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Melody Thomas finds out the love isn’t quite like in the Disney movies.
On May 28, a podcast I first dreamed up years ago will finally be released. It’s called The Good Sex Project, and its mission is to figure out what good sex and good relationships look and feel like, and whether these things can co-exist in the long term. For the series, I’ve conducted around 35 interviews with couples, individuals and experts, from a pair of wholesome 27-year-old rural swingers to a 76-year-old having the best sex of her life with her “toyboy” (who’s in his 60s); and I’m now in the final stages of attempting to weave many, many hours of audio into a cohesive, engaging whole. It’s a nightmare, but it’s a nightmare I adore, and I can’t wait for people to hear it.
All this to say I’ve spent a lot of time lately talking and thinking about sex and love, and especially about the ways in which our culture and upbringing affect the choices we make in these areas.
I first learned about love from Disney. From Belle, who taught me that if you’re patient and kind and a little bit stubborn, you can transform any beast into a prince (though you might forever find the beast hotter). From Snow White and Aurora, who demonstrated that no matter what challenges you face in life (most of which will come in the form of jealous women), they can all be washed away instantly with a really hot kiss. Lady introduced me to the sex appeal of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Cinderella to the power of a good dress. Every single one of them, that you’ve only really made it when you’ve secured yourself a ring (well, except Lady, but she got a litter of pups which is the dog equivalent).
Even later, when the screen characters I was meant to idolise morphed from impossibly-tiny waisted princesses to a hot nanny with a perm and immaculate fashion sense and a New York sex columnist on a mission to sleep with half the men in the city… the end result, the way they wrapped up the lives of these feisty, successful, complicated women, was to marry them off. There’s your happy ending: till death do us part. What more could you want than that?
It’s no surprise, then, that I ended up married. Sometimes I wonder how many other married people enter into this union as I did: saying I do because it’s the natural next step once you’ve been together a while, and it never really occurs to you not to take it. Later, when I learned about the patriarchal roots of the institution, in which women were chattels to be sold from father to husband, and about the many ways in which modern marriage can entrench gender norms and make it much harder for a person who should leave to do so, I began to rethink things. But by this point it was too late.
Luckily for me, I adore the human I married, and I meant it when I said I wanted to grow old alongside him. But if I knew then what I do now, I’d have done things a little differently: keep the party, the vows, the kiss under a confetti cannon – but instead of signing the document (which, by the way, looks like a WINZ form), maybe press our hands into wet cement – together for as long as we can weather time’s erosion! – or prick our fingers and press the pools of blood together like Vada and Thomas J.
What I’ve learned about long term love, be it married or unmarried, from the interviews I’ve done, is that there’s no happily ever after. If you’re really lucky, there’s happy-for-the-most-part, possibly-for-decades, and even then you’re going to have to push through periods of boredom, resentment, frustration, and hurt to get there.
There’s also no such thing as the perfect partner. As sex advice columnist Dan Savage told me for The Good Sex Project, “We’re brought up on “the one” [but] there is no the one. There’s a .78, if you’re lucky it’s a .82, and it’s your job to round that motherf***er up to one.” In a good relationship, they’re doing the same for you: taking all your annoying, frustrating habits and choosing to look past them, towards the things they love. This isn’t a pass card for bad behaviour. In every relationship there are things we can and should work on, and ways we need to change and grow, but some things are built into our DNA. These are what Dan calls “price of admission”, or to put it more bluntly: “There is no settling down with someone, without some settling for.”
I understand this all sounds very unromantic. It’s a far cry from what we were taught to expect: a lightning bolt of clarity on meeting our soulmate, a love that feels easy and right, with someone who is your best friend, your teacher, your biggest fan and supporter, who always makes you feel good and who still wants to get naked with you decades after those first sparks ignited. But I actually adore this pragmatic reality. Because of all the people in the world that your partner might have made a go of things with, and done about as well, they chose you. And you did the same for them. In my mind, that is a truly beautiful thing.