Is monogamy bad for marriage?

The cover story of last week’s New York Times Magazine was a feature written by Mark Oppenheimer about marriage and infidelity.

The focus of much of the article is Dan Savage, the well-known sex advice columnist and author of Savage Love. I’ve written about him before, and have continued to listen to his weekly podcast. He’s also known for his most recent endeavor: the It Get’s Better project.

Oppenheimer’s article deals more broadly with the question of marriage and monogamy, whether it’s working, and if perhaps there might be some alternatives to consider.

Dan Savage has gotten a lot of flack for things he has said about gender, trans folks, about body size and fat people. He has definitely screwed up on a number of occasions, and I wouldn’t say he’s a great person to go to for advice about any of the above things. I don’t think he’d be the right person to give me advice, necessarily. What he is great for, though, is talking to straight folks about non-monogamy.

Over the years I’ve listened to his podcast, he constantly revisits a really important question in relationships: what happens when two people aren’t meeting each others needs sexually? This could be in terms of frequency of sex (he wants it every day, she wants it twice a week) or in terms of a particular kink or desire (he really wants to use food during sex, she’s grossed out).

Dan, despite being a gay man himself–is really skilled at talking to straight folks about monogamy and its pitfalls.

Oppenheimer’s article focuses on the idea that in some ways Dan is conservative in his views about marriage–he really wants to keep folks together. I’m not sure I would go as far as to say he’s “conservative” but I do believe that he understands people’s desire to be married, and to stay married, despite some misalignment when it comes to desires or needs sexually.

What is bad for marriage is a one-size-fits-all approach, says Dan, and I agree. I think long-term relationships are hard, much harder than we ever give them credit for. I think they require incredible amounts of alignment on many issues, including sex, for them to be successful. I think assuming the same model is going to work for everyone is unfair, and sets lots of people up to fail rather than succeed.

And if we look at the state of marriage today, failure is what we’ve got. At least if we’re basing the success of marriage on its longevity. Half of marriages end in divorce in the US, and according to the article, between 14 and 20 percent of people admit to cheating on their partners.

The benefits of rethinking monogamy and marriage is that it could allow people to be honest about their desires and perhaps be more fulfilled in their relationships. Oppenheimer writes:

Savage believes monogamy is right for many couples. But he believes that our discourse about it, and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest. Some people need more than one partner, he writes, just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes. 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.

I have to agree with him on that point.

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23 Comments

  1. Posted July 8, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Dan Savage rubs me the wrong way quite frequently. His whole attitude is sometimes very abrasive and cynical, but if you look beyond it, there can be worthwhile advice present.

    I think we break unhealthy sexual taboos any time we are honest with our partners. I used to hide the fact that I am attracted to men from female partners and that I am attracted to women from male partners. Now, I’d be less inclined to do it. It’s when we collectively make this decision to be honest with our needs and how we are hardwired, then we do begin to challenge beliefs that demand our silence.

  2. Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    In the over all message of this article I am not sure f it matters…but each of the scenarios used had straight couplings and the woman was more sexually reserved.

    • Posted July 8, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I picked up on this, too. I agree with Savage that honesty is crucial in relationships. Many women have not had the opportunity to discover what makes them happy sexually. Social discourse and representations of sex tend to focus on male pleasure. So it’s hard to be honest about what you don’t know about yourself yet.

      As I was reading the NYTimes piece, I wondered if my grandmothers and great-grandmothers ever contemplated whether their marriages “met their needs.” Women are relatively new to the opportunity to define their own needs, and to pursue fulfillment.

  3. Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Wasn’t it surprising that an article built around the writings of Dan Savage had no photographs of him, with or without his husband Terry? I found that extremely odd.

    Anyway, I’m a fan of Savage, despite his tendency to veer towards obnoxiousness. He’s done more to help straight folks (like me) talk honestly about sexual compatibility than any heavily degreed, medically licensed doctor or therapist.

  4. Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Half of marriages do NOT end in divorce. That’s a myth that I’ve seen debunked in article after article, like here: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/19/health/19divo.html

    I won’t say that you didn’t make other good points, though! If both partners are willing to have more open marriages, I think that’s totally fine. They just shouldn’t do it because they believe in false statistics. :)

    • Posted July 8, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      Stats are easily manipulated and impossible to find objectively. From looking at numerous (more recently updated sites) I see the divorce rate is closer to 40%. Still extremely high, and another contributing factor here is that in the past few years the rate has decreased – I presume b/c people are ‘sticking it out’ due to the poor economy. Just a thought…

  5. Posted July 8, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    I wish the article had included at least a bit of direct question-and-answer. Some of the things that were being attributed to Savage seemed to run counter to his own opinions/persona as presented through Savage love. I can’t help but feel like Oppenheimer might have been washing over certain things, for example, implying that Savage approves of/encourages bisexuality when he has made many statements antithetical to that idea.

    To use the quoted section in Miriam’s piece above, the idea that “he believes that our discourse about it, and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest” seems an extremely clean and respectable point of view from a man who has frequently, and loudly encouraged gay & straight people not to bother romantically or sexually, with bi-identified folks.

    That being said, I did think the article was important, and was doing a good job of de-mystifying nonmonogamy (if not going all the way towards promoting polyamory), and it was refreshing to see a mainstream media outlet touch upon a somewhat taboo subject.

    • Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      I’m a fan of Dan Savage, and have been reading him for years. It is a HUGE exaggeration to say he “frequently, and loudly encouraged gay & straight people not to bother romantically or sexually, with bi-identified folks.” What he has said is that bisexuals are a good match for other bisexuals- which is NOT to say we shouldn’t date anyone else.

      I’ve found him to be nothing but supportive of bisexuals, including male bisexuals, who are so often demonized.

  6. Posted July 8, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I’ll go further: what if marriage is bad for relationships? And less than ideal for family?

    I thought the article was reasonably well-written, but both it and Dan still suffer from some sexist and mononormative thinking.

    The most egregious example is the casual insistence that men and women experience and view relationships differently. This is a current cultural belief, but it’s false. To the extent that they do, it’s culturally engrained.

    But not just that. “Marriage” has always ultimately been about property, patriarchy, and the control of women as resources. It’s only recently that it’s been being reformulated as a bond between equals, and even then, who wants to restrict their capacity for intimacy (of any kind) just to have a relationship? There are many different forms human relationships can take, including cultures completely without any marriage or pair-bonding at all such as the Moso of China.

    I guess I’m saying, it’s worth questioning even our insistence on nuclear family forms, and wondering if some of those forms are in fact less useful in the liberation of women and men than others?

    • Posted July 8, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      It’s only recently that it’s been being reformulated as a bond between equals,

      It may only be recent, but at least it’s being done.

      and even then, who wants to restrict their capacity for intimacy (of any kind) just to have a relationship? There are many different forms human relationships can take, including cultures completely without any marriage or pair-bonding at all such as the Moso of China.

      What does this even mean? I feel no restriction on my capacity for intimacy. The person I did choose to marry fulfills me like no other partner ever has in the past. I firmly believe every body should be able to live by any form of relating they wish to, so long as all parties consent and do not lie or misrepresent what they’re looking for. But I don’t get this tendency I’ve seen in some to laud every type of human bonding conceivable…except when someone desires marriage.

      I guess I’m saying, it’s worth questioning even our insistence on nuclear family forms, and wondering if some of those forms are in fact less useful in the liberation of women and men than others?

      Everything on the term “nuclear family” I’m reading includes children in the family unit, which means this is already sort of assumptive that a married couple will procreate. Not necessarily so, though again, those who choose that life-path for themselves should not be put down or automatically tagged as less liberated. How useful marriage or anything else is to human liberation depends on the progressive-mindedness of the people involved. I’ve met people in all sorts of relationship models who were open-minded in some respects but not in others. Yeah I’ve met married people who were a bit smug that they got “the prize” or whatever, but I’ve also met people in polyamorist lifestyles who were very caught up in polyamory as a means of competition. I’ve met gays who spoke disparagingly of bisexuals or transsexuals.

      Ultimately I agree with the idea that no one model fits all, and there are some who may do better with an open marriage than monogamous. Fine. The things I do think should be constant, no matter what sort of relationship you’re in, be it a traditional marriage, polyamory, even a one night hookup are consent of all parties involved, and honesty. An agreed upon open marriage or polyamorous relationship? Cool. Cheating on your partner and lying about it? Not so cool.

    • Posted July 9, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Every time I see someone refer to the Musuo as an example I want to stab a baby.

      “It has been theorized that the matriarchal system of the lower classes may have been enforced by the higher classes as a way of preventing threats to their own power.[3] Since leadership was hereditary, and determined through the male family line, it virtually eliminated potential threats to leadership by having the peasant class trace their lineage through the female line. Therefore, attempts to depict the Mosuo culture as some sort of idealized “matriarchal” culture in which women have all the rights, and where everyone has much more freedom than in patriarchies, are based on faulty evidence; the truth is that for much of their history, the Mosuo peasant class was subjugated and sometimes treated as little better than slaves.”

      Btw, privileged western, and probably white female, the lower classes of women have commonly run matriarchal households, not due to choice, but because the father was unknown, or ran out on them, among other reasons. Comparing the monogamous traditions of middle class western white people to cultures like the Musuo is disingenuous at best. Also in general the Musuo practice serial monogamy. They are not “completely without pair bonding.”

      I’m not even going to touch this little gem:
      “The most egregious example is the casual insistence that men and women experience and view relationships differently. This is a current cultural belief, but it’s false. To the extent that they do, it’s culturally ingrained.”

  7. Posted July 8, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    is the 14 to 20% stat accurate? I had heard it was as high as 50%. Or maybe it’s a difference between how many admit it and how many do it?

  8. Posted July 8, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    I thought this was an excellent article and I appreciate you sharing it here. I respect Savage immensely and believe his viewpoint on relationships (in essence that we’re all individually different) is sagacious and ironically obvious. Savage certainly doesn’t hold any punches, and I appreciate that boldness whether I agree with his opinion or not.

  9. Posted July 8, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I think people far too often confuse what they need with what they want. Me, I would love to have a lover of each sex (hopefully by being married to a woman while having a boyfriend on the side), but if I ended up with a man or a woman who wasn’t comfortable with that arrangement, I could live with it. It’d be difficult to do, but it would be possible.

    As Americans, I think we’ve really gone way too far in teaching ourselves that all of our feelings are valid, or that they justify any sort of behavior. I have a very strong crush on the mother of a family that my family is rather close with. Does that mean that it would be acceptable for me to have sex with her? Of course not, even if she felt the same way about me. She swore that she would be faithful to her husband, and he to be faithful to her.

    I’m not saying that monogamy should be enforced at the end of a gun. Not at all. I’m just saying that if you have a sexual fantasy, and acting upon it might hurt you or somebody else, then for Pete’s sake, keep it in your pants.

  10. j
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    SAME OLD CLICHES (cover or not) about men’s needs, really — (to have whatever whenever) and wanting it both ways (married to “good” women-w/ children- who should be “understanding” about affairs w/ younger single women or prostitutes; but women who stay single looking for the same game SOCIAL PARIAHS) – and then, no one talks TRUTH about bio/anatomical health issues for women w/ multiple partners, as opposed to men, etc etc etc

    • Posted July 9, 2011 at 2:13 am | Permalink

      Um, not really. Encouraging everyone to be open and honest about their desires, and fairly and equally compromising the meet those desires within the parameters of a relationship, is not wrong.

      The point is that “affairs” ought not be affairs, but rather a slight loss of monogamy and its overwhelming social standards.

      Women ought be encouraged equally in this respect to pursue their sexual desires.

      As for bio/anatomical health issues, I’m not really sure what you’re alluding to.

    • Posted July 9, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      So what is the TRUTH about bio/anatomical health issues for polyamorous women? It seems a bit loaded to make a vague statement like that without clearly explaining what you’re talking about.

  11. Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    The problems this sort of article addresses always seems to be exactly the opposite of the problems I have in my relationships. In every relationship, I’ve always had a much higher sex drive than my boyfriends (this article makes it seem like that’s an issue only men have to deal with), and not only am I monogamous, but I am compulsively, naturally, and sincerely monogamous, to the point where I don’t even feel attraction to or the smallest desire to flirt with others when I am with someone. It’s not something that’s been conditioned into me; I believe that this was the way I was born. My main problem is that my partners never reciprocate my fidelity. I’m a true monogamous living in a polyamorous world–or, at least, that’s what it feels like. I’m also a woman with a sexual appetite so massive that no one man can satisfy it, but the thought of multiple partners makes me want to vomit. Sigh.

    • Posted July 14, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      I feel the same way. Many people think my husband and I are too young to be married, but we are both intensely monogamous, and we just work. People should be able to seek whatever type of relationship they want, but it doesn’t sound like you are getting what you need out of yours. That is the whole point: you are in relationships that are not honest and consenting. I know when I was single, because of my monogamous nature, I attached myself too quickly to someone who was interested in me. I didn’t find my husband until I stopped, which is the cruel irony of life, if you ask me. Over and over again, I find that if I stop wanting something so bad (and sometimes if I outright 180ed and don’t even want it anymore), it often comes knocking down my door.

      Once you are in a truly honest monogamous relationship, then you can start compromising on the sex. I also have a sexual appetite that is sometimes overwhelming for my husband. I have learned to listen to him better when he says he’s tired, but I have also learned that he gets super turned on when he watches me dance (no poles or stripping, just good old music and hip swinging) and he has learned that if he just lets me touch him, sometimes he’s more into it than he thinks.

      That all said, good luck in your search! Take your time; you’ll find someone. :)

  12. Posted July 10, 2011 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    I can’t imagine the development of children is enhanced when their married parents engage into open relationship.

    • Posted July 11, 2011 at 1:45 am | Permalink

      Why can’t you imagine this? If it makes the parents happier and more satisfied, it could easily benefit child development. This is especially true considering the amount of acrimonious separations and divorces that kids have to deal with in this era.

      The fact that you prize monogamy so highly, highly enough to ignore the potential benefits of an open relationship in regard to the happiness of parents of children, is precisely the point that Savage makes: monogamy, while holding some value, is significantly overvalued at times.

    • Posted July 11, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      Based on what? Are children in cultures where they are not raised in our conventional mom-and-dad nuclear unit found to be significantly less developed as a whole than their counterparts?

  13. Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    It sounds like people are assuming that most divorces are caused by sexual incompatibility.

    Most of the divorces I know much about, including my own, were not caused by sexual issues. They were caused by at least one partner not being able to stand some aspect of the other’s behavior, and the other being unwilling or unable to change.

    There’s a lot more to living together with someone long-term than sex. However, it doesn’t surprise me that Savage doesn’t dwell on that, since I have the impression from what I’ve seen of Savage’s writings that he doesn’t have much of an appreciation or understanding for the non-sexual side of relationships.

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