Letters to my son about love, sex, and getting your bearings. Hopefully useful to others as well.
You will be 16 only two more months. You need space from me as never before. I’ve never felt serious hostility from you, but there are times when I feel the eyes of teenage judgement lasering through me, searching for anything false or failed. You can usually find something. At times I’ll be talking to you from your bedroom door and see you actually morphing into a werewolf, nearly growling at me to leave while I can. I take it in stride because we’re just playing out the eternal roles of controlling, restricting dad and desperate to get the fuck out of here kid. And it isn’t like knowing that offers us an opt-out policy from the drama, it’s compulsory, appropriate and as structured into your cells as learning to talk or walk. You are supposed to want to get the fuck out of here and if you see me as standing in your way, it’s because you are supposed to stop letting me do things for you and give up the comforts you feel when hanging around me. Those comforts could make you wander less, seeking your new life. You need to start looking for it now. I loved taking care of you when you were little, but taking care of you now, beyond what’s absolutely needed from me is a self indulgent bad habit I need to give up in your best interests. I actually don’t find it easy but life has times for ending things so new things can come along and this is one of those.
In fairness, you are almost always very nice to me and your affection shows through many times, but we never talk anymore. I miss talking to you without the sense that you are counting the seconds being stolen from you. If I bring up an important subject that has emotions or personal stuff involved, you react like a cat suddenly recognizing the vet’s office. Embarrassed and appalled, you head for the nearest exit. I think I could still use the DAD voice and the whole “Get back here this minute” thing but that’s not how I imagined our talk. If I forced the issue you’d sit there like a coyote stuck on a barbed wire fence. You really don’t want to hear what I want to tell you. So I don’t tell you.
But I see things you need to know, and I know those things. Look, the big reason you want to get out of here is so you can walk around till you find a young lady who wants to have sex with you. That reason may be pretty clear to you already but if you thought it was the fresh air, you were mistaken. I don’t really mean the sex part, although obviously I really do. Yes, we’ll call it falling in love but we’re talking about the demands of your genes, not your beautiful soul, even though your beautiful soul is more important in the long run. I’m not talking about what you should feel, because that’s nothing but a tiny morality flag to salute. Nobody feels what they should feel, that’s why we have to be exhorted and reminded to feel it! I’m talking about human animals like you and everyone you know. In reality it’s more like; find some friends to hang with, get better at socializing, eventually meet some girls and practice talking to those girls until one of them likes you so hard that she wants to have sex with you. But surrounding that superdrive to mate are a million ways to be capable or not and worthy or not. This is where your beautiful soul re-enters the picture.
Life is mostly about being with people and being a person worth knowing. Ignorance of those ways means suffering and wasted chances. You can, at least, suffer less and miss fewer chances.
How to People:
Constructing a teenage self
“First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons — but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which had lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world — a world intense and strange, complete in himself. Let it be added here that this lover about whom we speak need not necessarily be a young man saving for a wedding ring — this lover can be man, woman, child, or indeed any human creature on this earth.
Now, the beloved can also be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. A man may be a doddering great-grandfather and still love only a strange girl he saw in the streets of Cheehaw one afternoon two decades past. The preacher may love a fallen woman. The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else — but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit. A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself.
It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”
Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories
These are the 6 love styles as understood by current psychology.
- Eros – Classic idealized romantic love.
- Ludus – Multiple love interests with an emphasis on controlling behavior. Lying, cheating and deception are common among people who experience love as Ludus.
- Storge – Love based on Storge takes time, it requires genuine liking and trust of a partner; friendship leading to romance.
- Agape – The powerful desire to want to take care of a partner—a parental or nurturing type of love.
- Mania – Unstable, impulsive and needy. They fall in love quickly, but their love tends to consume them and burn out before it can mature.
- Pragma – Based on common sense, reason and careful consideration. Practical concerns (and safety) underlie this type of love.
The order isn’t important.
When first exposed to these I thought they were awesome, they really help to make sense of behaviors that usually remain undefined. For example as someone who in the past often matched the Storge description, deep feelings arose for me out of solid liking and trust and not until. Being approached by a partner in full Eros mode would thrill me with their interest and passion. That same passion often overwhelmed me with its speed and intensity, making me hesitate in a “deer in the headlights” way that, in turn, made them feel uncertain. The ability to recognize the love style that is approaching makes it possible to anticipate how things are unfolding and respond mindfully.
When people encounter this taxonomy of loving, they often relate to it as a “personality type” tool where they are to pick themselves out of the list. Can you guess what they pick? Most people (according to themselves,) are Eros types. In second place comes Agape with nobody in a close 3rd. The idealized romantic Eros style is what you’d want to be out of this list. It sounds like true love expressed in the healthy, normal, successful way…that mostly occurs in movies. Agape is the popular second choice because so many people feel like they are the more generous, giving one in the relationship and possibly the unfairly unappreciated one. Obviously, most people are wrong about these choices and just trying to feel good about themselves. Ludus, Storge, Mania, and Pragma are the “Not so fantastic four” in this lineup. Storge is the most acceptable of this group because it’s kind of relatable and it doesn’t seem wrong on the face of it, just not very romantic. Pragma next because it’s that, Mania or Ludus. Pragma feels like the opposite of romantic love, practical and transactional. It’s like going into business as a couple. To choose Pragma as your “type” seems like admitting it didn’t go well for you, and here’s how you compromised and settled. Finally, in a popularity showdown between Mania and Ludus, Mania wins because people would rather be messed up than evil. Continue reading
To the right is a relationship flowchart by the elegant artists and thinkers of Information is Beautiful. They have a lot of fun and interesting stuff to explore. The image is linked to a full-size version, it may take 2 clicks to open it fully.
All these forms of intimate relationships are going on around us right now. Some are movements and subcultures, some are just deeply personal rabbit holes. Many are virtually invisible through fear of disapproval. Polyamourous people are probably as low profile now as gays and lesbians were in the late sixties. These varieties can be understood as a range of human love styles but also as strategic experiments running parallel to the accepted norms. The norms are pretty obviously the mating styles that do the best job of creating robust and stable populations. That has clear evolutionary significance and suggests a reason for cultural pressure to stay inside the lines. Yet these variations show up within every generation of people. Perhaps life maximizes chances for success by keeping alternate pathways running should fortune suddenly favor them. Since these variants are visible as an emergent, bottom-up effect from the desires and needs of individual people, we can predict them appearing in some ratio within any population, in any circumstances, anywhere on earth. If we imagine small tribes in many different challenging conditions attempting to survive, it’s easy to see how one of these variations might prove more advantageous than straight up monogamy. That makes it evolutionary common sense to preserve these alternate strategies inside the human heart.
Different strategies can become the social norm in different cultures, and be seen as the ideal, natural version of love and marriage. Monogamy is the widest spread, most successful pattern historically but the fact that it isn’t universal and is seen as less than ideal in various other cultures has an important implication. It means that the cultural machinery doesn’t come with a preset mating strategy installed but adopts whichever mating pattern becomes dominant and reinforces it. Apparently, the larger survival value is in a culture-wide agreement about our common strategy. A culture without a dominant strategy is not a fully defined culture.
It’s intriguing that in America the variations in the chart are all legal to pursue…as hobbies. But illegal as forms of marriage. Gays and lesbians have finally been recognized as normal citizens with a right to marry, but only within the one, true marriage pattern. This shows the intense cultural defense of the dominant strategy. There’s a fear of society losing definition and becoming nonfunctional without a law of marriage. Polygamy (multiple wives) and polyandry (multiple husbands) are illegal here along with group marriage. But as long as you don’t try to stick a ring on it, the law isn’t coming after you. That’s a job for your fellow citizens, creeped out by your weird arrangement which looks to them like the marriage equivalent of a person with three arms and seven eyes. Continue reading
Dear Boy of mine,
Our last “love and sex” letter/talk went great! By which I mean neither of us said a word about it later, and you didn’t tell me to shut up. I like writing to you and there’s so much I want to tell you. People don’t teach kids these incredibly important things that could potentially make SO MUCH DIFFERENCE in how successful their relationships are. Honestly, it’s almost as if parents, like prank victims, would rather watch the next poor suckers get pranked as well, instead of warning them off.
Despite the feeling that love should always last, you will probably find yourself in and out of relationships like most people. But I do know a few couples who have been together since high school and more who met in college. So without trying to set expectations too high, whatever happens during this time is laden with serious possibilities and opportunities that are not for squandering. Full disclosure, I was a distractable relationship idiot who squandered multiple possibilities for the ADHD driven payoff of exciting new experiences. I loved my wild days but every choice kills other choices and if you kill off too many soulful choices there won’t be any left in the package later. Along the way though, I’ve lived intimately and long-term with women loved and been loved, and learned a lot. My credentials have as much to do with failure as success but that adds a bit of tangy lime, for flavor.
There’s not a lot of hard science in this territory because people are weird and complicated and in a sense, science doesn’t even really know exactly what people are yet. Maybe it’s just that as many things as we can know scientifically about neurology and sex the real experience is like being lowered into a soupy atmosphere of adrenaline and magic where everything matters too much. To be filled with desire IS to be out of one’s depth, our toes scraping for solid ground. But there are a number of things to know that can help light your way and help you understand where you are.
People love differently
There isn’t just one motivation that drives all who love and seek love. So when two people approach each other and frame their experience together as common ground they may be wrong. They may be more like actors from two entirely different plays, interacting in a way that only appears to be part of the same story. Each may be thrilled or disappointed by elements of the story their partner is clueless about. Basically, people have different feelings about what it means to “be in love.” And “In love”, couple love, is my context today.
In commonplace psychological wisdom, these are the love styles that have been charted. These are observed behaviors that are consistent enough to be described as a style. They are useful as lenses to help us observe our actual approach to love and to understand those around us. Really, they are just various aspects of the experience of love itself but concentrated in one area by the comfort wavelength of each person. These styles are like the base note of the psychological perfume and most people are a blend of a main style and a couple of sub-styles. You might also imagine each one having a range of healthy and unhealthy expressions and there’s no better or worse indicated by their order.
1. Agape: Imagine a nearly selfless joy in giving and helping the person you love. Agape nurtures, supports and cares; it is attentive, compassionate and almost parental. When healthy, it’s a self-transcending release from being a needy and lacking thing, to instead becoming a robust and generous thing. This is generous love and it comes with the incredible pleasure of holding nothing in reserve. This love isn’t “Because you’ve earned it “: This love is celebratory and full. “I don’t care if you’ve earned it, I love you!” Agape doesn’t count the change it gets back…it figures things balance out because “After all, I got to love you this much!” Continue reading
I wanted to talk to you about girls.
But I can’t because you would react like I touched a lit match to your skin. If I kept talking, you’d react like I was holding your head under water.
So I thought I’d write to you about it a little. This way we can both pretend I never said a word.
Girls, women. Females.
Our relationship to them as men, as heterosexual men anyway, is so deep that it has no distance from who we are. Our relationship with women is a kind of hub for the rest of our lives. We look at them and we see what we hope for and dream of. Sometimes it’s only lust, a fiery urge: sometimes it’s romance, an irreplaceable heart connection to a one of a kind person. Sometimes it’s kind of about who you want to be in this life. Sometimes it’s clear water insight and sometimes it’s a fever dream.
Sexuality and attraction are like nitrogen in the air, they are basic, and forever. You won’t know life from here on without it. There is a longing in the soul to know and be close and there is a longing in almost all bodies to join their essence with a beautiful otherness to make new life, that is like you, and like her and yet new. Making babies is where our single note joins with another and makes a chord. The desire and the love is that chord. I’m unlikely to run out of metaphors talking about love and sex because it is the inspiration for variation and creation. Sex is voting with love for new life.
I don’t mean sex is only about reproduction. Numerically, sex is rarely about reproduction but at the same time, almost all sex is about the possibility of reproduction. It’s always possible and it’s often a silent discussion like “Us? Maybe? Ever? Soon?” Even though there are times that people are oblivious to those thoughts inside themselves, there is something fundamental and magnetic and deeper than ordinary relationship issues pulling us toward making new people.
But rather than drag on about the universal magic in the air, let me tell you some useful things. Continue reading