I started teaching a new class this semester on patterns of human mating. One of our assignments was what we called “Interviews with the Wise.” I asked students to speak informally with older people, asking them what they had learned about sex, love, marriage, and relationships, and what lessons they would like to pass along to young people. We collectively came up with the questionnaire as a class.
The interviewees ranged in age from their late 50s to their early 90s (‘older’ is always a relative term, I suppose). Most would probably be described as traditional, most were married once, but some were married a few times or none at all. Several were raised Catholic (it is New England), and we had a range of people from different ethnicities.I was very impressed with how seriously the students took the assignment, and how open their interviewees were.
Below are some of the patterns I noticed from the interviews:
1) In our request for advice, a few older people acknowledged that it is hard to find a one-size-fits all pattern when it comes to the ideal way to balance sex, love, marriage, long-term relationships, etc. They seemed to be acknowledging that what’s most important is trying to find a partner (or not) that works for you.
2) Only a handful agreed that love at first sight exists. Most people felt that love only comes with knowing someone.
3) Similarly, only a few said that you can learn to love someone. Most people felt that love required some initial spark.
4) Most said it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
5) Most said that sex is very important in a relationship. Two people emphasized this, saying that it was extremely important. Others added that compatibility between partners was really the key. That is, if two partners are mismatched with high/low libidos or sexual interests they could have problems down the road. However, opinions varied here (and on every question, of course). Others noted that companionship was more important, particularly in older age when libido tended to wane.
6) People seemed all over the place when it came to describing romantic love. Some described it as “when you can’t live without someone.” Another referred to it as more of a calmer type of friendship. I though it was revealing that the definitions varied so widely. As a culture, I don’t think we’re well-versed in what romantic love really is. For all of its supposed importance, it’s still a very fuzzy notion.
7) Several people referred to marriage as a foundation to build a life upon (particularly if one wanted to raise children), and they emphasized that this was not all fun and games, but entailed obligation, work, and sacrifice. However, other people felt that passion for life and for another person were much more important than the legal bonding that came with marriage. A number of people said that monogamy was challenging, rather than the default setting for them.
8) One interview who stood out to me said that he had more than a dozen long-term relationships over the years, adding that once passion and novelty had faded from their initial peaks, he “wasn’t interested anymore.” Yet, he also described himself as a monogamist. I thought that was interesting, that he was content with this form of serial monogamy. We know that romantic love tends to be most passionate at the beginning of a relationship, after which it calms down. It can be sustained, but trying to keep it going at that early intensity is a challenge. Perhaps if people have that expectation of indefatigable passion, then they will face a series of dissolved relationships (which is fine if that’s what a person prefers).
9) On that note, definitions of monogamy and infidelity also differed. Some felt that infidelity entailed any type of dishonesty, or secret, or lack of communication. Others defined infidelity as simply thinking about another person. Of course, most said it was sexual contact outside the relationship. Some people revealed they had infidelity in their past, either as the one to partake, or as the faithful partner.
10) A few people said that they tried to think of the early years of their relationship, as a reminder of why they were with the person in the first place. After an argument with his wife, one man would go to a part of the house to look at a photo of her when they were young, to remember the better moments. This reminded me of a lesson from William Jankowiak, who described the importance of ‘anchor memories’ for couples. While a relationship may drift from its original starting point, anchor memories act as a sort of ‘origin myth,’ to give the narrative of a relationship some coherence.