July 1, 2011
New York Times Magazine on nonmonogamy for stronger marriage
New York Times Sunday Magazine
My last post was about an article in one of New York City’s alt weekly papers on how queer and poly partnerships can set a good example for straight marriage. Tomorrow morning, a much bigger fish will land on vast numbers of serious doorsteps: the Sunday New York Times, with its magazine section featuring a 5,400-word cover story on the same topic, but explored in greater depth. The title on the cover: “Infidelity Keeps Us Together.”
The article is built around a profile of gay writer Dan Savage and his increasingly influential philosophy of honest marital nonmonogamy. The article’s author, a religion writer, suggests that Savage’s outlook was shaped by his Catholic roots — with his pro-family sentiments, pontifical style, and stark moral clarity.
Married, With Infidelities
By MARK OPPENHEIMER
…Although best known for his It Gets Better project, an archive of hopeful videos aimed at troubled gay youth, Savage has for 20 years been saying monogamy is harder than we admit and articulating a sexual ethic that he thinks honors the reality, rather than the romantic ideal, of marriage. In Savage Love, his weekly column, he inveighs against the American obsession with strict fidelity. In its place he proposes a sensibility that we might call American Gay Male, after that 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,” Savage told me, “when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. 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… But Savage says a more flexible attitude within marriage may be just what the straight community needs. Treating monogamy, rather than honesty or joy or humor, 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.
…Savage is not a churchgoer, but he is a cultural Catholic. Listeners to “This American Life,” which since 1996 has aired his homely monologues about his family, might recognize the kinship of those personal stories to the Catholic homilies Savage heard every Sunday of his childhood. Less a scriptural exegesis, like what you get in many a Protestant church, the priest’s homily is often short and framed as a fable or lesson: it’s an easily digested moral tale. You can hear that practiced didacticism in his radio segments about DJ, the son that he and Terry Miller, his husband, adopted as an infant…
…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….
How, then, can Savage be a monogamy skeptic?… Today, Savage Love is less a sex column than a relationship column, one point of which is to help good unions last….
“The mistake that straight people made,” Savage told me, “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 practice being what he calls “monogamish,” allowing occasional infidelities, which they are honest about…. “And far from it being a destabilizing force in our relationship, it’s been a stabilizing force. It may be why we’re still together.”
…If you believe Savage, there is strong precedent, in other times and in other cultures, for nonmonogamous relationships that endure. In fact, there has recently been a good deal of scholarship proving that point, including Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s “Sex at Dawn,” one of Savage’s favorite books, and 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… “I think you can combine a high tolerance of flings with a de-emphasis on jealousy in long-term relationships,” Coontz said, “but usually that is only in societies where friendships and kin relationships are as emotionally salient as romantic partnerships.”
…It was not until the 20th century that Americans evolved an understanding of marriage 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 said. “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.”…
Mark Oppenheimer (email@example.com) writes the Beliefs column for The Times….
Those are just a few bits; read the whole long article (first published online June 30, 2011). Already there are hundreds of comments, prompting a commentary on them on the Times’s own blogsite.
Mr. Trendspotter here thinks he spots a trend. Savage calls it being “monogamish,” others call it “the New Monogamy” — but the idea of bolstering a marriage’s durability (or hoping to!) by negotiating a degree of openness looks to be an upcoming trend.
Some polyfolks say it’s ridiculous to call nonmonogamy “the New Monogamy.” But Michael Rios, one of the wisest people I know, has this to say about that:
This is exactly how to get a new idea across to a resistant mainstream population. You simply tell them that it is really the same thing as what they already know, but with an extra accessory that they hadn’t known about before.
If we can get the mainstream society to think of monogamy as inclusive of multiple sexualoving relationships, we’re there. I could care less what they call it, as long as it incorporates all the elements I care about.
Other media have been commenting on the article; for instance. And there are have been counter-arguments from the thoughtful to the fanatical.