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Sex, Love, and Marriage

These notes are distilled and reworked from a number of posts to a thread dealing with marriage. It occurred to me that the principles described in those posts are largely unknown or misunderstood, and that a single source for them is needed. This is an attempt to provide that source.

In short, this is a defense of marriage, not as it is practiced nor as it is usually understood, but as it ought to be practiced and understood. I regard romantic love as the highest good achievable by man, the ultimate value that provides the fullest expression of what it means to be a human being, and the only means to the ultimate fulfillment of the purpose of life, one's enjoyment of it. It is the supreme happiness available to man, and there is no substitute.

It is in the context of romantic love that the meaning and purpose of marriage is realized. It is that context that is almost always ignored, and why most discussions of marriage seem pointless and somewhat artificial—because that is just what they are, pointless and artificial.

[Note: All of the discussions in this article are from a forum for Objectivists, so all these discussions are in the context of Ayn Rand's philosophy. I am not an Objectivist, but my points in this discussion are in agreement with Rand's philosophy.]

Sex, Love, and Happiness

The discussion begins with one poster's statement:

"If an individual can find happiness making love to another (or even more than one other) out of wedlock, then more power to him."

That, of course is the question. That statement assumes as, I believe most people assume, that promiscuous sex is capable of making a human being "happy." But what is the basis of that assumption?

It conflates pleasure and happiness. Certainly those who engage in sex without commitment have pleasure in the act, why else would they do it? But since when is it concluded that pleasure, alone, is the basis for objective choices—that is hedonism and subjectivism.

The problem with indiscriminate sex is it does not produce happiness at all. It cannot, because no pleasure sought strictly for its own sake, disconnected from any purpose or end other than the pleasure, however much pleasure it produces, in the end and at best, is disappointing, and usually the cause of endless trouble.

I concluded my answer to that writer with these words:

"I will tell you something you ought to have been able to figure out for yourself, though most never do. If you ever find the woman you cannot live without, one whose very existence makes life worth living, one with whom all your goals and aspirations are either shared or mean nothing to you, one that is your happiness, and without whom you could never know happiness again, then you will know why sex with anyone else is both a waste (however pleasurable) and a source of unhappiness.

"Most do not understand what true romantic love is, the integration of value and emotion embodied in the existence of another that makes that one both the fulfillment and purpose of one's own existence. When one's values are both satisfied and realized in another, that one becomes the purpose of one's own existence, because the one loved becomes necessary to the accomplishment of one's own values, aspirations, and happiness. One's lover is both the source of the power that enables one's own achievement, and the reward for that achievement.

"Do most find that? Never; but most never look for it in the first place. They do not believe it is possible. Their tawdry souls do not believe one's highest values are achievable in this world, they settle for the squalid and commonplace.

"They should not get married; but if they do, she should be honest with him, that she has no intention of doing anything hard and if things become the least bit difficult, she will drop him like a hot potato and look for another temporary means to her immediate ends; he should be honest with her that she is important to him only has an object for satisfying his present desires and he is offering her nothing with any long-term purpose or value. At least they are then dealing with one another as honest traders seeking from the other what they desire, and if that is all they desire, it is all they will get, but whatever they get, it will not be happiness, and will ultimately not be worth having."

[Note: It still bewilders me that so many self-styled "Objectivists" do not know the difference between Rand's view of "selfishness" and subjectivism and hedonism. The statement this section began with would be impossible to a true Objectivist. Here are two of the clearest statements of Rand's (and my) view of hedonism:

"Man exists for his own happiness, and the definition of happiness proper to a human being is: a man's happiness must be based on his moral values. It must be the highest expression of his moral values possible to him.

"This is the difference between my morality and hedonism. The standard is not: "that is good which gives me pleasure, just because it gives me pleasure" (which is the standard of the dipsomaniac or the sex-chaser)—but "that is good which is the expression of my moral values, and that gives me pleasure." Since the proper moral code is based on man's nature and his survival, and since joy is the expression of his survival, this form of happiness can have no contradiction in it, it is both "short range" and "long range" (as all of man's life has to be), and it leads to the furtherance of his life, not to his destruction." (The Journals of Ayn Rand,  "13 - Notes While Writing: 1947-1952")

"But the relationship of cause to effect cannot be reversed. It is only by accepting 'man's life' as one's primary and by pursuing the rational values it requires that one can achieve happiness——not by taking 'happiness' as some undefined, irreducible primary and then attempting to live by its guidance. If you achieve that which is the good by a rational standard of value, it will necessarily make you happy; but that which makes you happy, by some undefined emotional standard, is not necessarily the good. To take 'whatever makes one happy' as a guide to action means: to be guided by nothing but one's emotional whims. Emotions are not tools of cognition; to be guided by whims——by desires whose source, nature and meaning one does not know——is to turn oneself into a blind robot, operated by unknowable demons (by one's stale evasions), a robot knocking its stagnant brains out against the walls of reality which it refuses to see.

"This is the fallacy inherent in hedonism——in any variant of ethical hedonism, personal or social, individual or collective. 'Happiness' can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard. The task of ethics is to define man's proper code of values and thus to give him the means of achieving happiness. To declare, as the ethical hedonists do, that 'the proper value is whatever gives you pleasure' is to declare that 'the proper value is whatever you happen to value'——which is an act of intellectual and philosophical abdication, an act which merely proclaims the futility of ethics and invites all men to play it deuces wild. (The Virtue of Selfishness,  "1. The Objectivist Ethics")]

That Special One

The above brought an interesting statement in response from another writer.

"I personally think it highly unlikely (not impossible) that the majority of people will find that special person, even if they do look for them."

The following is my response:

That's too bad, but probably true. Most people do not find much of anything of real value in their lives. I think it is partly true, however, because most people are not true romantics and do not believe they can really achieve and enjoy their highest ideals and aspirations. For those few who do seek their values, however, I certainly believe finding the special person is quite possible.

As for the other question, "Do you think people should live without any sex or romance at all if they don't find that person?"

I do not mean to evade your question, but I do not think about what other people should do with their lives so long as they do not interfere in mine. Everyone must choose for themselves what they believe will fulfill the purpose of their life, which is their enjoyment of it. I do not know how those who are incapable of achieving their ideals, or believe they are, should then proceed to live. I do know those who think they can substitute something less for what they despair of finding will never be fully satisfied. Are they happy? I do not know, but I know I could not be.

Is Sex Necessary

There is a common unstated assumption implied in all these discussions that needs to be made explicit. It is assumed, apparently, that happiness is not possible without sex. Is sex essential to human happiness? If it is, than all those whom birth or physical trauma or other physical condition has made incapable of having sex are doomed to unhappiness by conditions beyond their control—a view inimical to objective philosophy.

Eating is pleasurable and sex is pleasurable. Life without eating would not only be painful, it would ultimately be impossible; life without sex might seem intolerable to some, but it is certainly possible. Sex is not a necessity, not to life, and not to happiness.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Another interesting statement was this:

"Pleasure is not happiness, but I do not see how pursuing it can be irrational or immoral."

I responded as follows:

Seeking pleasure is neither immoral or irrational, so long as the pleasure sought is the result of rational choice and not merely yielding to desire or passion, which makes the individual then a slave to their emotions, not the master of them.

I said in my introduction to the The Autonomist's Notebook, under, "The Cost of Freedom:"

"You want to know where to begin? It must begin with an agreement with yourself to seek and follow the truth above all other things. Until you hold the truth above all other things, above all feelings, all desires, all allegiances or commitments, you can never be free and are doomed to perpetual servitude to any irrational feeling, whim, or passion to which you are willing to sacrifice your reason and therefore your will. The beginning of freedom is to free yourself from all those emotions, which uncontrolled, are demons which possess and control you, but under your control become your servants, providing you strength, enthusiasm, motivation, pleasure, and joy in every aspect of your life."

Whenever someone says to me, "what's wrong with seeking pleasure," it indicates to me, it is pleasure, and their desire for it, the individual has placed in the driver's seat of their life, and what is wrong with it is they are doomed to crash unless they retake control, and base their choices on reason. Pleasure is meant as the reward for right choice, seeking it directly is an abdication of choice to whim.

What is Marriage?

The previous writer also made this important comment:

"I will also make clear I believe it is possible to find happiness in a relationship aside from marriage per se. I do not see how the formalities of marriage are necessary to pursue a long-term relationship, especially considering there are legal alternatives. To me, marriage is but another old-fashioned, religious tradition."

The following is my response:

Personally, I do not understand what most people think marriage, or its purpose is. I know quite well what the historic, religious, and cultural significance of marriage is, but why most people desire or seek it is so individualistic, it defies a comprehensive description. The only cultural aspect of marriage that has meaning for me is the almost universal recognition of it as a declaration the married individuals, as romantic prospects, are off limits to all others. I have never thought of marriage as a contract, with some kind of binding force, but rather, as a declaration of something that is already a fact, and would be a fact, with no formality and no declaration whatsoever.

To me, a marriage does not put two people together and bind them somehow, a marriage is the public celebratory announcement of the fact that two people are already bound by that love which makes them inseparable. If force (of law or religion) is required to keep two people together, they should not be together. Two people who already belong to one another cannot be separated by anything short of death, that is the reason for the expression, "'til death do us part," because nothing else in heaven or earth can separate them. (This is, of course, somewhat exaggerated—I'm thinking of the lovers separated and sent on separate trains, most likely to their deaths, in We the Living.)

[Note: We the Living is Ayn Rand's first published novel (1936) set in post-revolutionary Russia.]

A Psycho-digression

I was also asked by this writer, "What do you think of Nathaniel Branden's take on it [marriage] in his latter books on self-esteem?"

To which I responded:

"I have no use for Nathaniel Branden or his opinions on anything. I regard him as a phony who uses the name Objectivism to spin his own version of Freudian psychobable. You asked."

Those who are familiar with Nathaniel Branden, and his own "marital" history will understand this response.

The Perfect Partner

The following refers to something I said earlier, resulting in this comment: "... what I'm disagreeing with is that you seem to be saying that those who settle for less than the perfect partner are always accepting something squalid...." This is my response:

What, after all is a "perfect" partner. Here is what I think a perfect partner is. First I must consider my values. Anyone I cannot live with and love because of a conflict in those values obviously will not do. Values are the most important thing, and I will get back to them. Secondly, I must consider my own personality, interests, and long term goals. Anyone who could not get along with my type of personality, would prevent me from pursuing my interests, or could not share in my long term goals would not do, either. Finally, I must find someone I find interesting and pleasing, which is the easiest part of all, at least for me, because since I was seven, there is hardly a woman I have ever met who was not both interesting and pleasing to me. Finally I must find a woman fulfilling all the other criteria who is willing to have me. That is the hardest part of all, because any woman with the character and intelligence to fit my other criteria is going to be very discriminating and I'm going to have to work damn hard to measure up.

To this point, I think this defines what a "perfect" partner is for anyone. There is a little more that must be considered when deciding what any specific individual's "perfect" partner is, and I will come back to that.

The idea of "holding out," for the "ideal" mate, I think, does not fit my description of what a "perfect" partner is. The perfect partner is the one that fits the criteria I described and there are probably many possible partners that fit it. What finally makes the partner ideal, is the selection itself, because that choice is a declaration to the one you love that, out of all the possible mates I might have chosen, you are the one I chose.

This may seem almost mystical—I assure you it is not; but the choosing is an almost magical thing. Since both of us must choose the other, that means that both of us are chosen by the other. It is one thing to choose, but it is quite another to be chosen. When the person you love tells you, "of all the people in the world, you are the one I desire to share my life with in every way and do not care to live if I must live without you," however much you already love that person, at that moment you love that person in a new way, because they have now become the ideal you sought, the one who chooses you above all others, just as you chose them.

Falling in Love

The most important aspect of choosing one's lover is one's values. It is this aspect of love that is the source of the expression, "falling in love." Love is not something that happens to us, however, it is something we do, and we do it consciously and intentionally.

Ayn Rand describes, "falling in love," this way: "One falls in love with the embodiment of the values that formed a person's character, which are reflected in his widest goals or smallest gestures, which create the style of his soul——the individual style of a unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable consciousness." [The Romanic Manifesto, "Philosophy and Sense of Life"]

What Rand is describing here is not love, but the initial emotional response to the recognition of the one they will love, if they choose to love them.

Love is a choice, a commitment, a complete surrender to the only thing one may surrender to without giving up their values, because it is the fulfillment of them. It is choosing to value someone above all our other values, as our ultimate value and the object of all our other values, because that person is all we care for in life or care to live for. Love is the conscious choice to sell oneself totally to possess the prize of their life, it is the ultimate trade, all of one's self in exchange for one's ultimate joy and achievement, to love and be loved by the one they live for.

This kind of, "falling in love," is not going to happen to anyone who has never thought about the kind of values and ideals they want in the one they love. It is not going to happen to anyone who has never formed their own values and ideals because they will have no idea what kind of values they want in another.

But for those who know what their values are, who know that their life is theirs to enjoy and that nothing short of reality itself and conforming to its requirements makes it possible to enjoy it; who seek a soul-mate with that same view of life, when they meet, the recognition will be almost instantaneous, often from what may seem the most trivial of words and actions. It is because what a person is, especially if they are the kind of person who so in love with the truth faking reality would be impossible to them, is expressed in everything they do and the way they do it. It even effects the way they look, because how they dress and groom themselves, how they hold themselves when they stand and walk, their every expression and gesture will be an expression of what they are, a fully integrated person. The recognition of one who seeks that kind of individual is the experience called, "falling in love."

Romantic Love Lost

To this day, in regard to love, Hollywood seems to have a better handle on what people really want. The world may have despaired of the concept of romantic love, and no one may believe it is truly possible, but movies, books, and magazines that portray that kind of love, however poorly, are immensely popular. There is in most humans a longing to love and be loved in just that way. Almost all music, even the worst of it, has love as its subject, and for the vast majority of great writers and poets, romantic love is always a major theme.

For several generations, men and women have been cheated. No one finds that kind of love today because no one is looking for it. They have been taught that kind of love does not exist—it doesn't for anyone who settles for less. Most people do settle for less. It has probably always been true, but before post-modernist influence wiped out the concepts of ideals and virtue, it was still the thing that most civilized men and women at least dreamed of, and most sought to make it a reality in there own lives to whatever extent it was possible.

I wrote about that ideal's loss some time ago as part of another work:

What if there were a pleasure so high, a kind of joy so fulfilling, that no other pleasure and no other joy could possibly be compared to it, and those who found it would not exchange it for anything, and would risk all, even life itself, to gain and keep it? And what if that pleasure and that joy was within the reach of every person, so long as they were willing to pay the price. And what if some colossal mistake, some insidious deception had stolen the knowledge of that highest possible prize from mankind, would you not want to know what it is? If I tell you what it is, you will not believe it, because the word for it is the very thing that has been corrupted. The word that names the highest possible value, that thing which makes life worth living and is its ultimate reward has been so distorted, and has come to mean the exact opposite of that which it names.

Like some jewel of inestimable value carelessly dropped into the filth of the world and trampled into the dirt by the feet of those rushing to embrace every tawdry, squalid, cheap and phoney kind of pleasure that is substituted for the genuine, it is no longer recognized and its very existence denied. The name of that jewel of inestimable value is romantic love.

The Work that is Love

Another writer's comment, with which I do not totally agree does make a very important point.

"Fortunately, this does not require ... finding the 'perfect partner.' Rather it requires finding a like-minded soul who is ready to roll up her sleeves with you to build the perfect love. Without that common objective, no partner will ever be perfect, because your union has no purpose beyond the horizon of the moment. Conversely, with that common objective, no partner ever need be perfect, because the happiness born of your union’s purpose will smooth the way.

The part I disagree with is the implicit idea the marriage itself is the objective. While it can be the objective, and any two intelligent honest people who at least like each other a lot can probably make a marriage that is successful, and very well may grow to truly love each other in the romantic sense, it is not my view of marriage as an expression of what is already true—two people bound to each other by their mutual love, who neither would or could desire to live without the other.

But there is one very important point I do agree with. It is not marriage that needs to be worked at. The object is not to preserve a union for its own sake. The union is inevitable and requires no work at all to preserve if the love that is the reason for it is there. It is, in fact, the love that takes the work.

Love is something one does, not something that happens to them, and because it is the highest possible value and provides the supreme form of human happiness and fulfillment, it is a great mistake to think one can just have it at no cost. On the contrary, romantic love is very costly—anyone not willing to pay the price and do the work should not seek it. The best they can expect is a cheap substitute and disappointment.

The work which is love is it's own reward. When two people truly love one another, in the romantic sense, loving and pleasing one another is no sacrifice, and no drudgery. It is a lover's greatest delight to give pleasure to the one he adore's more than life. The "work" consists mostly of not taking love for granted, not allowing other things to interfere in the expression of love, and consciously avoiding anything that might endanger that love and doing everything one can to foster it.

Love is the Ultimate Adventure

Life lived right is a romantic adventure, and the greatest adventure of all is when two people share it as lovers and all they achieve and do is in the context of their love for each other‐it gives meaning and purpose to everything in life and turns everything into a part of that integrated whole which is the truly fulfilled life.

The following is about marriage, which must be understood, not as an end in itself, but the union which romantic love itself produces.

I am not sure what a, "perfect mate," or "perfect love," or, "perfect marriage, " would be, any more than I would know what a perfect company, or perfect product is. Perfection, it seems to me, is the ideal toward which one aspires, and the right partner would be the one who has the same values and aspirations and is most eager and able to join in working toward them, and making it the most enjoyable and rewarding effort possible. To me, marriage is an adventure, and the rough spots are often the most interesting and rewarding parts of that adventure, and that is part of the romance.

Marriage really is something two people build. It is a growing concern, a for-profit venture. The kind of love and joy shared by two people married for thirty, forty, or more years is the product and reward of a shared enterprise, of memories of hard things won, difficulties overcome, goals achieved, and millions of small pleasures unique to their shared life, and there is no other way to achieve that kind of triumphant happiness.

Everyone is Different

There was also this very interesting question from another writer:

"I have a question about your statement on the "one true love" being the highest value. Are you implying it is not possible to find happiness in your life without a romantic partner? ... I am not so sure being with someone is all that necessary to find happiness."

I said, "marriage is not for everyone, and there is no doubt in my mind some individuals live completely happy fulfilled lives without marriage. Nevertheless, for those who can find and enjoy it, marriage is the most exquisite, beautiful, and thoroughly satisfying life possible to man.

"However, I believe those for whom marriage is not meant to be are the exception. Nevertheless, the kind of, "triumphant happiness," which marriage makes possible, is only possible to those who do marriage well. Like everything else in life, most people do not do it well. Most people do not do well at earning a living either, but those who choose to earn their way in this life, rather than become welfare parasites, are still happier, even it they do not do it well; and those who are married have a much better chance of finding happiness than those who are not, even if they do not do marriage very well.

More Doubts About Marriage

Another writer wrote:

"If you're happy together, you'll be happy together before and after marriage (or after what would have been the time you got married if you choose not to get the license). So I don't see marriage as helping any happy couples."

It is really too bad that marriage has come to mean a contract, because that is not really what it ought to be, and there is certainly nothing "binding" about marriage today. I also cannot believe that any still think marriage is something that forces people to stay together who don't choose to, and that people cannot have any kind of relationship they like in these days, without marriage. There is not a single kind of relationship anyone can imagine that people cannot enter into if they choose, or exit if they choose, and they do, all the time.

Now the meaning I give to marriage is not something externally binding, but the identification of a fact. When two people love each other in that way that makes them desire, and choose, above all other things, to live, love, and make a life together, they are married. Some people like to formalize that state, to publicly announce and celebrate it. A wedding is nothing more than a public expression of what is already true.

Marriage in that sense is not possible to just anyone, and not at all without, "true love," and certainly not with multiple partners. I think romantic love is like great music, some cannot enjoy any music, because they are tone deaf (or totally deaf), others can enjoy popular music, but not classical music, because it is too demanding. Some can and do enjoy classical music, and those who do, cannot imagine not having it to enjoy.

I am not interested in convincing the "marital" deaf to get married, but I do suggest for those who may never have really thought about it, that marriage is an expression and realization of the highest value human beings are capable of, romantic love. For those who are capable of it, they ought not to miss it if possible.

One reason I do not argue about marriage with the young, besides the fact most are so hormone addled they cannot think straight about love or much of anything else, is because it is not something one can, "prove," any more than one can, "prove," the duet from Bizet's "Pearl Fishers" (Les Pecheurs de Perles) is beautiful. One has to hear it and have the ability to appreciate it. The kind of love I am talking about is like that.

One Last Attempt

Obviously, even after my very careful explanation of what I mean by marriage, there was still some confusion evidenced by this comment:

"[You say] the longevity of a relationship is a rational value, and that anyone who gives up on a marriage is probably not trying hard enough or did not pick the right person in the first place."

This is not exactly my position. My idea of marriage is not something resulting from some ritual or state sanctioning (or licensing), but the inevitable consequence of two people who discover their life can no longer have meaning without each other, so long as both are living and nothing else bars their union. The "longevity" of that kind of marriage is the result of the fact it is what both desire. But it is not the marriage that must last, but the love that is the reason for it in the first place. This is only possible between two people who are reasonably competent, intelligent, and objective enough to take the long view of things before making choices.

But, even though it is what both want above all other things, and both know what the ultimate value that union is to them, it does not happen automatically. Nothing of value in this life just happens. It does take thinking and work. Just as anything else people do that is going to last longer than a night, a week, or a few months, there will be temptations to do something rash that will spoil the greater prize, there will be discouragements that make one want to give up, and there will be times, when tired or out-of-sorts one will not "feel" like they are in love, just as a parent does not always "feel" very loving toward a child, even though they know they would die rather than let anything happen to that child, no matter how they "feel" at the moment.

It really amounts to a very simple principle—to those who have found a love that cannot for them possibly last long enough, there is nothing worth the risk of losing it, no work too hard, and no price to high. To lose that would be the greatest sacrifice they could make, and they will not make it.

I'm sure you know people who have thrown away a promising career over some stupid temporary fit of temper or desire to do or enjoy something that, compared to the career they threw away, wasn't worth a pickle. Many people throw away a marriage, built on romantic love, with which they are perfectly happy, and without which they will never be as happy again, over some temptation, temporary problem, or misunderstanding.

Now I am going to say something about human nature that may surprise you. Many people whose marriages were arranged for them, and many others who marry for reasons other than romantic love, have discovered that, after awhile they do love each other in just that way I described, and both could not imagine being able to live, or at least enjoy life, without the other. Now, why do you suppose that is?

[At the time, I did not answer that question, but will here. It's really quite simple—both of them have grown and become the kind of ideal person the other , "falls in love with." It is because human beings are what they choose to be, not what nature, heredity, or environment makes them. Through the years, and often it does not take that long, such couples learn what real values are and seek to be the kind of persons worthy of those ideas. Who wouldn't fall in love with that kind of person.]

For those who cannot see any value in marriage, who never find anyone they value so highly life has no meaning without them (or no one finds them that valuable), or who are just unwilling to expend the effort and self-discipline necessary for the realization of any long term value, marriage is probably a mistake. So long as one assumes marriage means being tied to someone unwillingly for longer than they like, they ought not to get married.

Those who cannot see the value of marriage, however, ought not criticize those who have found the happiness which is only possible in that true romantic love that cannot last long enough, nor should they criticize those who hold that kind of love as their ideal and will settle for nothing less. It is a little like a tone-deaf man criticising the opera lover for spending his money on "something so foolish." It would be foolish for the tone-deaf man to spend his money on opera, but for the opera lover to give up opera to save money would be both a foolish and immoral self-sacrifice.

—(06/13/05)