What’s Up with Monogamy? Reflections and Resolutions in a Time of Transition

What’s Up with Monogamy? Reflections and Resolutions in a Time of Transition December 30, 2015


2015 was a revolutionary year for defining marriage, to say the least. It has even been debated as to whether or not the legalizing of same sex marriage opens the door to the legalizing of polygamous marriages, among other things. See for example the following articles: “Beyond Gay Marriage;” “It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy;” “The Case Against Encouraging Polygamy;” and “Polygamy Is Not Next.”

The purpose of this article is not to focus on this particular aspect of the debate, but on a passing point made in one of the above-referenced pieces challenging the apparently inevitable move from same sex marriage to polygamy: our society still largely frowns upon extramarital sex, adding support to the monogamy-only camp, whether heterosexual or homosexual (Refer again to “Polygamy Is Not Next”).

Why does American society, by and large, still look upon extramarital sex with disfavor? Does the disfavor point perhaps to the receding echo of an ancient divine decree? Vestiges of the essential nature of things, created and/or evolved? (Consider, for example, the debated topic of whether or not monogamy serves as the evolutionary foundation of cooperative societies, at least among insects: “Score One for Monogamy”; see also the following article on monogamy and evolution: “Monogamy and Human Evolution”) Does the disfavor follow from the leftovers of reason or is the disapproval a remaining fragment of human virtue? A lack of utilitarian appeal? Mere cultural moorings that will evolve or dissolve in time based on changes to our response mechanisms to behaviors and those responses’ neural impact on our psychological states? (See “Social Neuroeconomics: the Neural Circuitry of Social Preferences” and “Modeling Emotion and Learning of Norms in Social Interactions”)

Regardless of the answers to these questions, Ayn Rand did not appear to share in the disapproval of extra-marital sex, if the chapter titled “Sacred and Profane” in Atlas Shrugged reflects her deeply held convictions. Much of what follows will engage Rand’s musings on the subject of sacred and profane and its bearing on relationships.

Before engaging Rand’s unique spin on “sacred” and “profane,” it is helpful to pause and ask at this juncture: what makes someone or something sacred or profane? (the sacred may be defined in this context as a fully personalized subject or agent vs. the profane, which may be defined as a non-actualized object or thing) More specifically in our present context (including engaging Rand’s perspective), what makes a marriage or extramarital affair sacred or profane? Is a marriage sacred if the union is sanctioned by God, nature, and/or the state? Are other unions sacred if ratified by contract? (Refer to these articles on the government’s role in marriages and the import of contracts: “Rand Paul: Government Should Get Out of the Marriage Business Altogether;” “What It Means When Marriage Is a Contract”)

Is a marital union or extramarital affair good if the motives, reasons and actions are solid and good (all of which require defining)? Rand raises these questions as she reflects upon sexual relationships and industry in the chapter noted above, “The Sacred and the Profane.”

As revealed in the chapter, two principal characters, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, have an affair. They are at the top of their game in the world of industry. Dagny delights in their sexual intimacy, which she takes to be the just deserve of their mutual greatness. For her, it is sacred. However, Hank, a married man, is miserable, though his affair with Dagny continues. One commentator notes, “This is an overall sacred section, where Dagny and Rearden’s relationship is put into words, but because of Rearden’s (who is unable to free himself from the orthodox beliefs of sex and lust as sin) viewing their love as depraved, it is profane.” Later, the same commentator writes, “What is the profane, and what is the sacred? There is the common belief that anything carnal is profane, despite the nature of the act…Whereas, despite orthodox beliefs of original sin, what Dagny and Rearden share is sacred—the mutual giving of pleasure as an act of tribute for mutual greatness” (The quotations are taken from the following blog post commentary, “Atlas Shrugged: Musings on Atlas Shrugged. Commentaries and Insights Transcending Sparknotes and Cliffnotes;” you can find the text for Atlas Shrugged here). Their relationship stands in stark contrast to much of the world given to mediocrity, mere feeling, dishonesty, and waste. Such traits appear in Dagny’s brother, James Taggart, who is not great, but who delights in preserving the illusion that his young acquaintance, Cherryl Brooks, has of him being a hero in industry.

One should not assume that Rand’s openness to extramarital affairs lacked scruples, at least from her vantage point. For her, rational self-interest (always among consenting adults, I would assume) is the determining factor in any ethical quandary. For Rand, sacredness or virtue involves the pursuit and embodiment of excellence. It involves honesty in addition to rational self-interest (For an account of Rand’s Objectivist ethical framework, see Ayn Rand with Nathaniel Branden, The Virtue of Selfishness {New York: Signet, 1964}). An extra-marital affair can be either sacred or profane depending upon whether or not it involves these traits.

Mere mutual consent is not sufficient for Rand. What if the consent were forced or pressured and without sufficient thought? Along such lines, what if the aim was not to benefit oneself? What if the affair were not entered into with a full knowledge of the merits of the respective benefits for each party either because of dishonesty or a lack of thoughtfulness, perhaps confused with mere feeling?

Still other questions emerge for which we must give an account. What about the spouse or spouses? What if the spouse(s) did not consent? And even if the spouse(s) did consent, what were the factors that went into the decision? And what was the impact on other closely related persons, such as children and other family members, friends, and associates? Are we ultimately autonomous individuals who enter into interdependent relationships as free, able to make and break contractual agreements as we wish?

Rand was herself engaged in extramarital relations with her young protégé Nathaniel Branden. While their respective spouses consented to the long-standing affair, one wonders if the force of Rand’s personality in her community in addition to her skills of argumentation swayed their decision to support the wishes of Rand and Branden; the affair and its aftermath certainly left its mark on each of the parties immediately impacted, as well as Rand’s Collective. On Rand’s extramarital relations with Branden and its impact on her husband and fallout, see the treatments in the following articles: “One Nation Under Galt: How Ayn Rand’s Toxic Philosophy Permanently Transformed America;” “Nathaniel Branden dies at 84; acolyte and lover of Ayn Rand;” and “Nathaniel Branden, a Partner in Love and Business With Ayn Rand, Dies at 84.” See also “Ayn Rand and the Brandens: A Chronology.”

Regardless of what one makes of Rand’s account, she gives us much to consider. For one, her book foreshadows and fosters a world where what we deem sacred and profane is very much in flux. Take for example the conversation a married friend of mine had with one of his friends, who is known for flings with married and unmarried women alike. The man on the prowl said that someday he would enter into a relationship again. My married friend was surprised and remarked, “I didn’t think you were into fidelity.” “I am into fidelity,” he responded. “Just not monogamy.”

If one becomes faint-hearted considering the pros and cons of extramarital relationships, and yet does not want to fall back on monogamy, is polyamory the answer? The following article appears to represent a Randian view on the subject: “Polyamory Is Next, and I’m One Reason Why.” See also these articles on polyamory: “My Two Husbands;” “Polyamory: The Next Sexual Revolution?;” and “Multiple Lovers, Without Jealousy.”

And what about those of us still committed to monogamous marital relationships—especially those in orthodox Christian circles? Rand’s account in Atlas Shrugged gives us much to ponder here as well. While I firmly believe in the biblical account of monogamous marital union between a man and a woman as sacred, not always is it the case that those of us in monogamous marital relationships operate in a sacred way toward our spouses. Actions matter (a point that I believe Rand would affirm, albeit from her own philosophical vantage point). Do we treat our spouses in sacred ways? (See the call to sacred care in Ephesians 5:21-33) I don’t share Rand’s view that altruism is bad; in fact, for me, it is quite good. Nor do I believe in the accompanying notion that we should relate contractually with others (including our spouses) for rationally framed, self-serving ends to profit our own well-being. But I do believe in the pursuit of excellence in marital relationships, namely, in caring for our spouses.

So, what’s up with monogamy in Christian homes? How blessed are the ties that bind us in our marriages? Many conservative Christians may get all worked up over where our society is on marriage these days, bewildering as it might appear to be in our increasingly pluralistic culture. But we need to remember in the midst of all our consternation that judgment always starts in the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). Some fundamental questions for conservative Christians like myself are: How attracted are we to our spouses in traditional monogamous marriages? Do people who don’t share our lifestyles sense our attraction to our mates, so much so that we make a compelling case for our way of life in our care for our wives and husbands? Or do we serve as compelling reasons to try out other approaches to fidelity? How do our monogamous unions operate and look—as sacred or profane? As we approach the new year, may we resolve to treat our own marriages in ways that Christian Scripture would deem sacred.

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