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A Response To Dan Savage: Non-Monogamy & Marriage

Many of you (those who share my obsession with The New York Times) may have read with great interest Mark Oppenheimer’s cover story in The New York Times Magazine this weekend, “Infidelity Keeps Us Together.” The piece was largely a conversation with APW favorite Dan Savage, discussing the ways that we perhaps over-value monogamy in our cultural conversation about marriage.

While you should go read the piece in full, and I’ll quote my favorite excerpts for you here, I was mostly hit by why I love Dan Savage’s work so much. Savage and I are peas in a pod (which makes sense, since I’ve been reading him since college) when it comes to philosophy. We share an ostensibly non-traditional outlook on cultural institutions, but we’re both fundamentally pretty conservative in our core values. I don’t believe in made-up wedding traditions, but I also don’t believe that it’s your wedding and you can do whatever you want. And just as I don’t really think that anything goes at a wedding (because we shouldn’t hurt people), I don’t believe that anything goes in a marriage. Why? Because I believe in social obligations and the ties that bind. Mutual respect, dedication, and working through the hard parts are part of what makes good marriages tick (though I fundamentally believe that there are times when we can and should leave a marriage). So, like Savage, I think that making a marriage work is usually more important than an occasional intentional, or unintentional, non-monogamous incident. But let’s read a bit from the article, shall we?

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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.

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“Folks on the verge of making those monogamous commitments,” Savage told me in one of our many e-mail exchanges, “need to look at the wreckage around them — all those failed monogamous relationships out there (Schwarzenegger, Clinton, Vitter, whoever’s on the cover of US magazine this week) — and have a conversation about what it’ll mean if one or the other partner should cheat. And agree, at the very least, to getting through it, to place a higher value on the relationship itself than on one component of it, sexual exclusivity.”

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Stacey and Savage each say that monogamy is the right choice for many couples; they are exalting options, not any particular option. As a straight, monogamous, married male, I happen to think this is a good thing: if there are people whose marriages work best with more flexibility, they should find the courage to choose an arrangement that works for them, society be damned. I also recognize, however, that we may choose marriage in part to escape the terror of choice. There are so many reasons to marry; we could call them all “love,” but let’s be more specific: admiring how she looks in a sundress, trusting her to improve your first drafts, knowing that when the time comes she will make the best mother ever. But another reason might be that life before her was so confusing. In all those other relationships, it was never clear when there was an exclusive commitment or who would use the L-word first or when a Saturday-night date could be assumed. Marrying has the virtue of clearing all that up: exclusive, you both use the L-word, Saturday night assumed. Simple, right?

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“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.”

It gets better? It does. But it also gets very complicated.

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Where I fundamentally diverge from Dan Savage’s logic, is the idea that consensual non-monogamy works for a significant number of couples. I think that for most of us, monogamy works most of the time. But I agree with Savage that the cultural conversation about monogamy is not helpful. Building a life with someone is about a lot of things. It’s about shared trust, finances, jokes, children, decisions, and history. And biology is decidedly not always on our side. Biology would like us to reproduce with that attractive person at a conference, thank you very much. And most of the time, we’ll win over biology. But the times when we lose? Well. I’d hope that all the shared joy, the family we’ve built together, and the history we’ve shared, outweigh one decision.

And I’d like if those people in our communities who are in consensually non-monogamous relationships felt more comfortable in speaking up. I’d like it if our reaction to them wasn’t, “WELL I’D NEVER DO THAT” and was instead, “Huh. That’s interesting that it works for you.” Because maybe that would mean we felt less threatened by the specter of our spouse sleeping with someone else over the course of a very very long lifetime together. Or maybe we’d already talked to them about it and decided that joy and family were a lot more important. Then we reminded them that we’d really prefer if they talked to us about it first if they ever had the urge to make things more complicated.

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