If every unhappy couple got to interpret marriage to fit their fancies, we would have eliminated the institution millennia ago. Despite the difficulties of marriage, it has endured because it is essential to society and good for mankind. Our moral climate is shifting, however, and we are seeing culture trying to redefine marriage to fit new parameters.
In “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” a profile of several couples last week, The New York Times questions the fundamental idea of monogamy in marriage. In an “open marriage” both couples have consented to have sexual relationships outside of their marriage. There is a more precise word for open marriage: adultery.
Webster’s Dictionary defines adultery as “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married man and someone other than his wife or between a married woman and someone other than her husband.” Euphemisms are not a new tactic in trying to excuse or soften someone’s wrongdoings. Lies become fibs; abortion is the termination of a pregnancy; pornography is adult entertainment. Calling sexual relationships outside of marriage “open,” even when both spouses agree on it, is just another way to try to disguise the truth.
Marriage Is About Giving, Not Getting
The article explains that most of the couples decided to stop being monogamous because they lacked sexual fulfillment or wanted more excitement but did not desire divorce. One woman, called Elizabeth, approached her husband with the idea of consenting to other sexual partners after she had developed a romantic interest. She didn’t want to end her marriage, but she also didn’t want to give up her budding relationship with her boyfriend.
She said her involvement with the other man “caused a lot of pain, so I’m still not even sure why I fought for it the way I did… I really just felt like it was right, like it was important to my growth. It was like I was choosing to take a stand for my own pleasure and sticking to it. It was strong, that feeling.”
There are two things that strike me as having gone very wrong in Elizabeth’s marriage. The first is that Elizabeth seems to have forgotten that marriage is not about her desires. When what is right is based on how you feel at any given time, it is not surprising that when you decide to take a stand, the person’s desires you are standing up for are your own.
Yet marriage is about forsaking all others, yourself included, for the sake of the good of your spouse. The vow to forsake others, part of the “Declaration of Consent,” has long been a part of traditional marriage ceremonies: “Will you have this man/woman to be your husband/wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him/her, comfort him/her, honor and keep him/her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him/her as long as you both shall live?”
This part of the wedding ceremony acknowledges that marriage is not about what you get out of it. The marital relationship is hard because the two people who form the union will have different expectations and desires. Marriage works best when both spouses are prioritizing the other. If we make our aim in marriage to serve our spouses, we will find greater satisfaction in it.
I Love You, But I Love Myself More
This type of commitment has to be founded in some type of truth firmer than what one’s current wants dictate. When a spouse is selfishly demanding his desires instead of finding how to care well for his spouse, the marriage will always suffer. J.B. Cachila put it this way: “What we commit to is not just to take care of that person, to uphold that person’s dreams, and to meet that person’s needs. We actually commit to becoming one with that person: to consider that person’s thoughts, opinions and feelings, as well as prioritising that person more than we will prioritise ourselves.”
Elizabeth, however, had reached a point where she did not want to forsake her own desires. She was dissatisfied with her marriage because she wasn’t getting what she wanted, something new and exciting. In other words, she loves her husband, but she loves herself more.
The other thing that seems to have gone wrong with Elizabeth’s marriage is her idolatry of sex. Sex is obviously important to marriage, but good sex does not make a good marriage. Good sex is the result of a good marriage. Sex is unique because of the way it bonds two people together physically in a vulnerable and intimate way.
As Elizabeth found herself unhappy in her marriage, she sought adultery to fulfill her desires, breaking her covenant of marriage. She feels abandoning her fidelity was a small price to pay for happiness. But the right question to ask is not if an open marriage is a happier marriage. The right question to ask is if an open marriage is even marriage at all.
Open Marriage Is No Marriage, and That’s the Point
That is where the NYT article augments efforts to make marriage obsolete. Guised as seeking an answer about marital happiness, the author is not providing a solution for difficulties in marriage, but instead contributing to its redefinition.
Daniel, whose story of agreeing to adultery is detailed in the article, says, “As our culture becomes more accepting of choices outside the norm, nonmonogamy will expand as an acceptable choice, and the world will have to change as a result.” I wonder if Daniel’s mother or father never asked him, “If everyone else was jumping off a cliff, would you jump too?” The prevalence of a wrong does not make it right.
The author also cites sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin, who says the tradition of marriage is at odds “with the country’s emphasis on individualism, a tension that leads to high rates of divorce but to also remarriage, with worrisome outcomes for finances and children. Openness in a marriage, for better or for worse, would seem a natural outgrowth of those conflicting cultural values.” If our individualism is leading to marriage’s demise, could it possibly be the problem lies with our individualism rather than with marriage?
Marriage and family are foundational to our very existence, yet contentious topics in the public realm. Jonah Goldberg explains,
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that family structure is so controversial. The family, far more than government or schools, is the institution we draw the most meaning from. From the day we are born, it gives us our identity, our language and our expectations about how the world should work. Before we become individuals or citizens or voters, we are first and foremost part of a family. That is why social engineers throughout the ages see it as a competitor to, or problem for, the state.
The idea that monogamy is an outdated aspect of marriage is not an argument against it. Rather, it shows that as a culture we are determined to redefine and ultimately abolish marriage. If we redefine marriage, we redefine family. Everything that broadens the definition of marriage and family into nothingness takes us a little closer to eliminating the foundation so significant to our existence. Let’s not act like marriage is whatever we want to make it.