Advocates of polyamory might say that they don’t mean those kinds of desires, but that is precisely the point: The mere experience of a desire does not tell us much about whether the desire would be appropriate to act on. Radical honesty too often conflates the experience of desire with the moral judgment that acting according to the desire is a good and appropriate moral choice.
[And with that, here’s this week’s Thursday Throwback, originally published Dec 14, 2016.]
Perel wants to change the way we think about infidelity. Instead of seeing it as a pathological and immoral impulse that invariably leaves trauma and destruction in its wake, she wants us to understand that extramarital yearnings are all too natural, and that affairs are terribly, perhaps even inevitably, human. “Monogamy may not be a part of human nature but transgression surely is,” she says. “And sometimes even happy people cheat.” If, like Seth, we want to build relationships that will last, then we may need to share his realism about what such a relationship might look like, and what kind of imperfections we are willing to tolerate.
Let’s start by conceding that not all infidelities are created equal. For that matter, as Perel notes, not all of them are necessarily sexual. A monogamous yet emotionally unavailable man who often belittles his wife while furtively accruing impulsive debts which endanger their shared financial future has failed to uphold his side of the marriage, whether we call that “cheating” or not. In such circumstances, an affair on the woman’s part may be an understandable exploratory attempt to find a soft landing spot before deciding to make the perilous jump into the unknown. It’s a rationalist fantasy to insist that people should measure their relationships on ledger sheets, discarding a marriage when the math says it’s a bad investment. Lost among the trees and undergrowth of day-to-day living, it can be difficult for an unhappy spouse to gain a forest-wide perspective — am I giving up too easily? Do I expect too much? Will he change if only I stay patient and supportive? Abstract truisms about the odds of finding a better partner aren’t much comfort in times like these. The visceral experience of happiness and fulfillment with another person may be what finally provides the necessary clarity and courage to make such a drastic change.
And granted, some people simply don’t feel strongly about sexual exclusivity. Defenders of monogamy who insist that alternative arrangements are inevitably selfish or doomed might find themselves flummoxed like Friedrich Hayek was when confronted by the fact of J.S. Mill and Harriet Taylor’s unconventional relationship, which, as John Gray observes, worked for them with no apparent harm to any of the involved parties. As Ben Sixsmith says, dishonesty is typically the real corrosive agent in infidelity; an honest open marriage might stand just as good a chance of success as an exclusive one.
Nonetheless, however inclined we might be to live and let live, it’s hard not to feel weary as we see this whole topic approaching us with an insolent swagger we recognize all too well. Akash Kapur wisely said that reinvented sex and a remade economy are the twin pillars of the utopian project, so whenever a progressive starts talking about either one, you know what to expect.You roll your eyes and think, oh, God, here we go, here comes polyamory, the weaponized cutting edge, the hot new fashion in virtue signaling. If it were merely a matter of different strokes for different folks, that would be one thing, but it’s inherent in the nature of progressivism to proselytize. What’s good for us must be objectively good for all. It’s progress, after all. The goal is to transcend limits, restraints, particularism, judgment, and vulnerabilities. If you object to the idea of unwanted intrusions into your marriage, you’re as benighted and pitiful as those backward bigots who feel uneasy about unassimilated immigrants.
Progressivism envisions as its ideal a Rousseauian state of detached independence, in which anything inconvenient, even family members, can be sloughed off with no lasting ill-effects. The ideal of something like lifelong monogamy can weigh heavily on progressive shoulders — why should we endure anything that’s suboptimal when we can just replace it? Why should we strive for an unreal standard of conduct if we’re likely to fail anyway? Why don’t we just abolish the idea of higher standards and revel in the leveling equality of our flawed imperfection? The cynicism that passes for wisdom among the perpetually-cool asserts that anyone who sees failure in pursuit of a difficult goal as an incentive to redouble one’s efforts, rather than a confirmation of hopelessness, is most likely in denial, or a hypocrite just waiting to be unmasked. Disapproving judgment is one vice never to be tolerated — until, perhaps, some clever conservative claims that judging other people is his sexual kink, at which point they’ll be compelled to celebrate it.
Perel predictably attacks the unreal fantasy of the soulmate who magically satisfies all of our needs, a blanket rationalization which has no doubt provided cover for many trysts in motel beds. I still wait in vain to see a progressive follow that trite insight up with the acknowledgement that many of our “needs” are nothing of the sort, merely fleeting impulses that we would do well to deny and eventually outgrow.