Following Up on the Messiness of Life

This morning when, before work, I dashed off a quick post about life and love being messy I had no idea what a response it would generate. In the few hours since, I’ve received many emails in reply from men and women about their own messy beginnings (as well as the appearances they put on for others) as well as tons of stories about the “meddling others”.

These are all important parts of the picture. Let’s return for a moment to the “keeping up appearances” aspect (btw, that is a great British comedy series if you ever get a chance to watch it). People work very diligently to present a certain image to the world. When it comes to love/sex/relationships/families, people often try to present:

- A romantic “how we met” story
- A storybook “how we got together” or “how we got engaged” story
- A moment when ”they knew they’d found the one” (sometimes this goes something like “when you know, you know”)
- An idea that they have a great sex life (“no problems to see here! move along….”)
- The idea that they’re one big happy family

And as I said in my earlier post, it’s a fascinating part of my job that so many people are real with me and tell me the truth about their lives and loves. It lets me be more real about life and love.

Let’s consider attractivenes, as people often assume that attractive people have great sex lives and relationships.

One of the most beautiful women I have ever met had a very difficult case of genital warts. She was so ashamed of this that she would only have sex with her boyfriend when she didn’t have outbreaks. Or if they were mild enough she would simply avoid receiving oral sex and only have sex with the lights off. That’s right: she didn’t tell him she had warts.

Another highly attractive couple had a very disappointing sex life when they asked me for help. As I got to know them, I learned that they were mostly focused on positions/techniques and had little going for them in the way of intimacy or connection.

Another highly attractive male-female couple with a very neat storybook beginning started out with a fun dating life and an active sex life, even after getting married (the fact that they married young probably helped with that). Then they had children. Beautiful, smart children who they adore. But when they came to me for help/advice, they literally had not had sex even once in several years and they couldn’t figure out why it had stopped or how to get it to re-start. This is a fairly common secret that couples hide from even their closest friends and family.

Then there’s the overlap/cheating issue. Sometimes people all-out cheat. Other times there’s a weird overlap where the romantic/sexual relationship with the primary partner is truly over (but perhaps they are still living together or married/partnered etc), and they are exploring with a second person and then ultimately leave the first for the second. This is definitely not limited to soap operas. I see it all the time. Just the other day a much older man was telling me about his second lease on life thanks to his second wife of a couple of decades (they left other people for one other some time ago). There are also interesting variations on this. One  married man I used to know looked, to outsiders, as though he were doing all sorts of “sex on the side” things (mainly, he went to strip clubs and observed at swingers’ clubs). The interesting truth to this was that he wasn’t cheating on his wife at all. His wife had been through a very difficult experience with cancer and was terminally ill. She couldn’t have sex anymore but they remained emotionally close and intimate. He didn’t want to have sex with other women while she was alive but he missed some aspects of sexuality. She recognized this and granted him license to do some things, but not others, with other women. To some he may have looked like a cheater, but on the inside it appeared to be an incredibly close and beautiful relationship. It’s a blessing of my work that I’ve gotten to see these sides of humanity.

Then there are the meddling “others” - the well-intentioned friends, family, etc. We’ve probably all been there, trying to break someone free of an “unhealthy situation.” I’m ashamed to say I’ve tried to do this in the past with friends (I apparently read too many self-help books as a high schooler). But as regular readers will know (I blogged about this some time ago), I learned my lesson several years ago. I no longer believe that I know what’s best for someone’s romantic relationship life. I see different patterns and partner choices work for people all the time. It’s a good thing, too, because otherwise there certainly wouldn’t be enough sanitized situations to go around. Life is messy for most of us and it’s judgmental and likely hypocritical to think that we can judge someone else’s “unhealthy” situation in most cases.

The truly sad thing about meddlers is that, while they mean to help their friends/family, what they often end up doing is suggesting that their friends/family cut a relationship tie. “Break up with him/her!” or “That’s sounds ‘unhealthy’ – what you should be doing is…..” or “That’s horrible, why do you put up with that?” In an effort to help, they isolate the person they love.

To be clear: there are truly horrible things out there like being beaten or raped by someone who is supposed to be your partner. But beyond the really terrible things, the messiness of life is not always worthy of a breakup. A change to the way things happen, yes, but not necessarily a cutting of human ties. Sometimes the meddlers don’t realize that in an effort to help their friend/family member, they are encouraging them to be alone and alone and alone when what they want is to find someone to be together with, maybe even someone with whom they can start a family. Some people are happy to be alone, but if you’re someone who wants to be partnered – and you’re surrounded by meddlers – you  might think twice before taking their advice.

Back to wanting to be partnered. If you want a partner, you also have to be a partner. If you’re waiting for a sanitized perfect person to come along, you might be waiting a very long time. You might pass up excellent and unique opportunities of love. And love is a very, very messy thing. I think it actually gets best when you’re in the thick of it, when you’re past the honeymoon stage (those first six months of being together) and ready to dig into life. Once you get past those 6 months (and yes, research is pretty clear about there being a 6 month mark), it’s interesting to see who sticks around and who packs their bags looking for a simpler situation. If you want a partner, don’t pack your bags. This is where you dig in and start to see the benefits of being in an adult, loving relationship.

And as I’m off soon to lecture about love and relationships in an undergrad class today, that’s all, folks.

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at