I recently encountered, during the normal course of my regular trawling across the width of this thing we call the Internet, an essay posted on the Psychology Today Web site. The article is a rejection of the notion that adultery is okay (an argument made by a different essay on a different site) and, as far as that goes, I have no quarrel with it. If you’re going to make a promise of sexual fidelity, keep it. If you can’t,renegotiate the relationship or end it.
But the problem comes near the essay’s end, where the author says:
More generally, the author doesn’t seem to appreciate that the value of commitment is based in part on the value of what is given up for it. Of course, sexual desire has a unique pull on most of us. But promises of fidelity would mean much less if we were promising to give up something we didn’t want! The fact that most of us want sex so much is why it means so much when we promise it to just one person…
And I find this argument to be very problematic indeed.
I reject this premise wholeheartedly. I do not–I cannot–buy the notion that in order for something to be valuable, we have to sacrifice something in order to have it.
This idea is one of the malignant gifts bequeathed on us by our Puritan ancestors, who believed it so passionately they never saw the hypocritical self-contradiction in it (they yearned for an afterlife in which there is no want, no suffering, and everything is perfect forever, and they thought the way to get there was by rejecting what you want, by suffering, and by working against basic human happiness…something they regarded with suspicion at best and hostility at worst.)
I think, rather, that the value of a thing is not what we give up in order to have it, but instead whether that thing is an authentic expression of who we truly are.
There is nothing noble in denying who you are in order to get something you want. Just the opposite: that is the most craven sort of commerce, exchanging truth for gain. We rightly deride dishonesty in politicians and businesses; we understand that pretending to be something you’re not in order to get votes or money is a perfidious act. Why don’t we understand the same thing about love?
There is no virtue in exchanging your true self for the affections of someone else. Love admits no such cynical transaction. Love is most meaningful when those who love us know who we truly are and love us anyway. It is not about what we can make those we love give up; it is about how we can help those we love be the most genuine, the most honest versions of themselves.
We do not make an act of fidelity meaningful because we don’t want to do it. We make an act–any act–meaningful when it most truly represents who we are, when it most honestly shares what we actually desire. Believing that sex is valuable because we pledge it to one person when we really want to do just the opposite is the most crass kind of commoditization of both sex and love. Matters of the heart are not about artificial scarcity and transactional gain.