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Friday, September 02, 2011  

Monogamy's Ghost

This week Dan Savage publishes a letter I've been expecting to see for a long time. It's a tough read, emotionally, so I don't want to excerpt:

I'm in a bad place. I have been in a monogamous marriage for 19 years and have two kids. At least I think we're still monogamous. My husband is an avid reader of your column and loves to bring up the idea that it is perfectly normal to have outside sexual relationships with other people as long as you stay committed to your spouse.

We started our marriage saying that we would always be truthful and faithful to each other. I'm GGG, he probably gets more blowjobs than most married men, and I love having sex with him. He is far less likely to initiate sex than I am (which makes me think he is spending time with someone else). If one partner decides that they need outside activity, regardless of how much sex they get at home, is it okay to go ahead and do that without informing the partner they made a monogamous commitment to? He thinks if my needs are being met, then I have nothing to complain about. My main need is for honesty, and it doesn't feel like that need is being met.

When I ask him if he is having affairs, he gets angry and accuses me of being insecure and immature. (I would like to know if I'm at risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection.) He says you agree with him that it is okay to lie if the other person has their needs met and doesn't find out. I am at my wit's end and am deeply unhappy and think about leaving him, but I don't want to end a relationship that works in so many other ways.

Dan, quite rightly, dons his armor and enters the lists on her behalf:

As you are not sick, disabled, or withholding without cause, LAH, and as your husband doesn't have a kink that he's outsourcing to spare you, please tell your husband on my behalf that I think he's a cheating piece of shit, a word-stuffing douchebag, and an emotionally abusive asshole. Mr. LAH may read my column avidly, but his behavior and lame rationalizations indicate that he's also reading it selectively. If your husband walked into my office, LAH, I would be tempted to slap him with my laptop.

True enough. And one feels a teensy bit bad for Dan, whose relatively indulgent attitudes have been interpreted to allow yet more indulgence (as sometimes happens when people get the chance). But there's more (after some boilerplate wanting-to-screw-around-is-normal):

That said, LAH, it is perfectly obnoxious to go ahead and fuck other people in violation of a monogamous commitment unless you have grounds. And while it doesn't sound like your husband has grounds, it certainly sounds like he's fucking other people. I suspect that your husband is fucking someone you know—a coworker, a neighbor, a friend, a relative (shudder)—and, realizing that it's only a matter of time before you find out, he's bullying you into retroactively giving him permission to fuck other people and unfairly dragging me into it.

In your shoes, LAH, I'd be thinking about DTMFA. Not because of the cheating—monogamy isn't important to me—but because of the lying and the bullying.

In a way, I like to think of an answer like this as the ghost of monogamy come back to haunt Dan's advice. Consider another scenario. A man promises a woman when they wed that he will jump on one foot for the rest of their lives, or that they will always live in a geodesic dome, or that he will eat ham sandwiches every single day for lunch. But after 19 years of hopping, living underground, or ham-eating, the man wearies of it and discovers the liberating knowledge that walking on two feet, living above ground, or eating salads is entirely normal, natural, and unblameworthy. He then appeals to his wife, perhaps kindly, perhaps not, for permission to violate their leg-hopping commitments so long as he stays on one leg around her. Perhaps he even starts walking normally when he's out of the dome, though she can't quite confirm the suspicion.

Would anyone on God's green earth upbraid the man for dishonesty and emotional abuse? Would anyone defend the wife's position--though living in a geodesic dome "isn't important to me"--simply because 19 years earlier they'd agreed to it? It's hard to imagine.

That Dan reacts as strongly as he does in this case could, it seems to me, be due to one of three possibilities: first, he's chagrined at being misunderstood; second, he hasn't thought through the implications of his own position very thoroughly; or third, monogamy is, in some phantom-limb kind of way, important to him. What he is proposing here is a very unstable condition in which monogamy is indifferent but the commitment to it is sacrosanct barring certain conditions that are far narrower than a lot of his detractors and, apparently, admirers seem to imagine. If you have a long and public track record of saying that monogamy is not normal, natural, or even noble, I don't quite see how you can at the same time say that an agreement to be monogamous made two decades ago can still be binding, even on someone who gets it regular at home (remember how normal and natural it is to like a little variety, folks). I mean, not all of us knew about Dan Savage and the bonobos and the randy savannah-wanderers nineteen years ago! What about those guys?

This is actually a serious question. You can't have sacred contracts over trivial things. Inasmuch as people start to agree with Dan that monogamy isn't important, normal, or an ideal that binds them, the dynamic of permission and forgiveness that still defines Dan's advice regarding sex on the side is going to be reversed. This woman, for whom one's heart bleeds, will have lots and lots of company as people come to feel, quite understandably, that decades-old contracts must come up for renegotiation, and that the spouse who is not willing to accept new terms is the one who has a problem. "We had a deal" won't cut it with the hopping, the dome, or the ham sandwich, and over time it won't cut it with sex either.

UPDATE: And just to be clear--since I'm in the habit of leaving the brackets off the end, so to say, when I'm being ironic--I obviously think monogamy is much different from hopping or ham sandwiches. Monogamy is good and true and noble, even when it's imperfectly actualized (as it always is). That's why I dread the eventual situation in which this poor woman and those like her find themselves to be considered the emotional aggressors for insisting on it. But they most likely will. Over at Jezebel they take pains to say that non-monogamy and monogamy are equally good and valid choices to make, but also that somebody who wishes to jump from one to the other--after 19 years, let's not forget--in ways that are predictably and humanly broken and selfish is history's greatest monster. But I don't see how this can be the case. Monogamy is either important and privileged enough to command some enduring respect from disgruntled, horny people, or it isn't.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:41 PM
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