Why it isn’t time to change our views of adultery and marriage.

My phone rang mid-day on a Monday — an unexpected call from a friend in a crisis sparked by a spouse’s newly revealed infidelity. I thought of my friend last week as I read a column on HuffPost Wedding, a request by life coach Lisa Haisha to reconsider monogamy, which is a promise implied by marriage but breached by many-a-spouse.

unhappy-couple

The divorce rate, Haisha wrote, “coupled with the prevalence of adultery,” is indicative of what she thinks we need: to let marriage evolve, to let each couple decide if infidelity is ok. The column admirably encourages spousal self disclosure, but it also implies that monogamy in marriage might not be important, as if infidelity’s prevalence is a reason to redefine a covenant. But if we redefine marriage to include people who don’t want to be faithful, we redefine marriage for people who don’t want to be married. Their choices do not negate the truth: monogamy in marriage is important.

This is, as Haisha wrote, the first time in human history in which the death that dissolves a monogamous marriage may not happen for several decades. She also wrote that monogamous marriage itself is new compared to plural marriage, that adultery might be inevitable, that it’s so normal among married women and men that we all ought to be free to change marriage’s boundaries to include it. But norms aren’t normal because they’re good. They’re normal because we keep them that way.

The onus is on each of us to consider norms critically, to admit that a new definition of marriage is desired because it’s easier to change marriage into something that allows for infidelity than to become people who can be faithful, not because monogamy isn’t important. As a result of a longer life expectancy, a couple indeed can be married for 60 years, Haisha wrote, and she followed that up with a question: “Is it realistic to think that two people could be emotionally, mentally, physically and sexually compatible for that long?” In short, and even in my opinion, no.

But the absence of constant compatibility in a marriage doesn’t warrant a rejection of monogamy. That’s because constant compatibility in marriage is impossible. People are compatible when they can exist together without conflict, which means compatibility, by definition, is not constant. But that compatibility waxes and wanes is not proof that monogamy is irrelevant. It is proof that monogamy is important. It creates a safe space in which a couple can use the communication Haisha suggests couples use — and not to redefine marriage, but to achieve compatibility again and again.

Couples who are monogamously married for decades and are happy are few and far between, Haisha wrote. But unhappily married couples aren’t unhappy because they are monogamous. They are probably unhappy because they aren’t communicating (or because they probably shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place).

Widespread marital misery is not an excuse to permit adultery, but evidence of what a marriage actually needs, of which too many marriages are devoid: love. Real love, selfless love — the kind of love I, a practicing Catholic, learned from Jesus. Maybe monogamy is hard, and maybe it is rare, but it reminds us that relationships don’t thrive if they don’t involve work, that marriage is designed to result in the destruction of self absorption. Adultery says “nothing is more necessary than gratification” and monogamy says “nothing is more necessary than love.” And in a marriage, I can’t imagine anything more important.

Click here to read Haisha’s column on HuffPost Wedding.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • From a Christian perspective, I agree. My husband and I both believe in monogamy, which is one reason we got married! But marriage is not unique to Christianity, and polygamous marriage is highlighted throughout the Old Testament as acceptable.

    So while I agree that married couples should improve their communication skills and stay together even when it’s not all rainbows and sunshine, I disagree that open or polygamous marriages are an attempt to redefine marriage. That is based on the idea that for all time, all of society has agreed on a solitary definition of marriage, which just isn’t true.

    • I don’t mean to imply marriage has always been defined as monogamous, but the HuffPost article to which I respond does define marriage as monogamous (hence the freedom the author suggests we allow to redefine it into something other than that). As a Christian, I do believe marriage must be monogamous for it to align with selfless love, but I also think it’s unreasonable to expect people who don’t believe what I do to define marriage the same way I do. So I DO believe people who want to redefine marriage into something that isn’t monogamous don’t want to be married (if marriage is what I believe it is).

    • Polygamy is present in the Old Testament – that doesn’t mean it was accepted. In fact, many of the problems faced by Old Testament heroes such as Abraham and Solomon stem directly from polygamy and marital infidelity. Hosea is all about marital infidelity as a model of infidelity to God. The people of God come to accept monogamy as they grow in their understanding of covenantal love.

  • Love this post, Arleen!

    Speaking as a newlywed, I can confirm that compatibility in the no-conflict sense didn’t even last a week! But conflict is a catalyst towards growth, and that’s one of the most beautiful aspects of marriage – how two people help each other spiritually & emotionally grow beyond their current state.

    I couldn’t imagine a relationship without conflict or intermittent incompatibility unless it was only skin deep.

    • “Conflict is a catalyst towards growth, and that’s one of the most beautiful aspects of marriage.”

      PREACH! I’m gonna tweet that.

    • Ha! Thanks, Arleen 😉

  • {rtf1ansiansicpg1252
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    f0fs26 cf2 cb3 expnd0expndtw0kerning0
    outl0strokewidth0 strokec2 Oh man, you at spot on! I truly hate monogamy being taught as something that is becoming extinct. It’s true, there is more of a social emphasis being put on gratification and not on REAL love (the kind Jesus is talking about). I am a firm believer in a marriage and in monogamy and people grow and evolve WITHIN a marriage and can do it together. When we really selflessly love, it’s such a beautiful and priceless thing. Thanks for writing this, really!}

  • So if you follow the logic of Haisha’s argument, we’d have a bunch of 60-90 year old people committing adultery because “Is it realistic to think that two people could be emotionally, mentally, physically and sexually compatible for that long?” The truth is that adultery happens more to young people – not because they have trouble committing for the long-term but because they have learned that sex is all about their own fulfillment, and marriage is work. So your point is perfect Arleen. Marriage is commitment. If you don’t think you can commit to your spouse, then you’re not looking for marriage. You’re also not looking for real love. You’re looking for a fantasy of self-fulfillment that will never be satisfied.

  • Before my wedding, I couldn’t believe how my boyfriend/fiance and I were TOTALLY on the same page about everything. After my wedding, I couldn’t believe how much we disagreed about. Are we compatible? We are when we choose to be (which is most of the time).

    I think part of the problem is people thinking love is something that just “happens” based on “fate” and you don’t have any control over it. There is something to be said for personalities that jive, but not a lot. I think any two people of any personality can have a happy relationship for as long as they’re both committed to that relationship. I also think any two people will get on each other’s nerves once in a while, especially if they’re living in the same house and trying to make decisions together, no matter how “compatible” they are.

    I’m sure providence had a major part in setting my husband and me up, but *we* made the decision to commit, and *we* are continuing to keep that commitment through our own free will (of course helped by grace). Love is a choice, and it’s a choice we are ALWAYS free to make.

  • I’ve been happily married for 26 years. Three things helped:
    1. Divorce has never been an option.
    2. Infidelity has never been an option.
    3. Contraception has never been an option.

  • Phil

    Great post. Yep, goes to show that married happiness does not hinge upon the presence of monogamy, but all the work that also goes into it. Monogamy is a bedrock norm that creates a safe place to grow, but constant giving of self to the other is what it’s about. Those that think that married success is as easy as adding water to a skillet meal are mistaken, and are usually the ones that think that something else should bend, like married faithfulness.

    Conflict can cause imbalance, but what is more bonding than laying it out humbly on the table to your spouse, saying that you want to be a part of helping her grow together?