Last July there was an article in the Atlantic that stated that Monogamy kills Eros, as though this was an undeniable and invariable truth. Now me, I knew that this was wrong on the face of it; I’ve been married for over a quarter of a century, and my experience is quite the contrary. Still, it’s not enough to stand athwart the writer’s prose shouting “No!” and so I had to spend some time thinking about it. And it seems to me that Monogamy only kills Eros if you misdefine the terms as follows:
- Monogamy = Having sex with only one person.
- Eros = sexual pleasure resulting from the thrill of novelty.
In my CCD class in 8th grade, we boys (the classes were segregated by sex) were taught a great many things, but the teacher, a married man I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since, spent a lot of time over the course of the year on the slippery slope of unchastity: if you go a little farther on each date, sooner or later you’ll end up going all the way. This seems almost touchingly quaint and naive given today’s hook-up culture, but the same principle applies: the thrill of novelty drives you onward. If you go all the way on the first date, where can the thrill of novelty take you? To pornography; to outlandish sexual practices; and, of course, to subsequent partners.
If all you’ve after is sexual pleasure, and you’re hooked on the thrill of novelty, sure, more of the same old guy will kill your excitement. But this is based on a misunderstanding of monogamy and of Eros.
Eros is that kind of love that leads you to bind yourself body and soul to one other person. The thrill of the new (a thrill common to novelty in all areas of love) is intended to help you over that first bit of time when you’re getting used to your partner’s peccadilloes and faults: faults that would no doubt cause you to run screaming from the room without that helpful buffer. (I’m glad that Jane is happy, married to me, but I sometimes wonder how she does it.) More, Eros is in principle a fruitful love: by it, we are given the privilege of participating in God’s creation of the universe. Each child is a completely new creation, a new soul that will last for all eternity, not merely a rearrangement of matter. Eros is not based on novelty, but on fidelity: so far from killing Eros, monogamy fulfills Eros. It is simply the natural endpoint of erotic love.It is true that the first stages of Eros are like shooting the rapids on a river: exciting and scary, and great fun, especially if you’re an adrenalin junky. But mature Eros is that like that same river, downstream: wide and deep, flowing strongly, deeply peaceful but in no way static or stagnant.
Oh, yes: and sometimes there’s sex involved, and it gets better over time, especially when you get over the need for thrills. No, really. The sex is supposed to be about the two of you, not about the sex, and it’s difficult to get there if you’re focussed on the thrills.
St. Paul uses marriage as an image of the relationship between God and the Church: a fruitful relationship, and a love that is meant to bind you body and soul to one other: the Church is to worship only the God of Abraham, and in return God will cherish his bride. Note, too, that this is a relationship with the whole Church together, the Church of which we are but members (God is not a polygamist). Together we are the bride of Christ, and are to be faithful to him with all of our mind, body, soul, and strength with a love that is wide and deep, flowing strongly, deeply peaceful but in no way static or stagnant.