Pleasure-seeking vs. relationships

Friends in night club

Pleasure-seeking and relationships are the two most powerful forces informing societies, families and the inner life of individuals – and they are often pitted against each other, with one dominating at the expense of the other.

Pleasure-seeking as a philosophical enterprise has been around since at least the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, and was more fully elaborated in the writings of Sigmund Freud whose “pleasure principle” lays at the base of all psychoanalytic theory; “What decides the purpose of life,” writes Freud, “is simply the programme of the pleasure principle.”1

For Freud the human libido is a pleasure seeking force, and his popularization of this idea gave the project of global capitalism its internal rationale: every individual is an appetite ruthlessly seeking pleasure, a non-stop consumer. The majority of societies and economies around the world are now reliant on this principle in order to perpetuate themselves.

According to Freud, the pleasure principle is:

– backed by instinctual drive
– selfish
– ruthless
– narcissistic
– focused on the individual above relationships

After 100 years of promoting the importance of the pleasure principle, indeed over-promoting it, today we have become devotees at its shrine, promoting ideas like these:

– narcissism
– sense of entitlement
– pick up artistry
– rampant consumerism
– commodification of interpersonal relationships

How are we feeling about all that pleasure – are we enjoying it yet or are we sick of it? Do you want to dial up the hedonism some more, or do you want to join me in questioning the premise?

Despite capitalism’s incestuous relationship with the pleasure-principle, a behavior it does more to perpetuate than merely serve, early psychoanalysts began to see problems with it. The problem was not with the idea that humans are pleasure seekers, but that the idea had been afforded far more importance in human behavior than it deserved – there were other more important factors to human being that had been given short shrift.

Like relationships.

Early psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn was amongst the first to write about the importance of relationships over pleasure seeking. In 1944 Fairbairn explained the impasse with Freud’s theory as follows;

In a previous paper (1941) I attempted to formulate a new version of the libido theory and to outline the general features which a systematic psychopathology based upon this re-formulation would appear to assume. The basic conception which I advanced on that occasion, and to which I still adhere, is to the effect that libido is primarily object-seeking (rather than pleasure-seeking, as in the classic theory), and that it is to disturbances in the object-relationships of the developing ego that we must look for the ultimate origin of all psychopathological conditions. This conception seems to me not only to be closer in accord with psychological facts and clinical data than that embodied in Freud’s original libido theory, but also to represent a logical outcome of the present stage of psychoanalytical thought and a necessary step in the further development of psychoanalytical theory… 2

This revolution in psychoanalytic thinking launched the school of Object Relations psychology, with the word ‘Object’ standing for real people we enter into relationships with. Object Relations psychology is based more on attachment theory than on the pleasure principle. In a nutshell this school, which superseded psychoanalysis, is described as:

Object relations is based on the theory that the primary motivational factors in one’s life are based on human relationships, rather than sexual or aggressive triggers. Object relations is a variation of psychoanalytic theory and diverges from Freud’s belief that we are pleasure seeking beings; instead it suggests that humans seek relationships.3

Has the mental health industry caught up? Yes, I’m pleased to say that portions of the industry have not only caught up, they are driving the research on attachment forward. Other sections of the industry, however, especially those on the front line of offering services, continue to devote undue importance to pleasure-seeking through the advocacy of self-actualization and ‘me and my wants.’

The problems of gynocentrism and treating of men as utilities will not be addressed until we look at how these things are used to generate pleasure. One reason we have stalled in relativizing the pleasure-principle and affirming the findings of attachment science, is that it’s obviously not in the current society’s interest to do so. To catch up and look in the mirror is to die – the whole goddam system collapses – our beliefs, our customs, our financial systems.

But look at it we must, both collectively and individually if we wish to promote mental health.

Do we really need more shopping, drugs, stimulation, sex and food? Frankly many men are done… they’ve had enough food and sex to last 20 lifetimes. They don’t need more pick-up techniques, they don’t need more research fads focusing on sexual drives a-la-Freud, and they certainly don’t need to consume more – they’ve consumed quite enough, thank you.

If we insist on believing the pleasure principle is paramount, that it is our most pressing genetic imperative, along with the belief that “all men want is sex” that so many men find annoying, then our only escape is to follow a sick, nihilistic version of retreat from the world. How else to escape the call of pleasure? Our western culture’s devotion to the pleasure principle leaves it stuck in its own insoluble loop, like a snake devouring itself and not realizing that the tail it is eating is its own.

I say western culture because there are whispers of an alternative in other cultures that, alas are also being corrupted for the newfangled focus on the pleasure principle that drives the mighty dollar. I have listened to people from various Asian countries – Cambodia, China, Thailand – who talk of valuing their relationships and families somewhat more than their own pleasure-seeking ambitions. Watch how they eat together, having several dishes of food on the table that they all share, not everyman for his own narcissistic pleasure. In some of those countries the individual has to wait untill vehicles pass before he can cross the road, but in ours we have laws stating that cars must stop in obeisance to the almighty individual and his pleasures. I have also heard some Asians ask, perplexed, why women wear skimpy clothes in winter, not knowing that our cultures are all about inviting consumption and commodification of every person in order to feed each others’ predatory pleasures.

None of this is to deny the pleasure principle and its powerful pull on men’s lives. But pleasure quickly becomes hedonism without relationship to temper it, and it leads not to a meaningful life but to emptiness and nihilism where ‘opting out’ is the only response – a response that looks more like a sickness than a cure.

Now what does all this mean to the wellbeing of men? In short, everything. Getting these two vital aspects of human nature in balance is not only the secret to psychological health, but our lives may literally depend on it. Regaining that balance can start with paying more attention to our relationship needs and less to pleasure – more to the girl-next-door and less to the girl with the exaggerated cleavage, boob jobs, and love bombs.

Moreover, the problem does not stop at intimate adult relations, and applies to family as well. If every family member is chasing his or her own pleasures, they are more likely than ever to spin off in their own directions like atoms rapping in a void – there’s no glue holding the unit together, no relationship – and custody battles, selfishness and estrangement are the inevitable result: Me and my pleasures first.

To be sure, regular relationships also afford experiences of pleasure or contentment, albeit of lower intensity than the pleasure-seeking described by Freud. Another distinguishing feature is that relationships don’t involve the use of people in the same ruthless manner as does the pleasure principle – ie. not the same as we experience when devouring food or having sex. Relationship is more concerned with situating oneself in a context and gaining emotional satisfactions from that – from belonging, from being-with-others, as contrasted with using objects to satisfy appetite. A second distinguishing feature of intimate relationships is that the individual has concern for the objects of his attachment – whereas the pleasure-seeking appetite has no concern over its use of people nor its destruction of same.

Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson writes about the two impulses as two kinds of “love.” He calls the pleasure-seeking impulse romantic love, and the relationship-seeking version human love. Here is his description of the two;

Many years ago a wise friend gave me a name for human love. She called it “stirring-the-oatmeal” love. She was right: Within this phrase, if we will humble ourselves enough to look, is the very essence of what human love is, and it shows us the principal differences between human love and romance. Stirring the oatmeal is a humble act-not exciting or thrilling. But it symbolizes a relatedness that brings love down to earth. It represents a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, living within a budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night. To “stir the oatmeal” means to find the relatedness, the value, even the beauty, in simple and ordinary things, not to eternally demand a cosmic drama, an entertainment, or an extraordinary intensity in everything. Like the rice hulling of the Zen monks, the spinning wheel of Gandhi, the tent making of Saint Paul, it represents the discovery of the sacred in the midst of the humble and ordinary.

Jung once said that feeling is a matter of the small. And in human love, we can see that it is true. The real relatedness between two people is experienced in the small tasks they do together: the quiet conversation when the day’s upheavals are at rest, the soft word of understanding, the daily companionship, the encouragement offered in a difficult moment, the small gift when least expected, the spontaneous gesture of love. When a couple are genuinely related to each other, they are willing to enter into the whole spectrum of human life together. They transform even the unexciting, difficult, and mundane things into a joyful and fulfilling component of life. By contrast, romantic love can only last so long as a couple are “high” on one another, so long as the money lasts and the entertainments are exciting. “Stirring the oatmeal” means that two people take their love off the airy level of exciting fantasy and convert it into earthy, practical immediacy. Love is content to do many things that ego is bored with. Love is willing to work with the other person’s moods and unreasonableness.

Love is willing to fix breakfast and balance the checkbook. Love is willing to do these “oatmeal” things of life because it is related to a person, not a projection. Human love sees another person as an individual and makes an individualized relationship to him or her.4

I attempted to outline the importance of relational attachments in a past article Sex and Attachment and another sketching a way to build relationships that avoid some of the predatory themes at the heart of Western gynocentrism, entitled Love and friendship. Hopefully these provide some discussion points, but more important is asking of the initial question: are we ready to interrogate the pleasure-principle as the foundation of our society?

References:

[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization, Society and Religion (PFL 12) p. 263 (1991)
[2] Ronald Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality pp. 82-83 (1952)
[3] Object Relations, definition from GoodTherapy.org (August 2015)
[4] Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, p. 195 (1983)

Sex and attachment

Woman2

Did the image above get your attention?

Male motivation is tied to sexual reproduction and men are motivated primarily by sexual urges to mate with a female, right?

Wrong… it’s more complex than that.

As far back as 1941 Scottish psychiatrist Ronald Fairbairn found that the desire for attachment in human beings, in terms of the overall psychobiological economy, is a more important necessity than the desire for sexual pleasure and reproduction.

This scientific finding, not controversial in the field of psychology, presents something of a heretical view to some of today’s Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) who, by contrast, seem to have come in recent years to believe that males are chasing sexual reproduction only — which, oddly enough, seems similar to the stereotype of the “all men want is sex” misandrist paradigm we’ve all come to find so annoying.

Fairbairn’s proposition is now many decades old, but his findings heralded a Copernican revolution within the world of scientific research that would culminate in today’s attachment sciences; it moved the discussion beyond the reductionist sexual theories of Darwin and Freud and into new areas–more complex, more subtle, more nuanced, and ultimately more human.

The question attachment scientists explored is: why do couples continue to stay with each other years after producing offspring, and indeed sometimes for decades after all sexual activity has ceased in relationships? The answer is because human beings are pair bonders who get more out of attachment than they do out of fucking.

Since Fairbairn, studies have confirmed that humans possess an array of distinct motivational systems each in communication with the surrounding environment. Of those systems two are singled out as particularly powerful in motivating humans to form relationships – the sexual urge (eros), and -separately- the urge to attach. Of these, attachment is quite simply the most important to the continued survival of the individual. This cannot be overstated: attachment is the more important to individual survival.

As studies reveal, an absence of close and consistent human attachment causes children to literally wither and die, refusing to thrive even when being provided with clothing, food and an adequate number of toys. Children need reliable and consistent relationships in order to thrive. Likewise adults literally sicken both physically and mentally, and often commit suicide, to escape feelings of isolation and loneliness, especially after a relationship separation.

A lack of sexual contact on the contrary is not as life threatening; you will never see someone die simply because they didn’t get to fuck with the opposite sex and reproduce. I would think that seals the case about what is really important to both men and women. Survival of the species depends on sex; survival of the individual depends on the vital bonds of attachment.

What does all this mean to Men Going Their Own Way?

Well, it means that we need to evaluate separately our attachment needs and our sexual needs, and avoid the common mistake of conflating them; especially if that conflation sees us rejecting both when in fact it may be only one of these causing most of our relationship angst. It may turn out that attachment and sex both need to be rejected, however that cannot be determined until we consider each factor separately and thoroughly.

In our psychobiological economy, various desires come into conflict with one another, each jostling for momentary supremacy where one imperative will usurp the claims of another. That game has reached a problematical impasse during the last 800 years because, during that (historically relatively short) time span, human culture has thrown the weight of its patronage into developing, intensifying and enforcing sexual gamesmanship (yes, including hypergamy) to the degree that our sexual compulsions appear pumped up on steroids and taken to extremes never before seen in the human animal (myths about widespread Roman orgies notwithstanding).

If we lived back in Ancient Greece, Rome or anywhere else we would view sex as little more than a bodily function akin to eating, shitting and sleeping – a basic bodily function without the hype. After the Middle Ages however it developed into a commodity to pimp and trade, and the new cult of sexualized romance that arose resulted in a frustration of our basic need for attachment – a frustration aided and abetted by social institutions placing sexual manipulation at the centre of human interactions.

During these fairly recent centuries of increased hypergamy and sexual focus, our drive to pair-bond continues to shout its demands even while being neglected. Observe for example the not-infrequent feelings of disillusionment and loneliness of serial partner upgraders (hypergamy) or of promiscuous gamers, or consider a beautiful young woman living in her mansion with an aged but wealthy husband to whom she has little or no emotional attachment; even if she is getting sex on the side her loneliness can eat away at her sense of contentment. These examples reveal an urgency surrounding attachment when it is neglected for the sake of secondary sexual or power gains.

Like men, women desire secure attachment beyond whatever sexual advantages they can and do exploit. However their hypergamous compulsions tend to get in the way and frustrate their powerful need to pair-bond. From the Middle Ages all the way to today we read of men and women bitterly disillusioned by the interference of hypergamy in the desire to form stable pair-bonds. Read for instance the bitter, antifeminist complaints of 12th century Andreas Capellanus or those of 14th century Christine de Pizan, or the disillusionment and ultimate rejection of the benefits of hypergamy in later works like Madam Bovary. These authors knew full well that sexualized romantic love had upset the balance of attachment security for both men and women alike.

The question those of us who consider ourselves MGTOW must ask ourselves is this: can our human need for attachment be indulged without men and women succumbing to the destructive manipulations of the modern sex code? As we stand atop our MGTOW mountains of freedom, rightly rejecting women and culture as bastions of exploitation, have we intellectually thrown out the attachment baby with the exploitation bathwater?

Sexual games need not get in the way of healthy attachment, so why should we live without relationships? Well no one ever said we had to, but in recent years I’ve sensed a trend both within and without the MGTOW community (which I’ve long been part of) that foregoing “relationships” is a necessary part of the deal.

This does not seem a prudent attitude to be cultivating, especially in young men who may now be reading about MGTOW philosophy and making extreme decisions about their lives; refusing to marry, cohabit, or procreate does not require a cutting off from human society. Even if we don’t suicide from loneliness (as so many men do) we need to question if the absence of an intimate relationship in our lives can leave us limping, or somehow unfulfilled. Some will say no, and some of these naysayers may well be what are known as ‘avoidant attachers.’ Of those who would say yes, some might recommend we fill our intimacy void with friendships, which is I think a very good starting point. But this leads to a further question of whether there is an adequate formulation of friendship that can satisfy our needs in a modern context – a relationship that doesn’t rely on the usual corruption at the core of sexualized romantic love.

These questions lead to an exploration of adult human attachment, and modern studies on the subject are abundant from psychological, biological and behavioural points of view. For those interested in following this subject further the Wikipedia entry on Attachment in Adults would be a good place to start, and to branch out from there. Of particular interest is the existence of four basic attachment styles in human beings, indicating that there must also be four main ways of doing MGTOW:

secure attachment (64% of the population)
anxious–preoccupied attachment (17% of the population)
fearful–avoidant attachment (12% of the population)
dismissive–avoidant attachment (7% of the population)

Only one of these styles (dismissive avoidant) involves a lack of desire for emotionally close relationships (relationships with minimal emotional intimacy may be tolerable to them), while the other three involve a desire to form emotionally intimate attachments. These are biologically-based traits appearing in each man before he elects to GHOW, and they help to account for the behavioral and ideological variability we see among MGTOW – for the most part we are working creatively with what’s already in our make up rather than changing our core attachment style. Based on this taxonomy we can safely say there are four irreducible kinds of MGTOW:

Secure MGTOW
Anxious–preoccupied MGTOW
Fearful–avoidant MGTOW
Dismissive–avoidant MGTOW (‘ghosts’)

The four attachment styles and their implications for “ways of doing MGTOW” deserve a follow up article. While some MGTOW claim men do not need attachment at all, evidence is not in their favour. Thus, for most of us, constructing new ways to form secure relationships with our fellow humans in a rich and rewarding way is an important long-term question, even if we cannot pretend to have all the answers now; we start by knowing what we don’t want: relationships of enslavement and entrapment to the opposite sex (or anyone else for that matter) in an environment that makes healthy attachment difficult. But how do we forge a more positive model for human relationships and attachment for ourselves?

We started this essay with an important question: are sex and attachment two relatively different motivations? The answer is a resounding yes! Yes, despite all the pop culture bombardment of sex, sex, sex, the sexual shaming of men, and all the rest, the answer is yes: sex and attachment are not the same. People can live their lives avoiding sexual games but they will not end their lives happily unless they meet their attachment requirements. And while this journey will be different for each man going his own way, we must not flinch from seeing the problem for what it is: not “overcoming our urge to procreate,” but rather, how to be healthy human beings able to recognize and fulfill our natural need for human intimacy.
Sources
– Frederico Pereira, David E. Scharff, M. D. Fairbairn and Relational Theory (2002)
– Fairbairn, W.R.D., ‘Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality’. (2013)
– Shaver, P.R., Handbook of attachment – Second Edition (2008)
– Shaver, P.R., Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics and Change (2010)