Breaking up is Hard to Do
When I was in the eighth grade, back in 1962, one of the top songs on the radio was Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking up is Hard to Do.” The song hit a resonant emotional chord among 12-15 year olds even though most of the relationships into which young people were entering were presumed to be superficial and short-term, and physical intimacy beyond “necking” wasn’t common. Despite all the rhetoric about being “too young to be in love” and fifties-era restrictions on what was acceptable behavior for young teenagers, strong bonds were being formed, and breaking those bonds created a lot of unhappiness. The number one reason young people gave for being profoundly depressed was the loss of a boyfriend or girlfriend.
A lot of things have changed since 1962. Many of my classmates were already married, or partnered with the person they eventually married, before the sexual revolution hit in earnest. A decade later, the presumption in American society was that a young person (religious fundamentalists excepted) would have multiple short-term sexual relationships during his or her formative years, guaranteeing that breaking up was a normal and expected part not only of a young teenager’s life but of life into the mid-twenties or beyond. Still, despite all the changes, breaking up is hard to do.
I have not found personally, nor have I observed it to be the case among a wide circle of acquaintances, that breaking off an intimate relationship becomes any less painful either through repetition or with the advancing age of the parties. If anything, the opposite is true. Repeated trauma has a way of reinforcing itself until it produces a more or less constant state of depression, and for women who see themselves losing out to younger competitors, the age factor introduces a sense of urgency.
Could the model of the ancestral village provide some insights? I will use my Nottinghamshire circa 1500 metaphor here, but the particulars aren’t important, because almost without exception, in the village environment, great pains are taken to ensure that young people don’t form close relationships with the opposite sex until they are ready to make a lifetime commitment to each other. The mechanisms are very different in different cultures. The degree of intimacy that is allowed in the absence of commitment varies a great deal, but almost always stops short of actual sexual relations.
There are good biological reasons for women to avoid intercourse with uncommitted men, and for committed men to expect their wives to be monogamous. Evolutionary fitness, whether for a mouse or a man, boils down to propagating one’s genes into the next generation. A woman who has given birth has already invested considerable time, energy and risk into that child, investment she would likely have lost in the village environment if she lacked a partner – generally the father of the child – to support the family. A man whose labor goes to support another man’s child loses out in the evolutionary sense. This is an oversimplification, of course, but basic human biology favors long-term commitment. Darwin and the Pope are agreed on that point.
Throughout most of history, across a wide spectrum of cultures, a woman who was abandoned by a partner with whom she had sexual relations was in serious trouble, even if she was not pregnant and the society was comparatively permissive. It would be surprising indeed if there were not hard-wired inherited instincts among women to be cautious about entering into such relationships in the first place, to hang on to them tenaciously despite evidence that the male partner is contributing nothing positive to the relationship, and to feel hopeless once the it has ended definitively.
Using chemical birth control greatly reduces the risk of pregnancy but does nothing to change the way the overall situation looks to the subconscious mind. If anything it complicates things, because hormonal birth control acts by mimicking the environment of early pregnancy, including psychological effects, and pregnancy notoriously makes women more “clingy,” for obvious reasons.
I can think of two common situations where weighing conventional morality, with its biological and evolutionary underpinnings, against what is considered normative in contemporary America could be helpful in promoting better emotional health. A young woman who feels she is being pressured into having sexual relations with a man to whom she is strongly attracted, who however shows no signs of being interested in a long term-commitment, can use the biology to back up her reticence, when an appeal to the Pope may be met with ridicule. The strong instinct for remaining in relationships that are less than optimal is perhaps too often discounted, and the pain of breaking up not given sufficient weight in deciding whether to end a long-term intimate partnership.
Read Part 1: Healing In A Virtual Village – 1
Village Scene – Hub Pages
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