Ellen Byrne, final year philosophy and politics student critically examines the ‘til death do us part trope’ and why, sex and death have always been interlinked.
Many of us place great value on being in monogamous relationships without questioning why we do so. I think it’s possible that our collective obsession with monogamy derives from an entirely different predicament: fear of death. Here’s why:
Reason #1: we struggle to live with ourselves. If lockdown has revealed one thing, it’s that spending prolonged periods of time by yourself can be gruelling. When forced into solitude, we become prone to pervasive thoughts, introspection and, worst of all, loneliness. The denial of physical touch, even just brushing off passers-by on public transport, magnifies our desolation. Hence the number of people who continue to live in shared accommodation at extortionate prices despite not having any classes or work to go to, or the number of people flocking home to live with their previously estranged families. We are social creatures; even the most introverted or independent of characters can become tormented by isolation.
While lockdown has highlighted the malaise we experience in our own company, it is this same sense of unease that determines how we spend much of our lives. Whether it’s gorging on media or exhausting ourselves with work, we are constantly seeking diversion from our own thoughts for fear of the dark places they could lead us. The same goes for relationships: not only do we want to have someone with us when we die, we want someone to distract us until we do. Sure, there are plenty of people who have the good sense not to envision dying of old age alongside the randomer they just had a one-night-stand with, but once a sexual partner becomes the object of our love, we place an expectation of commitment both on them and on ourselves. A commitment to love each other more than anyone else, and to do so exclusively.
This brings me to Reason #2– we are frightened by the thought of navigating the twilight of our existence without someone to comfort us. People often cite “I don’t want to die alone” as a reason for seeking a partner, and do so in a flippant way. I would argue that this levity is a thin veil in front of a cavernous anxiety. Death is often far from the minds of the young, but as we grow older it confronts us with decreasing mercy. That’s why we want someone to stare into the abyss with us, and hold our hand as we edge closer.
Finally, the third reason I find the most erroneous: We are led to believe that love in the form of a monogamous relationship is a necessary requisite for a meaningful life.
What is a meaningful life in the first place? I’ll spare you the philosophical pondering- but most of us can agree on this much: a meaningful life is one that does not feel wasted. Being loved by others is one of the most powerful affirmations that our existence is worthwhile. It can even be a security blanket that we wrap around our dreams so that if we fail in our pursuit of them, we have the comfort of knowing that we did not fail in being loved. When it comes to romantic relationships, it is often the exclusivity, and the devotion that this exclusivity implies, that makes love seem so fulfilling. However, we risk deceiving ourselves in this process; the desire for this assurance can prompt us to enter into relationships or commitments that are wrong for us.
Let me be clear. This is not a case against love, or relationships, or even monogamy. They can all be great things, but there is more to life. If we can live with ourselves, then sex, love, and commitment can become pleasures with which to supplement our lives, but without our sense of self-worth and personal fulfilment becoming contingent upon them.
There may be no antidote for our mortality, but love is a consoling medicine.