Dan Savage on the virtues of infidelity

An interesting piece in tomorrow’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, Married, with Infidelities, highlights my favorite relationship advice columnist, Dan Savage, and his views on marriage and monogamy.

In his relationship column, Savage Love, Dan observes many of the same problems with contemporary marriage that I see in my divorce practice: the tensions and conflicts that arise when the desire for honesty in a marriage causes conflict because one partner’s sexual desires or urges are “not vanilla”; the unwillingness to accept that requiring spouses to be absolutely faithful should also require both spouses to be–in a term Dan invented–G.G.G.: “good, giving and game” (put another way, skilled, generous and up for anything).

Unlike most relationship columnists, who view monogamy as a flawless good, Dan sees monogamy without blinkers:

“I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy,” Savage told me, “when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.”

The view that we need a little less fidelity in marriages is dangerous for a gay-marriage advocate to hold. It feeds into the stereotype of gay men as compulsively promiscuous, and it gives ammunition to all the forces, religious and otherwise, who say that gay families will never be real families and that we had better stop them before they ruin what is left of marriage. But Savage says a more flexible attitude within marriage may be just what the straight community needs. Treating monogamy, rather than honesty or joy or humor, as the main indicator of a successful marriage gives people unrealistic expectations of themselves and their partners. And that, Savage says, destroys more families than it saves.


“The mistake that straight people made,” Savage told me, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitarian and fairsey.” In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”

The article provides an example of Savage putting his G.G.G. philosphy into action:

Savage’s honesty ethic gives couples permission to find happiness in unusual places; he believes that pretty much anything can be used to spice up a marriage, although he excludes feces, pets and incest, as well as minors, the nonconsenting, the duped and the dead. In “The Commitment,” Savage’s book about his and Miller’s decision to marry, he describes how a college student approached him after a campus talk and said, as Savage tells it, that “he got off on having birthday cakes smashed in his face.” But no one had ever obliged him. “My heart broke when he told me that the one and only time he told a girlfriend about his fetish, she promptly dumped him. Since then he had been too afraid to tell anyone else.” Savage took the young man up to his hotel room and smashed a cake in his face.

Dan acknowledges his advice comes from a male perspective–and a homosexual male perspective at that–but believes that it’s useful for women in heterosexual relationships to understand this mindset:

In an e-mail he sent me, Savage countered that “there are plenty of women out there who have affairs just for the sex.” But he agreed that there is something male about his perspective. “Well, I’m male,” he wrote. “And women, straight women, are in relationships with men. Doesn’t it help to know what we’re really like? Women can go on marrying and pretending that their boyfriends and husbands are Mr. Darcy or some RomCom dream man. But where’s that going to get ’em? Besides divorce court?”

What I especially like about Savage is how child focused he is on the purpose of stable marriage. In preferring divorce over open marriage we have created a situation in which too many children are shuttled between two homes: elevating monogamy and parental sexual fulfillment over a child’s right to stability:

Hearing such reactions, and having been personally subjected by Savage to his earnest, ardent effusions about his wonderful husband and awesome son, it is tough to credit anyone who thinks Savage is a subversive figure. When I think of Savage, I think of his response to the mother whose ex-husband, her son’s father, was undergoing a sex change. Her son was angry, and she wondered what she should say to him. Savage said the boy was entitled to his feelings. “Children have a right to some stability and constancy from the adults in their lives,” Savage wrote. “Perhaps I’m a transphobic bigot,” but asking a father to wait “a measly 36 months” before having his penis chopped off “is a sacrifice any father should be willing to make for his 15-year-old son. Call me old-fashioned.”

Savage is old-fashioned, as bitterly hilarious as that might sound to gay-marriage opponents. After the news of the Arnold Schwarzenegger love child broke, I received an e-mail from Savage in which he expressed concern about the article I was writing. As I would expect, he framed his position in terms of respect for the family.

“I’m afraid,” he wrote, “it’s going to become: ‘This Savage person is krazy. Just look at what nonmonogamy did for Arnold! Look at the chaos that being nonmonogamous creates! Failed marriages, devastated children, scandal!’ But Arnold wasn’t in a nonmonogamous relationship. He was in a monogamous relationship. He failed at monogamy; he didn’t succeed at nonmonogamy.”

Savage does not believe people should live in toxic, miserable marriages. The Schwarzenegger family is surely beyond repair. But they are an extreme case: not all adultery produces secret families. Most of it is minor by comparison, and Savage believes that adultery can be one of those trials, like financial woes or ill health, that marriages can be expected to survive.

“Given the rates of infidelity, people who get married should have to swear a blood oath that if it’s violated, as traumatic as that would be, the greater good is the relationship,” Savage told me. “The greater good is the home created for children. If there are children present, they’ll get past it. The cultural expectation should be if there’s infidelity, the marriage is more important than fidelity.”

While Dan and I are different in many ways (he’s gay, non monogamous and Catholic; I’m heterosexual, monogamous and Jewish), I am in almost complete agreement with his views on marriage, fidelity and the importance of keeping children’s need for stability in mind when resolving marital difficulties.  As a fellow political liberal, what I most appreciate about Savage is how his liberalism is anchored by a very conservative view of family stability.  Probably half of the upper-middle class divorces I handle involve marriages breaking up because spouses have mismatched sexual desires.  Are the children of these marriages really better off living in two households in which their parents are in new, monogamous-for-now, relationships?

A culture which stressed the need for spouses to be open to each others sexual desires as a requirement of monogamy, and which valued marital stability over sexual fidelity when minor children are involved, would be a much better culture for our children.  That’s Dan’s view of “family values.”  I concur.



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