Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Author: Mary Beth Bonacci


Do you think it's possible to not have an emotional bond with someone you had sex with? It seems possible because there are so many people who are always with different partners yet never really care for them.

By Mary Beth Bonacci

Nearly every high school, college and singles group has a certain percentage of people we would call "loose" or "promiscuous" or other words I won't print because this is a family column. We tend to look down our noses at people like that, feeling morally superior because we haven't committed their particular brand of sin.

But what's up with them? How are they able to have sex so frequently and with so many different people, without experiencing that powerful "superglue of the heart" we've been discussing for so long, the emotional bond of sexual activity?

First of all, I doubt it started out this way. Early, and especially first, sexual experiences tend to leave strong impressions, and to create a powerful bond. In fact, psychologists sometimes refer to a phenomenon called "imprinting". According to them, when a woman has voluntary (rape doesn't count) sex for the first time, her partner becomes "imprinted" on her mind in a very strong and permanent way. (I don't know if it doesn't happen when men lose their virginity, or if they've just never studied it, but the references I see always refer to women).

I have no doubt that imprinting really happens. I've seen it time and time again -- in happily married women who don't understand why they still obsess over a boyfriend they haven't seen in decades, in women who freak out when the person to whom they lost their virginity gets married. They often tell me that they think they're going crazy. But they're not. Their response is perfectly normal. Unpleasant, disturbing -- but normal.

So a person loses his or her virginity in a relationship they perceive to be "love." But then, the relationship breaks up. The bond is broken. "Love" is gone. Different people react in different ways. Some recognize that sex isn't the place to look for love, and they turn to God, or friends or family to provide them with the love they need.

Others, especially the particularly needy ones, often take a different approach. They go looking for love, again, in sex. It's the only way they know. Eventually that relationship breaks up too, the bond has broken again, and they're back in the cycle. But something begins to happen. They know they've been hurt before, and they don't want to be hurt again. So they "harden their hearts" a little bit. They become distrustful and protective. They still give their bodies, but they try not to give themselves. Each time the bond breaks, their hearts become a little more "scarred". Eventually, they lose the ability to bond altogether.

Think of a piece of duct tape. If you stuck it to your arm and then tore it off, it would hurt. But if you stuck that same piece to your arm again and tore it off again, it wouldn't hurt so much. Some of the "stick" would be gone. If you kept going, eventually the tape wouldn't stick at all.

So this is what can happen to people when they become promiscuous. Their hearts lose their adhesiveness, their ability to bond in sexual activity.

People like this often say they don't care about love, that they don't believe it exists or that sex for them is just for "kicks". But their compulsive sexual activity is still fueled by their need for real love, even if that need has become so repressed that they are no longer consciously aware of it.

The loss of the ability to bond is particularly bad if the person involved gets married. That bond is helpful in marriage. It's a necessity if a marriage is going to weather all of the challenges it faces. Without the unity that comes from healthy sexual intimacy, a couple is almost always bound for trouble.

Does this mean there is no hope for people whose promiscuity has caused them to lose their ability to bond? Of course not. As always, the hope comes through reconciliation in Christ. Anyone who sincerely repents, who begins to live a life of chastity and who learns to turn to God, friends and family to meet their love needs, will find an eventual re-establishment of their ability to bond. It may not be easy or immediate, but it will happen.

I once talked to a guy who was feeling guilty about a sexual encounter with a girl he wasn't dating. I mentioned that what he did was damaging to her, and he said. "It doesn't matter to her. She's just a slut".

Wrong. It does matter. On the outside, you may see a cold, hard, insensitive person. But I guarantee that, on the inside, there is pain, and a love need trying desperately to be met.

So from now on, try to look a little bit differently at the "school slut", or the promiscuous people you run into at singles' spots or wherever. They're not necessarily evil. It's more likely that they're lonely, and they're trying to cure that loneliness in a way that will never, ever work.

Bonacci is a frequent lecturer on chastity.

This article appeared in the September 21, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.