinker of a boyfriend:
My boyfriend was committed to living his life according to strict intellectual principles, and for him, personal freedom was paramount. Love could not require constraint, foreclosure or deprivation. He argued that even though we planned a future together, we should always permit each other to do as we pleased, including dating other people.
Evidently, this was not the way she had been brought up:
Whoa, sorry, what? I was from a small town in Illinois. My idea of romance was as conventional as could be, involving me and my boyfriend “sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.” First comes love, then comes marriage, and so on.
Her boyfriend instructed her to jettison her upbringing in order to live her live according to his philosophical principles. That he had only the most superficial notion of the concept of freedom did not prevent him from insisting that his girlfriend follow it to the letter:
I was supposed to be exploring, experimenting, sampling new perspectives. I wasn’t a philosopher like my boyfriend, but I was studying English literature, including Percy Bysshe Shelley.
I had no wish to shackle anyone to me, especially not the person I loved best. I didn’t want to concede — by being possessive, by demanding fidelity — that my love was anything less than capital-T True. If an open relationship was necessary to prove how well I loved my boyfriend, I was happy to comply.
Like I said, she was persuaded that her love was being tested and would be judged by how many extra-curricular flings she had. So much for non-judgmental youth.
How did that work out? She declares that it was a disaster. Who would have guessed?
This young couple, in their own bumbling way, has demonstrated that the commitment to another person in a love relationship is not just a social construct. It’s hard-wired into the genes. Even great philosophers cannot repeal human nature.
Her aspiring philosopher boyfriend apparently had a poorly repressed voyeuristic tendency. He wanted to know about what Kennedy was doing on her trysts. And he could not handle it:
Then my boyfriend’s attitude changed. He started emerging from his study with questions when I arrived home. Who was this guy? What was his major? Where was he from? What did he read? Was he smart?
Questions morphed into criticism. That poetry was awful. His handwriting wasn’t that hot, either. Look at those “t’s.”
Then my boyfriend caught a glimpse of the guy, and full-on outrage ensued. Are you kidding me with that hair? He doesn’t look soulful; he looks constipated! What are you doing wasting your time with this clown?
It’s charming to see that he was competing against these men on the basis of mental prowess.
Kennedy had no desire to torture her boyfriend, so she suggested less openness in her relationship. He refused:
I was … wasting my time, very enjoyably. But it wasn’t worth my boyfriend’s interrogations and disbelief, his implicit suggestion that by choosing poorly, I had made myself less lovable to him.
So I chucked the poet and asked whether we needed to rethink our arrangement.
Of course not. There was nothing wrong with our principles, only with how I had implemented them. I was free to continue being free. I just had to do it better. Or something.
By this point, one is beginning to see that said boyfriend is not going to be one of the greatest philosophers in human history. So be it.
But, Kennedy kept on trying… that is, allowing herself to be pimped out… in a postmodern way. Things did not improve:
A pattern emerged. My boyfriend would react at first with nonchalance. He would become mildly curious. Then subtly judgmental. Then not so subtly.
He always ended up in the same place: offended, incredulous and scornful of my romantic interests for their obvious flaws, and of me for my apparent blindness to them. He was so convinced of his own correctness and so skilled at arguing his positions that pushing back was always an exercise in futility. So I would capitulate and abandon each new love interest, causing a lot of undeserved pain.
His petulance managed to force Kennedy into a series of short-term, ultimately meaningless sexual encounters. Like I said… pimping her out.
Ironically, her Dionysian boyfriend had so completely overcome sexual stereotypes and his Darwinian predisposition to amass a harem that he became perfectly chaste:
How were my boyfriend’s own adventures in free love progressing? They weren’t. He didn’t date anyone else as long as we were together. Why? He never gave a clear answer. Too busy. Too picky. I felt like the butt of some twisted joke. Romantic freedom was his principle, and yet I was the only one out there living it.
“… the butt of some twisted joke…”