Sunday, November 25, 2012
Dan SavageConversations On Monogamy
A good friend sent me a video this morning that I would like to share with you all as today's topic of discussion...and being as how my last few posts have been kind of heavy I thought it would be good to take on something different and something that likely we will all have very different points of view on. The video titled "Why Monogamy Is Ridiculous", a part of the Big Think series, and features Dan Savage offering his views on the need to rethink love and commitment away from an all or nothing stance to something more flexible and equal to both sexes. No stranger to controversy, Dan Savage says what he thinks and even though this video clip is only two minutes and forty seconds long, it is packed with enough Dan Savage goodness to light the comment section on fire....just like it has already done on YouTube.
Now, you may think you know where I am on this issue...but you may be surprised. The issue of monogamy is much more complex than it appears on the surface and touch's on issues of gender and sexual equality in addition to fidelity and so much more. So watch the video after the jump and fire up the keyboards...because I'm sure we are all going to have a lot to say.
Ok...Savages major points, as I understand them, seem to be these:
1)...Marriage and commitment have been altered in both meaning and intent throughout history starting from being an economic/political transaction to one based on the relationship of the participants.
2)...The last big shift having occurred only forty years ago placing the same restrictions on men that had previously only been held for women.
3)...Human beings are not biologically inclined to monogamy and in Savages opinion, many of the relationship breakdowns that happen are because people are not naturally wired for monogamy.
4)...as a result of all of the above, we need to not only rethink our ideas about monogamy but communicate a more realistic idea of the consequences of being monogamous to our kids so that can make a clear eyed choice on their own and thus avoid many disillusioned heart aches.
5)...that instead of a looking at monogamy as an all or nothing concept, it can be seen as something more like sobriety in which you can make mistakes and work to correct those with out being the final end of the relationship.
So the issue is a deeper one than it appears on the surface. In a two minute video about our expectations of monogamy we have also touched on how marriage and fidelity have changed through history, sexism and gender equality, as well as sex and relationship education. And those were just topics covered by the video...what wasn't discussed was safe sex and trust. Where do you begin to pick that apart and attempt to have a reasonable conversation about it that doesn't devolve into emotional arguments? Monogamy is such a monolithic cornerstone concept to our modern view of love and relationships that many people will instantly reject the idea that monogamy should be rethought at all. It feels like questioning love itself. After all, there is a reason we include "forsaking all others until death do us part" in our modern marriage vows. Additionally, there are many who look at being monogamous as synonymous with being a good person and who think thinks that anyone raising the question is simply looking for a license to do whatever they want. But I don't think that's really what's being asked here...
For myself, as a person who grew up with a lot of religious prohibitions on sex and relationships....oh hell, lets call it like it is.....
I was taught there was only one form of acceptable sex, and that was between a married man and woman...that's it. Coming from that background and realizing that I was gay I have had to question sex and why we think some things are right and others aren't in order to come to terms with myself. The question I always seem to come down to is...what exactly is sex to us that it should absorb so much of our energy and attention both in pursuit of it and in fear and restriction of it. Why is it so scary and threatening that we treat it like fire?...too close and we get burned. To be honest, I have never suitably answered that question to my own satisfaction. The act of sex itself is just too complex to be boiled down into easily simplified terms. In it's positives, it can be innately pleasurable, create new life, and create emotional bonds. Yet on the flip side, it carries with it potential health risks and the possibility for the terrible exploitation of other human beings. We believe that sex helps create and support emotional bonds between couples and at the same time believe that sex can just be sex and nothing more. As a person for whom the type of sex I had was being labeled as "bad", it seemed the whole subject was much more complex than I had ever been taught to believe and our attitudes to such a ubiquitous behavior puzzling.
Now, I do believe that sex both creates and helps maintain bonds between couples. I've been married long enough to know that my husband and I argue more and have more issues with each other when we are not making a physical connection. Taking the time to be together helps us feel more secure together and brings with it a sense of togetherness and play that helps us feel closer. But that's not to say that it works every time. It is also possible for two married people to have sex just for sex just for the sake of the sex itself, just like anyone else. There are the times you stay and hold each other and enjoy that way it feels just to be together....and then there are times when it's just working out a biological need and not necessarily making a spiritual connection. At Neither time was time was sex bad even though their emotional tone may have been totally different...and both times were just between us. Sometimes we just need to have sex because our bodies tell us it's time. We humans have sex for lots of different reasons and not all of them include making new life or spiritual connections.
So...while my understanding of sex has changed over time, I have still not answered the question of what sex is to us that it should be so dangerous...so offensive...and so threatening when it's done with someone else. To me it seems to only have the meaning we imbue it with. And yes I know that idea is not going to sit well with many but all that I can say in response is that after a lifetime of being told the type of sex I have is wrong, I have learned that you have to look deeper before you can judge.
But we can't talk about Sex and monogamy without also talking about infidelity. I have been cheated on....many times in fact. by different partners over my life. I have also cheated. I know what it's like to be on both sides of the table. To sit in shock, with broken trust and a heart full of questions and also the guy with his hat in his hand trying to repair that trust. Most of those times are never as simple as saying, "I'm sorry." I have known people for whom one lie told or one foray into infidelity is enough for them to cut a person out of their lives forever with no chance of forgiveness ...I am just not built that way. I have made too many of my own mistakes not to know what it feels like and to hope desperately the person sitting across the table from you wont stop loving you. To me, the terrible part is not that it happened, but why it happened and what it says about our relationship...and Jay and I have been there.
It makes people feel uncomfortable to talk about it...and our video on monogamy made a lot of people squirm uncomfortably, but it's a fact...and it happened..and we had to deal with it. So there we were at a restaurant, having what I thought was going to be a nice dinner when he told me. The very first thing that went through my head was a ton of questions...."What did that guy have that I don't?"...."Why did you feel the need not to admit to me that you wanted that kind of experience?"..."did you think I wouldn't understand?"..."Does this mean you have fallen out of love with me?"...."Am I an idiot if I forgive him?"...."WHAT THE HELL DO I DO?!"
It takes a lot of soul searching. And ultimately, everyone is going to have a different answer to those questions. But if I viewed our relationship through the eyes of a rigid monogamous interpretation...we would have been done right then and there. Instead, I had to admit that I loved him, and that love was more important to me than any sexual experience he may have reached out for...and that's what I was satisfied it was...just sex. What troubled me more was that he lied about it. Being a guy myself I know we tend to think with our lower brains before we think about the consequences. I also knew that, I had the same capacity within me to screw up monumentally given the right circumstances...
For instance, a time with my first boyfriend in which we hooked up with someone else....and then I didn't let it go at that and continued the encounters afterward. I was young, hadn't had a lot of experiences and I was totally intoxicated by the experience. It hurt feelings and broke trust and I learned just what things I was capable of, that I never...ever thought I would do. My belief about who I was took a big hit then....but because that happened I learned a lot about myself and trust in a relationship and what it feels like to be the guy who screwed up.
so what to do? What would I want done to me if the tables were turned? So I forgave...and we both had some very deep and serious talks about why it happened...and how we could make sure that we were both being open and honest with each other so that nothing like that ever happened again. But.....had their been any kind of emotional connection or repeated visits with the guy, it would have been a completely different story and our relationship may not have survived. Ultimately, if he didn't love me, nor I him, we both knew were the door was....but neither of us took it.
These are the kinds of issues you have to navigate when you are with someone for a long time and only you can decide what is going to be your deal breaker. My parents relationship imploded on the discovery of one stray red hair(none of us have red hair)....and my Grandmother has stayed with her husband even though he had been very verbally abusive, and even left her at one point. She forgave him for her own reasons...but also because she came from the day when you just didn't divorce....and she has endured a lot to live up to her vows. Those are two very opposite views of what it takes to end a marriage and both examples from my family became a part of how I understood marriage and commitment. That understanding never stops growing or changing, not even now.
That it why I don't find it threatening to consider that the way we currently view monogamy as an "all or nothing" contract might need to be rethought. I've seen it not work more times than it has. We believe our relationships are sacred but often throw them away at the slightest bump in the road. I don't want that to be me or the fate of my relationship with my husband. My marriage to him has been nothing short of an adventure with some very big highs and some very low lows...but I want to see where it goes. He is not just my husband, I also consider him my friend and that's why I am willing to take that journey with him even into unexpected places. Someday, I want to be a very old man, sitting in my rocking chair next to a very old Jay and reminiscing about the times we had together....embarrassing our kids with stories from our youth. That is one of my definitions of happiness. In pursuing that happiness I have come to understand that we, as people, are a pairing of our biological nature and our higher selves and that we rarely understand either well enough...nor give them enough compassion.
But this is only how I have come to understand the topic. Each couple is going to have to come to their own understanding about what is and is not acceptable to them. It is when we don't have those kinds of conversations and are not on the same page that a lot of heartbreak happens. If we can't be brave enough to say it when we aren't getting all we need...or have the chops enough to hear it when your partner thinks different then we have a time bomb, counting down days until it explodes. And to be fair...many more things will be a part of navigating your own understanding of what it will take to stand the test of time....not the least of which will be your children....what you want them to learn from you and to take into their adulthood. Will we be the example for them so that they have to tools to face these same issues some day? It's a scary and sobering thought...at least for this dad.
We can't be afraid to talk about what monogamy means to us. Jay and I had that talk when we first started dating and we have had it again many times and I know we will have it again. When someone like Dan Savage says that we need to "rethink" monogamy we get up in arms because...well...it's Dan. But we don't think about how we have been rethinking it for decades already. Is it too much for anybody to even consider? Can we have a conversation like this without it becoming about accusations and blame? Can we admit to ourselves that monogamy is not as black and white as we think it is? Do couples have the right to determine the rules of monogamy for themselves? It's your turn to tell me what you think.
Until next time dear readers....