dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

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 Americas obsession with strict fidelity. Savage has been arguing for close to two decades that monogamy is harder than we admit and that its time to develop a sexual ethic that honors the reality, rather the romantic ideal, of marriage.Savages 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 devaluesfidelity(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 cant help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In a post-Freudian world, its 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. Weiners 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 Savages 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, its unclear why sexual desire is privileged. Isnt sexual desire, itself, sometimes (often?) epiphenomenal?Lets 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 wouldnt 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 dont want to know where the things I buy are from, who made them, or what resources were required for their production. Just as in Savages sexual ethos, my desires are the guiding compass. Im 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 its 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 -- Im a better professor and tennis player after a decade of practice. Why doesnt 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, Im just bored with the ethos of its difficult, so it must be mistaken. Perhaps we can explore boredom in another post. Until then, consider Kathleen NorrissAcedia and Me, Michael Raposas Boredom and the Religious Imagination and, most recently, Peter Tooheys Boredom: A Lively History.

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

Great question, and a thought-provoking post, but I think you're short-changing Savage. He is, first and foremost, an advocate of honesty and communication in relationships. He has stated strongly that people who promise monogamy should strive to fulfill that promise. However, he does question whether monogamy is "natural" in the classic sense, or whether it's a cultural norm contrary to nature. (Cf. "Sex at Dawn" and any number of sources that suggest that men (and some say women too) are sexually "wired" for promiscuity.) So desire is not self-justifying for Savage. If it were, he couldn't make exceptions (at least not for inanimate stuff like feces,) nor could he be so insistent on good, open communication. Also, isn't it true that "we can't help our urges"? An urge is an urge, after all, whether for a Lexus or for a new sexual partner. But to pretend that we don't have such urges isn't the first step toward dealing with them in a mature way--it's merely repressing them. Here I'd invoke Aquinas--the vices bracketing the virtue of Temperance are over-indulgence on one side, but on the other hand a vice that he calls "insensibility," or not wanting the desirable thing enough. Temperance in all its forms is to feel and to reasonably respond to one's feelings. And for Thomas, sexual desire is indeed a great good, necessary to the survival of humanity. Too often, we see "fidelity" in marriage reduced merely to sexual exclusivity, while a rich and enriching relationship is faithful in a more holistic sense. Savage's critique of monogamy (he describes his own marriage as "monogam-ish,") underscores exactly the question you raise here--what are the goods of sexual exclusivity, especially if we're willing to recognize the risks (cheating, long-term sexual misery,) and entertain the notion that it might not be natural? here I think Catholic tradition gives us a rich store of ways to start to wrestle with the question.

I take Melissa's point to be not simply that it's possible to overindulge desires, or yield too freely to their power, but that desires, including sexual desires, are plastic: they take shape in a social environment. Everyone knows that different societies control desires in different ways, but social forces also help to determine the content of our desires. This is not obvious. Many desires feel spontaneous and immediate, and we therefore imagine that their source is entirely within us. But one's native language also feels spontaneous and immediate; our words, we feel, belong to us. And so they do, in a sense. But different words would belong to us if we had been born elsewhere, or in another time. Language is social all the way down. Likewise, sexual desire -- unlike, say, thirst or hunger (but not unlike a preference for this or that kind of food) -- is a highly contingent phenomenon. For a rational creature, with an awareness of time and history, to imagine that the self and its desires are self-constituted is a kind of pride. Just as it's a kind of crude reductionism to imagine that the self and its desires are entirely a function of one's genes.

I think that it is a mistake to fragment sexual desires (or any desires) from other kinds of desires. And to discuss sexual desire as simple copulation is very misguided, misinformed, and naive.Pope Benedict had some interesting insights on eros in his encyclical. What makes sexual desire erotic is not kinkiness but the psychology that says out of all of the rest I choose you and you alone!! That desire is a mirror of the desire God has for us which is inconceivable. All people crave that kind of love and that kind of true love is rare and a gift.I want a man to give my daughter that kind of love just as I am sure Bill Clinton wants his son-in-law to give his daughter that kind of love notwithstanding his own weaknesses.As far as not being monogamous well....I had a female friend (just a friend btw, not fwb) who had serial affairs and she confided in me that the true reason was that she enjoyed taking things that did not belong to her. That was the true motivation. Sex was just the game. I said that is dark. She said I know. But I also said that at least she faced her darkness and this is a good thing. I respect that more than this "monagam-ish" quackery.Lisa says that Savage describes his marriage as monagam-ish. He can't even bring himself to say it plainly. That tells you everything you need to know about the truth of all of this. Truth is slice it and dice it any way you want. It's cheating. I am not in any position to throw stones but lets call things as they are.

I got tired of the Oppenheimer article and didn't finish it, but I get the idea.There's something to be said for the idea that monogamy is problematical to the extent that it denies both parties any physical and emotional intimacies outside it. It may be more problematical for males than for females - I don't know. But "problematical" is not "seriously flawed".The question, I suppose, isn't so much about individual choice - in the West, at least, people are free to arrange their lives however they like, so long as they don't harm others in proscribed ways (of which there are relatively few) - as it is about favoring one arrangement over others. If the law gives monogamous couples advantages that it withholds from non-monogamous partnerships, the latter can probably make a political and, perhaps, moral case (it depends on how you define "moral") - if not a legal one - against the former. The strength of the leverage of doing that depends on how flexible society is disposed to be. Up until very recently, we've been very inflexible. Now, suddenly, we seem disposed to be very flexible. I can't imagine where this is going. I suppose the principal determiner is whether we favor stability over rights. It seems up for grabs.

Melissa makes good points about the commodification of sex. I'd like to think that being a Christian means accepting what the other has to give in the spirit of love and generosity, just as one accepts that not all of us get to live in a big house, have plasma screen TVs, or drive Jaguars.However, I have read some Protestant "marriage manuals" that tend to put the onus of keeping the marriage "exciting" on the wife, with instructions on how to do strip-teases, talk dirty, and other things that, if you have to be told to do them, will probably just end up embarrassing you and your spouse."I think youre short-changing Savage. He is, first and foremost, an advocate of honesty and communication in relationships."Honesty is overrated. Predictability, stability, and common decency will get you a lot further.

I think this anti-monogamy thing is interesting coming from male-male couples. Maybe it works for them because they are both males. All things considered, however, I think monogamy has been a historical plus for women and their children. What will be the effects on women when marriage is restructured according to what works for gay men?

JC, I think you're probably right about monogamy being a plus for women and children if women are caring for the home and children and dependent on the man economically. There aren't that many women in that boat anymore.I think monogamy offers stability to the family in that the mother and father are committed to each other and their mutual responsibilties. In that respect, isn't it a plus for women, children AND husbands? They don't have to worry about the wife leaving them with the kiddies.I'm intrigued by how you think marriage will be "restructured" to accommodate gay men who are "anti-monogamous." Without getting mired in arguments against gay marriage and Church teaching, please explain how "monogamish" gay married men will have any more deleterious effects on marriage than heterosexuals who view it as a sometime or temporary condition situation, easily remedied by divorce if it doesn't work.

Lisa,Short-changing Savage? Will you categorically state that monogamy in relationships of Christians (gay or straight) is absolute imperative? So many Christian ethicists seem to make so many distinctions and bring up so many interesting points but consistently fail to admit that some sexual are just plain wrong or shall I use a most un-PC word "sinful"? (Unless, of course, they are talking about Teapartyers or the GOP)

Hey Jean,I think you are right that I'm thinking more about monogamy historically than what it does today. I'm not trying to get on the whole gay marriage thing either. My point is more that the taboo against cheating is basically the only taboo that people still agree on across our entire society. ( I read this in a book review of a book about young people's attitudes to sex by some sociologists. It was reviewed in Commonweal, I think. Everybody--liberal, conservative, religious, secular--agreed that cheating is bad. (I don't care that Savage technically argues for some kind of honesty about cheating. That is the part that might work for two men, but opposite sex couples are jealous and this open marriage type of crap has already been tried and failed.) So now we have Savage ( and Andrew Sullivan has been arguing this too) saying that monogamy should be redone in favor of non-exclusive thing that works for two men. Too me, it seems like this is the only thing that is still a standard that people can attempt to socially constrain others anti-social behavior. Even the people who take advantage of our easy divorce culture still believe that cheating is wrong. Does that help? I don't know.On the other hand, I don't hear any lesbians advocating for this nonsense, so maybe the net change will be about the same?

"On the other hand, I dont hear any lesbians advocating for this nonsense, so maybe the net change will be about the same?"Interesting question; my guess is that men and women view the challenges of sexual fidelity differently.One of the aims of the Promise Keepers is to keep men faithful--and, apparently, if my brother-in-law is correct, to talk endlessly about what a trial and hardship this is, especially as The Wife becomes old and haggard.My female friends never talk about how difficult sexual fidelity is; we just talk about how we should go right straight to heaven because we have not mashed our husbands' heads in with bricks. Those who have admitted to "straying" have not usually done so because of unfulfilled sexual desire, but for revenge (hubby strayed first) or acute stress in the family. All regretted it deeply.However, most of us are in our 50s and 60s, so maybe that makes a difference.

Actually, the push for questioning of monogamy comes not only from gay men but also from observations of the very high percentage of men who cheat. Historically, until very recently, it's been "expected" and widely tolerated that men will cheat and women will be faithful. Note, e.g., the utter lack of outrage at philandering by FDR and JFK--it wasn't even worth reporting. But when Clinton got caught, times had changed. Data-wise, lots of "monogamous" couples aren't, at least not consistently. But few would argue that one incident of sexual cheating should necessarily end a marriage. Myself, I think the key question is not "is monogamy [i.e. sexual exclusivity--monogamy is, strictly speaking, about parenting, not sex,] an imperative?", but rather "WHY is sexual exclusivity an important goal for couples, Christian and otherwise?" What makes it worth advocating, especially if it is arguably not natural and given that it does not necessarily parallel emotional and parenting commitments to one's spouse? I am an advocate for sexual exclusivity on grounds that it serves the ends of intimacy, security and insight in a relationship, and that, as stated in the original post, I think people learn things about themselves and their partners in exclusive relationships that are not so easily learned in non-exclusive relationships. Patience, e.g., generosity, and a host of other virtues are at stake. And I do appreciate the rhyme of sexual exclusivity with God's faithfulness to Israel, and Jesus' to the Church--sexual exclusivity CAN be one form of imitatio Dei for believers. Historically, I think arguments for absolute sexual exclusivity for women, while sleeping around was tolerated for men, reflects an attitude in which women's reproductive capacities were regarded as the property of men--so, e.g., biblically a man who sleeps with another man's wife robs HIM of his right. Since women aren't property, we must look at old imperatives in new ways. Are they still valuable? If so, why? The virtue argument for sexual exclusivity is, IMHO, less absolute, but more powerful than simply "it's the rule."

Thank you, Lisa. That is a great explanation

Lisa, Lisa, why must you hector us with these hard questions?It seems to me that a basic element of romantic/erotic/marital love involves monogamy on both sides. Some reasons off the top of my head that are not necessarily Church related:1. People's feelings tend to get needlessly hurt when someone sleeps around. Is the pleasure the runner-arounder gets worth the pain he/she inflicts on the one who's not running around?2. Both parties may run around but stay married because they still love each other, but it seems to me they run the risk of "finding someone better" and, thus, a higher risk of ruining their marriage.3. Sleeping around can spread diseases to innocent third parties.4. Having friends outside the family unit is important for one's mental health, I think, and girds one for the grind that family life sometimes is. Having love affairs seems like it would simply make the family grind even harder to bear.5. Running around is breaking the promise you made in front of your nearest and dearest when you got married (or, in our case, a bona fide justice o' the peace and several witnesses), that you wouldn't run around.

Lisa, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Patience and generosity. It's beautiful. Thanks. Basically, then, you agree with the original post. It didn't really seem so from your first comment.David Nickol posted some data on the other thread(same topic), which suggested that cheating is pretty rare, although it seemed not to include divorced people, which is half of all marriages, so I don't know whether cheating is common or uncommon.

We're talking about two entirely different views of monogamy, not simple variations on one theme. In fact, calling them both by the same name is likely to be misleading. Someone who marries but sleeps around is commited to the marriage partner in a very different way from that of the person who remains faithful to the marriage partner throughout life as a matter of principle.It would be useful to leave "monogamy" to this simple, easily understandable definition and be creative - and honest - enough to use completely different language to describe completely different arrangements.But if we can't bring ourselves to do that - as is probably the case - we ought at least to scrupulously avoid conflating the two things as we talk.What term could we use to describe life partnerships. Strict monogamy? Unconditional monogamy? I like the latter.

"It would be useful to leave monogamy to this simple, easily understandable definition and be creative and honest enough to use completely different language to describe completely different arrangements."I understand the desire to make it simple, but it's not.I think there are gray areas. Many husbands and some wives have sex with other at some point in their marriages without originally intending to do so. It happens sometimes. I don't think these people ought to be excluded from the definition of monogamous.On the other hand, an intention to remain sexually faithful but failing to do so incessantly isn't monogamy, in my view.Moreover, I'd say that those who have physical encounters short of actual intercourse, with others are not monogamous, at least in spirit. In fact, I'd say one of my friends' husbands, who was a terrible flirt and liked to get you in a corner and say suggestive things, was dicey.There are all kinds of behavior that do not involve hopping into the sack with someone else that are betrayals of the trust in marriage. Perhaps "monogamy" is a term that needs to be expanded to areas outside of sex and into any area where one is called on to show loyalty and commitment, that includes, but is not limited to the procreative sex act.

I think I understand Jean, but for me, a failure doesn't invalidate a system. If a support piller of a deck fails and the deck collapses, what's left is still a deck. If a car has a flat tire, it's still a car. You can't sit on the deck or drive the car, but they're restorable. If an unconditionally monogamous marriage is damaged by an infidelity, the partners can patch things up and go on, with the intention not to let it be damaged in that way again, no?

Did I said a failure invalidated a system? I didn't intend to. I merely said that monogamy ought to be the gold standard, and that marital fidelity might include more than just the procreative sex act.Certainly, couples ought to try to patch things up after an infidelity--or several, if they can. These things affect different couples at different levels of intensity. But I don't fault individuals who decide to live apart because their spouse thinks he's Don Juan and whose escapades affect the stability of home life. Such a pattern might be a symptom that the marriage never existed in a sacramental way, so I think having the help of a priest is essential in helping the couple.

It seems to me that unconditional monogamy is a minimal expression of sexual self-control. To throw out the intimacy and security available only through an exclusive two-person relationship in the name of freedom seems to me a perversion of the idea of freedom.On the other hand, the escape hatch of divorce seems healthy and, even, perhaps, necessary to the strength and viability of the institution. Only, divorce shouldn't, I think, be so easy to obtain as it's become, nor should it be so cruelly punitive. But by treating it as just one more on the not-so-gradually growing list of civil rights people in the West have come to expect to enjoy, we weaken marriage.All of which suggests to me that we've made serious - perhaps fatal - mistakes in letting the state determine the legal parameters of intimacy. The state is a political animal that changes direction continually, with the whims of the moment, and as such cannot have a lasting moral or philosophical position from which to act.

"Many of us would be quite comfortable asking ourselves, Is this desire for a new Lexus a real want or an artificial one?"How many of us would be comfortable asking that question if buying the Lexus meant your spouse would leave you and society would judge you for being unfaithful? The problem with our concept of marital fidelity is that it is not a true "choice". If it were a true choice, fidelity would not need the long list of potential consequences and sanctions that have been largely culturally created to enforce it. This is a shame, because truly asking ourselves whether a desire is "real" or not is a great project - but one that can only be genuinely engaged with if the "choices" we make don't have artificial consequences attached to them. Higher sticker price and repair costs for a Lexus? Natural consequence. Spouse divorcing you and society judging you because you want to have sex with someone else? Human-made consequence. I say this as someone who has chosen marriage and fidelity, despite what I believe to be the many artificial and frankly juvenile arguments made to support those very human ideas. As an old spiritual mentor of mine once said, "It's my work in life to dig one 100ft hole rather than ten 10ft holes." I've found that work to be much more meaningful when I remember that it is truly my choice - not a response to emotional blackmail, not at the threat of damnation or social ostracism, and not because I can't imagine being happy under any other circumstances. On a second note, I'd like to add that there are frequently some very significant differences between how men and women view monogamy and what they expect to get from it. A common psychological formulation suggests that women tend to be looking for "security" from a relationship, while men tend to be seeking "validation". Security should be understood to mean not simply money and physical safety, but as consistency and stability. Validation doesn't simply mean being told how great you are, but having a sense that your spouse sees you as "a good man" even when she's unhappy with you. So, to be really reductionist about it, how many men does a woman need to be in a relationship with to feel secure? How many women does a man need to be in relationship with to feel validated? What I see most frequently is women being largely happy with having one male partner - provided the man is emotionally consistent and stable. Men on the other hand are often unhappy with having one female partner - in part because they are frequently told that they are being too "needy" if they want more sexual, physical, and/or emotional intimacy to meet their needs for validation. Thus, I believe that our current conception of marriage is heavily weighted to benefit most (not all) women at the expense of most (not all) men. And that dynamic is not working out well for anyone as evidenced by the divorce rate. I may not agree with everything Dan Savage has to say, but I believe he is absolutely correct in saying that we must change our conception of marriage. For a beautiful re-imagining of how a true monogamous choice might look, I highly recommend Bill Holm's "Wedding Poem for Schele and Phil", which you can read here:http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2003/05/22

"How many of us would be comfortable asking that question if buying the Lexus meant your spouse would leave you and society would judge you for being unfaithful?"The question suggests that "monogamy" and "faithfulness" includes more than just sex, which is the point I've been trying to push. Many women would find their husband's precipitous decision to leave a job lor relocate to a new town without any discussion at home as big (or bigger) betrayal than sexual fidelity.

Agreed. Just as many men find their wife's precipitous decision to be less willing to engage in physical and emotional intimacy - without any discussion - as a betrayal. In both cases, there may be quite valid reasons (for a man to quit his job or a woman to become less available to intimacy), but without good communication and an understanding that either can cause deep discomfort to one's spouse, there will be damage to the relationship.

Usually these decisions occur with precipitously changing hormonal levels that occur later in life, and the response can surprise women themselves. Post-partum depression is another area where problems can arise b/c neither party understands the physiological changes that are going on.Behavior affected by menopause and post-partum hormonal fluctuations are not betrayals, but conditions that I hope are discussed in Church pre-Cana programs. Certainly doctors do a poor job explaining this stuff to women, who don't really know how to explain it to their husbands. Thank God for the Internet and women friends. I weary of frigid middle-aged wife scenarios. Women aren't the only ones to reject physical intimacy, precipitously or otherwise.Moreover, Catholic teaching isn't exactly conducive to sexual intimacy for older people who are no longer up to intercourse which requires the couple to "make a deposit" in the interests of being open to life. Once you hit 50 or 60, it seems to me there ought to be something between snuggling and the full monty. Given that there's not, I can see why many women feel it's just easier to call it quits and get separate rooms.

[...] Matthes arguesfor monogamy, contra Dan Savage andMark [...]