The New Times published an article recently positing that infidelity was, for some marriages, just the right ingredient needed to keep a marriage strong. The advocate for this lifestyle is none other than Seattle’s own Dan Savage, of “Savage Love”, Stranger fame. At first blush (pun intended), the article appears not to be worth the time to read. Who cares about some guy’s theory that married couples would be happier in some cases if infidelity was an accepted part of the marriage package? But a real reading revealed both the thoughtfulness behind his argument, and the subtleties of deception that run terribly deep in waters of our culture.
Savage readily acknowledges the advantages of monogamy, but adds that there are drawbacks, as he points out when he says, “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.” To battle these dangers, Savage is an advocate for what he calls the 3 G’s: “Lovers out to be good, giving, and game” (skillfully lovers, generous lovers, lovers willing to try new things). It’s that third one that’s the sticking point for Savage, and he says that when lovers reach an impasse where one party has sexual desires that the other is unwilling to fulfill, it might be best to set them free, to let them go off and find the experience they’re looking for. This, Savage says, can keep the love alive in the relationship. The infidelity, in other words, can be a good thing if all parties agree.
If you read my stuff regularly, you know that I read widely, including forays into The Stranger, The New York Times, Fox News, and more. I do this because I believe, strongly, that Christ followers aren’t called to separation from the world, but are called to live with discernment right in the midst of the world. If our world is considering non-monogamy as a way to save marriage, I want to know about, discerning what’s true in the midst of the proposal, and what’s not. So here we go:
What’s True - I like that Savage is ultimately concerned with sustaining monogamous relationships. He’s an interesting character because he’s this funky blend of traditional values that find their origin in who God has made us to be (monogamous) and the values of what the Bible calls “the flesh” or “the sin nature” (depending on your translation). But more of that later. It’s interesting too that Savage isn’t just trying to keep people living under the same roof. He wants people to be genuinely in love – to avoid the traps of boredom, lack of variety, and sexual death that are often the reality in monogamous relationships; a couple living together for 50 years doesn’t constitute success in Savage’s book. There’s supposed to be real love. Does anyone want to argue with him on that? I don’t either.
Let’s acknowledge that when the Bible talks about the ideal for marriage, whether it’s the vision cast in Genesis 2, or Paul’s lofty vision in Ephesians 5 (sacrificial love, service, openness and vulnerability, trust) God’s vision is that there be a body/soul/spirit union that’s still throbbing with passion as people grow older. Let’s not forget Paul’s liberating advice in I Corinthians 7 when talking about sexuality: “do not deprive one another” (except by mutual agreement for prayer, which means that you don’t withhold sex, using it as a tool for power in the marriage). All of this seems to envision what Savage sees as the ultimate goal, which is a healthy union between two people!
What’s Not True - Ah, but the devil is in the details. When Savage posits that a “more perfect union” can be realized by allowing one’s partner to fulfill his/her fantasies with some outside party, he’s dumped a boatload of lies into ocean, polluting the waters of our thoughts and making infidelity appear, just possibly, to be a healthy part of normal marriage – not for everyone of course, but for some. This plays well (the article was the number 1 e-mailed article in the NY Times for a portion of last week), and is reinforced in books about open marriage, and even in the recent book: Pre-Marital Sex in America which reveals the data on how young people are hooking up, a cultural reality among singles that surely prepares the soil for the “non-monogomy” of Savage’s marital ethic.
Nope. There are a boatload of reasons why we mustn’t go down that road, but let’s just address the biggest one:
God’s Heart for Monogamy: When Jesus talks about marriage he always goes back to Genesis two at the reference point; always. This means that, though there are accomodations made in the Bible for divorce and polygamy, they’re clearly never seen as the ideal. Further, God makes no provision whatsoever for infidelity. Is there grace? Of course, for repentant hearts that see their sin. But Savage leads us into dangers waters when he sees it, not as seen, but as a prescription to marital health. The ideal is always monogamy – saturated with real love.
This notion had fallen on hard times, even during the days of Jesus; so much so that that when he articulates radical monogamy in Matthew 19, the disciples said, “if such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Yes, it’s hard. But it’s the vision, and Savage is plunging a knife right into the heart of it. I had to say something!
OK. God’s for monogamy. But here’s an important thing to say as this winds to a close. God isn’t just interested in monogamy. Ultimately, God is interested in love and intimacy. So, if I’m going to be committed to monogamy AND intimacy, this will take me down a road that will strip my soul bare, revealing my vulnerability and fear, exposing my pain and anger, demanding my deepest honesty. In other words:
1. I’ll need to be honest with my partner about my sexual struggles, longings, and failures. And I’ll need to be a safe place for my partner to be honest.
2. I’ll need to work, really work hard, at fanning the flames of love. There are endless forces working against intimacy in our culture, but they needn’t win. It’s just that I need to recognize those forces and swim upstream against them.
3. I’ll need to recognize the difference between sex and food. I Corinthians 6 explains how food and sex are different. I’ve taught on this many times with students, explaining that, for the Corinthians, sexuality was viewed as an appetite, just like food. When you’re hungry you eat. When you want sex… you find it, by any means possible. But Paul explains that sex isn’t an appetite in the same way as food, explains that self-denial of our primal urges, far from killing us, will actually make us stronger. Why? We’ll be forced to find satisfaction, joy, and meaning, in other ways when sexual expression isn’t open to us. We’ll need to play music, work in the garden, enjoy good conversation, or good sunsets, or good food.
There’s much more to say… but coming from one who’s been monogamous AND is still passionately in love, it’s important gain a vision for both: monogamy and passionate love: two ingredients which, together, will form a mighty strong, joy infused bond!
How can the church do a better a job of instilling the values of monogamy and passionate love?
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