To be fair, Dan Savage wasn't talking to me. I was just listening in on this fight he's having with some people he calls the "monogamusts." I think a monogamust is someone who champions monogamous marriage as the universal human ideal and condemns all other kinds of intimate relationships. Or maybe it's someone who thinks that adultery is always wrong no matter what. Either way, I'm not one of them.
I just think that in marriage, as in life, people should strive to keep their promises or renegotiate their agreements honorably. I also suspect that a marriage that's sustained by a deceit large enough to destroy the relationship is not a marriage worth saving. If you can't look your spouse in the eye, what's the point?
At any rate, Dan asked the monogamusts what they'd tell this one guy who wrote to him complaining about a sexless marriage. He seemed to think that this guy's predicament is a great counter-example to the claim the adultery is always wrong. I think it's a terrible example:
First, I love my wife. Sadly, she’s been ill for many years, however not to the point where she’s not able to work or do many normal activities, but she is in pain, so I can understand her not wanting to have a dick inside her. But honestly I’ve been very supportive and would accept any sort of sex (and I’ve asked). I think she feels very un-sexy, but she is really very pretty and I tell her that often. I’ve done everything I can think of to entice her to want to have sex. Romance, flirting, sex talk, counseling (years ago)… but we just fail. We’re pushing 18 years of marriage and sex has notbeen a part of this relationship for most of that time. I am very sexual and have always been so. I feel really guilty most of the time because of my intense desires, but I feel that life is so short and time is running out. I’m 40 and not getting any better looking. Since I married her I feel I made a deal to stay no matter what, I believe in our marriage, but I thought sex would be a part of that. What do you tell other’s in my situation? Do I just deal with it, since I agreed to stay “for better or worse,” or is “no sex” a deal breaker?
In a follow-up email, the guy tells Dan that there's no way his wife would agree to an open marriage, in fact, she'd divorce him first.
Dan tells the guy that he's entitled to "do whatever [he has] to do to stay sane." In other words, he gives the guy permission to cheat on his wife to save his marriage. My feeling is that if your marriage is threatening your sanity, you should probably end that marriage.
For the record, Savage isn't being sexist. He gives the similar advice to letter writers of all genders and orientations.
The guy's wife has health problems that interfere with her sex life, but she's still well enough to work and generally take care of herself. It sounds like her limitations make certain kinds of sex unpleasant, but her husband insists he's willing to take that into account. If she's unwilling to ever be sexual with her husband in any way shape or form, that's because she's not interested in sex with him, not because she's disabled. That's okay. She has no obligation to be sexual with him, but he has no obligation to stay married to her.
Marriage is, unless otherwise explicitly stipulated, a sexual relationship. If one partner unilaterally and permanently chooses to opt out of the sex part, that's as serious a breach of the marriage as adultery. You promised you wouldn't have sex with other people and you promised to keep up a sexual bond with your spouse.
It would be more complicated if his wife were completely unable to have sex with him due to extreme circumstances beyond her control. Say, she was sentenced to life in a supermax prison for something she didn't do, or she was dying of an incredibly painful but very slowly progressing type of cancer, or she got Alzheimer's disease and could barely recognize him. In those cases, I'd agree with Dan that it would be better to go behind her back than to divorce her. But in these extreme examples, we're assuming that she really needs this marriage. We can't assume that this guy's wife needs him or wants him around that much. In fact, she's given him every reason to believe that she'd rather be divorced than cheated on.
His wife is an adult who can make her own decisions. She's not overwhelmed by a life crisis or an illness to the point where she couldn't be expected to cope with a divorce. She doesn't need her husband to "protect her" by sleeping around behind her back. She's not signalling that she's open to a don't ask/don't tell policy. That's how some couples handle it, and if that works for them, fine. But the guy knows perfectly well that she wouldn't want to stay married if he were sleeping with anyone else.
Dan says that the guy should do what he needs to do to stay sane. I submit that more people have been driven mad by guilt than by horniness. What will his marriage be like when he's cheating on his wife? He sounds guilty enough already.
What are the chances that she's going to find out? Pretty high. If she cut her husband off years ago, she probably already exists in a state of heightened suspicion that he's getting sex from someone else.
He's probably going to end up getting divorced one way or another. Divorcing because his wife caught him cheating is going to be a lot more painful for both of them and a lot more expensive for him.
I'm no monogamust, but in this particular case, I'd say this guy has a choice to make. He can divorce his wife or accept a sexless but otherwise good marriage. He wants to have his cake and eat it too: the otherwise good marriage and sex on the side against his wife's wishes.
He's entitled to divorce her, but he's not entitled to trick her into staying married to him.
[Photo credit: HKmPUA, Creative Commons.]