Should Stuart go or wait for love
Stuart and I parent well together. We run a household well together. And that’s it. We aren’t at each other’s throats, but the lovin’ feelin’ is long gone. I’m lonely, but I don’t want to disrupt our kids’ stability, especially since they are adopted from abusive backgrounds and are now doing well. I’m considering asking Stuart for an open relationship where we’re both free to fall in love with others, understanding we will keep living and parenting together until the kids are launched in about 8 more years. Whatever you advise, the kids are priority #1. What do you think?
You definitely have a common and heart-wrenching problem. But do you have an ideal solution—one where you can maintain stability for your kids while alleviating your loneliness? I asked several non-sciency types, and they considered your plan safer than casual sex, and more realistic than monogamy with someone you haven’t loved in years. Some even thought your kids’ lives might improve because you’d be happier.
And I wanted to agree. Except that as a sciency type, I can’t. Surprising though it may sound, I found myself wishing you’d just asked whether casual sex could help scratch an itch your primary relationship doesn’t take care of anymore, and/or whether your current relationship might improve on its own. Here’s why.
Men are wired differently for casual sex than passionate love.
Most men can do something few women can: Throw gametes around without emotional penalties. To wit, ¾ of straight men report being able to maintain emotional distance from their friend with benefits—whereas ¾ of women say they can’t help falling (at least a little) in love with guys after sex. And the more casual sex a man has, the greater his ability to detach.
Men’s mechanism? Dopamine. Increase it only briefly—as in, just long enough to get in someone’s briefs—and the neurotransmitter plummets along with the guy’s orgasm.
This come-and-go strategy appears to have enabled ancestral men to cast their genes far and wide while remaining emotionally attached to a primary partner—simultaneously creating children with many casual liaisons while protecting the babies at home from the dangers of paternal abandonment. And it’s still alive and kicking in many of their XY descendants today, including gay descendants. Gay men are not only even likelier than straight men to endorse, have, and enjoy open sexual relationships, but manygay couples use casual sex as part of a strategy to stay with the primary partner.
But dopamine behaves differently when men fall for someone. Ramp up the dope over weeks or months by getting to know someone before the sex begins, and you’ve got Passionate Love and a long-term relationship. And passionate love is a whole different animal from casual sex.
Obsession doesn’t share.
Before we go any further with the whys and wherefores, I’d like you to take a brief quiz known as the Passionate Love Scale: http://www.elainehatfield.com/Passionate%20Love%20Scale.pdf.
This measure reveals that passionate lovers are obsessive lovers who fervently desire total union with the beloved, think of each other incessantly, and yearn for each other when apart.
Put another way, they’re the ones the rest of us can’t talk with unless we want to hear Sweetie’s name every five seconds.
And obsession doesn’t share. In the USA and globally, passionate lovers are exclusive lovers, becoming jealous if their beloved begins falling for anyone else, and opposing whatever or whoever gets between them…such as a scenario where you won’t be available full-time for 8 more years, during which you would have to tolerate being apart, and your beloved would have to tolerate your living with another man.
Which brings us to the next point:
Other men are wild cards.
All that sustained dopamine in passionate love isn’t for nothing. It may even be why men fall in love faster, harder and longer than most women; love begets the ultimate male investments of willing and able resource provision, not just for today but for many, many tomorrows. It keeps hearth and home together.
Or, in your case, breaks it apart as a new commitment becomes The commitment. If passionate love in a male-female dyad makes for a committed man, how much truer might that be when everyone in the relationship is male? Even if you and Stuart can buck the passionate obsession and behave rationally, will your two new partners be okay with the arrangement you made, pre-them? Can they remain satisfied hanging onto the fringes of your daily lives for almost a decade? Could you all move in together?
It’s possible. But highly improbable even with men you know…nevermind those you haven’t met yet, who don’t necessarily share your ambitions for your children and your home.
What’s the solution?
Jeffrey, this article was among the hardest to write—not because the science is murky, nor because the answer to whether your plan is workable is absent. But because I want to give you a green light, or at least a simple alternative, and I don’t see one. I don’t see a reliable way for you to simultaneously nurture your children and your heart unless you patch things up with the man you already have.
Falling in love with others will likely create chaos, not stability. Casual sex can scratch an itch and provide a diversion; it may make life more livable; but it probably won’t resolve the loneliness at the core of your question. And splitting up your family will indeed undermine your kids’ well-being. That’s true of biokids whose parents can at least tolerate each other, even if those parents aren’t in love. It’s especially true for your children, who come from abusive beginnings and who’ve made such strides under your care. They need you…together.
Every relationship has its seasons of discontent, yet about 85% of couples describe themselves as ‘very happy’ within 5 years even if they’d formerly been contemplating divorce. Can you remember what drew you to Stuart at the beginning? Can you start adding compliments and subtracting criticisms? Are you both basically capable of kindness and respect towards one another? If so, science shows the love may very well return. If not, it’s still to your kids’ advantage for you and Stuart to stay together until the kids are grown and you are free.
In sum, whoever wrote that love is a many-splendored thing forgot to add that sometimes love dies; sometimes it’s lonely; sometimes it’s resurrected; and sometimes we have to pick the greater love…and pursue it instead of other desires. For now.
All content copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., and LoveScienceMedia, 2014
The author wishes to thank the following scientists and sources: