How Many Women Is Enough?

The origin story of a serial monogamist

The comic book character Archie lusting after women in bikinis.

When I was a kid, too young to understand that there was more than face value to what adults said, I asked my mom why my father left. Looking back now with the hindsight of being an adult, she was probably just being dismissive and cynical when she said, "I guess he needed to sow his wild oats." As I'm writing this now, I'm kind of surprised that at the time I knew what the phrase meant. Maybe I worked it out later. I don't know. What I do know, though, is that no matter how seriously my mom meant it, I took it as a fact.

As I grew up, the seed of the idea germinated alongside my interest in girls, through to my participation in, and desire for, relationships. I actually believed that men necessarily had to be with some minimum number of women before one could reasonably expect to be satisfied with settling down with one woman. I believed that my dad had made some kind of innocent mistake, marrying too young, before having explored the world enough, and the need to "sow wild oats" was strong enough that it could build up until it was stronger than a marriage. I saw all the hurt that caused, and I was determined not to make the same mistake. I was not going to commit to marriage and kids and all that until I was sure that I had got the need to experience a certain minimum number of women out of my system.

Of course, it also needs be said that this one phrase one time by my mom who was probably just in a bad mood that day was not the single catalyst for this perception of how the world works. I was a latchkey kid who absorbed countless reruns of Three's Company, a window into a world where every week Jack Tripper had a new beautiful girlfriend. I also read Archie comics, where despite having two smoking hot girls, effectively identical in every way except hair, constantly vying for his attention, Archie, and every male in the comic, were always on the lookout for the next girl walking along the beach. Except for most likely closeted Jughead, who was just a sidekick anyway, and no one wants to become a sidekick. All the main characters, the men at the centre of the action in pop culture, conform to a standard of serial monogamy in rapid cycles, with varying degrees of overlapping transitions. Marriage, if it is ever addressed, is the end of stories, not the substance of them.

And then in all that there's me. I need a certain kind of validation, certain kinds of attention, facets of my personality that just seem to be built into me, like my need to be funny, or that I'm prone to depression if I don't exercise enough. It's neither nature or nurture, it's the combination of me in my world that brought me here. So, you're off the hook, mom. Mostly. Partly. I don't know.

The weird thing about an idea that you take on as a kid is that layers of perception and understanding get built on top to the point where you don't realize it's driving you, and that it might not be in line with other things you come to understand. Later in life, I spoke to both my father and my mother about what happened between them, and got a more adult and nuanced explanation, and I understood those explanations rationally. But I was still living my life and pursuing relationships as if the maxim that a man had to sew his wild oats before settling down was an irrefutable truth. Everything that I had come to know intellectually about the world wasn't making much impact.

The other side of this perception, though, was that eventually there comes a time when, as a man, you find the "right" woman and settle down. There's supposed to be this time when "playing the field" is no longer satisfying, you want something more real, more stable, more something. For me, time has passed for a suspiciously long time without any perceptible change within me. As I write this, I don't feel like I've simply had "enough" of flirting, fucking, and fun. There is no compulsion saying that really maybe now I'd be happier with kids, a home, a garden, and barbeques on weekends with my other friends who are parents. Actually, I've never even anticipated that I'd find myself wanting children before having them, I merely expected that I would grow tired and dissatisfied with the sexually charged relationships I was having. But... nope. The only thing that has changed over time has been my realization that the drive to want to "settle down" isn't going to just happen.

I now realize that "sowing wild oats" had nothing to do with my parents divorce. Or at least, it wasn't more than just one part of a multifaceted and complicated relationship that fell apart as relationships do. I've since had long term relationships of my own that fell apart in drawn out and hurtful ways, and I understand that relationships are hard. The only difference between my parents and the relationships that caused both joy and suffering in my own life is the added life-altering dimension of having had kids.

For me, being the emotionally difficult person I've always been, realizing that my parents relationship was just a relationship, as in, not a thing that was set up with the purpose of resulting in me, it just happened to have resulted in me, was at first devastating. To a certain, academic extent, I take it to be axiomatic that all people are a result of all the exceedingly random and unlikely course of events within the history of the universe and humankind that make the odds of any one of us being here at all an amazing and astronomically unlikely result. However, pulling back the curtain and seeing the personal reality that my parents might have been happier having never got together, and never having me, made my presence in the universe not just an unlikely dice roll, but an unlikely bad dice roll. I've since seen past the angst, though, and realized most humans on this planet aren't born from ideal circumstances, and it doesn't matter. What matters is who we make of ourselves going forward.

So it's just with sympathy that I recognize that my parents were in many emotional ways still kids when they had my brother and I, and, lacking a solid grounding of maturity of their own, were unable to provide it to us. When I was in my thirties, my grandmother, on my father's side, wrote me a letter about how she felt unable to intervene on my, and my brother's, behalf when I was a child in a situation she saw playing out, where I was looking for securities from my parents that they themselves were looking for. Not that this is particularly special. I've since seen it enough in others to know that this is just one snowflake's variation in the blanket of snow that keeps just about everyone cold. Everybody is flawed, parents come out of the set of "everybody," thus all parents are flawed. They all have their own take on it, but you can bet that the things that any parents aren't providing for their kids are the things they need themselves. My parents at least had some core competencies, and many people certainly have had worse than me when it comes to upbringing or a lack of it. Hell, when I think of what a fucking idiot I was in my twenties, I'm pretty sure my parents did a better job than I would have in similar circumstances.

And arguably better than a lot of my peers. I can count on one hand with room to spare the number of long term relationships that I know of that aren't failing, flailing, and falling apart in a myriad ways. Recently I was speaking to a friend of mine, and she just could not believe that this guy she works with was hitting on her. He has a wife! And kids! I could believe it easily, though, as the thought of ending up in a marriage that meets society's expectations but not my impulses is the fear that keeps me wary of marriage. Some people think it's selfish to not want kids, to not want to expand one's heart to encompass the lives of people whose life and death depends on your nurturing. Maybe there's something to that, but I feel there is at least some merit in not having assumed I'd succeed at that. There are kids not born that are not being hurt by my failings, and I think they might be better off that way. Not to mention the woman who I'd be hurting in the process.

In the meantime, while those kids are not being born, I'm chasing a dragon's tail of some sense of satisfaction, where I've had enough attention or experience or something where I feel like, "okay, this party is over now, time to get real." Or maybe I'm supposed to be overwhelmed by other feelings that supplant my current ones. Like, I'm going to feel some kind of compulsion to nurture, or a fear of being alone on my deathbed, or something that makes me think I have to pursue goals of a higher order than being with someone who looks great in a tight skirt.


Sometimes people ask me if I'm not afraid of dying alone. I'm not so much afraid of dying alone as I am of living alone. That the current path I'm on will end before I'm done walking on it. That I'll become too old, or at least too undesirable, to sustain the promise that there is a new relationship in my future after the last one ends. At least in this one regard my gender has worked to my benefit. Society is hard on women, and age is a more pressing matter. When I was in my early twenties and my female peers seemed to be having men offering themselves to the point that for these women it was a persistent annoyance, I thought women held all the cards. However, I've now come to understand that as a man, my desirability may not have peaked as dramatically, but has maintained a near constant level largely unaffected by age. Possibly I've even become slightly more desirable as I become more self assured. I certainly feel more capable, and unrestricted in who I might choose to be my target demographic. But, surely there is a limit to all things. There must come a point where there are no more angles to play, no archetypes to fall into, nothing but just this guy who is too old to be at the party.

The hope that I assumed without knowing I had assumed it is that my natural predilection to meet yet another women would end before I lose the ability to meet yet another woman. But I don't know what that would be based on. Experience is not like a bucket that has a limit on how much you can fill it. Every women I meet seems to open my eyes to new possibilities of what it means to give and receive love. It doesn't feel like I'm sifting for the one type of love that's right or true, it feels like I'm just constantly evolving and experiencing.

If I'm being honest, I don't really want it to end. Ever. I can intellectually understand that having a marriage and kids is an adventure I'd like to try, to see if I have what it takes to nurture a child, because in my understanding of things, you can only really create an emotionally healthy environment for a child if you're emotionally healthy yourself, and I'd like to think I can and will reach a point where my personal development turns outward to where other people are better off for having me in their life. But, I'm just not ready to trade in my current adventure for that adventure.

Partly because I don't think of relationships that end as relationships that have failed. It hurts like a motherfucker when a relationship ends, for sure, but that doesn't mean the relationship shouldn't have happened. Not that I haven't been in relationships that maybe shouldn't have happened, and I used to think that I was failing when I got dumped by a girlfriend. But, while the emotional stakes are much less, it's kind of like when I play ball hockey and lose a game. It doesn't make having played less fun, and I'm no less motivated to play the next game. I feel like I keep getting better at the game of serial monogamy, but I'm supposed to one day suddenly stop that game and shift to the game of marriage. It's like getting better and better at playing hockey, while everyone keeps expecting you to just one day stop that and play water polo. As in, "Oh, you've been learning how to treat women like people who deserve your respect? That's great. Now, here have an eternal commitment and a child that nothing you have learned will help you with."

I don't think I'm addicted to women so much as I'm addicted to my future. I don't want my life to be on the downslope, where my child's future matters more than mine, where I'm just a being trying to ensure a legacy through my replacement. Yeah, I know that having a kid doesn't have to be like that, and many people go on to new adventures post-parenthood, but that's how the trade off feels. It's not going to be a certain number of women that I've been with, or a certain amount of experience that will make me feel complete enough to move onto the next stage. It's going to be a sense, a feeling and not merely an intellectual understanding, that there are no "stages." That engaging with a woman for long enough to create a family is not some step "forward" in life, and therefor closer to death, but simply an equal choice among adventures that I might, or might not, undertake.

In the meantime...