Monday, July 04, 2011

DTMFA and "other people"

As a Dan Savage admirer with some qualms about his philosophy, I was nearly fully on board with Mark Oppenheimer's take, fully 100% in terms of his clear laying-out of Savage's message and its significance.

Basically, Savage's critique of monogamy is most easily ripped apart in terms of gender. Whether we're attributing it primarily to nature or cultural expectations, women, on average, connect sex with emotion/a relationship more than men do. This means that something that works for some (and I agree with Oppenheimer that, with legal SSM, increasingly fewer) gay male couples (including Savage and his husband) will not work as well for straight or lesbian couples. But there's also the common-enough tendency of the male partners of women to expect fidelity from their girlfriends/wives, while not holding themselves to the same standard. (The male partners of men, meanwhile, however jealous and hypocritical some may be, do not have this gendered script to fall back on.) The two things tie together - men in straight relationships assume that women only cheat if they've formed an emotional connection with someone else, and think that this justifies a level of anger beyond what would be reasonable if it were just about "release" outside the home. So, even if we think it's unfair and social-construction-y that this is how it is, this is kind of how it is in the world as it exists, meaning that Savage's notion (and this I think was somewhere in the article) ends up reading as giving men permission to stray, and not really doing a heck of a lot for women.

But my own main objection to Savage's take on monogamy is not at all gender-specific. Savage may have coined "DTMFA" (Google if curious), but he generally assumes, even when a couple is unmarried and has no kids, that the very fact of having a partner means someone wants to stay with that person. Rather than being skeptical of every 'he's a great guy, but...,' as a good advice columnist should be, he earnestly accepts that nearly everyone in a relationship wants to make it work. When, a hefty percent of the time, someone whose 'relationship issue' is that they want to see other people... wants out. I suspect that many if not most who are happily, monogamously married - men and women, gay, bi, and straight - can think back to a time when they'd made a monogamous but short-of-engagement commitment to some other boyfriend or girlfriend and, somewhere down the line, been alerted to the fact that they didn't want the perfectly nice relationship to go any further precisely by the fact that they were noticing other people left and right. Prior to settling down, the continued interest in other people - specific other people, or just the idea of other people - is how you know an otherwise decent relationship isn't going to work. That's the signal.

So, after using the other-people barometer to determine, from high school on, whether a relationship should go further, it gets awfully confusing if you're supposed to now look at 'exploring other people' as compatible with staying put. See, all you need to do is call the person you'd have otherwise dumped your "primary partner," negotiate some terms, and everyone's happy! Never mind that however much hurt there'd be initially, it's a whole lot better - unequivocally, assuming not a marriage/kids scenario - to be dumped by someone who's desperately curious about other people, and to then go on to find someone else who's not.

For the most part, Savage ignores the banal reality that the desire to 'see other people' is often enough less about sexual curiosity and more about wanting to leave a relationship. To his credit, he sometimes suggests that couples first establish themselves as solid via monogamy, and only once stable bring up the possibility of other people. But when does "stable" announce itself? How would that ever be mutual?

Which is, I think, where Oppenheimer's going here:

My sense is that this kind of radical honesty may work best for couples who already have strong marriages. Where there is love and equality and no history of betrayal, one partner asking if she can have a fling may not be so risky. Her partner either says yes, and it happens, you hope, with only the best consequences; or the partner says no, in which case their relationship endures, maybe with a little disappointment on one side, a little suspicion on the other.

That is the ideal situation. What if the revelation that a partner is thinking about others creates a shift, one that plagues the marriage? Words have consequences, and most couples, knowing that jealousy is real and can beset any of us, opt for a tacit code of reticence. Not just about sex but about all sorts of things: there are couples who can express opinions about each other’s clothing choices or cooking or taste in movies, and there are couples who cannot. [....]

Where a relationship is troubled, and one partner senses, correctly, that aloneness is an imminent threat, then the other partner asking for permission to have a fling is no neutral act. If you are scared of losing your partner, you may say yes to anything she asks, including permission for an affair that will wound you deeply.
Savage's ideal of keeping couples together despite the desires of one or both partners to see other people is actually conservative as well as quite lovely when he's referring to, say, the parents of young children, or ideals for the marriage union. That is, when there's something to preserve. But in run-of-the-mill boyfriend situations, girlfriend situations, the other-people barometer ought to be maintained.


David Schraub said...

I'm a little wary of being too dismissive of Savage's default position (that the couple should try to make it work), for a couple of reasons.

First, I think there are a plethora of explanations why a person in a pre-marital relationship might have a wandering eye that have little to do with a subconscious desire to want out -- and at least a few tied explicitly to their (conscious or not) belief that they don't, and do see their current partner as their future spouse. A friend of mine who was in an open relationship with the man she intends to marry told me over lunch that -- as pleased as she was to have met her soulmate -- "did I have to meet him at 21?" I.e., the very fact that she knew this guy was the one, coupled with the fact that she didn't feel ready to say "I'm done" w/r/t experimenting with other partners at age 21, was a key impetus to her desiring an open relationship. Likewise, some people who are relatively less experienced might be unhappy about that fact independent of their overall happiness with their partner. Or one partner in a relationship might simply want to try certain things that another one doesn't want to do. There are lots of other reasons I could name as well. I'm dubious that simply thinking about other people -- without other symptoms -- is on its own more likely to signal "I want out" than any of the above.

But perhaps more importantly, I think Savage's default assumption represents a more cautious approach that I think is appropriate here. Basically, in the situation Savage is laying out -- where the relationship seems basically nice-enough (it's not DTMFA territory), but one or both members of the couple is thinking about other people -- there seem to be two potential "problem" scenarios:

(1) The relationship really is a good one and the proto-wanderer harbors no desire to end it. In this case, informing him or her that, really, their desires are a signal that they should break-up would end up breaking a perfectly healthy, potentially otherwise permanent pairdom -- something that would be really bad.

(2) The wandering eye is really a signal that the relationship should end. In which case, telling them that they should try (or talk about) the open thing to keep the relationship afloat would involve maintaining the relationship beyond its natural death-date, at least until other symptoms of its shortcomings manifest (if there are no other symptoms, then I think it's overwhelmingly likely we're really in scenario #1). But all that means is that a more-or-less fine, but not ultimately till-death-do-us-part, relationship carries on awhile longer than it otherwise would. That's not great, but it also strikes me as significantly less of a problem than the negative upshot of guessing wrong in scenario #1.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I see what you're saying about how, if you meet the right person too young, Savage's idea would be, in theory, a way to let that person still be the right one. And I think Savage has been helpful insofar as he's right to point out that noticing other people - as in noticing and that's it - is a natural fact of human life, in or out of a relationship, and that it's not some grand sign from above that a relationship must end. (The "romantic" idea that people in relationships only see their partners as attractive is, well, creepy, especially given the obviously creepy repercussions if a relationship doesn't work.)

But... a few things. One, it's nice to use the term "partner" and everything, but among most people, even progressive sorts, there's going to be a difference in what men and women feel comfortable doing in a relationship, for the reasons I mention in the post. Without first fundamentally challenging the idea that men inherently want to play the field, and women not, without not only getting at the fact that this is mostly if not entirely social construction, the resulting "freedom" exists, in practice, for men.

While it's great that your friend's approach worked for her, I suspect that for more people, taking that uncertainty at 21 to mean a break-up and possible one day get together again (a break-up doesn't have to be a permanent break, but time officially apart is likely easier to negotiate than openness while ostensibly together) would make more sense.

Or, as an alternative, deciding that dating experience from, say, 16-20 was enough to render more experiences unnecessary. Because 21 sounds young, but is kind of borderline - some do arrive at that age with enough exes that they won't feel too young for what the next stage has in store. (What's absurd, I think, is to assume that early-20s is inherently too soon to begin a lifelong relationship, as though all relationships that begin before 30 are people's first relationships ever. Different people, different timetables, so it's pointless to throw away a good thing because it didn't start at Official Yuppie Engagement Age.)

I mean, I might actually point back to a couple things Savage himself says to back up my take. One is, "Every relationship fails until one doesn't." There's something to be said for remembering that a pre-marital, pre-kids relationship is a good bit more fluid, and that you really don't want to be tying someone down who you're not sure about. Since "other people" curiosity (as in, feeling compelled to actually get involved with other people) is very often an indicator that interest isn't so great, better to allow the other member of the couple a chance, while still young (and, if female and interested in reproducing, fertile), to find someone else.

This, in turn, gets us into Lori Gottlieb territory - that advice to women to "settle" while young. I think a lot of relationships had when young get retroactively classified as "the one that got away," the retroactive classifier conveniently forgetting her own tepid level of interest - and whichever other flaws of the relationship - at the time. So I suppose I don't think of the Scenario 1 you describe as tragedy of all tragedies. If there was uncertainty on the part of one partner, and a sense of not being their partner's first choice on the other, then maybe ending an otherwise fine relationship's for the best.

The other is that Savage himself only advises opening up a relationship once it's mighty well established. In principle. He then goes on to advise some couples who seem not really at that point to go that route, but in principle, Savageism isn't about telling college-age couples who've been together monogamously for a year that if one has a wandering eye, that's totally OK as well as compatible with keeping the relationship going.

PG said...

I liked the article's noting how complicated consent can be.

Where a relationship is troubled, and one partner senses, correctly, that aloneness is an imminent threat, then the other partner asking for permission to have a fling is no neutral act. If you are scared of losing your partner, you may say yes to anything she asks, including permission for an affair that will wound you deeply. “The problem is that with many of these couples, one partner wants it, and the other says yes because she’s afraid that he will leave her,” says Janis Abrahms Spring, a psychologist and couples’ therapist whose book, “After the Affair,” is about couples badly damaged by infidelity.

Spring is inclined to a pessimism as strong as Savage’s optimism — after all, she works with couples who have ended up in counseling — but she offers a persuasive reminder that there may be no such thing as total honesty. Even when we think we are enthusiastically assenting to a partner’s request, we may not know ourselves as well as we think we do. This is true not just for monogamy but also for sexual acts within marriage. Some of Savage’s toughest critics are feminists who think he can be a bit too glib with his injunction to please our partners.

Another aspect, which I think the article doesn't quite capture, is that in a generation that grew up reading Savage Love (and viewing internet porn, and blahblah HBO destroyed our innocence), at least post-high school there's a significant social pressure not to be seen as sexually boring. If a straight guy says he's uncomfortable with pegging, it gets interrogated as "Are you homophobic? Are you afraid of latent homosexuality? Why don't you want your prostate stimulated?"

Unwillingness to have either oneself or one's partner be sexually active in any way with others is regarded as prudish and excessively possessive. White Republican bankers with kids are getting divorced by their wives of seven years because of fights over whether to have sex with people watching. The old cliche of a bachelor party with strippers or even hookers seems increasingly pointless: it's hardly a last hurrah if his wife isn't expected to object to his hanging out with sex workers in the future (possibly in her company).

In that sense, I think there's a lot to say in favor of people's being super up-front about what their sexual needs are, well before anyone's said "I love you," much less moved in or gotten married. If lifelong monogamy isn't going to do it for you without some threesomes in the mix, get that out there early on. If you have a horror of "sharing" your partner, say that too. And let's not overestimate how much we can change people in this regard.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I get the sense that there's a huge disparity between Savage-land and the deep dark secret that is what really goes on in (most) marriages. The boring truth, I suspect, is that there aren't that many fundamentally non-monogamous men or women out there, and that in the social classes that marry and stay married these days, there's enough premarital exploration going on that the people with whom one would have been kind of OK with dating, but who wouldn't have been enough to eliminate major curiosity re: other people, are passed over prior to meeting one's spouse. So yes, people should be upfront, but my sense is that it would be safe to assume by default that someone won't be requiring an open marriage.