The cover of last week’s New York Times Sunday magazine featured this headline, over a big red heart: “Infidelity Keeps Us Together — Reconsidering What Makes a Healthy Marriage.”
Well, that got my attention. The article explores Dan Savage’s views about monogamy. He’s the openly gay man whom the piece’s author, Mark Oppenheimer, describes as “America’s leading sex-advice columnist.”
I’ve been a regular reader of his column, “Savage Love,” which runs in our weekly Washington City Paper.
The Sunday Times cover story focuses on Savage’s contention that the goal of marriage (or any committed relationship) should be stability, not monogamy. Savage also argues against compulsive promiscuity: a gay male stereotype since the beginning of time.
Here’s my summary of the fascinating article:
He and his partner Terry Miller were married in Vancouver in 2005. They adopted their son, DJ, as an infant.
Last fall, after several bullied young gay people commited suicide, Savage and Miller created a video, “It Gets Better,” which described how their lives improved after high school. Within two months of the clip’s YouTube posting, over 10,000 others had uploaded similar videos. The phenomenon grew, and soon enough, the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list included an It Gets Better book that collected some of those hopeful, hang-in-there narratives.
Savage on Relationships and Monogamy
Here are some of his assertions:
- In place of what he views as the American obsession with inflexible fidelity, Savage proposes “G.G.G,” which Oppenheimer translates as “lovers ought to be good, giving and game (put another way, skilled, generous, and up to anything).”
- He doesn’t insist that non-monogomy is right for every couple or even most couples. What he advocates is a sexual ethic that prizes honesty, flexibility and forgiveness over strict fidelity.
- In the past, men had concubines and mistresses and were expected to have affairs and flings (but not openly, as Savage advocates). With the emergence of sexual egalitarianism, this attitude changed. In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure release valve that men have always enjoyed,” we extended to men the monogamy strictures that women have always endured. Savage characterizes that development as “a disaster for marriage.”
- According to Oppenheimer, Savage believes “that pretty much anything can be used to spice up a marriage, although he excludes feces, pets and incest, as well as minors, the nonconsenting, the duped, and the dead.”
- Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History, agrees with Savage 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, while noting the greater tolerance of sexual variations in other cultures, Coontz says she’s dubious if the same thing will work in our culture. Those more permissive cultures, she notes, are also societies where friendships and families are as emotionally sustaining as romantic partnerships. In our society where “we rely on our partners for everything, any hint of betrayal is terrifying.”
- Judith Stacey, a New York University sociologist, studied the gay male subculture, where rules allow non-monogamy and equality between partners. She concluded that gay males require less monogamy since they can more easily separate physical and emotional intimacy. Lesbians and straight women, she notes, tend to be far less comfortable with non-monogamy than gay men. “Monogamy is not natural; non-monogamy is not natural. Variation is what’s natural.”
Men are sowers. Women are nesters.
I’m a bit surprised that no one mentioned what I consider a key fact in this discussion. Mother Nature (my “Higher Power”), in the interest of developing the human race (and species generally) designed males to spread their seed as widely as possible, and women to nest, providing a safe and nurturing place for offspring.
I remember a straight friend asking me: “Why do gay men have so much more fun than we do?” (Read “sex” for “fun”). The light bulb clicked on when I answered: “It’s men dealing with men.”
As a result of this programming, men are naturally predisposed toward Savage’s “a little infidelity is OK.” Women would reject the notion if infidelity threatened the nest.
One of the strongest marriages I’ve known was also one of the oddest by today’s standards. Joan and Tony (not their real names) had been married for 30 years when I met them. Joan had always known about Tony’s bisexuality. But she also knew that Tony loved her and their children and would never abandon them. Joan was comfortable with Tony’s enjoying a weekly “gay night out.” She loved to entertain, and Tony’s gay friends added diversity to her cocktail parties. Joan was a remarkable woman!
For many of us, too much togetherness can endanger a relationship more than an occasional infidelity.
The article notes that other cultures view infidelity less threateningly, since strong relationships with family and friends provide all-important emotional security. Our culture, however, suggests that our primary relationship should provide that emotional well-being — a premise that naturally casts a very negative light on infidelity.
After several bad experiences, I’ve learned that putting all of my emotional eggs in one basket doesn’t work for me. The strongest relationships I know are ones in which each partner has activities, interests, and friends outside the primary relationship.
But that’s me. Two of my best friends recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at my house. They spend virtually ALL their time together and are as much in love today as they were half a century ago.
I’d recommend reading the NYT article in full:
Most of all, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.