Playing monogamy Two.

3 Feb




Fourteen months into my first (and last) relationship with a married man, I knew I’d gone as far as I could go with it.

I’d been feeling that way for some time. Since the beginning really, it had never seemed like something that was going to work for me. I liken it to learning to smoke when I was a teenager. That made me feel horrible but I persisted, enjoyed it, became dependent, and then went through agonies of withdrawal when I realised for the sake of my health I couldn’t do it anymore.

There were many reasons why the situation wasn’t good for me, but the one that’s most relevant here is the precedence his marriage, and his professed desire to maintain it, took over everything else. I say professed because he swung wildly between his desire for “us,” and his desire not to lose everything else.  From the beginning I agreed to give his situation precedence, and then gave him the gift of absolute trust in me that I wouldn’t do anything to disturb that situation. And I didn’t.

But this agreement demanded that I put my own life and well-being second to his marriage, and this gradually caused me to feel more and more worthless. Why, I wondered, was my life and the effects the relationship was having on it, any less significant than his, or his wife’s? His children are well into adulthood, so there was no question of disturbing young ones or adolescents. I wrote:

All the time we have been conducting this so as not to destroy your life, and your wife’s, and all the time mine has been destructing. I can’t live like this anymore.

You believed, and I went along with it, that the fact of your marriage was what needed most consideration and protection. Because I no longer live in my marriage we assumed it would be easier for me. As if the fact of a marriage is the only possible reason for a life to explode in these circumstances. As if the destruction of a life that does not involve a marriage is not quite so much of a destruction. But that is wrong. The effect this is having on my life is as significant as it is for anybody else, marriage or not. This affair has damaged me in ways I haven’t yet begun to unravel, and I can’t do it anymore.

(He ignored this by the way, and begged me to get on a plane and come and see him “in the flesh.” He couldn’t get on a plane and come and see me because he didn’t have any money except what his wife doled out to him. But that’s another story).

The privileging of pretend monogamy is fundamental to an affair. The levels of dishonesty required with self and others are equivalent to the density of the earth’s layers. At the core is the demand for the protection of the central lie: while outwardly the married person lives monogamously (currently the most highly valued, highly respected and highly protected relational arrangement in western culture) he or she is secretly non-monogamous. The deceits multiply outward from that central point.

The recognition that monogamy can be extremely difficult for some people has spawned a movement led by American columnist Dan Savage. Advocating “honest infidelity” Savage recommends that partners “go outside the bounds of marriage if that’s what it takes to make the marriage work,” with the permission of their spouse. Honesty with one another is Savage’s core principle, and he is insistent that any potential infidelity must first be discussed and agreed upon.

The problem with Savage’s thesis is that it privileges marriage absolutely, at the expense of any other person. For example, what of the individual one uses as the sexual and/or emotional outlet required in order to maintain the marriage? Is this practice not using another as a means to an end, in the service of the couple, and doesn’t using another as a means to an end dehumanise him or her?

How and why has marriage become so important, that the intimate use of another human being to maintain it can be justified?

Or does Savage simply assumed the world is littered with available, selfless women and men just waiting to help couples maintain their marriages with a spot of sexual and emotional infidelity? People who will happily set aside their own needs in the service of the institution of marriage, so rich in generosity they will agree to begin and end an intimate relationship entirely in accordance with the couple’s timetable, and always in the knowledge that whatever happens, the relationship they undertake has as its only purpose  making someone else’s marriage work?

Savage refers us back to a time when “men had concubines, mistresses, access to prostitutes” and were not considered disloyal to their wives in doing this. Sex with concubines, mistresses and “prostitutes” was not regarded as breaking the vow of monogamy, because these women were perceived as of less value than their wives. These “lesser” women served the purpose of keeping the  marriage intact, and had no value outside of the services they provided. They were, at least, paid or kept; Savage seems to be expecting his imagined sexual servants to be doing it for free.

From a woman’s perspective, attitudes such as Savage’s, and that of any man playing at monogamy who wants a secret lover on the side, are continuing a very long history of perceiving and using women as a means to an end. Society is largely silent on the predicament of a woman who is discarded when a spouse discovers an affair. Society is not silent or backward in denigrating her, describing her in the most appalling terms, and expressing general views that she deserved what she got for trying to take another woman’s man, and probably breaking up a marriage.

This latter charge surely ought to be levelled at the faithless spouse.

With Savage’s “honest infidelity” the female lover is less likely to incur such abusive wrath, unless of course it all goes south and the marriage breaks up despite the honest fidelity. However, she is still being used. Anyone, I would argue, who engages in an intimate relationship with another human being in the full knowledge that they will never consider that human being as anything more than secondary to their primary relationship, is using her. Or him.

It was this knowledge, initially inchoate and held at bay by passion, that caused my discomfort from the very beginning of my relationship with a married man. I knew on a very deep level that I was letting myself be used, no matter how many declarations of love he made. I just couldn’t let the knowledge in. He knew it better than anyone, having used women for decades, including, some might argue, his wife.

The legitimising of the ideal of monogamy as the best option for relationship is one of the great deceits of our culture. Not only does it cause us to fail at monogamy, it also causes us to fail at non-monogamy: it is a lose-lose situation.  Society needs to stop lying about this, and solutions such as Savage’s are not as progressive as he seems to think. From this woman’s perspective they take us backwards, or at the very least keep us trapped in a binary of good woman /bad woman, wife/mistress, worthy/unworthy.

There are people for whom monogamy works well, and it should never be abandoned as an option. But it is just that, an option, and nothing more. It’s not sacred. It’s man-made.

There are also people for whom being a lover works well. I acknowledge that just because I’m not one of them doesn’t mean it can’t happen.


14 Responses to “Playing monogamy Two.”

  1. sexhysteria February 3, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

    The word “infidelity” seems to imply dishonesty. If another person is agreed on in advance, then there is non-exclusion, not infidelity. If you ignore the lack of agreement, you lose any moral standing to complain about a lack of fairness. Honesty, in advance, is morally essential.

    I’m afraid Dan Savage’s public position behooves him to be as diplomatic as possible, and compromise with the monster of monogamy, in the same way he is publicly silent (as far as I know) about the radioactive topic of child sexuality and the mass hysteria over child sex abuse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson February 3, 2015 at 8:22 pm #

      It does imply dishonesty, and I find Savage’s honest infidelity a contradiction in terms.

      I still wonder where all the people are who are willing to intimately serve as marriage protectors

      Liked by 2 people

  2. doug quixote February 3, 2015 at 8:04 pm #

    A fine analysis. The “experts” overtly or implicitly start from the position that a monogamous union between a man and a woman is at the very centre of our society. And perhaps fifty years ago, and for many hundred years before that it was so. At least in theory.

    It seems to me that it is no longer so. And it does not need to be, except that most psychologists would agree that two parents in a stable relationship are probably the best arrangement for raising children, with assistance from grandparents.

    It is time to be rid of the hypocrisy of those who profess the superiority of monogamy whilst doing otherwise, and who are all too willing to cast the first stone.

    Once again a job well done, Jennifer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Selkie February 3, 2015 at 8:39 pm #

    Yes, yes. What you said. Awesome, Jennifer.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. paul walter February 3, 2015 at 11:02 pm #

    No, am not going to comment yet. Way out of my depth with this sort of stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. sexhysteria February 4, 2015 at 6:32 am #

    @doug quixote There are some epdiemiological data that suggest growing up in a single parent home (compared to two parents) is a risk factor for behavioral/developmental problems, but I know no data that suggest more than two parents wouldn’t be even better.

    Certainly, more careful analysis would find that the quality of caregivers is more important than the quantity, but if quality is equal, then three or more caregivers would probably be better than the politically correct formula of only one mom and one dad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • doug quixote February 4, 2015 at 8:01 pm #

      Have a look at this study, for one:

      Click to access dp8565.pdf

      Certainly I will agree that one good caregiver would be better than two, three or four bad ones. All things being otherwise equal . . .


    • paul walter February 4, 2015 at 11:02 pm #

      A great relief for me when my parents split when I was twelve or thirteen.

      And look at me, who could be more normal..



  6. Elisabeth February 4, 2015 at 8:49 am #

    It’s the binary thing that gets to me. Whatever way I look at it, it’s complex. I reckon there are situations of infidelity when there might not be exploitation of one or another, rather a helpless being taken over by desire, not that it’s ok, but that it just is. Morally wrong perhaps but in the language of the unconscious and of dreams, all too human.

    The words of a song come to mind. I can’t remember the name of the song, an oldie, it might have featured in that ancient film, Finnegan’s Rainbow, one I saw when I was young and hence the words stick.

    ‘Oh my heart is big and wildy
    And it’s all because you’re near
    When I’m not near the one I love
    I love the one, I’m near.

    My hearts in a pickle
    It’s constantly fickle
    And not to particle, I fear.
    When I’m not near the one I love
    I love the one, I’m near.’

    It helps to have the music for the rhythm, but the words stay with me.

    Thanks as ever for your wonderful struggles with these inexorable issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • paul walter February 4, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

      Like it and it’s put a smile on my face, too.


  7. hudsongodfrey February 8, 2015 at 7:13 pm #

    I’ve seen Dan Savage give and excellent talk on the subject on YouTube. That young man is very bright, entertaining and he said “fuck” at the opera house…. But I still don’t 100% believe him.

    I think he makes the argument that, especially for gay men, non-monogamy is liable to be just as normative as any other relationship choice, sexual or not, that humans are apt to enjoy. Or, in other words I’m quite willing to believe people are apt to enjoy any and all kinds of relationships they choose.

    But there’s overwhelming evidence that people choose monogamy often. Perhaps I agree more often than they should, a certainly because of social pressures to conform. Still when they do, and they make a commitment in so doing, then the potential for a relationship breakdown to hurt those around them creates a moral and psychological dilemma for those who would avoid hurting or being hurt.

    And I’m okay with that!

    Love seems to me to obtain the emotional gravitas we invest in one another at that cost. Ways to construe deeper human relationships without that investment elude me. So if I had to guess, there’s such a thing as a zipless fuck, but that doesn’t preclude saying we eventually desire deeper commitment. Perhaps some would go on to say that preferably that commitment could come from as many people as possible, but there’s also a powerful argument that the most complete commitment takes the form of exclusivity. Not for everyone, and certainly not imposed upon anyone else, but nevertheless I think a facet of love and life we’re all challenged to come to terms with.

    It was important to note that Dan Savage is himself married yet shares an occasionally open sexual relationship. So I think what he’s doing, quite rightly is separating sex from love. Perhaps same sex couples occupy a different psychological space than heterosexuals in that sense, but I doubt any such generalisation’s validity. What I do think is quite true is that exceptions to any rule can be made as long as we’re prepared to accept the cost…..

    P.S. Jennifer, I haven’t read the first part or the evident unfolding of these thoughts over the past couple of months, (please don’t take this as a complete tl;dr) My time has simply not been my own. So what I’ve written may seem, and indeed be impertinent in the overall scheme of things. It should be taken as merely addressing Dan Savage’s thoughts which I hope it transpires on the page I was quite receptive to though not uncritical of.

    I’m not even going to address your comment about the sacred and by inference the profane… You know I don’t regard anything as sacred!

    Apart from that I’ve probably deconstructed your words from my own perspective for what it is worth, which I hope isn’t too unwelcome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson February 8, 2015 at 8:41 pm #

      Your perspective will never be unwelcome here, HG, I’m so glad to read your thoughts again.

      I agree Savage has some interesting things to say. I can’t find any definitive answer to the problem of relationships and for a while, I don’t think I’m going to try.


      • hudsongodfrey February 8, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

        Very wise, though I think there are always better and worse ways to behave they’re exclusively determined in retrospect, and where’s the fun in that! There is no correct answer 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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