Friday, June 27, 2008

Thoughts on Monogamy II

If anybody'd offered to pay me to write a cover story on marriage and infidelity for a glossy weekly magazine (Hi New York! Feel free to send your offer to psycheslamp at gmail dot com) these are some of the ideas I might have developed.

1. There are two distinct types of wounds inflicted by infidelity. The first is the private one involving deception and broken vows. The second is a public one. The cheated-upon spouse becomes a figure of pity, their charms and shortcomings (real or imagined) held up to public scrutiny. At best, the cheated-upon is a dupe, at worst, their successful manhood or womanhood is disputed. Even the most sympathetic reactions still assert the legitimacy of judgment. "I can't believe he'd cheat on her - she's so beautiful and accomplished" is as patronizing as Obama's much-dissected "You're likable enough" gaffe.

Divorce is currently the primary culturally-sanctioned method for the cheated-upon spouse to regain their social dignity. Forgiveness, acceptance or just plain old resignation are all socially constructed as weak and humiliating. This strikes me as a deeply unfortunate dynamic.

2. For all of the insistence on our Christian heritage, how come the virtue of forgiveness gets such short shrift? Christianity without forgiveness is like hanging Bach's Art of Fugue in an art museum to admire the symmetry of the notes on the page. How one is supposed to maintain a relationship for three weeks, let alone thirty years, without cultivating forgiveness is absolutely beyond me. And that includes the capacity to forgive infidelity.

3. The hardest part of a polyamorous relationship? Resisting the urge to say very nasty things to people who insinuate that non-monogamy is incompatible with real love. Who says such a things? Pretty much everyone who is monogamous. This, I believe, is why polyamory remains uncommon...not the jealousy, not the fear of being compared to another lover, not the difficulty of juggling multiple relationships. It's the ubiquitous voices insisting that the only true love is an exclusive love. How do you disprove this? How do you know, for absolutely certain, that there isn't some deeper connection, some more passionate level of sexuality, some more complete intimacy, that you could be having if only you were with someone else?

But really, how do you know with any relationship that there isn't something better out there?

4. I have a hard time understanding jealousy because I've never felt it with any particular strength. However, I would identify three separate aspects of jealousy: the sense of anger that someone else has taken something (time, affection, attention) that should have been yours, the sense of contamination that the thing you once had has become less valuable because someone else has used it, and the sense of fear that you are in danger of losing something that you value. I would argue that only the second of these three reactions is incapable of being addressed through some sort of rational reassurance. I would also argue that this second reaction is a demeaning, dehumanizing way of looking at one's partner that should be discouraged in all cases.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Small Victories Should be Celebrated

Like using all the vegetables in last week's CSA share. Including the turnip greens that came attached to the turnips. My German immigrant great-grandmother would be so proud of me. (And my mother, who left the farm for college and never looked back, is rather bemused that her daughter both lives on a block with a population many times greater than that of the entire town in which she grew up and goes to such great lengths to recreate the experience of feeding a family from the kitchen garden because there will be no spare cash for food until the harvest comes in. Except, you know, for the aged sherry vinegar. And the imported Parmigiano-Reggiano.)

Another small victory: posting something here three days in a row. I'll see if I can keep this up.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bait and Switch

I confess I'm uncertain why University of Chicago faculty are complaining that a Milton Friedman Institute could bolster the perception that the University of Chicago is a conservative institution. Don't they realize just how useful this little misunderstanding is in luring in the sort of smart, unsuspecting young conservatives that might otherwise be heading off to some place like Hillsdale? Instead, they arrive at the University of Chicago, and lulled by all the Plato and Aristotle their first year, they find themselves reconsidering some of their assumptions before they realize they're living in a nest of (gasp!) liberals.

So really, shoring up the reputation of the University of Chicago as a conservative bastion is a good thing, especially since people seem to be catching on to the fact that the reputation is really built on the basis of a few prominent exceptions (hi, Leon Kass) rather than an institutional mindset.

But in all seriousness, what the University of Chicago as an institution does try, and more often than not succeed, at getting right is a general attitude that "liberal" and "conservative" (at least in the narrow, political sense) are not the appropriate labels by which to build a university program, despite efforts from students and faculty on both sides of the political spectrum to convince them otherwise.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Thoughts on Monogamy

I really think that after the hysteria of the late nineties regarding divorce rates and single-parent families, and with gay marriage being much on people's minds (go California!), there is something of a cultural moment currently happening around marriage - what it means, why people marry, and what constitutes a good marriage all seem to be open to discussion, both privately among couples, and publicly in the media.

Which is good, I believe, but then I read articles like this piece in New York Magazine, and wonder how we can possibly have a productive marriage moment, culturally, without first having a productive feminist moment. Because while the article purports to be a bit of a fearless examination of "the troubles with sex and marriage" doesn't seem to amount to much, in the end, beyond an unexamined assertion of male privilege.

Start, for instance, with the title: "The Affairs of Men". Immediately, the article has committed itself to telling the traditional story. Men cheat. Specifically, men cheat either because their wives don't provide the sex they need or because, as men, they simply crave variety. Men have needs, but women just aren't that into sex. When the author is pushed by a therapist to question this paradigm - to consider the "sexless" woman as something other than a natural inevitability - the author immediately shuts down this line of inquiry because it makes him feel guilty.

Braverman was impatient with the idea that the marriage couldn’t fulfill this man’s needs. “What does it mean that she’s not interested? How long has she not been interested? We know that age does not end sexual arousal or interest, we know that’s a myth. Was there some argument about something else, feelings hurt? What happened? Did one person feel abandoned?”

I felt that Braverman was missing the point, and making me feel guilty to boot. It was the old male-female morality play.

By "old male-female morality play" I think the author means that men assert needs and then women try to block them from acting upon them. Which is ironic, because what's actually going on here is that women are asserting needs, and a man is denying any responsibility to consider them, let alone try to meet them. The word I'd use is patriarchy, but I suppose that would probably make the author feel guilty as well.

What follows is what you'd expect for such an article...some evolutionary psychology, some musings on porn, a long, fanboyesque meditation on prostitutes, and some insistence that no, really, men are actually the weaker sex.

He and I love our wives and depend on them. In each of our cases, they make our homes, manage our social calendar, bind up our wounds and finish our thoughts, and are stitched into our extended families more intimately than we are. They seem emotionally better equipped than we are. If my marriage broke up, my wife could easily move in with a sister. I’d be as lost as plankton.

The author seems to see this as an example of female power. If that's the case, please can I be powerless like the men the author encounters? I want a wife to cook and clean and take care of my children, be my social secretary, provide endless emotional support, and take care of all those pesky family obligations for me. Cause really...I'll totally let any man in my life have that "power".

And while on the the subject of power, well, I'll just quote the article:

One man told me that when his wife wasn’t available, he snuck out to massage parlors in a “primal state” or watched porn. He felt no compunction about this; it was part of the never-ending battle of the sexes.

“Porn captures these women [its performers] before they get smart,” he said in a hot whisper as we sat in Schiller’s Liquor Bar on the Lower East Side. Porn exploited the sexual desires, and naïveté, of women in their early twenties, he went on, but older women had come to terms with that. “The most one can expect is that women will cede that area, in porn, a period when you can observe us before we have power, because it ain’t going to happen again.”

And men wonder why women mistrust porn?

What makes this a particularly frustrating article is that the author makes a series of tantalizing feints towards a more complex picture of marriage and cheating. For example, he recognizes that female infidelity is viewed differently than male infidelity, but then fails to consider the effects that those social pressures might have on marriage. He admits that male infidelity is not actually biologically hardwired, but nevertheless still views it as fixed. He acknowledges the existence of polyamorous relationships, but consigns them to the purview of those with abnormally high sex drives. He recognizes that the "European" model of marriage carries its own flaws, acknowledges that many people have actually spent a great deal of time considering the question of marriage and sexual passion (but then dismisses their work as "chick lit").

After all his research, the author describes a conversation with his wife.

When I got back from the Kinsey Institute, I told my wife all about the evolutionary data and Erick Janssen’s questionnaire, and she got agitated. “Okay. Let’s have an open marriage. And I have to be out Wednesday night.”

I said, No thanks.

This picture of marriage reminds me of nothing more than the cold-war nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, where nuclear holocaust is replaced by the threat of infidelity. What's dreamed of is not so much a new paradigm of marriage, but a return to an older one, when men cheated with impunity and women accepted this as their lot in life. But since that's unlikely to happen, the best that can be achieved is this uneasy truce...I won't so you won't.

God, how depressing.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

I Have No Words

Article Title: Media Charged With Sexism in Clinton Coverage

Picture accompanying article:

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