“For one night of pleasure, I lost everything.” “I tanked my marriage, for lust.” Jeremiads of sexual decline and fall have enthralled us for centuries.
Whenever I hear a headline like, “Marriage Ruined by Cheating,” or “An Open Marriage Fails—It Just Never Works,” I’m tempted to point to a divorce somewhere else and declare, “Marriage Ruined by Monogamy.”
Before I explain, let me dispense with the fine-print disclaimers and qualifying statements.
One reason we hear so often about marriages destroyed by affairs is because some are.
Lying and betrayal stink. You’ve violated your partner’s trust, and a promise (I’m thinking of cheating, and not an open marriage). Your spouse might not be able to trust you again. They might leave. Or, maybe you’ll have an affair and become so hopelessly besotted that your marriage withers.
Still, for every time someone diagnoses a marriage ruined by non-monogamy, I could point to another ruined by monogamy.
The marriage was ruined, for example, because the partners were so dead to each other erotically that even though their marriage worked really well in other dimensions, as a Platonic marriage, a friendship, and a stable, co-parenting arrangement, the spouses saw no path forward.
The lifelong monogamy imperative of marriage that they didn’t want to abandon but couldn’t live with maneuvered them into a box. They couldn’t be married, monogamous, sane, and fully human all at once. So rather than live sexlessly monogamous, they divorced.
This scenario happened to acquaintances, just in the last week. They’re getting divorced for one reason: the sexual energy for one spouse toward the other is gone.
Sure, you can read a thousand self-help books about Keeping the Spark Alive and Working at It. The fact that several hundreds more self-improvement books on this topic of saving your monogamous marriage are published every year proves indirectly both that the phenomenon of sexual atrophy is widespread and that self-improvement books don’t seem to be working. Otherwise, why would we need to publish so many new ones?
If they work, and their “Rules” apply generically to so many of us, as authors frequently claim, then a few books should suffice. The success of self-improvement as a publishing genre rather proves its weakness as a remedy.
I don’t mean to sound (too) glib. Things can get better, marriages do “go through phases,” and Marriage Takes Hard Work. Throw a rock, and you’ll hit a therapist, a women’s magazine, or a hot dog vendor on the street corner who’ll share this bargain-basement wisdom with you.
But there are some decent marriages where the couples might be able to stay amiably together, at least until the children are older, except for the one, brutally stubborn fact that trying to reignite any sexual spark between them would be like trying to light a damp match against the side of a marshmallow in a hot tub.
Here’s a second case of a Marriage Ruined by Monogamy. This one’s ripped from the headlines of my acquaintances’ lives, too.
Years ago, in the late 1970s, a husband loved his wife very much. They had children. He was a lusty, corporeal person, for whom sex was very important.
People differ in this way. Some people don’t think or care that much about desire at all, or may even identify themselves as asexual. Other people think about it a great deal, and eroticism and sexuality are major parts of their identity. Some fall in the middle, and they’ve made their peace with what they have.
I think that’s part of natural variance. Some of us get married and think, “In the perfect world, I’m going to be with this one sexual partner happily, and both of us exclusively, forever.”
Others think, “In the perfect world, I wouldn’t be with a partner exclusively, forever, no way and no how…. But marriage is going to force me to try, and I’ll do my best.”
This husband fell into the second camp. Maybe he never should have gotten married, but he couldn’t take it back.
He didn’t want to get divorced. He didn’t want to cheat, either. He loved his wife. He also desired others, in a way that felt existential and not easily cured with marital tricks, new lingerie, self-flagellation to correct his ingratitude, Date Night, or self-improvement.
The husband asked his wife if they could entertain an open marriage, or some compromise (my example is a real-life person, not Newt Gingrich).
She considered it. But for her it was too much to absorb. That’s certainly understandable. One of the issues among others was that she had a deeply-lodged romantic standard about sex. That standard tells us that monogamy signifies love and commitment; sex is jealously proprietary; love is a one-and-only deal where we should be enough; and non-monogamy is an insult.
If someone likes someone else sexually, ipso facto they love and respect us less, in a zero-sum drawdown.
It’s very difficult to outwit this ideal (to say nothing of the religious marital ideals), since most of us grew up with it.
The wife wasn’t happier, post-divorce. In that sense, the divorce didn’t “work” any better than the other bad alternatives. It caused bitterness with the children toward the father, and the wife toward the husband. The husband did enjoy a life that was more of his design and to his taste, but at the cost of his marriage and family.
You can conclude that the husband was a bad person in a good institution of (monogamous) marriage. Or you can conclude he was a good person struggling with, if not a “bad” institution, then at least a Procrustean one.
A final case. A wife has an affair. She re-discovers the passion, excitement and intense connection that had vanished in her marriage. She calls this love. That’s what we say love feels like. If she loves the lover, she can’t also love the husband. The better lover wins. Husband and wife divorce.
We can’t know if the woman “really” loved her lover more—and love doesn’t sort itself neatly on an ordinal scale-- but the romantic ideal forces her hand. By that ideal, how else would she interpret such an intense sexual bond and that “soul-mate” feeling, other than to call it love?
She could have called it lust, true. Monogamous love and lust are often forced to spar in popular culture, and given the unfair advantage that monogamous love enjoys (to wit, “love” is the real thing, and lust is just fool’s gold), it’s remarkable that lust manages to prevail as often as it does.
If the wife had been an advocate of ethical non-monogamy, she might have thought of her new bond in terms of “limerance,” “compersion” (an alternative to jealousy), and “new relationship energy.” She might have told herself that “love is not a pie,” and that while the new love could be enjoyed for what it was, perhaps a choice didn’t have to get made.
Having words and concepts to understand the new love without detracting from the old might have helped. Stories matter. They’re how we make sense of things. They help define the limits of the possible.
As it turns out, the wife chose the path of the serial monogamist. It’s a well-trod one. This time, with a new person, it’ll all be different—we hope.
Another marriage, ruined by monogamy.