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Monday, August 08, 2011  

Faust and the Undergraduate

Dan Savage answers a question from a woman who is very hung up on a co-worker, with whom she had had a very ill-advised fling some years earlier:

My quick hit: Don't do it. Enjoy the crush, continue to pour your sexual energies into your husband, and... if you can... if your history with this guy isn't too threatening to your husband... if your husband wasn't the boyfriend you cheated on with this guy... consider telling your husband what's going on. Even a husband who insists on monogamy, SOL, should be able to understand what having a crush on someone-other-than-his-spouse is like. Because, I'm thinking, at some point during your marriage, your husband has had an inappropriate crush or two himself. Tell your husband that you're still crazy into him, that you love your sex life with him, and that you plan on fucking the living shit out of him until your crazy, inappropriate, unrealizable crush on your coworker burns away. That's what's in it for him.

Having said that, SOL, I should cop to something else I've said: If you're with someone for forty or fifty years and your spouse only cheats on you two or three times, your spouse was good at monogamy, not bad at it. Just putting that out there.


It's not bad advice, but that last statement prompts a sharp response from a member of the Monogamy Policy flying squad:

Whether you cheat once a week or once in fifty years, you aren't monogamous. The definition doesn't change based on frequency. You can't say Ted Bundy was pretty good at not killing people because he didn't slaughter six million of them like Hitler.

And SOL, like all cheaters you're trying to have your cake and eat it too. You have only two choices: divorce your husband so you're free to fuck office boy, or stay with your husband and forget all about office boy. Anything else and you're a CPOS.

Ugh. We're not going to keep any purchase on the culture if we talk like this, are we? I'm clearly in the bag for monogamy, but it's an ideal. Like any ideal, it is rarely, if ever, completely realized. Honesty and generosity and mutuality are ideals, but we don't say that a relationship is dishonest if one person falls short of the truth on rare occasions. Some departures from the ideal are graver than others, obviously, but deviations happen and if one is enough to get you voted off of Monogamy Island, it's going to be a very lonely, terrifying, and self-righteous place.

I agree entirely that if a couple manages to survive one or two episodes of infidelity over the course of fifty years together, Ross Douthat and I and all the saints in heaven will approve of their endurance. In fact I'd like to make all my pre-marital counseling couples watch the last scene of the 1960 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr film The Grass is Greener for a quick lesson in why and how the injuries that happen in marriage (including infidelity) should be answered. "If your mistress is faithless she should be discarded," Grant's aggrieved husband tells his besotted wife. "If your wife is faithless she should be befriended." Companionate marriage is hard, and not in the way that calculus or mastering the harpsichord is hard. Patience, forbearance, and forgiveness have to be part of it.

But--and it's a very big 'but'--it's one thing for Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr to look back in the dusk of their lives with thanks that they weathered that whole unpleasantness with Robert Mitchum and to say that on the whole they've done quite well at marriage. It's another entirely to say, a few years in, that it won't be so bad if you do this only every ten or twenty years before you jump into the office broom closet for the first time. Kierkegaard notes that it's one thing for Goethe's Faust to say, in the end, that we can know nothing at all and another thing for an undergraduate to say the same thing in a philosophy seminar. There are truths that are out of season for us, or truths which are not yet true because they have to involve us. "Your marriage can survive this" is what you say when you're visiting a friend in jail on a drunk driving charge. It's not what you say to him before he gets behind the wheel.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:19 PM
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