Fidelity and Permanence and Cheating, Oh My…

by lauran on June 20, 2011

From Schwarzenegger to Weiner, there’s seems to be no end of high profile straying husbands to feed the flames of media fires. It’s enough to make one wonder if the institution of marriage is ever going to have the glow of the golden years.

But, according to an article in The New Republic, some have wondered if monogamy and marriage were workable a long time ago.

The sociologist Jessie Bernard, writing more than 30 years ago, had a slightly different take. “If we continue to insist on sexual exclusivity as our marriages get longer, we may have to sacrifice permanence,” she wrote. “If we want permanence in marriage, we may have to sacrifice exclusivity.”

The article is a solid review of Pamela Haag’s Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules.

Ruth Franklin, author of the article, found Haag’s book interesting. But she disagreed with some of her conclusions and the broad generalities about monogamy and marriage.

“What is a mystery to me,” Haag confesses, “and a thing of beguiling beauty, is the genuinely sexually contented long-term marriage—a monogamous dam lovingly constructed to manage the wayward lusts of nature.” Unfortunately, it’s the one phenomenon of contemporary married life that she chose not to investigate. But the fact that it still exists suggests that the old rules might have some value yet.

But one of the more intriguing tidbits for me in the article was a mention of Jessie Bernard, as I quoted above. Jessie was about to retire from a long career as an academic when the feminist movement of the 1960’s was just taking off.

But like many professional women of a certain age who had balanced a successful career with marriage and motherhood, Dr. Bernard came to the realization that she had been a feminist all along and, as it turned out, had a lot to say on the subject.

So much so, in fact, that within a decade after her formal retirement in 1964 she had turned out a torrent of books — among them ”The Sex Game,” ”The Female World,” ”The Future of Marriage” and ”The Future of Motherhood” — that established her as a premier scholar of the women’s movement.

I remember this time well.

Revolution was the word everywhere from music to morals. And the liberation of women from traditional roles was the opening of a door that would never be shut again.

This was the time of the birth of the swing lifestyle. Sure, it was called wife swapping when it first started but it soon became clear that women were in control. And, speaking of control, the pill gave women control over their biological destinies, lending more energy to their freedom to have sex as freely as men.

One of the big issues of the day was free sex, sometimes called premarital sex. Even then it didn’t make sense to me that people would explore having multiple sex partners until they got married then shut down their libidos and lock the marital door to just one person. For the rest of their lives?

I think a lot of this generation had the same question. The divorce rate sky-rocketed and the concept of serial monogamy came along as baby boomers matured.

And still, decades later, it’s front page news when a famous marriage turns out to be non-monogamous. Maybe the ideal of happy-ever-after with one man and one woman is such a strong archetype that it will hang on for a hundreds of years. Or maybe we’re outraged that in these days someone would still believe they have to cheat rather than openly communicating and coming to agreement with their partner about monogamy.

But the reality of human sexuality does not often match our ideals. Sometimes our ideals fight each other and our society looks like a crazy person, flipping from over-sexed television to outrage about a sexting Twitter stream. I think that’s what Haag is echoing from Jessie Bernard – you can’t have it both ways.

What’s more important – long standing success in a relationship or monogamy?

Let me know what you think…

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