The American marriage narrative, for the longest time, has gone something like this:
John meets Mary, most likely in college or through work. John likes Mary, so he asks her out. Mary likes John, so she agrees to go on a date with him. After several dates, John and Mary decide to go steady. That is, they become exclusive romantic partners. After several years, anywhere from two to six of them, they decide that based on the mutual romantic love that they experience towards each other, and based on their shared goals, that they should get married. After the wedding ceremony comes the honeymoon, and then they live happily ever after with their two kids and a big house in suburban America.
Then, there is the supposed dark side of marriage, one that lurks around, inevitably seeping into it and poisoning it. According to Dan Savage as quoted in this New York Times article, marriages that aspire to the monogamous ideal suffer from “boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.” He proposes that the American marriage requires more openness, that it should be given wider latitude in sexual conduct.
Perhaps he is right. Perhaps America could use a little more flexibility in its relationship styles. But what is bothersome is how he presumes to make the grand sweeping claim that all people in monogamous relationships experience these deficiencies, that somehow monogamy itself inherently contains these deficiencies. Yes, it is indeed an oft-repeated complaint that has been mirrored in novels, television shows, and movies. But to cast the entire institution of romantic monogamy under this light is anything but fair. Let’s take a closer look at Savage’s dismal illustration of monogamy and his belief in giving marriages a wider berth in sexual behavior.
Being taken for granted is not something that sexual dalliances will resolve. A woman who can’t appreciate her husband as a breadwinner is not suddenly going to gain more appreciation for him when they start seeing other people. A man who doesn’t think anything of his wife cooking him a delicious meal on his birthday, thinking that it is something she should do, will not magically begin to take her less for granted when he starts telling his wife that he wants to bang the hot waitress who just served them their brunch. Being taken for granted is something that can occur in any relationship, be it a straight heterosexual monogamous relationship or a platonic one between friends. Boredom is something that can also occur in any and all types of relationships. Even friends can get stuck in a rut, going to the same movie theater every other week or going to the same bar for the same pint of beer every Friday after a long week of work. Boredom is not exclusive to the realm of monogamy. Less fidelity does not resolve sexual boredom between two people.
Together, boredom and being taken for granted are two issues that can be dealt with if one chooses to approach it in an adult manner. The only reason these two issues are not issues when it comes to non-monogamous relationships is because it takes time to become bored, because it takes time to take someone for granted; one-night stands or brief affairs simply don’t have the time necessary to generate underappreciation and boredom. Besides, it is not so much an inherent problem with monogamy itself as it is a problem with human nature. Given a hypothetical race of beings that were not prone to these deficiencies, monogamy works out perfectly well. So perhaps the attack should be directed at humans, not the monogamous ideal.
The argument regarding lack of variety is not particularly convincing either. Here, he makes assumptions that we all want a wide variety of sexual partners. While there may be anthropological evidence (see: Christopher Ryan’s Sex At Dawn) that many people do crave sexual novelty and seek out sexual promiscuity, I doubt very much that it is such an overwhelming physical craving on par with hunger during starvation. I, for one, am not one who seeks sexual variety. And while I am sure that I am in the minority, I find it hard to believe that there are so few people out there who believe in what I do. As such, making such blanket statements—not to mention assuming that all marriages are somehow inherently doomed to feelings of despair—is unfair and unwise.
The overall death of sexuality in a monogamous marriage is, again, not so much an issue with said type of relationship as it is an issue of human nature. Time spent together increases familiarity and, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. It is up to the human animal to take steps to ignite passion and to find creative ways to remain sexually exciting to his or her partner. As I have said ad nauseum, marriage provides an excellent framework for true discovery and understanding between two people. Americans are just too lazy to put in the effort necessary for a marriage.
The problem lies not in the institution of marriage itself, but in the people who choose to participate in it. I do believe that monogamous marriage is the most ideal relationship in the sense that it is the golden standard to which people should try to achieve due to its values of long-term cultivation and loyalty, amongst others. I believe that in this type of relationship, dedication and passion can lead to heights that are unimaginable with shallow dalliances with third parties. However, I do easily recognize that people often enter into a marriage with other intentions and from a different mindset. And to these people who are ill-prepared for the life of monogamy ahead of them, I would say that it behooves them to readjust their views on marriage. But to suggest, as Savage does, that monogamy automatically entails a doomed sexual life is completely absurd.
Of course, I am aware that Savage is reportedly pro-monogamy and pro-family: he and I are defending the same things. He is seemingly part of this movement towards more openness and acceptance of a wider variety of relationship styles. And I do condone this openness: honesty is indeed the best policy, and I would say that any healthy couple needs to have open discussions about everything, including those about sexual desires. He promotes sexual generosity and openness between monogamous partners; this I completely agree with. So, really, it is the permissiveness and the lowering of expectations of sexual fidelity that he promotes that I do not agree with. Saying such things gives unthinking people permission to chase every urge and whim, to indulge in and to satiate every appetite they have. It is Savage’s condoning of so-called sexually deviant behavior that bothers me. He writes that “we can’t help our urges,” and that “some people need more than one partner…just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes.”
I can accept the dirty truth of human sexuality, as much as it pains my aching heart to do so. I cannot, however, accept the ever-shrinking sense of personal responsibility and self-control that seems so prevalent nowadays. Where he claims that “we can’t help our urges,” I must staunchly disagree. Urges are urges, and we in fact can control them. In fact, we do it every day. Who has not felt the urge to sleep in when our alarm wakes us up at 7AM? Who has not felt the urge to take the day off on a Monday? Who has not felt the urge to verbally lash out at someone? Who has not felt the urge to cheat on their diet by eating a slice of chocolate cake? And in turn, I ask you: who has fought the urge to sleep in and went on to go to work? Who has controlled their temper before? Who has denied their urge to indulge in their sweet tooth? Self-discipline is a muscle; and in America, this muscle is underused, underappreciated, and malnourished. Rather than exercising self-control, we are steadily creating more and more intellectual frameworks in which we can justify the satiation of our appetites. The American willpower has become a limp and flabby organ of impotence that revels in sinking standards and indulgence.
As for these so-called sexual needs, there is no such thing as ‘needing’ to flirt or ‘needing’ to be whipped. Mankind started as an animal like any other, but an animal we are no longer (besides, I doubt very much that early man had a thing for riding crops and hot candle wax). These needs are nothing more than desires, and they are really just the product of an increasingly individualistic and self-indulgent society. Society is heading down a path that leads to a quest for never-ending happiness and gratification. According to Psychology Today, Americans are increasingly having children to satisfy their own desires: parents hover around their children because they feel empty without them, and they would rather be good friends with their child than to be hated momentarily as an authority. Parents even go so far as to alter the sex of their unborn child to fit into their desire to fulfill some fantasy of a perfect family. The American adult has come to expect a life of complete satisfaction, and any moment of dissatisfaction is unacceptable. We have lost all sense of moderation and agency and have become a nation of thumbsuckers, turning desires into needs, thus driving us to destructive ends to fulfill them.
I find it telling that we call our sexual desires ‘needs’. Both men and women can be heard saying, “I have needs that aren’t being fulfilled,” referring to sexual gratification. But are they really truly needs? It is true that sexual activity is essential to overall well-being, but can people die from not having enough good sex? I doubt it very much. People can die from not getting enough nutrition, sure. But not being able to, say, satiate your urge to urinate into the anus of woman while you hang upside down? That is, arguably, hardly a necessity.
Again, this points towards the culture of instant gratification and endless pleasure-seeking that we modern Americans have cultivated. People are heard saying that they ‘need’ their cellphones or their computers or their cable television, or how they can’t live without such and such TV show or brand of coffee. It’s hyperbolic, to be sure, not to mention that we sound like a bunch of whiney teenagers when say such things; but it is also indicative of just how spoiled we are. I have heard of studies where people are literally addicted to their electronic devices. I have seen just how dearly many Americans hold on to whatever piece of happiness they have chased and obtained, unwilling to be unhappy for even the slightest moment. The quest for more happiness never ends: we are never content, and we cannot fathom denying our compulsions.
We need to learn how to deal with disappointments and those moments when we, God forbid, don’t get what we want. Has it occurred to anyone that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay for us not to get what we want? It seems that modern American adults are regressing into a state of immaturity as they grow older. You won’t play with anal beads? Fine! I’ll just find a woman who will! You won’t dress up in overalls and lick my breasts? Fine! I’ll just find a real man who will! Come on, America: we can do better than this. The indulgent and entitled attitudes of Americans has reached its height of absurdity, and our relationships, families, and marriages are all suffering for it.
Perfection is unattainable, yet we expect it, and we want it now. It may be reasonable to expect a car that we purchased with our hard-earned money not to break down and to be safe to drive, all the while looking stylish. It may be reasonable to wisely invest in a perfectly versatile little black dress that you can wear everywhere and anywhere. However, our materialistic and consumerist mindset has seeped into our relationships. In a marriage, it is unrealistic to expect that your partner will be able to satisfy you in every way possible. After all, the human desire is fickle: one day, a man may want big breasts and curvy hips, and another day he may want a slim waist and slender legs; a woman may want a heavy-browed macho man one day, and a soft-eyed sensitive guy another day. Besides, people were not manufactured to fulfill one another’s every desire. Yes, one should aspire to become everything to their spouse and vice versa; but one should not expect as such. Perfection is a goal to strive for, not an inherent condition to be expected ‘right out of the box’, so to speak.
Less fidelity in marriages is not the solution to happier marriages. What we need to do is bone up on our willpower (you know, the most powerful energy in the universe, according to The Green Lantern). Instead of trying to make ourselves better human beings, we take the easy road and blame our deficiencies on our ‘animal instincts’ or ‘prehistorically evolved brains’ and justify the pursuit of our urges with science. These efforts to relax the pressures and difficulties of marriage through clever use of justification is amusingly—and perhaps a little disturbingly—reminiscent of the teenager who has learned to remove the bad feelings he gets when he steals a pair of jeans by telling himself that he wouldn’t have had to steal if only his parents gave him the money to buy them. What’s even more amusing is that sexual non-monogamy requires a great deal of maturity, something that Americans already have a great deficit of. If one can find the maturity to accept a partner’s sexual straying, one can arguably also find the maturity to control oneself for the sake of harmony, to ‘take one for the team’, as it were.
There is no doubt that marriages are hard and heavy work. Monogamous marriage is for mature adults, not for the faint of heart. Relaxing standards of fidelity and marital expectations to lessen that workload is just plain lazy. We Americans love meritocracy when it comes to money: work hard and persist and you can become rich. Why shouldn’t this ideology extend to marriage? Why can’t we believe that if you work hard at your marriage, you can be rich in love and happiness? Is the love and happiness of our spouse, and even ourselves, not worth our energy and effort? The future of the American marriage is certain to be a dismal one if we can’t find it in our hearts to work on our relationships as much as we work on our careers.
Science may explain our sexual urges, and Dan Savage may be right about being more honest in our relationships in regards to sexuality. But, as the Shaolin monks of 70’s TV show Kung Fu taught, we need only to acknowledge our desires, because to deny them is to give them a far greater strength than any person can resist. But we do not necessarily need to act on these desires. That’s all I’m really saying: we need to recognize our desires, talk about them, even use science to explain them. But then, we need to learn how to control our desires like mature adults usually do. Otherwise, we’re just going to turn into one big nation of giant babies. And, after all, who wants to be married to a big crying baby? ¶
FURTHER COMMENTARY I don’t presume to force the institution of marriage upon anyone. I simply believe that the institution of marriage is for two people who love each other and wish to dedicate themselves to one another. I suppose that my responses to people like Dan Savage really ultimately boils down to this: don’t attack the institution of marriage. There is nothing inherently wrong with it. Just mind your own business. Telling people that marriage is flawed or will ultimately be doomed to boredom chases people away from marriage. But just because it doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean that it won’t work for others. In the same way that I don’t attack gay marriage, I don’t think anyone should be attacking the institution of marriage. People should just leave well alone how people choose to live their domestic lives. I personally don’t care if people start having relationships in which there is this so-called negotiated infidelity, or if some people base their lives around having kinky sex. I really don’t. As Wizard in Taxi Driver said, I don’t care what you do in the privacy of your own home. This is an American free country. We’ve got a pursuit of happiness thing. You’re consenting. You’re adult. But in the public domain, don’t go attacking marriage.
My contention is that people in positions of high visibility, people who are influential in the public discourse of domestic arrangements, are shaping the opinions of the general public. The general public, whose minds are far more malleable and whose beliefs are not so staunchly held as more studied folk like myself, will begin to absorb and believe these anti-marriage arguments; and in time, it will become common sense that the concept of marriage is generally flawed, when in fact it is the people who are flawed and not the institution.
What I mean to say, then, is that this public discourse is shaping the American common sense. This common sense is the basis of daily living and the bedrock upon which we build our worldviews. Just as Stuart Hall has suggested that we need to create an anti-racist common sense, we need to allow for the institution of marriage to remain a viable arrangement for the American people. My contention with Dan Savage is that he spouts his utterances and views on marriage as if they were inherently true, as if they were indeed common sense. Essentially, he creates the common sense idea that marriages are doomed to boredom. And given the general public’s propensity to believe what they read, this anti-marriage ideology becomes accepted as truth and invades the American common sense in much the same way that it is “common sense” that black people are good dancers and Asian people are good at math. In other words, there are those who would presume to command the public sentiment so that it conforms to their own views. More specifically, those attacking the institution of marriage (like Dan Savage and the authors of Sex At Dawn) transmit their anti-monogamy ideologies to the general public.