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Three’s Company?

by Jo Page on July 27, 2011

Mark Oppenheimer’s piece, “Married, with Infidelities,” in the July 25 edition of The New York Times Magazine, was a timely and thoughtful exploration of Dan Savage’s take on how marriages can be strengthened and extended through an honest—key word—judicious practice of non-monogamy. Put simply, Dan Savage, though ceding the advantages monogamy provides to couples—sexual and emotional safety, paternity assurances—advocates what he believes is a more realistic sexual ethic that prizes honesty, flexibility and forgiveness over absolute monogamy.

Paraphrasing Savage, Oppenheimer writes, “We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy. . . . Such straight talk about the difficulty of monogamy, Savage argues, is simply good sense. People who are eager to cheat need to be honest with their partners, but people who think they would never cheat need honesty even more.”

Oppenheimer’s piece goes on to explore the marital arrangement that Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, have, which Savage describes as “monogamish,” meaning that there have been occasional, but openly discussed infidelities (which strikes me as a wrong and value-laden word if these are not to be perceived as lapses in faithfulness).

As logically insightful as Savage’s views may be, such consensual openness may not involve genuine consent at all. Oppenheimer cites Janis Abrahms Spring, a psychologist and whose book, After The Affair, is about couples badly damaged by infidelity.

“The problem is that with many of these couples, one partner wants it, and the other says yes because she’s afraid that he will leave her,” says Spring.

And indeed, Savage concedes that monogamy is the right choice for many couples. Oppenheimer describes himself as a “straight, monogamous, married male,” but he also appears to support a fluid, honest, open-ness in marriage if that’s what couples negotiate.

It’s hard not to admire Dan Savage for his work, both as a columnist, author and brainchild of the It Gets Better series. But in a much less publicized, though I think more thoughtful piece that appeared in The Washington Monthly in the March/April issue, Benjamin J. Dueholm, finds some of Savage’s logic troubling.

He begins by defending Savage’s own defense of marriage, claiming that “in ways that his frequent interlocutors on the Christian right wouldn’t expect, Savage has probably done more to uphold conventional families than many counselors who are unwilling to engage so frankly with modern sexual mores.”

And yet, though he lauds Savage for his work as an ethicist in a sexually-confusing landscape, Dueholm sees a more nuanced aspect of Savage’s theories than Oppenheimer does: “Underlying all of Savage’s principles, abbreviations, and maxims is a pragmatism that strives for stable, livable, and reasonably happy relationships in a world where the old constraints that were meant to facilitate these ends are gone.

“All the same, behind Savage’s pragmatism stand some fairly strong claims about how sex relates to selfhood. Whatever else he ends up advising a correspondent to do, Savage tends to insist that sexual inclinations . . . are immutable and even dominant characteristics of any personality.”

For Dueholm, this equates to a troubling parallel with a consumerist society where the individual needs are to be guaranteed though disclosure, mutual exchange and standard of performance. Dueholm hasn’t the faith that sexuality can be handled with a kind of Better Business Bureau approach because that “takes into account only a narrow range of our motivations, overstates our rationality and our foresight, downplays the costs of transactions, and ignores the asymmetries of information that complicate any exchange of love or money. For society as a whole, it entails a utopian faith in the capacity of millions of appetites to work themselves out into an optimal economy of sex—a trading floor where the cultural institutions of domesticity once stood. And for the individual, it may only replace the old sexual frustrations with new emotional ones.

Dueholm hews to monogamy as a difficult, but worthy ideal that integrates sexual fulfillment with other aspects of life—emotional and financial refuge, raising a family, dealing with illness and aging.

Savage may find common ground in most people when he observes the that the drawbacks of monogamy are “boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.”

But Dueholm, I think, brings more realism to the table.

“A worldview in which sex is so central to life that it may be detached from everything else and sought apart from every other ingredient of happiness presumes a world in which happiness itself can be redefined—in which people can be retrained in what they expect and accept from one another. . . . The promised land of natural, ethical, autonomous sexuality lies across a desert of self-mortifying trade-offs between sexual fulfillment and all the other joys and comforts of life.”