By Kevin Murphy, B.A., M.Sc., Reg. Pract. APPI.
Psychologist and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Recently a very famous Hollywood male actor said in an interview that after a life of womanizing he was now lonely and expected to end his days alone. On the face of it, it is a sad epitaph to an otherwise full and successful life. Yet this man has probably been a strong role model for many who identify with and possibly even try to imitate his lifestyle. The attraction of living the carefree life and of engaging in many sexual encounters is one that, for some, will never lose its appeal. In fact, it might be even more alluring today than at any other point in history. But what lies behind this choice of lifestyle? And why is it so routinely accepted as an enriching way to live?
Perhaps we should begin with why it is so attractive. In the first instance, there is the promise of ever more pleasure. Once a relationship loses its sparkle there will always be another so one doesn’t have to remain sad for very long. And who knows, 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 our 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 and that can often be considered a 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. It looks as though we have a plan.
Finally, a major advantage of constantly moving on 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. And so the question, what drives it? Is it purely about pleasure? Our famous actor claims he is lonely, and even though we may have to take that with a grain of salt, there is likely to be some truth in it. The end result, then, of his self-defined philandering is ending up with no-one. Now the interesting thing is that historical and literary examples of the same way of living indicate the same 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. He got fired from his next job for the same reason and so began a wandering life across Europe. Along the way he ended up in jail for witchcraft, made and lost fortunes, became a spy in Venice, met Pope Clement XIII, Voltaire, Rousseau and Mozart, and had seemingly endless romantic exploits. And yet after a life filled with adventure and mishap, 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. And, 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 well being. I mention it because the influence of this kind of ideal can still be seen today. Our famous actor is just one high-profile example. But in the therapeutic setting one often comes across the man - particularly the married man with children - who wants to enjoy all other women, or as many as he possibly can. One even comes across the female version also.
Now there is probably a small book to be written on the moral view of all this but that is best left to the moralists and perhaps those with religious agendas to pursue. Of interest here is the psychoanalytic perspective which offers an understanding of something that is often taken for granted as being simply what ‘red-blooded people’ do. And, just to point out, this is not to stigmatise someone for having numerous lovers. The issue in question here is of a different order. This is a lifelong compulsivity that is more aimed at seduction, winning over and then departing in order to start again. As we can see from the examples above, it doesn’t do the person themselves any real good. And it is equally not pleasant for any partners who feel they were exploited and then cast aside.
In order to get an understanding of behaviours like this it can often be useful to examine the end result and work backwards. In the Hollywood actor’s case we have a man who devoted his life to the pursuit of women with essentially nothing to show for it. Allied to that is the prospect that he might end up alone. If, for argument’s sake, we take this as our starting point and ask a simple question: what if the end result was actually the ‘thing’ he was, without knowing it, looking for in the first place? What if, without knowing it consciously, 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 can’t believe they ended up there. Yet they did, and usually by their own actions.
Or 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. If there is anything in this as a possible theory, then we have a further question to ask. Why would someone want to repeat the pattern of being alone for their entire life?
Well in the first instance, 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 pleasure being derived from it, however, blinds him to what is happening on the other side of the same equation.
He starts off being alone and then there is the choosing of the new love object and the beginning of the seduction phase. This is then followed by the consummation of the relationship and then, for whatever length of time, he engages in the relationship itself. Inevitably, he gets tired of the new partner and an excuse is made – it doesn’t really matter what it is - to bring it to an end. And so the pattern repeats again. What you usually find is that the beginning phases are extremely pleasurable for any seducer. It is a romantic time, an exciting time, very little is demanded other than they be a perfect lover, do the right thing, say the right thing. The safest place for anyone to hide is the place where their partner is completely enthralled by what is happening. There inevitably comes a point, however, when something more is demanded of them. It could be something trivial, or indeed important, but it requires them to step outside the phantasy of all-satisfying, unconditional love and deal with something real. When you hear these men talk of the moment a relationship changes for them, when the bubble bursts, this is the moment they speak about. It could be something as mundane as going to a family celebration, or the supermarket for the weekly shopping, or the suggestion of moving in together, or even the belief that the partner has been won over totally and there is no longer any challenge in it. If someone is structurally designed to have one eye on the exit, it doesn’t really take very much.
But on each and every occasion the serial lover is stepping away and repeating the experience of being alone. And if this is what is being repeated it suggests that this might be the hidden objective. Quite obviously the business of remaining in relationship with any one person is deeply problematic for them. This further tells us 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 rather than closeness. And this will often run counter to the pleasant nature of the person, how considerate they were, how thoughtful. For a time, they appeared to be the perfect partner, the ideal. And that’s very much the impression they wish to leave behind each time. There’s not much chance of creating a legend if people are glad to see the back of you when you go.
It’s probably a roundabout way of coming to something we 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 we are 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.