Stendhal Effect

Stendhal (1783-1842) the famous French writer was forged into a novelist during his stay in Milano. I think an important role in this development played his falling in love with Métilde. He tries to rationalize (as men much too often but invariably use to do) his passion in the immediately after written essay “De l’amour” (On Love). And also his later work may be considered as repercussions. What made that love so deeply influencing his life?

Amazingly, he never consumed this love, in other words they never had sex. Some biographies claim social obstacles. After all, both had different social status. I don’t believe that. In no time of history and in no culture, social obstacles were so serious that they couldn’t be overcome by a proper desire for sex, if even for the moment. Furthermore, Métilde lived separated from her husband, so one can assume that even at the beginning of the 19th century social obstacles were not big enough to prevent having sex with an almost divorced women.

No, I think the real reason why they had not sex, was Stendhal’s love itself. He himself summarized in his above mentioned essay that a man never can have sex with a women he is deeply in love with. In other words love eclipses sex drive.

I call this effect that seems so paradoxical the Stendhal Effect. It seems so contradictory in the light of all what we use to believe about love, sex, and marriage, but it becomes plausible as soon as we consider love and sex drive as different sets of emotions slumbering in a human individual. Moreover many observations in human relationships become reasonable. Their explanations fall into places, all the sudden. That’s true not just for the Stendhal Effect.

It’s all about timing

The Stendhal Effect is not only contradictory to what we use to believe about sex and love, but also many couples—I guess—would vehemently disagree as they live with love and sex in harmony. The question is about timing. If sex comes first and love as the deep social and emotional bond between the two lovers develops later everything falls into places naturally and love and sex are not a contradiction.

Problems arise if it develops the other way around. Then, deep emotional bonding can even prevent sex. Well, think of it in evolutionary terms. The purpose of such emotional bonds probably is to glue a couple together for the time of upbringing their children. For that period it is counterproductive if one partner searches sex with an other mate and in the worst case scenario falls in love again and abandons his/her family. Therefore early in evolution evolved a control of the sex drive by those emotions of love. As Dobzhansky said.

Problems also arise with our social conventions. The demand put forward by many churches “no sex before marriage” clearly presses its followers in the trap of that Stendhal Effect. It is necessarily the reason why many couples that faithfully followed that advice failed in the long run while couples who had sex before marriage are more resistant and successful in maintaining a fulfilled sexual life.

The same problem is with dating websites. Because of its physical barriers emotional bonds develop first among those dating electronically, and that will inevitably hamper the development of a fruitful partnership later on.

Finally I would like to mention that there is a solution to this problem. Examples exist of successful partnerships that developed although the deep emotional bond came first, but it requires some effort and mutual understanding of the partner’s psychology.

  1. The partners have to encourage each other to have sex. The slightest doubt in one partner’s willingness to have sex will instantly stop the other partner’s sexual arousal. This is plausible because the purpose of that emotional bond is to protect and not to harm the partner.
  2. State a common goal of sex. The most effective of them is having children. The prospect of children is the prospect of further deepening the emotional bond therefore very effective in overcoming the sex drive regulation by emotions of love. Though common children are the most effective sex drive, if a couple in love is ingenious enough they of course may find other intermediate goals that also work for a time.

After all, as often in psychology, great effects are discovered accidentally. Stendhal suffered his whole life, but made a great contribution to our understanding of the essence of life.

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One Response to Stendhal Effect

  1. rugby11ljh says:

    Good read

    Like

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