La petite mort is a French term for orgasm, long favoured by coy poets and chewed over by psychoanalysts. Putting aside bombastic descriptions of the physical experience of orgasm and goth-friendly philosophical musings about the interconnectedness of sex and death, there is another aspect to this metaphor that is relevant to anyone who believes in the ideology of romantic love.
And that would happen to include me. I know that romantic love is an ideology, I know that part of the reason why I am single and coming up to thirty with a string of relationships with very different people that seemed so right at the time behind me is this ideology. I know it has probably given me unreasonable expectations – of other people, of myself, of love, of happiness, of enough. Just because I know all this doesn’t mean I don’t still believe in it. Part of the reason is that, as ideologies go, it’s one of the better ones. Ah yes, time for another confession: I am a romantic. Don’t get me wrong, I would rather stab my eyes out with a fork than be stuck on a desert island with nothing but romcoms for entertainment, but if someone I like gives me flowers or takes me for a walk along a moonlit river, it makes me feel kinda tingly. I can’t help it, it’s a Pavlovian response. The problem is that, even nice ideologies are idealistic and, consequently, attempting to fulfil them can cause a lot of heartache.
Break ups are horrible, obviously. As someone who has been a breaker more times than a breakee I know that, while it is usually more traumatic to be the one who is rejected, it is far from easy being the one who ends it too. Part of the reason why it is traumatic to be broken up with is the surprise of it, the loss of control that comes with being told that a relationship you were expecting to continue is being pulled out from under your feet. It’s easy to forget through your tears that, unless the person breaking up with you is an out-and-out cad, she has probably been living with and working through a lot of doubts, including self-doubts, in the lead up to ending it and that can be a pretty unpleasant experience in itself.
To love someone, to commit to being with him and only him, is always a little death. In a monogamous world, love entails focusing one’s exclusive attention on one other person. We can only have sex with a limited number of people at a time and, according to received wisdom, we can only truly love one person at a time. Love is, ideally, an occlusion – we are expected to no longer have eyes for others and to derive all our sexual gratification from one person forever. If that fails, we blame ourselves, our partner or the relationship itself. We do not question the ideal of pure, eternal love.
Despite my romantic streak, I am also a fan of cheeky filth purveyors like the Canadian electro-Amazon Peaches. In her self-directed video for Lose You, Peaches starts by ushering a man and a woman into her flat, sitting them down and confessing that she is in love with both of them before breaking into the song with the line, ‘I don’t wanna lose you’, which she sings to each of them in turn. This narrative of being in love with two people at once could be dismissed as a woe-is-me paean to sexual greed – certainly Peaches’ tongue is, as ever, on intimate terms with her cheek – but it could also be taken as a real, painful problem.
The fact that it is a man and a woman, rather than two people of the same gender, who have got Peaches’ insides burning in her video shows that, when you are built so that you could fall in love with someone of either (or any) gender, the little death that comes with choosing one partner is all the greater. I am not trying to imply that bisexuals are statistically more likely to find any one person attractive that straight or gay people, I’m not saying they’re easy, but the scenario of being in love with a man and a woman at the same time does the symbolic work of effectively describing how choosing is also a great loss. When we commit to be in an exclusive relationship with someone, we are hedging our bets that we will not find anyone better suited to us and the wider the group of people you are attracted to, the riskier this bet is.
It could be argued that if someone is truly gender-blind in her attraction to other people, as many bisexuals and queer people claim to be, then, logically, the fact that he has ended up with a man or a woman shouldn’t really matter. But this is another ideal. No one can really be gender-blind in a gendered world and heterosexual sex and gay sex are different experiences; they just are. In terms of the nuts and bolts of sexual practices, there is a lot of overlap in terms of what men and women, men and men and women and women can do together. I am not trying to perpetuate the myth that women know what other women like better than men do or vice versa – sexual aptitude is, fortunately, gender-blind – but if you have had, and have liked, the experience of sex with both men and women, then committing to include only one of those in your life means excluding a whole field of experience.
If you are queer or bisexual, choosing to be with one partner, of one gender, also has significant ramifications for your identity, as it can appear that you are nailing your sexual colours to one particular mast. With that, comes an eclipsing – in public, at least – of a part of your self. It can also mean the loss of friendships, communities and families.
I have heard people who have (had) lovers of more than one gender and those who have (had) more than one lover at a time defend themselves against charges of being greedy on numerous occasions. Clearly, it is unkind to call people greedy and unhelpful to stereotype sexualities in this way, but the problem with these disavowals is that they close down discussion of this loss that occurs when someone falls in love and commits to being with one person, whatever her and her partner’s sexuality or gender.
In an article about gay marriage entitled Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual? published nearly a decade ago, Judith Butler pointed out that: ‘in making a bid to the state for recognition, we effectively restrict the domain of what will become recognizable as legitimate sexual arrangements, thus fortifying the state as the source for norms of recognition and eclipsing other possibilities within civil society and cultural life.’ (p. 26-27)
Butler says that, while extending the right to marry to single-sex couples has political validity and urgency, it also risks entrenching divisions between legitimate and illegitimate forms of sexuality. Once gay couples are able to marry, they may be under more pressure to do so, or to explain why they wouldn’t want to, to each other and to curious bystanders. Meanwhile, those who are single, celibate, polyamorous, co-habiting or even living together separately continue to lack political legitimation and legal recognition. They thereby lose not only the rights and benefits of marriage, but are also effectively relegated beyond the pale of true love.
As Butler says, in order for something like gay marriage to become legitimate, other institutions must be considered illegitimate. Relationships are defined as proper ones not only by their closeness to the ‘traditional’ model of respectable, monogamous, fertile, religiously-sanctioned heterosexual marriage, but by the negative space of everything that that is not. In making certain forms of relationship legitimate, not only are lines drawn that prevent other types of relationship from being considered valid for state sanction, but some things disappear from view altogether, because they do not make sense in an argument which is trapped within the binary question of whether something is or isn’t marriage.
The problem that the bisexuals, pansexuals, polyamorists and so on who exist in the shadows around this debate raise is that their very existence calls into question the common assumption that human attraction is binary. I recently became friends with my first three-way relationship. I was quite excited about this, as I see myself as a pretty open kind of person with quite a few friends with colourful sexual histories. In telling another friend about them, I realised I lacked the proper vocabulary to talk about them. It is hard to think of a way to describe three people in a relationship with each other in a way that is neither pejorative nor unwieldy. My friend suggested the portmanteau term, ‘trupple’, which I think works well, though another mutual friend took to describing them fondly as ‘the rainbow coalition’. As Judith Butler predicted, despite the apparent loosening up of roles and opening up of sexual possibilities in the twenty-first century, such relationships remain rare enough that we have to coin new words to describe them. I think of myself as pretty well informed about alternative sexualities, and certainly extremely supportive of people’s rights to practise them, so I can only fear what the reactions of other, less sympathetic people, were.
The appeal of binaries is their neatness. We imagine that they are the least confusing way in which to organise our lives. Couples can talk in a dialogue; they can share possessions and reciprocate gifts to each other; they can form a sexual pair. And ideally, the 1-ness and the 0-ness of each half of that pair complement each other and balance out to make a perfect whole. Problems occur when others intrude on this perfect match or when the balance is unsettled. This is the ideology of binary romantic love and, as I said, I am a believer in it, despite the apt teaches of Peaches and Butler.
It is tempting to judge that the best way to pursue a successful romantic relationship is to ignore the ideology of romantic love and just get on with it, but maybe taking a moment to reflect upon it, on the expectations that it sows and the doubts about our lover’s perfections that it can reap, is a more mature response. In the intoxication of the honeymoon period, the last thing on most people’s minds is other potential lovers who may yet come along, but perhaps it is worth giving them some thought and, having reflected, to mourn and come to terms with their loss. To have gone through that process might just be a braver thing than to pretend that no one, not even people you haven’t yet met, will ever come close to making you feel like your lover does.