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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