A famous Hollywood actor once said that after a life of womanizing he was now lonely and expected to end his days alone. On the face of it, it was a sad epitaph to an otherwise full and successful life. Yet the same man was often the ideal that many ordinary men I have worked with held up as a sexually successful man. The carefree life with many sexual encounters is one that, for some men, (and indeed women), never seems to lose its appeal. In fact, given the ease with which sexual encounters take place now, it might be even more attractive today than at any other point in history. The counter-intuitive point, however, is that the men who come to me who have tried to live this lifestyle are usually dissatisfied, often disillusioned, and in some cases lonely. So why is it routinely accepted as an enriching way to live?
In the first instance, there is the promise of a never ending supply of sexual pleasure. Once a relationship loses its sparkle there will always be another one. And who knows, maybe the next ‘relationship’ might be even more exciting?
It also offers the illusion of freedom – no partner ever becomes ‘the one’ we can’t live without. I say illusion purposely and I’ll come back to that word. Then we have the repeated experience of winning over the object of desire. This can be an intoxicating element depending on the individual. After all, when we have conquered someone’s heart, so to speak, we have made ourselves the ‘only one’ for them. For some, this can often be considered a tremendously satisfying victory. Having a succession of lovers also puts us in control of our lives. After all, we are directing ourselves along a particular path, with particular objectives and particular outcomes. For anyone who is watching, it certainly looks as though we have a plan.
Finally, a major advantage of constantly moving from lover to lover is that we avoid the less interesting bits of relationships. Much like a meal where we only consume the parts we like, we only engage with the upside of the relationship, leaving when we are bored, or not in love anymore, or annoyed, frustrated or feeling threatened because we might have to take the other person’s wishes into account.
There may be many more ‘positives’ to be added to the list but even as it stands you begin to wonder if there is any downside to this way of life. Our famous actor claimed he was lonely. This is a curious end result to a life of womanizing, to end up with no-one. On the other hand, examples from history and literature indicate a similar result. Giovanni Giacomo Casanova was one of the most famous womanizers of them all. Born 1725 in Venice, the eldest of six children, he was a seducer of women and probably the first ‘playboy’. Ironically he was due to be a priest but he was caught in bed with someone at the seminary and expelled. His life is worth reading, not just for the women but also to learn how he ended up in jail for witchcraft, made and lost fortunes, became a spy in Venice, met Pope Clement XIII, Voltaire, Rousseau and Mozart. Like our actor, his life is a dimly recognised role model deeply ingrained in the minds of some men. Yet, he ended his days as a librarian, frustrated, bored and alone, apart from the company of his fox terriers. Even the location of his grave remains unknown today.
Fiction too has its version of the man who loved every woman. Don Juan is the Spanish fictional equivalent, again a womaniser who eventually seduces a nobleman’s daughter and kills the girl’s father when he tries to avenge his daughter’s honour. Casanova was no stranger to duelling, either. But with a far more dramatic twist than Canasova’s life, Don Juan then defies the ghost of the man he has killed, refuses to repent and is eternally damned. Interestingly, Casanova too said he regretted nothing of the way he lived. Both men, however, one real, one fictional, end their lives alone and faring badly.
The message of fiction and history, if that is what we can call it, appears to be that a dissolute life – one dedicated to sexual conquest – does not lead to happiness or wellbeing. I mention it because the influence of this kind of ideal can still be seen today and is evident in the ideal that some men, and some women, aspire to.
What if, without knowing it, the real priority of the man in question (it could equally be a woman) was to end up alone? Of course, people will argue that this is impossible. How could anyone do something like that? Well, one of the central elements in psychoanalytic theory is that people act against their best interests on a regular and consistent basis. That’s why people who get into a pickle in their relationships often can’t believe, or understand, how they ended up in those situations. Yet they did, and usually by their own actions.
If we look at Casanova we know that he had a record number of sexual conquests to his name. But he holds another record – the record for departures and separations. In essence, by his own actions he not only repeats the process of attaching to another person sexually, but he constantly repeats the act of separating from them and being alone. Most attention gets paid to the sexual conquests and no attention gets paid to this aspect. But why would someone want to repeat the pattern of separating from others all their life?
Well, in reality, it wouldn’t seem like this to him. He would only be aware of the constant search for a new woman to enjoy sexually. Even in that we get a glimpse of a constant search for something that never really exists. There is no satisfying the appetite that he is attempting to satisfy. There is no finding the ‘thing’ he is trying to find. The sexual and emotional pleasure being derived from it, however, blinds him to what is happening on the other side of this equation.
On each and every occasion the serial lover steps away and repeats the experience of being alone. This suggests that it might be the actual, if hidden, objective. The business of remaining in relationship with any one person is deeply problematic for them. This suggests that something in the way they learned to bond with others from an early age was not pleasurable for them. There is more comfort for them in distance than in closeness.
It’s probably a roundabout way of coming to something most people always knew. The person who can’t settle on loving any one person has a deep-seated difficulty with interpersonal intimacy. They have no problem with physical, bodily intimacy. In fact, they substitute it all the time for the other kind. The emotional kind of intimacy, though, never gets brought into play. It remains protected, hidden away. And yet the emotional kind of intimacy is the only one that can ensure the relationship has an authenticity that extends beyond the physical. Without it, there really is just a series of sexual encounters with physical bodies. And at the end of such a compulsively and identically repeating series is it any wonder we might ask what exactly are we left with? The answer might be found in that little word I used at the beginning – illusion. And for many people it has not lost its allure.