Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

July 1, 2011

New York Times Magazine on nonmonogamy for stronger marriage

New York Times Sunday Magazine

My last post was about an article in one of New York City's alt weekly papers on how queer and poly partnerships can set a good example for straight marriage. Tomorrow morning, a much bigger fish will land on vast numbers of serious doorsteps: the Sunday New York Times, with its magazine section featuring a 5,400-word cover story on the same topic, but explored in greater depth. The title on the cover: "Infidelity Keeps Us Together."

The article is built around a profile of gay writer Dan Savage and his increasingly influential philosophy of honest marital nonmonogamy. The article's author, a religion writer, suggests that Savage's outlook was shaped by his Catholic roots — with his pro-family sentiments, pontifical style, and stark moral clarity.

Married, With Infidelities


...Although best known for his It Gets Better project, an archive of hopeful videos aimed at troubled gay youth, Savage has for 20 years been saying monogamy is harder than we admit and articulating a sexual ethic that he thinks honors the reality, rather than the romantic ideal, of marriage. In Savage Love, his weekly column, he inveighs against the American obsession with strict fidelity. In its place he proposes a sensibility that we might call American Gay Male, after that community’s tolerance for pornography, fetishes and a variety of partnered arrangements, from strict monogamy to wide openness.

Savage believes monogamy is right for many couples. But he believes that our discourse about it, and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest. Some people need more than one partner, he writes, just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes. We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy.

“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.”

The view that we need a little less fidelity in marriages is dangerous for a gay-marriage advocate to hold... But Savage says a more flexible attitude within marriage may be just what the straight community needs. Treating monogamy, rather than honesty or joy or humor, as the main indicator of a successful marriage gives people unrealistic expectations of themselves and their partners. And that, Savage says, destroys more families than it saves.

...Savage is not a churchgoer, but he is a cultural Catholic. Listeners to “This American Life,” which since 1996 has aired his homely monologues about his family, might recognize the kinship of those personal stories to the Catholic homilies Savage heard every Sunday of his childhood. Less a scriptural exegesis, like what you get in many a Protestant church, the priest’s homily is often short and framed as a fable or lesson: it’s an easily digested moral tale. You can hear that practiced didacticism in his radio segments about DJ, the son that he and Terry Miller, his husband, adopted as an infant...

...It Gets Better is, in the end, a paean to stable families: it is a promise to gay youth that if they can just survive the bullying, they can have spouses and children when they grow up....

How, then, can Savage be a monogamy skeptic?... Today, Savage Love is less a sex column than a relationship column, one point of which is to help good unions last....

“The mistake that straight people made,” Savage told me, “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.” In 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 their own marriage, Savage and Miller practice being what he calls “monogamish,” allowing occasional infidelities, which they are honest about.... “And far from it being a destabilizing force in our relationship, it’s been a stabilizing force. It may be why we’re still together.”

...If you believe Savage, there is strong precedent, in other times and in other cultures, for nonmonogamous relationships that endure. In fact, there has recently been a good deal of scholarship proving that point, including Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s “Sex at Dawn,” one of Savage’s favorite books, and Stephanie Coontz’s definitive “Marriage, a History.” Like Savage, Coontz says she believes 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, she says, we are to some extent trapped in our culture... “I think you can combine a high tolerance of flings with a de-emphasis on jealousy in long-term relationships,” Coontz said, “but usually that is only in societies where friendships and kin relationships are as emotionally salient as romantic partnerships.”

...It was not until the 20th century that Americans evolved an understanding of marriage in which partners must meet all of each other’s needs: sexual, emotional, material. When we rely on our partners for everything, any hint of betrayal is terrifying. “That is the bind we are in,” Coontz said. “We accord so much priority to the couple relationship. It is tough under those conditions for most people to live with the insecurity of giving their partners permission to have flings.”...

Mark Oppenheimer (mark.oppenheimer@nytimes.com) writes the Beliefs column for The Times....

Those are just a few bits; read the whole long article (first published online June 30, 2011). Already there are hundreds of comments, prompting a commentary on them on the Times's own blogsite.

Mr. Trendspotter here thinks he spots a trend. Savage calls it being "monogamish," others call it "the New Monogamy" — but the idea of bolstering a marriage's durability (or hoping to!) by negotiating a degree of openness looks to be an upcoming trend.

Some polyfolks say it's ridiculous to call nonmonogamy "the New Monogamy." But Michael Rios, one of the wisest people I know, has this to say about that:

This is exactly how to get a new idea across to a resistant mainstream population. You simply tell them that it is really the same thing as what they already know, but with an extra accessory that they hadn't known about before.

If we can get the mainstream society to think of monogamy as inclusive of multiple sexualoving relationships, we're there. I could care less what they call it, as long as it incorporates all the elements I care about.

Other media have been commenting on the article; for instance. And there have been counter-arguments, from thoughtful to foaming at the mouth.




Anonymous Margery the Medium-rare said...

I wonder how soon The New Monogamy is going to crash into the standard poly-community warning, "Polyamory is not the way to save your failing marriage."

The time to have these discussions and negotiations, and make these agreements, is BEFORE you need to. Like as soon as the two of you start getting serious about each other.

Another piece of poly conventional wisdom is, "Build your existing marriage (or relationship) into tip-top condition before you bring another person into it."

July 01, 2011 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Jenni said...

What if a woman, or a man for that matter, looks outside marriage for the other emotional satisfactions that come along with sex? Savage has less to offer that person. He does not tell people to take long-term boyfriends or girlfriends. He is skeptical that group marriages, of three or more partners, can last very long.

This bit makes it sound like he's still skeptical of poly as I understand/practice it. I can separate sex from love, but I think it's more fun when they're together. I wish the article had elaborated a bit on why he thought emotional nonmonogamy was harder than physical, but I guess it was long enough, already.

July 01, 2011 7:03 PM  
Anonymous H. said...

Savage says some great things sometimes, but he also says some terrible ones. What is the point of making this a gendered issue at all? It appears that he's saying that men are incapable of curbing their sexual urges. It might sound like a good argument to him, but to people who already have strong beliefs about traditional gender roles, it's going to sound like, "Women *should* be a civilizing influence on men."

July 01, 2011 10:51 PM  
Anonymous H. said...

*sigh* And lest you think his gendering the issue was a fluke, you can catch him on Colbert on July 12th, arguing for nonmonogamy, saying that "Straight women have to be realistic about what men are and what men like."

July 18, 2011 9:01 PM  
OpenID polyfamilyo3 said...

Personally, I just can't *stand* Savage. He's utterly misogynistic. A lot of his comments also come across as anti-staight, and specifically, anti-straight couples.

"That's just how men are" is a cop out. I know more MFM vees than I do FMF. The FMF triad I am in started out because I, one of the F's, convinced the M that this was a respectful, sustainable, and reasonable solution to the situation we'd found ourselves in. If it's really "just how men are" then I'd like Mr Savage to explain why it took me 3 months to convince the M in my household to actually try polyamory.

As for the whole idea that marriage between 3 or more can't work? Mr Savage needs to get out here into the real world a little, where yes, they exist and they last, and gods above forbid, they're even faithful to one another.

This is a perfect example of why having a well-known name doesn't mean you're an expert on anything. I'm glad he's drawing attention to the realities (like the fact that some people just are not monogamous), but I wish he'd do it with a little less of his personal bias and anti-women rantings.

August 01, 2011 10:21 AM  

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