The New York Times Questions Monogamy
by Shmuley Boteach
This one was really strange.
This past Sunday The New York Times did a magazine cover story based on the ideas of gay sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, whom it referred to as America’s leading sex advice guru (really?), about how infidelity just might save monogamy, the idea being that monogamy is tough and it’s about time we acknowledged it. Savage argues that couples should be far more understanding of infidelities and even discuss them before they happen so as to receive each other’s informed consent, should that prove appropriate to the relationship. Couples should trade in the straightjacket of strict monogamy, which essentially doesn’t work, and instead seek to be ‘monogomish,’ that is, being essentially faithful but allowing for outside liaisons which just might prevent the dissolution of the primary relationship.
Yawn. What a bore. This is what passes for news in the world’s leading publication?
The New York Times would devote an ocean of ink to an idea that has been unsuccessfully argued by scores of ‘experts’ who have caused couples untold suffering by arguing for open relationships that have later been destroyed by jealousy and woundedness?
Indeed, the argument for open relationships goes back to the beginning of time, its most famous modern advocate being the celebrated British philosopher Bertrand Russell who wrote long letters to his wife about his consensual infidelities. But his open-mindedness could not surmount his jealousy when his own wife starting taking lovers. When Dora had a child by another man, he left her, later commenting, “My capacity for forgiveness, and what might be called Christian love, was not equal to the demands I was making on it . . . I was blinded by theory.” Their daughter Kathleen Tait pithily remarked about her parents’ strange marriage, “Calling jealousy deplorable had not freed them from it . . . both found it hard to admit that the ideal had been destroyed by the old-fashioned evils of jealousy and infidelity.”
The great British writer Iris Murdoch was the same. Her husband John Bayley wrote a memoir of their 40-year marriage called Elegy for Iris. He explains that his wife would not allow her marriage to curtail her freedom or her need for adventure. She insisted on being allowed to have lovers and pursued other men intermittently. Still, she wanted to be married because she desired the comfort, companionship, and sense of safety that marriage offered. Bayley was not happy with the arrangement but felt he had no right to object. “In the early days, I always thought it would be vulgar – as well as not my place – to give any indications of jealousy…” So he buried the terrible pain it caused him all in the name of relationship enlightenment.
But convinced he has actually stumbled on something novel, Dan Savage, breaking new ground in The New York Times, adds more. He believes that we have crippled men by expecting them to be monogamous. “The mistake that straight people made was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitarian and fairsey.” According to the New York Times Savage believes that “the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”
In other words, the modern expectation for men to finally evolve from being indulgent boys and adolescents and become gentleman -honoring their commitments and not breaking the hearts of the women who are devoted to them by cheating on them – has been a disaster for marriage.
Hmmm. I wonder. Has Savage discussed his theory with women? Does the average wife believe that her husband ought to have ‘a release valve’ (I love these plumbing metaphors) that is not her?
Let’s be clear. Yes, monogamy is challenging and does not come naturally. But neither does studying for an SAT, waking up at the crack of dawn to go to a job, or even remaining hygienic, for that matter. I suppose that cave men probably did far more of what came naturally. No doubt bopping a woman over the head with a club and taking her by force came much more naturally that having to wine and dine her, slowly wooing the commitment from her. But men, have thankfully, become civilized. Today we expect men to try and live honorably and live by their commitments. And the first commitment a man makes in marriage is to treat his wife like she is special, loved, and the one and only. And when a husband has sex with another woman, whatever Dan Savage thinks, it makes her feel discarded, secondary, and useless.
One woman I spoke to expressed it best. When I asked her why she had left her husband who had cheated on her twice, though I tried and keep them together, she told me, “It changed the nature of the relationship. Before he did this I felt like I was good enough. Now I feel inadequate, and it’s not what I got married to feel.”
Savage would probably respond, Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. We need to explain to this wounded wife that by her husband cheating he was never doing so because she was not good enough. He was not rejecting her, per say. Rather, it’s that monogamy, in Savage’s words, has “drawbacks,” including “boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.” I suspect, however, that the wife in question would respond, “Oh, really. Well, I want a husband who makes the effort to find me interesting, keep our love-life fresh, and who finds variety in exploring my sexuality and endless capacity for erotic fantasy. And if a man is not willing to make that effort, I’m better off with the company of a cat.”
Indeed, spurious arguments like those made by Savage, now given so much credence by The New York Times, is what has driven so many women off of men. Three quarters of all divorces today are initiated by women, and one third of all women of marriageable age are single. Why? Because they’re tired of men who want to act like boys. Who have wandering eyes. Who watch TV at night rather than make love to them. Who lose their sexual focus, and who treat them like they’re not attractive or interesting. Dan Savage might say this is inevitable, that men are hard-wired to require lots of different women. I’ve heard these arguments ad nauseam from hard-core evolutionists who tell us that men are genetically wired to inseminate everything with a pulse.
But I’m sorry. I am a man. Not a brute. And my actions are in my control. And if I screw up I cannot blame my nature but rather my bad choices. Period.
Savage is wrong. Catastrophically wrong.
Men, like women, are intimacy seekers. The men whom I know who had affairs had them primarily to find someone who made them feel good about themselves and to open up to emotionally. Men cheat out of a sense of brokenness. That’s why the most common refrain among married men to their mistresses is, “My wife doesn’t understand me.” And he thinks that some other woman would, when all along he could have made the effort to open up emotionally to his wife and find new erotic opportunities within the confines of monogamy.
Yes, there are marriages that crumble due to boredom, just as there are business that lose their customers due to a lack of imagination. But every company like IBM, or even Blackberry for that matter, whose stock is currently tanking because of a lack of imaginative new products, there is an Apple computer that continues to innovate and expand and broaden its customer base. And for every husband like Anthony Weiner who sends intimate tweets to strangers there are husbands who wrestle with a straying eye to always find new beauty and depth in their wives. Rather than finding satisfaction elsewhere they take their wives personally to shop for clothes, telling them what looks great on them. Rather than fantasizing about other women during sex, they ask their wives to reveal their most secret and dangerous fantasies. Any husband who has ever tried it knows that a woman’s fantasies are far more elaborate and exciting that a man’s.
In the final analysis the reason why the Savages of this world are so misguided is that monogamy actually accords with our deepest nature. What we all seek in marriage is the synthesis of novelty and intimacy. We want a lover who is also our best friend. We want an erotic bond that is both fiery but also friendly. It is a subject to which I devoted a full-length book, “Kosher Sex,” and it is eminently doable.
What we don’t want is to have to choose. We don’t want husband who is our partner, reliable and supportive, but is not simultaneously our lover, passionate and electrifying. We want a wife who is a nurturer and who is caring. But we also want her to swing with the chandeliers. This may sound like a tall order. But it is no more challenging than asking people to focus on the professional while also excelling at the personal. Human beings are capable of this and we sell ourselves short when we so minimize our expectations. People should be well-rounded and it is the job of us relationship advisors to give them the encouragement, the tools, and also the definitive knowledge that it can be done.
But advice columnists like Dan Savage, who have a shallow understanding of what eroticism really is, are doing their readers an injustice when encouraging men to devolve back into the bad behavior that has all too long characterized the male species.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of Kosher Sex, Kosher Adultery, and the Kosher Sutra. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.