Neil Strauss, who wrote The Game, an account of the pick-up artist (PUA) subculture which I discussed in an earlier post has just published his new book, The Truth. The book describes, as I understand it, with a great deal of candour and personal courage, his process of transitioning from what we might call an obsessively promiscuous lifestyle to a committed open (or at least, not fully closed) relationship with his wife Ingrid. It’s Strauss’s journey, but also – certainly by the provocative title – seems to purport to be more than that.
I should say that these remarks are not based on a reading of the new book, but mostly just on what he said in his recent podcast with Daniel Vitalis. It may be, therefore, that I misrepresent Strauss to a certain extent (which I’ll gladly correct if I can be convinced of it); but in any case, what I will go on to describe and then criticize in this article is a position, I think, that many men are adopting, from whatever angle they come at it, in response to certain obvious facts of our social biology, namely our non-monogamous nature and our desire nevertheless to form deep and intimate bonds with members of the opposite sex, combined with the cultural reality they encounter. This is therefore not a book review, but a critique of that position. It isn’t necessary to listen to the podcast to understand my comments, though I do encourage you to.
Many of Strauss’s erstwhile PUA fans will no doubt be ready to poo-poo the book as a cave-in, and Strauss himself states in the podcast that some have seen it as a defense of monogamy, even a repudiation of his earlier persona, which he insists it is not. That’s fair, though he does bear responsibility for this inevitable media spin (which he doesn’t seem to have been too concerned to avoid). Strauss’s point seems to be that obsessive promiscuity is unsatisfying and successful polyamory hard to pull off, polyamory itself being, in a certain number of cases, a lifestyle choice or label which covers up an inability or unwillingness to go deep in relationships. This being so, Strauss might best be seen as a “pragmatic monogamist” who construes the term not as prohibiting extra-dyadic sex but as requiring, as I understand it, such sex to take place, if it does, on terms which are mutually agreed within the couple and transparent. He puts this forward in the discussion simply as the position to which he has come, not as a universal model, though given this his marketing seems disingenuous. I interpret him as not being opposed to polyamory, but simply skeptical of it in practice.
It might seem that Strauss and I share a lot in common; I too have written about some important misgivings related to the way polyamory is conceptualized and lived in practice (or, let us say, some of the practices which the word is used to cover) and I agree with him on the importance of commitment, communication, transparency etc, at least in that ideal world in which we decidedly do not live.
There is, however, something rather unexamined, it seems to me, in Strauss’s discourse. Vitalis illustrates this in the podcast when he speaks of his sense of shame at hiding extra-dyadic dalliances from his partner, a position he is very uncomfortable being in because he feels it lacks integrity. I would certainly agree with this, but even if we have to live our life as best we can within the constraints we have inherited, it still behoves us to examine this sense of shame critically, something neither Strauss nor Vitalis in the podcast hints at doing. Vitalis, however, offers himself a clue as to the origin of his sentiments in describing his attitude as a child towards his mother: ever fearful she would fly into a rage at the slightest provocation, he was very careful to avoid doing anything which might provoke such an overreaction. As children, of course, we seek to please our mothers because we need their love. Our mothers, on the other hand, often simply take from us what they want, being far more skilled and better placed to obtain it due to being adults and in a monopolistic position of authority. We need to be very careful to avoid the widespread error of reproducing this asymmetry in our adult relationships, and especially of doing so unconsciously, failing to recognize this as a cultural construct rather than an innate difference of social biology.
It will inevitably happen from time to time, in a dyadic relationship, that some courses of action in which the man is inclined to engage may cause discomfort to the woman. This should (ideally) be discussed, of course, and it also needs to be recognized that the woman may have insights into this situation which the man lacks; these should be listened to. However, it cannot be that the man simply does not engage in actions which make his partner uncomfortable; that she has some kind of veto on his behavior (or he on hers). The position of discomfort has a lot to teach us, and ensuring the comfort of the other at all times is a very unrealistic demand to place on oneself. This applies no less in matters sexual than in any other sphere of life. If one backs off from confrontation simply because one fears it, then one loses an essential part of ones freedom and ability to live an authentic life. We cannot rescue monogamy with the artifice of imposing upon it unhealed parent-child patterns of behavior.
In my life, I have seen that it is important to listen and communicate, but it is also important to be brave: not only important for oneself, but also for the relationship and the other. An implicit and festering situation of subordination strikes me as a major risk factor for relationship longevity. I share their desire to be open, though I do not think this is an ethical commandment; indeed, sometimes (as Dan Savage never tires from pointing out) exactly the opposite may be true. However, I am also going to do things which make my partner uncomfortable if those are things which I am convinced I need to do. I will take into account her vulnerabilities and the long run, but they are only factors among others.
There is no inherent reason to be ashamed of ones interest in pursuing any kind of relationship with another person, nor of actually doing so where this does not constitute a material and real (rather than unilaterally imagined) threat to the investment each partner has made in the primary or reference relationship. In this regard, it is irrelevant whether this behavior causes discomfort and even whether it brings about the end of the primary relationship entirely. One may certainly refrain from a course of action in order to avoid those outcomes: but consciously, not based on shame. One must, at the same time, also understand that change and challenge brings growth and new opportunities. If one shies away from this out of fear, the relationship will stagnate and may anyway eventually perish. One would want to be quite confident that in the long run the asymmetry in the relationship is not going to give rise to resentment, the rising tide of which may – and I think often does – pass unperceived under the radar of ones social identity until it is too late.
Strauss argues that we have neuroplasticity and our biology is not the last word. Of course this is correct. But any ability we may have to pursue any sort of relationship which may loosely be called monogamous still begs the question of why we should do so. There may be pragmatic grounds – including that it is a better personal choice than a life of obsessive-compulsive unsatisfying sexual liaisons and that it is a socially stable reference point, an available (if adaptable) paradigm: the path, in other words, that it sounds like Strauss has trodden. But such grounds are no more than that; they are not “The Truth”.