When I saw that sex columnist Dan Savage is going to be one of keynote speakers at an upcoming conference on sexual diversity, it reminded me that I have been wanting to write about Mark Oppenheimer’s summer New York Times magazine cover story in which Savage was prominently featured. His argument? Infidelity can save your marriage.
Monogamy works for many couples, Savage acknowledges, but not for everyone.
“I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy,” Savage told me, “when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.”
Savage grew up Catholic and is known not only for his syndicated column, Savage Love, but for It Gets Better, an influential collection of videos featuring gay adults who offer reassuring messages to gay teens.
Savage’s concern and enthusiasm for stable families is commendable, but his view that monogamy will make lifelong marriage impossible for a good many couples is troubling, to say the least.
“[L]overs,” he says, must be “good, giving and game (put another way, skilled, generous and up for anything. And if they cannot fulfill all of each other’s desires, then it may be advisable to decide to go outside the bounds of marriage if that is what it takes to make the marriage work.”
Savage seems easy to dismiss, except he’s not. Many who commented on the NYT article congratulated him for speaking the truth about lifeless monogamous marriages and harmless affairs. New studies suggest 28% of men and 15% of women have affairs, and that number doesn’t include virtual or emotional infidelity.
It is important for Catholics to articulate just why we disagree with Savage, that is, why adultery is not good for your marriage. It’s because we think sex is a practice that aims at total self-giving, a ritual remembering of lifelong vows, an act of mutual vulnerability and radical intimacy. We uphold fidelity because it is the virtue that allows for two people to enter into this emotionally risky act time and time again, affirming their love for each other in spite of imperfection, growing stronger together instead of leaving when things get boring or difficult.
We might agree with Savage that lovers ought to “good, giving, and game,” but only if game means up for the challenge of making sex and marriage work. That, as Richard Gaillardetz puts it, is the daring promise we make when we get married. We should embrace it instead of excusing ourselves from its essential demands.
If I am recalling this correctly, Dan Savage points out the familiar statistic that about half of marriage end in divorce. Among American Catholics, I believe those who take the trouble to go through the annulment process are granted annulments at rates above 90%. Although I realize there is a significant difference between being unfaithful to a current partner and being faithful to successive partners, neither is monogamy.
So this quote is interesting: “And if they cannot fulfill all of each other’s desires…” Does he really think that any one person can fulfill *all* of another’s desires? It goes along with one of the principal problems with the ways we understand marriage today – which is that we’ve set the bar too high when it comes to thinking about what the other person in the relationship ought to be and do, which at the same time has the effect of lowering the bar on what we think marriage ought to be about, because then marriage just becomes about another version of individualism, only it’s individualism we can seemingly practice “together”. Except that we don’t – we get divorced or commit adultery when it doesn’t work. “Fulfilling all desires” never happens – but I do that that’s an honest assessment of how we commonly think marriage ought to operate. Being another person’s “soul mate” is, I think, too tall an order, and not honest enough about the fact that healthy marriages not only take work, but must exist in the context of other friends – and saying that does not mean that one has to give up on monagamy either.
The pervasiveness of divorce underlines the importance of my point: we need to talk more about why lifelong marriage is valuable, even though it can include times of boredom and even despair. It’s too easy to dismiss Savage by emphasizing his extreme position. It’s far harder to admit that many Christians fall short of faithful, lifelong marriage and figure out how to address this problem.
I think you’re absolutely right. One thing that struck me about Savage’s vision is that it idolizes the closed nuclear family along the way to making some radical changes to it. A community of friends can help take the focus off the couple and deflect the obsession with having every whim met. (One of Savage’s callers cheats because he longs to have someone throw a cake in his face. Really?)
Still, I can’t ignore Savage because he’s honest about the difficulties of lifelong marriage. If moral theologians hope to say anything real about marriage, we have to take this point seriously.
There are three partners in a marriage – husband, wife and God. If a marriage is infiltrated by sexual, emotional or virtual affairs, it is a desecration of the holy vows taken at marriage. Affairs of any kind absolutely destroy a marital relationship and take the presence of God entirely out of the relationship. I’ve never seen one affair (of any kind) that didn’t wreck a marriage and the family.
In today’s world, everyone is fair game in the adulterer’s pursuit of someone good, giving and game. These willing adulterers are called sexual predators. They count their conquests as yet another score in their prowess. There is no God present in such a person or such a relationship.