A pretty neutral OpEd article over at HuffPo asks the readers: “Do We Owe Our Spouses Sex?” That’s a curious question, and one that incorporates a pretty specific word that set off my alarms (as well as my RSS searches): owe. Since I look at all relationships as economic functions, that one word sets my brain off to think deeper about that very question.
Relationships of any sort have economic indicators and pressures — relationships are between two people only, even if there are many more people in a group of relationships. You have a relationship with your boss — a work one, most likely. You also have a relationship with a coworker in the cubicle next to you, or with the supplier who comes and visits you to sell their wares. You might have a relationship with a significant other, or maybe with a few different people that you’re sleeping with.
The defining economic attribute between any two individuals boils down two things: supply and demand. You have needs to meet, and you can’t meet them all yourself, generally. Other individuals have a supply of abilities to possibly meet your needs. This is also true in the other direction. No individual can supply 100% of the needs of another, it just isn’t possible. As changing humans, our needs change, as well as our ability to perform certain actions to fulfill the needs of others.
When you’re young, you might be better at lifting heavy boxes in a warehouse than if you’re 65 and not as strong. Your ability to fulfill the warehouse lifting needs for an employer has changed. A person may have the need for having children and raising them safely — I’d feel pretty confident in thinking that, in general, a 30 year old might be able to do a better job at it than an 18 year old.
The author of the article at HuffPo asks “How would you feel enduring one year, three years, five years — without being touched by the person you love? What happens to your self-esteem, to your outlook, to other aspects of your emotional and physical well-being? What if your spouse loses interest in sex, refuses to have sex, or for some other reason – cannot have sex?” Without realizing it, she’s speaking from an relationship economics perspective.
We can rephrase into another market. Imagine that you love eating eggs, and you like having them for breakfast 2-3 times a week. You like them because they taste great, they’re healthy, and they make you feel good throughout the day from the energy they provide. You buy your eggs from your local Target grocery. How would you feel enduring one year, three years, five years — without being able to purchase eggs at your local Target grocery?
The answer is pretty simple — you’ll go elsewhere for those eggs.
But what about your commitment to your spouse? That’s idiotic — if your needs aren’t getting met, what sort of commitment do you have? A legal one? A moral one? That’s too complicated for me, I’m a simple man. I am vocal and verbal about what I need from the opposite sex in a relationship. If my needs change, I am verbal about what has changed, and I can only hope that my partner or partners can keep me fulfilled. I’m also verbal and vocal about my needs in a work relationship with customers: if they can’t provide me with the price I need, or I can’t provide them with the product or service they want, the relationship isn’t working out, is it?
If I find myself unable to fulfill the needs my partner has, I would assume that she would move on to someone else, or at least bring in a new relationship into her life to get those needs met. I’m not only talking about sex. If my partner happens to love competitive darts and I’m terrible at it, what would be wrong with her going and finding a partner to play darts with? If I love to hunt, kill and consume a wild animal but my partner doesn’t like it, what is wrong with me going and finding a partner to hunt with?
It’s economics, stupid. It’s about the supply of need-fulfillment and the demand for having those needs met. But that doesn’t mean that one person has to be your everything for every need: does your spouse pay your salary? Probably not (not commonly). You have an employer who is meeting that need.
We’ve devolved as a society, though; I see more and more individuals who rely on their significant others for more and more. We used to have bowling night for the men once a week, or knitting night for the women. That’s gone. We’re all too busy. Those needs are going unmet, and no one is even discussing it. Instead, we try to bond closer to the one individual we live with, and quickly we find ourselves unfulfilled but we blame ourselves or we blame the other person instead of realizing that no one person can meet 100% of the needs of another.
So what about sex? Do we owe our significant others sex? Absolutely not. That’s ridiculous. No one owes anything to anyone. As an anarchist, I don’t even believe that contracts are always binding. If you have a need and the person you were previously fulfilling that need with just stops doing it, you go elsewhere. If Target stops carrying eggs, you buy them at another grocery store.
Isn’t this cheating? What is cheating? How is it defined? One person can say it means “violating an oath to love and cherish and be faithful to your spouse or partner.” Or, you could say “Finding a way to get a need of yours met because your spouse or partner can’t, or refuses to.” In every definition, there is a bad person and a not bad person. I’ve defined “cheating” in both ways — and neither way is actually accurate.
The key to longevity in any relationship — work, love, friendship, etc — is to constantly be monitoring your own needs and your ability to fulfill needs in others. Are your needs getting met? Are you unable to meet the needs of others you’re involved with? If either question is answered no, you have to find out why that is — and make changes as necessary.
You don’t owe anyone anything, but that also includes your faithfulness, if they’re not providing you what you need. Anything else leads to regret, and we only live ones. Have a talk some time with an older person in your life, and ask them about their regrets. You may be surprised what old aunt Joan shocks you with when she lists her regrets. We’re humans, we have needs, they don’t change much generation to generation, but we do let society block us from personal fulfillment, and from the pleasure of fulfilling the needs of others.
Don’t listen to society. Do what you can and want to do for others, and find others who can and want to do what you need. If you’re engaged in a long term committed relationship, monitor your own needs regularly and make sure you’re getting them filled. If not, discuss it. If you’re entering into the stages of a long term commitment, it doesn’t hurt to discuss what you both should do if you find your needs unmet in the future. Prepare early for emergencies in life, even if it’s just that you stop getting laid by your significant other.
I received two emails pretty quickly after posting this from people I know who think that I’m advocating infidelity. I’m not. If a relationship devolves into breaking a promise (“contract”), it’s already gotten past the point of both individuals understanding that they’re not meeting the needs of the other — that relationship is already null and void from an economics perspective. When relationships expire, it sometimes seems to come out of the blue, but in reality there were problems much earlier that either or both of the individuals within the relationship should have been aware of. All I advocate is monitoring your own happiness in all your relationships: with your grocer, your boss, your lover, your friends, your family. If you feel like you’re not getting fulfillment out of any of those relationships, speak up early rather than when it’s too late.