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Book Reviews

What Can You Expect From Sex in a Relationship? A Review of How to Think More about Sex by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton’s How To Think More About Sex is not a sex self-help book. It doesn’t ask you, as an individual, to try this or do that to improve your sex life or relationship life. Instead, it gives a broad overview of how society views sex, and how society should learn to change its expectations of sex. It’s pretty compelling because he explains how everything came to be in the first place.

I’m pretty sure most people can be much happier by re-examining their expectations of sex too. So let’s get straight to what he says and how you can be happier…

Why is sex special?

According to Alain de Botton, the reason why sex is special is precisely because it breaks with social convention. When we are kids, social convention is at a minimum. We are free to run around naked, to touch and hug and kiss and talk to whoever we want even if we barely know them. We are mostly loved for being ourselves.

As we grow up, there are now expectations of us. We have to get good grades, to be polite, to be sociable etc.  It becomes shameful to show a naked body part. And then, when sexual maturity comes, we find the sexual part of us cleaved into the darkness because talking about masturbation and sexual fantasy is just not part of the social norm. It is not part of how we want others to think of us.

So when finally we find a partner to hug, kiss and have sex with in the dim light of the bedroom, it is like we have found a co-conspirator to express both our hidden desires. That is why who we are attracted to sexually, and how we like to have sex, have such strong connections to our sub-conscious and our upbringing. And that is why when our partner agrees to have sex with us, it feels like an acceptance of who we really are.

Society expects love and sex to go together

In our society, it is normal to want to love and marry someone, whereas the desire to just have sex without necessarily wanting a relationship is criticized as morally wrong. As a result, people are unable to be honest with their intentions. They claim to love when all they wanted was sex. This goes for both sexes by the way, and causes a lot of heartbreaks.

Why is it hard to have intimacy in a marriage?

The nature of sex requires expansiveness, playfulness, and imagination. That is generally the opposite of a marriage, where each partner gives himself a fixed role, just so that household chores are done, there is income coming in, the kids go to school on time, etc.

The funny thing is although the sex-help books may talk about trying different sex postures and lighting scented candles, the problem is probably more mundane, in that it’s difficult for the couple to even set aside private time amidst all the obligations on them. Also, the responsibilities that are expected of both of them increase the chance of resentment with each other. The fact that their lives are so intertwined may focus the attention on the resentments in the day-to-day actions rather than on connecting their sexual sides.

Because of societal norms, even when there are sexual problems in a marriage, it’s hard to talk about it with your friends.

Besides, we learn about love from our parents and our upbringing. It is a love that hides all the hard work behind it and also does not involve sex. Sometimes, it is what creates our expectations and therefore our resentments for the relationship.

So what can be done?

Focus on the marriage

According to Alain de Botton, the ideal would be for a therapist to visit the married couple every week to get to the bottom of their resentments, to remind them to give their partners the benefit of the doubt, and let them understand why the other is behaving or expecting things a certain way.

In addition, couples should reset expectations of their marriage…

Reset expectations of sex in a marriage

The two modern expectations of sex in a marriage is that you should only have sex with one person for the rest of your life, and that you ought to be having satisfying, if not awesome, sex. After all, if you’re married to the love of your life, of course you ought to be having great sex.

Alain de Botton reminds us that the modern interpretation of marriage is simply an invention of the bourgeoisie. The poor people did not have much expectation of marriage. They did not have the luxury of romance because life was very much about struggling to survive. The rich did not play by the rules of the marriage. They felt free to have affairs and leave a trail of broken hearts because they had the resources to deal with it. That left the upper middle-class, who had some resources for romance but not too much, and they came up with the modern marriage.

What he wants to say is that if we find modern marriage an awkward fit, that could actually be normal. Throughout the course of history, it is marrying and committing oneself to love that is the exception.

What we should be doing is appreciating our partners for staying faithful, and recognise how much of a sacrifice it is for both of the people involved, instead of simply hiding behind moral outrage when one party strays. Personally, I feel that’s a great idea, because the ability to appreciate each other is the key ingredient for a positive relationship anyway.

He goes on to talk more about adultery…

What’s really wrong with adultery

It is normal to have an interest in wanting sex outside of marriage, that’s what Alain de Botton says. He asks whether there’s a need to apologise for this desire, because isn’t it normal to have a sexual interest in someone else after 10 years of marriage?

As for adultery being a betrayal of marriage, isn’t being bad-tempered or not talking to your partner also betrayals of the marriage?

What’s wrong with adultery is its idealism. There is the belief by the adulterer that the affair can be an antidote to the disappointment of marriage. But you can’t have an affair and kid yourself that it will not affect your marriage.

To the idealism described above, I would also add escapism. The adulterer is not being honest with the partner. The adulterer is not being himself/herself in front of the partner, and is instead trying to flee with a part of himself/herself.

Should you read this book?

How to think more about sex is very thin book. However, we’ve still had to summarise a lot in this review. We’ve not covered impotence, pornography and other side topics explained in the book.

I would highly recommend this book as an overview of why you might want to be more open-minded when it comes to what to expect from a relationship. Alain de Botton is part of a modern wave of thinkers questioning the current way that we think about sex and marriage. Exploring this path could lead to a more satisfying relationship for yourself!

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