I maintain a “Top 20” list of my favorite novels. According to my own rules, a book is not eligible for the list until I have reread it. Without comparison, my favorite is Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. Reading it was the only time in my life that I finished a tome one day and started it again the next. In addition to three Dostoyevsky novels, my list includes multiple works by Hugo, Potok, Undset, and Tolstoy. It’s been six or eight years since I have made any changes to the list, reflecting my recent tendency to read more popular fiction. This summer, however, I have been working through Ian McEwan and have just added On Chesil Beach to my “Top 20” list (which now includes 27 novels—what’s a man to do?).
McEwan is a promiscuous author, and some of his novels cross the line of what I consider to be acceptable. In this short novel, however, all of the sex takes place (if that’s the right description) on the wedding night, within the covenant of marriage. One finishes the novel with the clear didactic conclusion that marriage is not just about the sex.
On Chesil Beach was published in 2007 and was nominated for the Booker Prize. It has been self-adapted by Ian McEwan for a film version, expected to be released in January 2018.
The content of our popular literature is often so extremely promiscuous that I am now afraid to recommend any novels, for fear that I will be associated with the sexual content. Our culture has concluded that relationships are defined by sex. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that more than half of our high school seniors report that they have been sexually active. It would appear that our 21st century culture needs a novel like On Chesil Beach to remind us that it’s not just about the sex.
A classic study (“Marriages Made to Last”) by Jeanette and Robert Lauer, popularly summarized in the June 1985 edition of Psychology Today, asked 351 couples, each married at least 15 years, to respond to a brief survey about the factors that stabilized their relationship. Completing the surveys separately, the wives did not ignore sex, and ranked “We agree about our sex life” as the 14th most important reason for the success of their marriage. Of course, sex is more important to men. Husbands ranked that option as 12th most important. In happily married stable relationships, it’s not just about the sex.
In fact, husbands and wives gave almost identical answers. Their rankings are exactly the same for the seven most important factors:
1. My spouse is my best friend.
2. I like my spouse as a person.
3. Marriage is a long-term commitment.
4. Marriage is sacred.
5. We agree on aims and goals.
6. My spouse has grown more interesting.
7. I want the relationship to succeed.
Of course it’s about the sex, but it’s not just about the sex. In fact, “fewer than 10 percent of the spouses thought that good sexual relations kept their marriage together.”
The good news is that friendship, and especially commitment, are more stable than sex and eroticism. To the extent that couples begin their relationships on the basis of sexual attraction, the stability of their marriage is a long shot. To the extent that they begin their relationship with commitment and friendship, they are exponentially more likely to establish a stable fruitful relationship and a happy home.
Ian McEwan is a modern writer dealing with modern struggles in our human relationships. The main characters in On Chesil Beach experienced some of these difficulties on their honeymoon night. Unfortunately, they had not learned that it’s not just about the sex. If McEwan keeps the same focus in the film adaptation, it will be a movie worth seeing.
– Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.