The Centrality of Sex and the Failure of Unstable Relationships

The Centrality of Sex and the Failure of Unstable Relationships May 21, 2012

[An excerpt from Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying]

Why do so many emerging-adult sexual relationships fail? Reasons of course are manifold, and for many it’s simply part of the script of sex, college (for some), and the natural course of modern relationships. Relationships fail, then, because at some point they’re supposed to. Sex columnist Dan Savage reminds his readers that “every relationship fails until one doesn’t.” While certainly true at face value, this is an observation that can become an imperative: people commence relationships, anxiously awaiting the sure signs of their fatal condition.

The reasons that Americans of all ages could give for their failed relationships are numerous, but one problem may uniquely plague emerging-adult relationships. It’s the role of sex (rather than solely its presence): many couples lack a clear, shared, and suitable role for the sex they experience within a romantic relationship, especially when sex is introduced early. Many testify that sex is often difficult to talk about, in part because the partners are still getting to know each other and deep conversation is considered too intimate. Yet sex becomes a clear goal and new priority–the elephant in the corner that demands attention when they’re together. It acquires an increasingly central role in the relationship while at the same time other aspects of the relationship remain immature. Compare this to the greater sense of security that a shared residence and bed entail. Having sex with one’s college boyfriend in his dorm room, only to wander home later, can be an emotionally unsatisfying sensation for many women, for good reason. Some eventually solve this dilemma by moving in together. And for many that seems a welcome–if only slightly more secure–step.

But when the habit of going out for dinner, a film, and dessert trails rather than precedes sex, even simple conversations take on a strange aura. After all, such a couple knows more about what each other looks like naked than what each other thinks about school, work, politics, religion, family, or future plans–life in general. Writing in New York magazine, Third-wave feminist writer Naomi Wolf wonders if we haven’t gotten the order of sex and familiarity mixed up:

“Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.” “Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?” “Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”

To imagine staying up late into the night feasting on a wide-ranging conversation now strikes many as something one does after commencing a sexual relationship, not before. Thus one hallmark of the classic hookup scenario is silence. Talking is perceived as potentially ruinous to the moment. When did talking get to be so sacred? When did honest, verbal communication outpace the meeting of penis and vagina in its degree of intimacy?

Apart from relationship security, familiarity, and a shared domicile, sex has a difficult time playing a supportive role in fostering intimacy and building love. Instead, it wants to be the lead character. But when left to sustain a relationship, sex typically falters. Katie, a college student from Tennessee, sensed this in her relationship with Daniel, a man with whom she was in a four-year, long-distance relationship (he lived in Arkansas). Only in the past year did the two begin having sex, and–lacking
as they were in physical proximity–Katie quickly sensed something suboptimal about it for two reasons, her own moral qualms about premarital sex notwithstanding.
First, sex within their sporadic interactions began to claim a place and priority that outstripped its natural boundaries. In most marriages and cohabitations, even in the honeymoon phase, sex plays a supporting role to the mundane activities of normal life. In a relationship where two people are not sharing lots of normal life activities–a scenario common among young adults–sex can quickly take center stage.

Katie summarized this bluntly: “I felt like I was dating his dick.” Their bonding typically ended with Daniel’s inevitable departure. Katie detected that something was clearly amiss and after several months told Daniel she couldn’t do it anymore. Most such romantic relationships do not give up sex without breaking apart, and theirs was no different; the relationship ended. Daniel rapidly became sexually active with another woman, while Katie struggled to make sense of it all, wondered about her future, and wrestled with guilt, resolving not to misplace the role of sex again. Keeping that resolution, however, is difficult, since the atmosphere in which contemporary relationships form among emerging adults is heavy with early sexual expectation. Eight months later, Katie and Daniel were back together.


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  • John Riley

    What is interesting, to me, is the way that Christianity deals with this. By making sex an important, but ultimately a part of marriage, it does not take center stage in the intimate relationship you have with your wife.

  • Sex is the highest expression of love possible, and I think we are losing that sense of sex in this highly sexualized culture, where sex has just become just another mundane thing, like eating or talking.

    • Fortuna Veritas

      You do realize that Europe used to be full of brothels back during the middle ages, right? And the wealthy have always had mistresses.

      The thing here though is that people can marry for love, not just because they had to marry their rapist or the guy unlucky enough to get them pregnant after they’d had sex with half the town.

    • Debra

      @ Alejandro
      Nope, sex is not the greatest expression of love. Without guile may I offer this: “Greater love has no one than this: that he should lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13.
      Self-sacrifice, not self-gratification, is the highest expression of love, in or out of marriage.

  • Fortuna Veritas

    If you’re going to call sex, of all things, as the chief culprit and worst thing about modern relationships, then damn, mate, have you overblown the importance of sex when people naturally drift apart when they’re allowed to marry for love and get exposed to a large variety of people and actually have a greater ability to find people with similar or matching interests, thought patterns, and viewpoints than previous generations have, so of course people are going to be pickier, and only the insane actually want small children to seriously plan on marrying other small children when they begin to date.

    And by leaving it as wide open as “people of all ages,” you’ve either intentionally said this of small children or kind of left your pants around your ankles while you were in the stocks on that one.

    • Mark Regnerus

      Nobody’s talking about children here. I’m suggesting that a key culprit, not necessarily the chief one, is the centrality that couples give sex early in relationships.

  • Diane D’Angelo

    This is a topic about which straight Christians might want to consult their GLB friends. Persons involved in same -sex relationships typically are forced to navigate the nuances between friendship, dating and same-sex marriage early on, as there is no fear of pregnancy to at as a fear-based boundary from having sex. For spiritually based GLBT people, the path is tremendously fruitful– learning the value of true compatibility above and beyond sexual attraction.

  • Natasha

    Sex is the highest expression of love? Really? More so than giving birth or breastfeeding a baby or men sacrificing their lives for each other in combat? Talk about putting sex front and center in relationships!

    This is a remarkably unthorough, unimaginative, and small-minded blog post/book excerpt. I’m on an iPhone and don’t have time to list all the reasons why. I’ll suffice it for now to point out that a relationship’s end does not define it as a “failure”, nor does the stubborn endurance of another define it as a success. This starts with flawed definitions from the start, which makes it impossible to determine the cause of the end of the relationship.

    If a marriage starts out with a lot of sex all the time as the focus, we smile and call that the honeymoon period. How many Christians do you know who merely know each other for weeks before they marry? I’m sad to say I know more than a handful. How is that a sensible way to start a relationship? Once the sexual tension wears off, how many people fin that they courted and married thinking with their genitals. Oh, I know many.

    The arrogance of anyone attempting to decide how important anything, including sex, should be in everyone’s relationships just astounds me. But then, religion is arrogant.

    The story of Katie, the likely Christian who didn’t believe in premarital sex and who didn’t have it until three years into a relationship, ends without a clear point and doesn’t even serve the original one. So presumptuous to suggest that Daniel’s breaking up with her was all about sex just because his next relationship happened to include it. Most relationships DO!

    Terribly annoying post.

    • Mark Regnerus

      That’s a lot of writing for an iPhone. I know very few Christians who marry after a rather short relationship, and I never counsel toward that end. Too underdeveloped–is an extension of what I wrote about the centrality of sex, even if they wait.

      While I can be arrogant at times–can’t we all–I’m hardly *deciding* the importance that a couple affords sex; I’m simply observing that it happens a great deal and that it’s typically suboptimal for the development of the relationship (clearly that’s not what plenty are after). And no, sex is not the highest expression of love. Laying down one’s life, as you note, is far closer. Aptly put.