The monogamy trap – The Australian

This article from The Australian presents a view of marriage that might have rung true for me once. When I was very young! One problem is that they seek to confirm their point by stating that in the past there was more fluidity in the boundary. Perhaps, but what if we are evolving to a deeper, fuller and more purposeful level. That is what I think. No matter how conscious the exra marital relationships are they constitute a break in a container. If we were cooking food it would be very messy. It is not food but alchemy of a psychological kind, higher up the Maslow scale.

Anthony Weiner

Anthony Weiner announces his resignation from Congress after admitting he sent lewd photos to a stranger via Twitter. Source:AFP

WHEN New York Congressman Anthony Weiner finally admitted last month that he had lied, that his Twitter account had not been hacked, that he in fact had sent a picture of his thinly clad undercarriage to a stranger in Seattle, I asked my wife of six years, mother of our three children, what she thought.

More specifically, I asked which would upset her more: to learn that I was sending racy self-portraits to random women, Weiner-style, or to discover I was having an actual affair. She paused, scrunched up her mouth as if she had just 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.”

How do we account for that revulsion, which many shared with my wife? One explanation is that the Weiner scandal was especially sordid: drawn out, compounded daily with new revelations, covered up with embarrassing lies that made us want to look away. But another possibility is that there was something not weird, but too familiar about Weiner. His style might not be for everyone (to put it politely), but the impulse to be something other than what we are in our daily, monogamous lives, the thrill that comes from the illicit rather than the predictable, is something I imagine many couples can identify with. With his online flirtations and soft-porn photos, he did what a lot of us might do if we were lonely and determined to not really cheat.

That is one reason it was a relief when Weiner was drummed from office. In addition to giving us some good laughs, he forced us to ask particularly uncomfortable questions, like “what am I capable of doing?” and “what have my neighbours or friends done?” His visage was insisting, night after night, that we think about how hard monogamy is, how hard marriage is and about whether we make unrealistic demands on the institution and on ourselves.

That, anyway, is what Dan Savage, leading sex-advice columnist, would say. Although best known for his It Gets Better project, an archive of hope-filled videos aimed at troubled gay youth, Seattle-based Savage has for 20 years been saying monogamy is harder than we admit and articulating a sexual ethic that he thinks honours the reality, rather than the romantic ideal, of marriage. In Savage Love, his internationally syndicated newspaper column read by millions each week, he inveighs against the obsession with strict fidelity. In its place he proposes a sensibility in line with the gay community’s tolerance for pornography, fetishes and a variety of partnered arrangements, from strict monogamy to wide openness.

Savage believes monogamy is right for many couples. But he believes that our discourse about it, and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest. Some people need more than one partner, he writes, just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes. We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy.

“I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances,” he says. “But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.”

The view that we need a little less fidelity in marriages is dangerous for a gay-marriage advocate to hold. It feeds into the stereotype of gay men as compulsively promiscuous, and it gives ammunition to all the forces, religious and otherwise, who say that gay families will never be real families and that we had better stop them before they ruin what is left of marriage. But Savage, 46, says a more flexible attitude within marriage may be just what the straight community needs. Treating monogamy, rather than honesty or joy or humour, as the main indicator of a successful marriage gives people unrealistic expectations of themselves and their partners. And that, Savage says, destroys more families than it saves.

A paean to stable families
Last September, in response to the suicides of several young men bullied for being, or seeming, gay, Savage prevailed on his very private husband Terry Miller, whom he married in 2005 in Vancouver, to make a video about how their lives got better after high school. In the video, they talk about their courtship, becoming parents and how wonderfully accepting their families have been. Savage posted the video on September 21. Within two months, there were 10,000 videos from people attesting to their own it-gets-better experience, viewed a collective 35 million times. The It Gets Better book, a selection of narratives, subsequently made The New York Times’s non-fiction bestseller list.

It Gets Better is, in the end, a paean to stable families: it is a promise to gay youth that if they can just survive the bullying, they can have spouses and children when they grow up. With Savage, the goal is always the possibility of stable, adult families, for gays and straights alike. Sexual fulfilment matters in its own right, he argues, but mainly it matters because without it, families are more likely to break apart. It is for the sake of staying together – not merely for the sake of orgasms – that Savage coined his famous acronym, “G.G.G.”: lovers ought to be good, giving and game (put another way, skilled, generous and up for anything). And if they can’t fulfill each other’s desires, it may be advisable to decide to go outside the bounds of marriage if that is what it takes to make the marriage work.

Savage’s position on monogamy is frequently caricatured. He does not believe in promiscuity; indeed, his attacks on the anonymous-sex, gay-bathhouse culture were once taken as proof of a secret conservative agenda. And he does not believe that monogamy is wrong for all couples or even for most couples. Rather, he says that a more realistic sexual ethic would prize honesty, a little flexibility and, when necessary, forgiveness over absolute monogamy. And he believes nostalgically, like any good conservative, that we might look to the past for some clues.

“The mistake that straight people made,” Savage says, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitarian and fairsey.” In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”

In their own marriage, Savage and Miller practise being what he calls “monogamish”, allowing occasional infidelities, which they are honest about. When I asked Savage how many extramarital encounters there have been, he laughed shyly. “Double digits?” I asked. He said he wasn’t sure; later he and Miller counted, and he reported back that the number was nine. “And far from it being a destabilising force in our relationship, it’s been a stabilising force. It may be why we’re still together.”

What if couples were to say, ahead of time: “We love each other, and you promise you won’t stray, but you might. People do. And if you do, I hope you won’t think it’s the end of the world.” Such straight talk about the difficulty of monogamy, Savage argues, is simply good sense.

How exactly does Savage think talking about monogamy’s trials make practising it easier? In part, by reminding people to be good, giving and game. Straight talk about why we might cheat helps couples figure out ways to keep each other satisfied at home. If I promise my wife that I would never, ever sleep with another woman, the conversation might end there, the two of us gazing into each other’s eyes (even if our minds are wandering). But if I say, “I’ve been feeling sexually unfulfilled lately because I have a secret fantasy about trading dirty pictures with a woman” – well, then maybe my wife will email me some of her. And so monogamy is preserved.

That is the ideal situation. But what if the revelation that a partner is thinking about others creates a shift, one that plagues the marriage? Words have consequences, and most couples, knowing that jealousy is real and can beset any of us, opt for a tacit code of reticence. Not just about sex but about all sorts of things: there are couples who can express opinions about each other’s clothing choices or cooking or taste in movies, and there are couples who cannot. I don’t mind if my wife tells me another man is hot, but it took me a long time to accept her criticism of my writing. We all have many sensitive spots, but one of the most universal is the fear of not being everything to your partner – the fear, in other words, that she might find somebody worthier. It is the fear of being alone.

Where a relationship is troubled, and one partner senses, correctly, that aloneness is an imminent threat, then the other partner asking for permission to have a fling is no neutral act. “The problem is that with many of these couples, one partner wants it, and the other says yes because she’s afraid that he will leave her,” says Janis Abrahms Spring, a psychologist and couples’ therapist whose book, After the Affair, is about couples badly damaged by infidelity.

Spring is inclined to a pessimism as strong as Savage’s optimism – after all, she works with couples who have ended up in counselling – but she offers a persuasive reminder that there may be no such thing as total honesty. Even when we think we are enthusiastically assenting to a partner’s request, we may not know ourselves as well as we think we do. This is true not just for monogamy but also for sexual acts within marriage. Some of Savage’s toughest critics are feminists who think he can be a bit too glib with his injunction to please our partners.

“Sometimes he can shame women for not being into things that their male partners are into,” Sady Doyle, a feminist blogger, told me. “The whole good-giving-and-game thing is something I actually agree with. I don’t think you should flip out on your partner if they share something sexual with you. But I think sometimes it’s much harder for women to say, ‘I’m not into that,’ or ‘Please, I don’t want to do that, let’s do something else,’ than it is to say, ‘Sure.’ Putting all the onus on the person who doesn’t have that fetish or desire, particularly if the person who doesn’t have that desire is the woman, really reproduces a lot of old structures and means of oppression for women.”

Spring and Doyle both hint at a larger truth about men and women, which is that, generally speaking, they view sex differently. While there are plenty of women who can separate sex from love, can be happily promiscuous or could have a meaningless, one-time fling, there are – let’s face it – more men like that. Cheating men are often telling the truth when they say, “She meant nothing to me.” It really was just sex. And Savage tells us that, with proper disclosure and consent, just sex can be OK.

But for many women, and not a few men, there is no such thing as “just sex”, for their partners or for themselves. What if someone looks outside marriage for the other emotional satisfactions that come along with sex? Savage has less to offer that person. He does not tell people to take long-term boyfriends or girlfriends. He is sceptical that group marriages, of three or more partners, can last very long. Nor could he have much to offer the person who feels a partner ought to constrain his urges. There is a reason that sex advice is easier to give than relationship advice. Satisfying a sexual yearning is easier than satisfying a hole in your life.

In an email he sent me, Savage countered that “there are plenty of women out there who have affairs just for the sex”. But he agreed that there is something male about his perspective. “Well, I’m male,” he wrote. “And women, straight women, are in relationships with men. Doesn’t it help to know what we’re really like? Women can go on marrying and pretending that their boyfriends and husbands are Mr Darcy… but where’s that going to get ’em? Besides divorce court?”

If you believe Savage, there is strong precedent, in other times and in other cultures, for non-monogamous relationships that endure. In fact, there has recently been a good deal of scholarship proving that point, including Stephanie Coontz’s definitive Marriage, a History. Like Savage, Coontz says she believes that “people often end up exploding a relationship that was working well because one partner strays or has an affair that doesn’t mean anything”.

But, she says, we are to some extent trapped in our culture. It is one thing for the Inuit men to have “temporary wives”, whom they take along on trips when they leave their other wives at home, and for pregnant Bari women, in Venezuela, to have sex with multiple men, all of whom are considered responsible for the eventual child. Their societies have very different ideas about marriage. “For thousands of years it was expected of men they would have affairs and flings, but not on the terms of honesty and equality Dan [Savage] envisions,” she says. “I can certainly see the appeal of suggesting we try and make this an open, mutual, gender-equal arrangement. I’m a little dubious how much that is going to work.”

It was not until the 20th century that marriage evolved into an understanding in which partners must meet all of each other’s needs: sexual, emotional, material. When we rely on our partners for everything, any hint of betrayal is terrifying. “That is the bind we are in,” Coontz says. “We accord so much priority to the couple relationship. It is tough under those conditions for most people to live with the insecurity of giving their partners permission to have flings.”

There is one subculture that practises non-monogamy and equality between partners: the sizeable group of gay men in open, or semi-open partnerships. But it is unclear if gay habits, which Savage thinks can be a model, will survive the advent of gay equality. Historically, gay men have treated monogamy more casually, in part because society treated gay coupledom as unthinkable. Now, however, gay men around the world are marrying or entering into socially sanctioned partnerships. As they are absorbed into the mainstream of connubial bliss, they may lose the strong friendship networks that gay men once substituted for nuclear families – friendship networks that, according to Coontz, can make infidelity less threatening.

Having heard Savage’s earnest effusions about his wonderful husband and awesome son, it is tough to credit anyone who thinks Savage is a subversive figure. Savage is old-fashioned, as bitterly hilarious as that might sound to opponents of gay marriage. After the news of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love child broke, I received an email from Savage in which he expressed concern about the article I was writing. He framed his position in terms of respect for the family.

“I’m afraid,” he wrote, “it’s going to become: ‘This Savage person is krazy. Just look at what non-monogamy did for Arnold! Look at the chaos that being non-monogamous creates! Failed marriages, devastated children, scandal!’ But Arnold wasn’t in a non-monogamous relationship. He was in a monogamous relationship. He failed at monogamy; he didn’t succeed at non-monogamy.”

Savage does not believe people should live in toxic, miserable marriages. The Schwarzenegger family is surely beyond repair. But they are an extreme case: not all adultery produces secret families. Most of it is minor by comparison, and Savage believes that adultery can be one of those trials, like financial woes or ill health, that marriages can be expected to survive.

“Given the rates of infidelity, people who get married should have to swear a blood oath that if it’s violated, as traumatic as that would be, the greater good is the relationship,” Savage told me. “The greater good is the home created for children. If there are children present, they’ll get past it. The cultural expectation should be if there’s infidelity, the marriage is more important than fidelity.”

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