Intimacy and Closeness – Free Ebook

One of the frequent and painful paradoxes
of romantic life is that the more we get to

know and love someone, the harder it can be
to summon up any sincere wish to sleep with

them. Intimacy and closeness, far from fostering
deeper sexual desire, can be the very ingredients

that destroy excitement – whereas having only
just recently met a person and not feeling

too much for them can set up awkward yet compelling
preconditions for wanting very badly to take

them to bed.

The conundrum is sometimes colloquially referred
to as the ‘madonna-whore complex.’ It

can sound offensive and reactionary phrased
like this – as if the problem applied to only

one gender and might at some level condone
or even promote the very dynamic that it described.

And yet the phrase circles something highly
significant, always contemporary and of relevance

to every gender (it might, for heterosexual
women, be known as the ‘saint brute complex’).

It was Sigmund Freud who first drew attention
to our difficulties connecting love with desire

in an essay of 1912 titled ‘On the Universal
Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’.

Of many of his patients, he wrote: ‘Where
they love, they have no desire, and where

they desire, they cannot love.’ In seeking
to explain the division, Freud pointed to

two facts connected to our upbringing: first,
in childhood, we are generally brought up

by people we love deeply and yet towards whom
we cannot express sexual feelings (frightened

as we are by a strict incest taboo); and second,
as adults, we tend to choose lovers who in

certain powerful (though unconscious) ways
resemble those whom we loved most dearly as


Together these influences set up a devilish
conundrum whereby the more deeply we come

to love someone outside of our family, the
more strongly we are reminded of the intimacy

of our early familial bonds – and hence
the less free we instinctively are to express

our sexual desires without fear or reservation.
An incest taboo originally designed to limit

the genetic dangers of inbreeding can thus
succeed in inhibiting and eventually ruining

our chances of enjoying intercourse with someone
to whom we are not in the remotest way related.

The likelihood of the incest taboo’s re-emergence
with a partner increases greatly after the

arrival of children. Until then, reminders
of the parental prototypes on which our choice

of lovers is subconsciously based can just
about be kept at bay. But once there is a

pram in the hallway and a sweet infant referring
to the person we once tied up or explored

with a sex toy as ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’,
both parties may significantly start to take

fright, complain of feeling tired and turn
in early.

A dichotomy grows between the ‘pure’ things
one can do with a partner one loves and the

‘dirty’ things one still longs to do – but
can only imagine being free enough to do with

a near stranger. It can feel untenably disrespectful
to want to make love to, or to put the matter

at its sharpest, fuck the kind person who
is later going to be preparing lunch boxes

and arranging the school rota.

To start to overcome the problem, it pays
to observe that not all childhoods are equal

in their tendencies to generate sexual difficulties
for people in later life. A parent who is

very uncomfortable with their body may send
out covert signals that sex is invariably

dirty, bad and dangerous – and thereby lends
their child an impression that it truly can’t

belong within a loving relationship. A more
integrated and mature parent on the other

hand may suggest that they are reconciled
to their desires and relaxed about some of

the proto-sexual things that small children
naturally and innocently do: make a great

deal of noise and mess, take an interest in
their bodies and (at a certain age) talk about

poo a lot. The feeling that one can be naughty
and still loved and ‘good’ is one the

great gifts a parent may bequeath to their

A lot of the work to repair the love/sex dichotomy
can, strangely for something so physical,

be done in the mind. We can conceptually start
to rehabilitate sex as a serious and in its

way entirely respectable topic that good people
who love their children and their jobs and

are invested in an upstanding life can be
profoundly interested in; that there need

be no conflict between a longing to be filthy
and depraved at some points and decorous and

respectable at others. We can contain multitudes:
the us that wants to flog or be debased or

smear and the us that wants to advise, nurture
and counsel. One can be whore and madonna,

brute and saint. Rather than seeking out different
partners, we might settle, less disruptively,

on merely adopting different roles. A child
cannot express love and sexuality to a parent;

and vice versa. But it is one of the privileges
of adulthood, that we no longer have to be

hampered by such a paradigm. Our lovers need
not be only cosy co-parents and responsible

sweet friends, they can for a time – in the
very best transgressive sense – also be something

else that is hugely important to our mental
well-being and the survival of our relationships:

partners in crime.

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