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Relationships • Self-Knowledge • Sex • Melancholy

On Post-Coital Melancholy

If sex were as easy as our society sometimes suggests, we’d expect not to feel appreciably different after, as opposed to before, the act. As it is, for many of us, what we go through immediately following orgasm isn’t so much closeness or joy as a very particular kind of sadness, one all the more lonely and peculiar because it seems so hard to talk about without sounding ungrateful or mean: we may – in the aftermath of one of life’s most pleasurable of sensations – be thrown into intense melancholy.

Lying in the semi-darkness, with our partner breathing gently beside us, sleep may elude us. Our minds may scour the inner landscape, refusing to let consciousness go. We may be alert and at the same time panicky, heavy and sad. How could something so joyful have precipitated such sorrow?

Malerie Marder, Untitled from Inland Empire, 2004

At the root of post-coital melancholy is an awareness of how much sex can involve us in activities and passions which are deeply at odds with our daily conduct and convictions. In the name of desire, an otherwise sober and gentle person will beg to be tied up and flogged; a generally exceptionally loyal and careful person will violate every vow to which they are nominally committed; in a noisy nightclub, an intelligent and thoughtful soul will spend hours chatting with a beguiling companion they have no deeper connection with.

The instant orgasm has occurred, one is back in a position to remember the scale of the internal schism. In past ages, this would have been the moment to head to the church or temple. One would plunge oneself into holy water or say some ritual words of atonement to a grave faced priest. We may scoff at such superstition but these divine rituals existed for a reason: in their way, they recognised both the deep pull of the erotic and the contradictory claims of our higher minds. They were sympathetic to how much good people may long for dignity, fidelity and wisdom and yet simultaneously be drawn towards the most delectable forms of degeneracy and vice.

Our first experience of melancholic guilt probably came in adolescence. Only shortly before, we might have been uncomplicatedly sweet; we could have told our mother everything; our favourite activity might have been horseriding or playing with our trains. Then suddenly, we needed constantly to lock ourselves in the bathroom and think obsessively of certain scenarios and summon up recollections of furtive glimpses. No sooner were we done than a darkness settled in on us which has – in many ways – never left us.

The melancholy and shame come especially to the fore after being with someone we don’t particularly love – yet who might love us a lot. How could we, for the sake of a few moments of frottage, act with such horrifying dissonance? We might hope that we could – insanely – turn to the kindly partner whose body we have spent our lust on and confess our inconsistency and lies and ask that they might absolve us of our transgression: how much we might feel for them if only they could understand that we didn’t, despite what just happened, have the right feelings for them!

In post-coital exhaustion, we become aware how much time we have squandered. In the hours we have wasted scheming and unfurling this delirium, we might have finished a script, written a business plan or sent in a university paper. We might have been looking after some small children who begged us to be back by bathtime. We might long to die.

What we wish for more than anything would be a partner whom we could share our turmoil with, someone to whom we could protest that, despite everything, we remained a sweet person but had lost our way and wanted to come home, a different more broad minded home that could take on our reality and still meet us with love. Our melancholy is reminding us how much we don’t want to be divided people any longer, how much we don’t want to have to pretend one thing while craving another. We want to be sexual, good and true. No wonder we are so sad.

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