Some things need clarification. One is the of the impact of infidelity on marriage; which is brought to the forefront by a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, the cover of which reads “ Infidelity Keeps Us Together.”
The article by Mark Oppenheimer considers the proposition by sex columnist Dan Savage that the solution to a deadened monogamous bond may be infidelity.
From years of working with couples, I suggest that this is not so simple. Whereas most would agree that monogamy alone does not make a marriage, the leap to infidelity as solution to a struggling or even lifeless relationship is a big one – one that misses all the partner possibilities for working within their relationship.
It’s Not Just About Sex
While the author of the article examines Savage’s point in an open-minded way, the perspective is a narrow one. Central to the thesis is that sexual satisfaction, specifically meeting the specific sexual request of a partner is crucial to the stability of the relationship.
Savage suggests that if partners expect to be monogamous, they must be up for anything. They must be G.G.G., good, giving and game with game meaning going along with a partner’s need or going along with letting him/her meet their need outside the marriage.
Both the expectation and the solution obscure the mutuality and multiplicity of dimensions in a couple’s relationship.
In terms of mutuality: You can’t have it all!! Couples in this culture who marry generally choose to give up the option of meeting their needs with others for the permanent connection and exclusivity of being someone’s one and only- and couples do keep marrying and fighting for the right to marry.
Is it always a perfect match or perfect bliss, of course not? Half stay married and the other half divorce – but for those who make it work, a viable perspective is to take into account their mutuality, the needs of the ‘WE’ they choose to be. From this perspective G.G.G. i.e. Good, giving and game has merit but being ‘game’ might more likely mean choosing to pass on something sexual only you want for the sake of finding mutual pleasure. People actually report “pleasure” in making the one they love feel safe and satisfied as well as wanting the same for themselves.
In terms of multiplicity– Most people want to enjoy, sustain or improve their relationship on many levels with sex being only one important part of that mix. 13.5 Million Self-help books were purchased last year because partners want to communicate, feel connection, respect, celebration, intimacy as well as sexual desire.
The number of affairs by men and women is rarely simple proof of the failure to meet a sexual need. Relationship experts might agree that a couple’s sexual intimacy can become unsatisfactory, avoided, even deadened but the underlying cause may or may not be sexual.
Infidelity is often difficult for even the partners to understand. Often overdetermined, it may reflect the desperate need for a confidant, a wish to be treated with respect and interest, a distraction from unexpressed grief or loss, a reaction to a partner’s addiction, a step toward leaving, a solution for staying. In many cases it reflects the pain of something being wrong.
Maybe Men are not Programmed to Be Monogamous?
According to the Mark Oppenheimer, while Savage does not condone promiscuity and does not believe that monogamy is wrong for most couples, he does believe that a major problem has been the imposing of monogamy on men when history and different cultures reveal that this has never been a natural choice for them.
- While there are some who would agree with Savage that marriage attempts to control this natural programming in men, others like Scott Hartman disagree.
- Suggesting that we are programmed for many things that we choose not to act upon, Hartman, author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men, notes that whereas there is inevitable excitement in an affair,” the type of quality you get in a relationship with your wife is something over a period of time that cannot be replaced by any affair or any fling.”
- Even with same sex partners of either gender it is worth recognizing that many want the trust and exclusivity that goes with a monogamous relationship despite the restrictions imposed. The article suggests that even Savage’s own same sex married partner had difficulty with Savage’s need for a nonmonogamous arrangement.
- Reporting on his experience with men and sexual issues over many years, Abraham Morgentaler, author of The Viagra Myth explains that men worry about performance well beyond what women expect but the notion that sex is simply a primitive urge for men is false. Most men want to take Viagra to please their partner with whom they want to feel a connection.
- While it may be that women have a greater need to be the chosen one then men, I have rarely found partners of either sex who have not felt despair, rejection, shame and jealousy when they become aware that their partner is physically involved with someone else.
Infidelity Need Not Be the End of a Marriage
I agree with Dan Savage that infidelity need not be the end of a marriage. Where we differ is that I don’t see it as a solution.
- Yes there may be some cases where partners choose an open relationship but it would seem that the term infidelity would hardly apply when the expected option is many partners. There are also cultures for which many wives and many children live peacefully and lives go on seamlessly.
- People do define self, roles and expectations in terms of their culture. In this culture for most marriages, an affair is a painful rupture of the exclusive bond held by both partners. Can it go on for years with a don’t ask, don’t tell mentality? – Yes. Does it equate to or promise stability? If stability means no one has to move out – Yes. If it means partners feel loved and respected and their children feel that sentiment between them – No.
- In those cases where partners want to save their marriage, an affair though painful can be an important life changing event. It can be one that invites movement through pain to the possibility of knowing self and other in a way that fosters understanding and re-defines needs and connection in many dimensions of their relationship.
Both Dan Savage in his view of the relationship of infidelity and marriage and Mark Oppenheimer’s thorough consideration of it invite us to personally re-consider the needs, options and possibilities we hold in the bond we share with our partners.
Photo by firemedic58, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.