The other day, I listened to a discussion featuring Dan Savage, the longtime sex and relationship columnist, and Esther Perel, the Belgian-American psychotherapist and author. I happened upon it after hearing Savage on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast last week.
Years ago, Savage coined the term “monagamish” to describe long-term relationships (like the one he has with his partner of three decades) that are open to both parties having sexual liaisons with other partners subject to mutually agreed upon rules. Perel is famous for saying that most of us that marry are going to “marry two or three times, and some of us are going to do it with the same person.”
For Savage and Perel, self-conscious negotiation and evolution characterize romantic relationships that are built to last; implicit expectations characterize those that are doomed to fail.
Love as a Luxury Good
Savage and Perel are insightful and eloquent; and they’re also right, of course, within the framework of their own assumptions. Whatever the vows laid out as a theory, many women have always had to make peace with the chronic infidelity of their male partners in practice. Marriages were indeed once more durable, but at the price of being less egalitarian and not presumptively romantic. Once we made marriage beholden to love rather than to economics, male infidelity became personal rather than assumed, and female infidelity (which is now just as common, ostensibly because women have access to reliable birth control) also inflicted predominantly emotional wounds, rather than raising the clinical question of paternity.
I spent a decade-plus in secular academia, much of it in English departments. I live on the East coast. I have spent a lot of time calmly hearing and carefully reading ideas that others with my utterly centrist political ideology and values tend to find shocking and/or offensive. As a result, I am pretty much impossible to shock or offend.
Yet, I confess that I found hearing the secular left’s most influential ideas on sex, marriage, and relationships put so clearly and articulately by Savage and Perel somewhat shocking and offensive. Not because of how disconnected they are from any notion of modesty, shame, or appropriateness (though there is that). Not because of how thoughtlessly anti-religious they are in a country where, despite declining church attendance, half the population claims to find religion important (though there is that, too). These excesses—the joys of oral sex how-to guides for preteens, and nonchalant derision for those that might have concerns about such lessons—were to be expected.
No, what surprised me about Savage and Perel was the unabashed, casual classism and the brutal, unconscious myopia of their ideas. I was shocked by how baldly their hegemonic presumption of interpersonal relationships that are both negotiable and anomic make love itself (not to mention marriage, which is increasingly the province mostly of college graduates) into a luxury good, by definition accessible only to those that are educated, erudite, and self-sufficient (and, on top of all that, share their unambiguously secular values).
There is a song in the Lerner and Lowe musical My Fair Lady (1956)—in which the working-class flower salesgirl, Eliza Doolittle, takes elocution lessons from a learned professor and winds up dazzling England’s gentry, unto passing for royalty, at a ball—entitled “Show Me.” It’s sung by Eliza, who is being wooed by an upper-class young man and chiding her beau to stop talking so much, and to make his attraction for her known more directly.
The lyrics are worth quoting at length:
Don’t talk of stars Burning above; If you’re in love,
Show me! Tell me no dreams
Filled with desire. If you’re on fire,
Show me! Here we are together in the middle of the night!
Don’t talk of spring! Just hold me tight!
Anyone who’s ever been in love’ll tell you that
This is no time for a chat! Haven’t your lips
Longed for my touch? Don’t say how much,
Show me! Show me! Don’t talk of love lasting through time.
Make me no undying vow. Show me now!
Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme!
Don’t waste my time, Show me!
Don’t talk of June, Don’t talk of fall!
Don’t talk at all! Show me!
Ironically, Eliza is offering this lament about the wealthy and their penchant for talking over doing in extensive and eloquent language. Nonetheless, she is expressing impatience with the undue decorum of endless, verbally parsed anticipation of love standing in for what she understands to be love itself.
Where she comes from, men don’t explain their feelings, anyway—and many of them, per the broader point of the movie, wouldn’t have the facility to do so even if they wanted to. In the working-class community where she grew up, love doesn’t come by way of words. It comes by way of actions. Her own father—who is as eloquent in his working-class way as her beau is in his upper-class one—behaves as though he does not care about her. He doesn’t provide, and he doesn’t care to provide. That’s what makes him a (self-aware, as it happens) ne’er do well. For Eliza, language is almost always a justification, an obfuscation, or a lie. Action is all that can be taken seriously.
Beyond this fundamental difference between the verbal norms of the world she comes from and the one she’s recently entered, Eliza has another crucial point in “Show Me,” which is: “Don’t waste my time.”
It is a rare luxury to have time for things like negotiating the boundaries, nuances, and evolution—constantly and endlessly, no less—of one’s romantic relationship. The idea that each couple is supposed to not just reinvent the wheel (as in, come up with their own iteration of the old monogamous relationship script) but actually invent their own “monagamish” wheel, unbeholden to any norms, is a far bigger and more obvious recipe for failure than the norms themselves.
Is it any wonder that, as we individuate and redefine love relationships in an “each couple for themselves” way, fewer people enter long-term commitments in the first place? Or that people without the resources to facilitate this kind of total atomization and individualization in a mutually agreeable way—not least, with the time and talent for constant, intimate, and intricate conversation amidst lives that involve more urgent financial, familial, and other realities—struggle to remain together?
When I was a kid, my nuclear family used to gather for brunch with my paternal grandparents after mass on Sundays. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the like would be on the radio. A Dean Martin song, “Memories Are Made of This” (1955) came to mind as I listened to Savage and Perel. It’s a fair summation of the aspirational, presumptive marriage and family ideal that Savage and Perel criticize, and the lyrics are worth looking at a little more closely:
Take one fresh and tender kiss,
Add one stolen night of bliss,
One girl; one boy; some grief; some joy:…
Then add the wedding bells;
One house where lovers dwell;
Three little kids for the flavor.
Stir carefully through the days. See how the flavor stays.
These are the dreams you will savor…
With His blessings from above,
Serve it generously with love.
One man, one wife,
One love, through life…
So, we’ve got a couple that falls in love (“tender kiss”), then goes to bed together (“stolen night of bliss”), then gets married (“wedding bells”), then has three kids (“for the flavor”), and finally stays together for the long haul (“one love, through life”).
The song is, of course, highly idealistic and preemptively nostalgic (“memories are made of this”). But there are a couple other things about it worth noting. First, the man and woman portrayed are not rule-abiding goody-goodies by the standards of 1955; like most couples in the modern era, they’re lovers before they add the “one house” where they dwell together as man and wife. Second, they are creating their own recipe for “one love, through life.” They live in a mature, iterative way, “stirring” themselves into a family and a love “for life” by working at it over the years. The ability of each couple to negotiate its own “flavor” for the family life that it would create did not begin with the sexual revolution, or with Dan Savage’s advice column. It has been around for a long time, including in an era of far greater prescriptiveness and universality about what it meant to be a couple.
But that prescriptiveness and universality did nonetheless provide a framework within which people without the ability or resources to chart their own path with one other person (a rather tall order in any context, when you think about it) could be assumed to make relationships and marriages work.
Take my family. When I was growing up, we were eating those Sunday brunches in a racially, religiously, and socio-economically diverse suburb of Philadelphia for three related reasons of happenstance: about one hundred years before, my dad’s Italian immigrant, Catholic grandparents had alighted in Philadelphia; also about one hundred years before, my mom’s Romanian and Ukrainian immigrant, Jewish grandparents had alighted in Philadelphia; and about twenty-five years before, my mom’s parents had purchased a house in that neighborhood.
My parents, who have been married for more than forty years, were (and are) communicatively adept, upper-middle-class professionals with advanced degrees and an abundance of social capital. They had the educational and economic resources to chart their own course for marriage and family. And, in many ways, they did. But I nonetheless benefitted from the ways in which my grandparents and our extended network of family and friends—who would not have been around if we’d moved somewhere else—provided a sense of communal context for their union and for our family.
More importantly, many relatives of my parents’ generation—the majority of whom boast similarly long marriages, and almost none of whom had quite the same resources as my parents—likely benefitted from the perception (which was also, as it happens, the reality) that, whatever my parents’ own idiosyncrasies (which are, after all, by no means limited to those with resources) their idea of love, marriage and family was at a basic level indistinguishable from their own. That is, it relied on the same assumptions (i.e., those expressed in “Memories are Made of This”) and it sought the same outcomes: longevity, and the rearing of healthy and happy children.
This model of love and marriage was, at least in theory, accessible to everyone regardless of class. That’s not to say that everyone executed it perfectly—far from it. But no one was presumptively incapable due to the requirement for cognitive and communicative capacity far greater than what is required to pass any college class I’ve taught.
Sure, the old script was limiting, imperfect, and due for updates and reforms. But perhaps, in its absence, we can appreciate its uses. After all, the communal script for relationships (and lives, for that matter), looked at another way, was a form of communal support.
Expecting each couple to parse their own story from scratch—with no universally understood blueprint, expectation, or aspiration—is a devastating case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And one that, like so many others, privileges the self-actualization of the elite few at the expense of the well-being of the non-elite many.