July 8, 2011

Does Accepting Infidelity Make Relationships Healthier?

The cover of last week's New York Times Sunday magazine featured this headline, over a big red heart: "Infidelity Keeps Us Together -- Reconsidering What Makes a Healthy Marriage."

Well, that got my attention. The article explores Dan Savage's views about monogamy. He's the openly gay man whom the piece's author, Mark Oppenheimer, describes as "America's leading sex-advice columnist."
I've been a regular reader of his column, "Savage Love," which runs in our weekly Washington City Paper.

The Sunday Times cover story focuses on Savage's contention that the goal of marriage (or any committed relationship) should be stability, not monogamy. Savage also argues against compulsive promiscuity: a gay male stereotype since the beginning of time.

Here's my summary of the fascinating article:

First... Some Background on Savage
Savage is 46 and lives in Seattle, where he launched the column 20 years ago in the alternative weekly. Now, it appears regularly in about 50 newspapers.

He and his partner Terry Miller were married in Vancouver in 2005. They adopted their son, DJ, as an infant.

Last fall, after several bullied young gay people commited suicide, Savage and Miller created a video, "It Gets Better," which described how their lives improved after high school. Within two months of the clip's YouTube posting, over 10,000 others had uploaded similar videos. The phenomenon grew, and soon enough, the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list included an It Gets Better book that collected some of those hopeful, hang-in-there narratives.

Savage on Relationships and Monogamy 
Here are some of his assertions:

  • In place of what he views as the American obsession with inflexible fidelity, Savage proposes "G.G.G," which Oppenheimer translates as "lovers ought to be good, giving and game (put another way, skilled, generous, and up to anything)."
  • He doesn't insist that non-monogomy is right for every couple or even most couples. What he advocates is a sexual ethic that prizes honesty, flexibility and forgiveness over strict fidelity.
  • In the past, men had concubines and mistresses and were expected to have affairs and flings (but not openly, as Savage advocates). With the emergence of sexual egalitarianism, this attitude changed. In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women "the same latitude and license and pressure release valve that men have always enjoyed," we extended to men the monogamy strictures that women have always endured. Savage characterizes that development as "a disaster for marriage."
  • According to Oppenheimer, Savage believes "that pretty much anything can be used to spice up a marriage, although he excludes feces, pets and incest, as well as minors, the nonconsenting, the duped, and the dead."
Caveats from Other Researchers, Writers

Oppenheimer interviewed other "sexperts" to get their take on Savage's views. Here's some of what he reports:
  • Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History, agrees with Savage that "people often end up exploding a relationship that was working well because one partner strays or has an affair that doesn't mean anything." But, while noting the greater tolerance of sexual variations in other cultures, Coontz says she's dubious if the same thing will work in our culture. Those more permissive cultures, she notes, are also societies where friendships and families are as emotionally sustaining as romantic partnerships. In our society where "we rely on our partners for everything, any hint of betrayal is terrifying."
  • Judith Stacey, a New York University sociologist, studied the gay male subculture, where rules allow non-monogamy and equality between partners. She concluded that gay males require less monogamy since they can more easily separate physical and emotional intimacy. Lesbians and straight women, she notes, tend to be far less comfortable with non-monogamy than gay men. "Monogamy is not natural; non-monogamy is not natural. Variation is what's natural."
My Thoughts

Men are sowers. Women are nesters.

I'm a bit surprised that no one mentioned what I consider a key fact in this discussion. Mother Nature (my "Higher Power"), in the interest of developing the human race (and species generally) designed males to spread their seed as widely as possible, and women to nest, providing a safe and nurturing place for offspring.

I remember a straight friend asking me: "Why do gay men have so much more fun than we do?" (Read "sex" for "fun"). The light bulb clicked on when I answered: "It's men dealing with men."

As a result of this programming, men are naturally predisposed toward Savage's "a little infidelity is OK." Women would reject the notion if infidelity threatened the nest.

One of the strongest marriages I've known was also one of the oddest by today's standards. Joan and Tony (not their real names) had been married for 30 years when I met them. Joan had always known about Tony's bisexuality. But she also knew that Tony loved her and their children and would never abandon them. Joan was comfortable with Tony's enjoying a weekly "gay night out." She loved to entertain, and Tony's gay friends added diversity to her cocktail parties. Joan was a remarkable woman!

For many of us, too much togetherness can endanger a relationship more than an occasional infidelity.

The article notes that other cultures view infidelity less threateningly, since strong relationships with family and friends provide all-important emotional security. Our culture, however, suggests that our primary relationship should provide that emotional well-being -- a premise that naturally casts a very negative light on infidelity.

After several bad experiences, I've learned that putting all of my emotional eggs in one basket doesn't work for me. The strongest relationships I know are ones in which each partner has activities, interests, and friends outside the primary relationship.

But that's me. Two of my best friends recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at my house. They spend virtually ALL their time together and are as much in love today as they were half a century ago.

I'd recommend reading the NYT article in full:

Most of all, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.


Bill said...

Completely agree with your post. The root of the
problem may be found in your quote of Ms. Coontz, who says non-monogamous won't
work in our culture where "we rely on our partners for everything."
Few relationships can bear that much weight. I certainly have never found one
that could, and I don't expect to. And I think that problem is even greater for
gay couples, who, until recently, lacked the support of an extended family and
tended not to have their own children.

John said...

Well said as usual. But I think in many cases gays have created their own extended families that are as strong and supportive as blood families.

nancydowner said...

Wonderfully provocative.  Intellectually, no problem.  Emotionally, mmmmmm I'm still a woman with a few feathers left in the nest.  Once again, thanks for the brain work.

So glad you are doing well.

Bob McMullin said...

Your blog is really taking on a life of its own John.  I like what you are doing.  I agree with your comments above of course.  Everything you said has been true in my same sex sex life. 

I'd add another personal piece to the puzzle.  As sowers men may also be less inclined to tolerate an inauthentic life.  Most of my relationships ended not because of infidelity so much as because the relationships were unbalanced and unequal.  I often have been cast in the role of problem solver and wise man.  That role can get tiring.  I ultimately chose a life without a partner because I despaired of finding a mate who could or would take equal responsibility for the relationship. 

In heterosexual couplings, that may not be wanted let alone expected.

John Martin said...

Males are, by their nature, promiscuous. Most human societies put various
(cultural, legal) pressures on males to curb, if not entirely eliminate, their
promiscuity, probably mostly for the sake of social stability and strengthening
the family unit for the rearing of children. Different men respond to these
pressures in different ways.

Females are, by their nature, discerning about whom they will mate with, each
one selecting partners who evidence genetic traits that she would like to pass
on to her offspring and, in many species, choosing individual males who will
stick around and invest in the offspring after it's born. Most human societies
have extremely strong pressures on a woman to remain faithful to her male
partner, presumably so he can be assured that the offspring -- her offspring,
offspring he's sticking around and investing in -- actually carry some of his
genes. In nonhuman species, males try to assert their control over female
sexuality, presumably for similar reasons, in ways that can be quite brutal.

Sexual attraction and pair-bonding are governed by two entirely separate brain
circuits, activated by a different slurry of neurochemicals. Falling in love is
a lot like being on drugs, when both circuits are active simultaneously. This
coordinated activity of these two separate behavior systems is almost always

Because promiscuous sexual activity (especially by males) can disrupt the
integrity of pair-bonds in a variety of ways, couples need to figure out how
they're going to balance the the man's (or the men's) biological pressures to
be promiscuous with the emotional need of partners of both sexes to maintain
stable bonds, whether or not there are children.

So as I think about it, the answer has to be "there is no one
answer". But the question *does* need to be considered and considered
openly, ideally in the context of an understanding of the nature of the
biological pressures and neurochemical phenomena that are in play.

Kathleen said...

Here's a thought about the differences between women and men that, while it doesn't relate to sex, does fit in a bit with John's observation about sowers and nesters. 

A friend of mine died unexpectedly last week, and I learned two days ago that a friend from childhood has at best a week to live. My husband grieved with me, but my women friends were a source of solace and strength that almost defies description. I count those friends -- lifelong and relatively new -- as among the greatest blessings in my life, and have often wondered how men do without. Or do they?

Not sure this fits with the general conversation but it's been on my mind.

John Schappi said...

Sure it fits. But even more with an earlier post I did on the differences between men and women on social interaction:
In that post, I noted studies showing that women tend to have just the sort of supportive emotion-sharing relationships you describe while men tend not to. But as people keep commenting in replies here -- exceptions persist.  I'd like to think I'm one.  Here's what I said in that earlier post:

 Luckily, at age 50, I came to terms with both my alcoholism and sexual orientation. To maintain my sobriety, I had to learn how to share intimate feelings and concerns with others in my support groups of recovering alcoholics. We often joked that if we attempted the same sort of sharing at cocktail parties or other gatherings of "earth people," they'd surely think we were nuts!Similarly, in the gay world, solid friendships develop with sharing coming-out stories and other emotional, intimate details. I had hidden emotion, feeling and identity for so long, coming-out was like opening the flood gates. Now, more than thirty years later, I find myself still eagerly opening up to others, simply because it feels good, and because I know my sharing often encourages others to reciprocate. The payoff is immense -- friendship, closeness, trust, support, connection -- even if occasionally I see that look of "too much information" in the eyes of the person sitting across the table from me. I try to be careful. But if all that sharing carries some occasional risk, it's one I've found well worth taking.

Ralph said...

it's incumbet on every couple, gay or straight, to define their relationship. I agree Americans tend to look at life from an all or nothing perspective: either you're monagamas or you're not. I partially attribute that to the fact that this country was originally settled by cowboys and religious fanatics. That contributes to the mentality. Attending a training session that included people from all over, I became friends with a woman from Norway and we had some interesting discussions. She lost her virginity to her boyfriend, now husband, in her own bed while her parents were home. They condoned the sleep overs. Her take on it was brilliant: "yes they Knew we were sleeping together. You Americans seem to have this idea it's somehow better to loose your viginity in the back seat of a car parked somewhere dangerous rather home safe in your own beds." I couldn't argue with that.

Verionica said...

Ofcourse I have been thinking about this question off and on since reading thearticle last Sunday.  So I did check out the discussion on your blog and found itfascinating.Finally I have had to acknowledge to myself that, while there have been timeswhen I might have liked to cheat, the reciprocal prospect - my husband cheatingon me - is profoundly disturbing to me.  Also, I have long believed thatif a married person is having sex outside of the marriage, he or she isdiverting something valuable from the marriage, whether the spouse is aware ofit or not.  At least I am certain that would be the case for me,  because for mesexual desire is so intertwined with affection and a demonstration ofcaring.  It's some combination of respect, friendship, intellectualconnection, humor, warmth,  shared experiences, etc. - not just beautifulfingers, or a cute butt, or the nearly irresistible peek of chest hair above theshirt on casual Friday, or the fun of flirting -  that has made other mendesirable to me.  Sex with someone else  [unless it's a dud] wouldonly amplify those feelings for that person.  If there were a way to institutionalize a vacation, or sabbatical, or walkaboutfrom fidelity - no harm, no foul - without jeopardizing the love, trust, and bedrock of thelife a couple has built together, that would be excellent.  But I don'tsee that as feasible for most couples, except perhaps for those whose marriageshave deteriorated to a point where they are largely just a practicalinfrastructure for their domestic lives.