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June 28, 2010

Enough, Already: Let's Kill Monogamy




Pick your poison...

Like most people, I enjoy reading stuff that reinforces what I already think. It doesn’t make my head spin around Exorcist-style like, you know, stuff that challenges my preconceptions or stuff that makes me a more well-rounded person.

So I’d like to thank Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison for their recent Newsweek piece, “I Don’t: The Case Against Marriage,” wherein they not only confirm roughly three dozen of my long-held suspicions, but they do it with loads of statistics that I never would have had the stamina to round up.

The title pretty much says it all, and its sentiment dovetails with an ancient obsession of mine—i.e., the built-in obsolescence of not just marriage, but monogamous relationships in the broader sense today, in this epoch of ours when everyone lives to ninety.

My interest in this subject far predates my own marriage and harkens back to a two-year stretch in the late Seventies when I shelled out what seemed a considerable sum for the rentals of a succession of progressively more garish tuxedos to celebrate the weddings of three dear friends whose doomed unions, all total, lasted only slightly longer than the average tenure of a supreme commander of our forces in Afghanistan.

My take-away from that experience:

Monogamy. Huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’.

Monogamy made great sense, I suppose, in a time when you and your mate scarcely had time to churn out and wean a couple of offspring before getting devoured by a predator or felled by a burst appendix. By the time you got bored with your spouse’s body parts and repertoire of erotic maneuvers, either s/he was dead—freeing you to pursue a substitute—or you were. Either way, problem averted.

But how much sense does monogamy make nowadays? You can grow pretty gray and weary waiting for that predator or rogue appendix to come along and finish off your droopy old partner. Modern marriage, as the old joke goes, is like a subscription to Playboy wherein the centerfold never changes but only ages—the Pin-up of Dorian Gray.

Eon after eon, we live longer and yet we persist in trying to cram a square peg (our natural and entirely human lust for sexual variety) into the round hole of monogamous marriage. Then we compound our error by holding monogamy up to young people as an ideal. This inevitably leads to perverse strategies for dealing with the aforesaid desire for variety. The two most common coping mechanisms now operative in American society can be dubbed, I think, the Clinton Model and the Limbaugh Model.

(This is, if I do say so myself, a brilliant study in contrasts, made all the more delectable by the fact that the modelers despise each other.)

In the Clinton Model, as has been well documented, the death-till-us-part marriage vow is held sacrosanct—but not much else is. Taken to extremes, it involves an arrangement whereby at least one partner is free to pursue without consequence his lust for variety. It gets damned awkward at times, especially when you happen to be President and Congress is overrun with Republicans; but somehow it works.

The Limbaugh Model takes the polar opposite approach. No one has intimated that Rush Limbaugh has ever violated the vows he has made to a spouse. It’s just that he keeps making those same damn vows to younger and younger spouses every few years, in the boredom-avoidance stratagem favored by rich, hefty white men sometimes called Serial Monogamy. It gets damned awkward at times, especially when you’re between wives and get nabbed on a Viagra-fueled sex tour to a Third World nation; but somehow that way works, too.

So, all well and good for the Clintons and for Limbaugh, but most people aren’t nearly as successful in folding, stapling, or mutilating monogamy to meet their needs. In most marriages where one partner “philanders” like Bill Clinton does, the other partner becomes incensed, sometimes to the point of wielding golf clubs with deadly intent. And few people who divorce a partner or two possess the Limbaughian wealth and influence to attract sequentially younger and more vibrant substitute spouses.

Most people, in short, end up wallowing around somewhere in the massive swamp of American matrimony that fills the flood plain between the Clinton Model and the Limbaugh Model. It is to these people that the aforementioned Newsweek article pertains.

Here, then, are some of the more intriguing factoids and quotes from the Newsweek piece that set me off on the above screed, appended with free commentary


Texas [is] home to more thrice-married adults than any other state.

So a huge red state swarming with dittoheads prefers the Limbaugh Model to the Clinton one? Who saw that coming, eh?


Anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the nature of love…believes humans aren’t meant to be together forever, but in short-term, monogamous relationships of three or four years.

Yes, that sounds about right. It also sounds like a number that Helen Fisher yanked straight out of her anthropological ass, but its provenance notwithstanding, the figure will serve. If you start the clock at the first shared shower, then yes, three or four years is about the limit. Angelina and Brad are reportedly getting bored with each other, for heaven’s sake. What hope do the rest of us have of ever maintaining another human’s interest through more than one World Cup?


As many as 60 percent of [American] men and half of women will have sex with somebody other than their spouse during their marriage.

And 90 percent of those frisky Americans will be either members of Congress, prominent athletes, or obscure and seedy-looking spouses of beloved entertainers. (Actually not , but it’ll seem that way.)

Both Mrs. Muggins and I fall into that 60 percent, by the way. (Well, she’s not American and I barely am any more.) You may have read about my main extramarital escapade; the far less tacky Mrs. Muggins has yet to write a book about hers. If these incidents had happened when we were younger and still insecure about the depth of our friendship, no doubt they would have torpedoed our relationship. But happening as they did with both of us on the north side of forty, they were fairly easily shrugged off. I mean, you get to an age where—the Gores notwithstanding—it’s just more trouble to divorce than it’s worth.


“The bottom line is that men, not women, are much happier when they’re married,” says Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina.

Most married men, I suppose, feel the bite of irony deep in their nutsacks when they read that. And yet they were the ones that dragged us into it! one is tempted to squeal. But I think that’s entirely the point. Women expect too much from marriage, so the drab reality of it makes them miserable. Most men, in contrast, enter marriage the way they would enter a medium security prison. They’re expecting gang rape but instead they occasionally get waffles on Sunday morning and magically clean sheets. Hey, this isn’t half bad!


But today, [women] no longer need to “marry up”: women are more educated (we make up nearly 60 percent of college graduates) and better compensated (urban women in their 20s actually outearn their male peers).

What we’re heading for, I suspect, is a whole generation in which most men sit at home and sate themselves with the Rolling Fella Bomba between spasms of video-game action while the entire adult female population of America takes turns ravaging the two guys from the Twilight films. I, for one, don’t especially envy those two guys.


In 2008, 41 percent of births were to unmarried mothers, more than ever before. Older, educated mothers make up the fastest-growing percentage of those births.

So you see, it’s not just the Poor and the Palin.


Measurements of brain activity have shown that 20 years into marriage, 90 percent of couples have lost the passion they originally felt.

The amazing thing here, of course, is that ten percent of couples still feel it.


Just take a look at couples in Europe: they’re happier, less religious, and more likely to believe that marriage is an outdated institution, and their divorce rate is a fraction of our own.

Yeah, but they’re still assholes. No, seriously, the writers have a point here. Before there was the Clinton Model, there was the French Model. I’m probably dating myself here, but let me raise the specter of the funeral of French Prime Minister Francois Mitterand. Here’s how far more advanced the French are than we are: Mitterand’s widow invited his mistress (and her daughter by him) to stand by her at the graveside service. Francois Mitterand, by the way, looked like a chubby, thick-lipped lobster, but that’s beside the point. Americans just aren’t ever going to get to that stage of maturity and selflessness regarding relationships.


Americans have the highest divorce rate in the Western world. One in five U.S. marriages dissolves within five years.

I’m telling you, no matter how much pressure you face, do not sumbit to being a groomsman unless your friend is paying the tux rental. If you heed no other advice on this site, at least heed that.


June 29 Addendum:

Eek! About thirteen seconds after I uploaded the above post, those shameless copycats at Salon put up an anti-monogamy screed of their own in the form of a book report. To be fair, the book being reported on doesn’t smack of a rush job; it appears that the authors of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality had put some thought into the issue well before finding inspiration in my blog.

Indeed, their take on monogamy as a historically dumb idea cuts even deeper than that of the Newsweek writers I cited above. I should caution you that the Salon piece is for adult audiences only. It features vampire bats sucking blood out of each other and and this quote from an interview with one of the authors:

The design of our penis strongly suggests that it evolved to create a vacuum in the female reproductive system, thereby pulling out the semen of anyone who was there previously.

Dude!

The whole upshot of their research: It wasn’t Neanderthalic Bridezillas who inflicted monogamy on the rest of us after all. The real culprit: agriculture. Yes, agriculture--the same villain responsible for our sedentary lifestyle, the obesity epidemic, and the designated hitter rule. Ahh, damn you, agriculture! God damn you to Hell!