Marriage with Infidelities?
Is monogamy an unrealistic ideal or a fundamental requirement for a good, enduring marriage? Last month, Mark Oppenheimer published a provocative essay, ”Married with Infidelities” in the New York Times Magazine exploring the status of infidelity in contemporary marriages. Using the popular sex column of self-described “cultural Catholic” and “American Gay Male” Dan Savage as a frame for his argument, Oppenheimer thoughtfully and provocatively examines what Savage calls “America’s obsession with strict fidelity.” Savage has been arguing for close to two decades that monogamy is harder than we admit and that it’s time to develop a sexual ethic that honors the reality, rather the romantic ideal, of marriage.
Savage’s primary recommendation is that married couples need to be more honest about their sexual desires and, concurrently, acknowledge that the fulfillment of those desires — perhaps outside their marriage — may not be the most important measure of the health of their relationship. In other words, Savage both prioritizes sexual fulfillment (individuals deserve to have their sexual needs met — and, indeed, meeting those needs may enable them to remain in a marriage) and devalues fidelity (which may not be as important as joy, honesty, or humor to the maintenance of a good marriage).
Oppenheimer opens his essay with an exchange between himself and his wife: What would upset her more, he asks, “to learn that I was sending racy, self-portraits to random women, Anthony Wiener style, or to discover I was having an actual affair. She paused, scrunched up her mouth as if she just had bitten a particularly sour lemon and said, ‘An affair is at least a normal human thing. But tweeting a picture of your crotch is just weird.’” And so an interrogation of desire begins. An “actual affair” is normal, but tweeting crotch shots is bizarre. Still, as we know, what is common is not necessarily good.
According to Savage, “We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them.” In a post-Freudian world, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone really still believe this — believes, that is, that “our urges” are simply natural, pure, “truly us,” “our authentic selves.” As Weiner’s penchant for sexting demonstrates, our desires are cultural — expressions of our social, cultural, even economic location. Weiner’s sexual desire is aroused and fulfilled by a modern technology. “Our urges” are a complicated intersection of nature and culture — rather than simply transparent, obvious windows to our real, true selves. It remains unclear, too, why from Savage’s perspective the vicissitudes of sexual desire are credited as if they were truth serum.
Autonomous desire is impossible; to be independent of others would be, in some ways, to be without desire. Desire is not made in isolation. And we know (at least since Augustine) that humans need a community of virtue in order to desire rightly. Yet, Savage makes it seem as if any sexual desire one has (unless it involves feces, children, pets, incest and the dead) is legitimate. And, while I appreciate these caveats, they are insufficient. Not because I think we should be policing sexual desire in some draconian, puritan way, but because it is still worthwhile for each of us to explore in more detail how desires are cultivated, why we want what we want, and, perhaps, what is the difference between “real” and “artificial” wants. Or perhaps more accurately, it is still worthwhile to consider which wants, desires, urges are themselves symptomatic of other more foundational desires — perhaps for power, intimacy, or recognition. Again, it’s unclear why sexual desire is privileged. Isn’t sexual desire, itself, sometimes (often?) epiphenomenal?
Let’s imagine another scenario. Not a sexual one, but still one about desire. Many of us would be quite comfortable asking ourselves, “Is this desire for a new Lexus a real want or an artificial one?” Do I even know why I want this thing and what exactly it is I want from it? Will the Lexus fulfill that desire, or is acquiring it simply a pause on the journey of accumulation? Will the Lexus satisfy one desire but provoke another? For Savage, there is a rushed solution — seek fulfillment of desire. In his ethos, if I desire it, it must be good. Not surprisingly, this is a “free market ethos.” Freedom is pursuing whatever you want.
I wouldn’t be the first to observe that this American sexual ethos bears a very close resemblance to our consumption habits. What I buy, we imagine, tells you something about who I am, what my identity is. And the shaping of that identity and its realization requires repeated consumption. Preferably anonymous consumption. I don’t want to know where the things I buy are from, who made them, or what resources were required for their production. Just as in Savage’s sexual ethos, my desires are the guiding compass. I’m not interested in the desires of the men and women from whom I seek sexual satisfaction; they are simply instruments of my pleasure and self-realization. Achieving my satisfaction through them makes me honest, real, myself. Just like buying that Lexus.
This is the sexual ethos of capitalism. So no wonder it’s so compelling. And no wonder it seems rather obvious. In our age, it’s become almost a law of nature. But it’s misguided nonetheless. Savage worries that the demands of monogamy give people unrealistic expectations of themselves and their partners. But maybe we could use a bit of the Tiger Mother here, or at least Immanuel Kant. Maybe these demands and judgments are what actually make us fully human. The expectation that I can make a promise and actually keep it; that the intentionality of a making a promise, the satisfaction of keeping one, is what distinguishes me as a human being; that this willingness, these judgments are what remind me of all my other capacities and what I hope others will expect not only of themselves but of me. That hardly seems a source for despair or a recipe for being taken for granted. These are among the drawbacks that Savage cites as the unacknowledged costs of fidelity in marriage. The others are “lack of variety and sexual death.”
So, why is monogamy saddled with “the drawbacks of boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted”? Why is the repetitiveness of monogamy not a source of solace, expertise, stability, and recognition? And who or what is to account for the one experience rather than the other? Yes, being married to the same person for a decade has elements of boredom, as does being a professor for a decade, or playing tennis regularly. But with that boredom comes expertise — I’m a better professor and tennis player after a decade of practice. Why doesn’t monogamy work the same way? In fact, many times it actually does. But the national sexual rhetoric — tied closely, I think, to consumer desire — imagines that “new and improved” is actually one word, rather than a phrase making an argument. Then again, perhaps, I’m just bored with the ethos of “it’s difficult, so it must be mistaken.” Perhaps we can explore boredom in another post. Until then, consider Kathleen Norris’s Acedia and Me, Michael Raposa’s Boredom and the Religious Imagination and, most recently, Peter Toohey’s Boredom: A Lively History.