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Relationships • Sex

Desire and Intimacy

One of the frequent and painful paradoxes of romantic life is that the more we get to know and love someone, the harder it can be to summon up any sincere wish to sleep with them. Intimacy and closeness, far from fostering deeper sexual desire, can be the very ingredients that destroy excitement – whereas having only just recently met a person and not feeling too much for them can set up awkward yet ideal preconditions for wanting very badly to take them to bed.

The conundrum is sometimes colloquially referred to as the ‘madonna-whore complex.’ It can sound offensive and reactionary phrased like this – as if the problem applied to only one gender and might at some level condone or even promote the very dynamic that it described. And yet the phrase circles something highly significant, always contemporary and of relevance to every gender (it might, for heterosexual women, be known as the ‘saint brute complex’).

It was Sigmund Freud who first drew attention to our difficulties connecting love with desire in an essay of 1912 titled ‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’. Of many of his patients, he wrote: ‘Where they love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love.’ In seeking to explain the division, Freud pointed to two facts connected to our upbringing: first, in childhood, we are generally brought up by people we love deeply and yet towards whom we cannot express sexual feelings (frightened as we are by a strict incest taboo); and second, as adults, we tend to choose lovers who in certain powerful (though unconscious) ways resemble those whom we loved most dearly as children.

Together these influences set up a devilish conundrum whereby the more deeply we come to love someone outside of our family, the more strongly we are reminded of the intimacy of our early familial bonds – and hence the less free we instinctively are to express our sexual desires without fear or reservation. An incest taboo originally designed to limit the genetic dangers of inbreeding can thus succeed in inhibiting and eventually ruining our chances of enjoying intercourse with someone to whom we are not in the remotest way related.

The likelihood of the incest taboo’s re-emergence with a partner increases greatly after the arrival of children. Until then, reminders of the parental prototypes on which our choice of lovers is subconsciously based can just about be kept at bay. But once there is a pram in the hallway and a sweet infant referring to the person we once tied up or explored with a sex toy as ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’, both parties may significantly start to take fright, complain of feeling tired and turn in early.

A dichotomy grows between the ‘pure’ things one can do with a partner one loves and the ‘dirty’ things one still longs to do – but can only imagine being free enough to do with a near stranger. It can feel untenably disrespectful to want to make love to, or to put the matter at its sharpest, fuck the kind person who is later going to be preparing lunch boxes and arranging the school rota.

To start to overcome the problem, it pays to observe that not all childhoods are equal in their tendencies to generate sexual difficulties for people in later life. A parent who is very uncomfortable with their body may send out covert signals that sex is invariably dirty, bad and dangerous – and thereby lends their child an impression that it truly can’t belong within a loving relationship. A more integrated and mature parent on the other hand may suggest that they are reconciled to their desires and relaxed about some of the proto-sexual things that small children naturally and innocently do: make a great deal of noise and mess, take an interest in their bodies and (at a certain age) talk about poo a lot. The feeling that one can be naughty and still loved and ‘good’ is one the great gifts a parent may bequeath to their child.

A lot of the work to repair the love/sex dichotomy can, strangely for something so physical, be done in the mind. We can conceptually start to rehabilitate sex as a serious and in its way entirely respectable topic that good people who love their children and their jobs and are invested in an upstanding life can be profoundly interested in; that there need be no conflict between a longing to be filthy and depraved at some points and decorous and respectable at others. We can contain multitudes: the us that wants to flog or be debased or smear and the us that wants to advise, nurture and counsel. One can be whore and madonna, brute and the saint. Rather than seeking out different partners, we might less disruptively merely adopt different roles. A child cannot express love and sexuality to a parent; and vice versa. But it is one of the privileges of adulthood, that we no longer have to be hampered by such a paradigm. Our lovers need not be only cosy co-parents and responsible sweet friends, they can for a time – in the very best transgressive sense – also be something else that is hugely important to our mental well-being and the survival of our relationships: partners in crime.

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