The New Yorker, reviewing Esther Perel's new infidelity book, considers the poly option, skeptically
Esther Perel began to make her name with her 2006 book Mating in Captivity, a save-your-marriage guide that tackled the all-too-human incompatibility of sexual interest and long-term monogamy. The topic was a head-turner at the time. This fall she came out with a new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. From the Amazon blurb: "What are we to make of this time-honored taboo — universally forbidden yet universally practiced? Why do people cheat — even those in happy marriages? Do our romantic expectations of marriage set us up for betrayal? Is it possible to love more than one person at once?"
This week The New Yorker devotes a 2,500-word feature (exquisitely written as always) to the book and its subject: "In Defense of Adulterers," by Zoë Heller. Toward the very end, the article finally gets around to the obvious solution for many: some form of agreed, mutually respectful openness. Perel herself also treats the obvious as something of an afterthought.
...Might it not be better to stop fetishizing sexual exclusivity as the sine qua non of happy relationships?
Exquisite New Yorker illo (Luci Gutiérrez)
Perel is not unsympathetic to this thought, and, toward the end of her book, she devotes a brief chapter to various forms of consensual non-monogamy. She writes about couples who swing, couples who have chosen to be, in the term coined by the sex columnist Dan Savage, “monogamish,” and couples who have expanded into “triads,” “quads,” or “polyamorous pods.” (Those interested in a more comprehensive taxonomy of such arrangements may wish to consult “It’s Called ‘Polyamory,’ ” by [our very own activists!] Tamara Pincus and Rebecca Hiles, a book that provides definitions of, among other things, “designer relationships,” “relationship anarchy,” and the polyamorous “Z.”) Perel praises the efforts of all these non-monogamists “to tackle the core existential paradoxes that every couple wrestles with — security and adventure, togetherness and autonomy, stability and novelty,” and she is careful to remind the squeamish that many of these “romantic pluralists” succeed in maintaining rather higher standards of loyalty and honesty than do their monogamous counterparts.
She remains, however, appropriately skeptical about whether any relationship construct, no matter how cunningly or thoughtfully devised, can offer permanent solutions to the dilemmas of romantic love. The polyamorist aspiration to replace sexual jealousy with “compersion” (a delight in one’s partner’s sexual delight with someone else) is just that: an aspiration. People often end up in open relationships out of a desire to propitiate restless lovers, rather than through any interest of their own — with predictably miserable results. And no amount of expanding or softening the boundaries of fidelity will ever outwit the human desire to transgress. The conventional bourgeois marriage invites adultery. The earnest polyamorous setup, in which every new lover is openly acknowledged and everyone’s feelings are patiently discussed at Yalta-type summits, invites some more imaginative trespass: not using a condom, or introducing the lover to your parents. “In the realm of the erotic,” Perel writes, “negotiated freedom is not nearly as enticing as stolen pleasures.”
This — the impossibility of absolute romantic security — is the bracing moral at the center of Perel’s book. There is no “affair proof” marriage, she warns, whatever the self-help industry tries to tell you. To love is to be vulnerable....
Truth there, however.
Read the whole article (it's in the print issue dated December 18 & 25, 2017). Thanks to Dave Hall for sending the tip.