Fidelity in Marriage: A New Ethic?

Jul 16th, 2011 | By | Category: Ethics, Featured Issues

Sexual scandals seem to abound right now in our culture:  Politicians, media leaders and former presidents, as well as the normal sexual perversion emanating from Hollywood.  Are our expectations about fidelity in marriage too high and, in fact, unrealistic?  Will this same expectation of basic fidelity in marriage now be extended to same-sex marriages?  Since our culture is now accommodating itself to same-sex marriage (witness the recent legislation from the state of New York), will our culture now change the ethical expectations of marital fidelity?  Dan Savage, America?s leading sex-advice columnist, for twenty years has been articulating a sexual ethic that challenges the ethic of fidelity in marriage.  In his weekly column, In Savage Love, he criticizes the obsession of America with fidelity in marriage.  In its place, Savage calls for what writer Mark Oppenheimer calls the ?American Gay Male? model, after that community?s tolerance for pornography, fetishes and a variety of partnered arrangements, from strict monogamy to wide openness.  Oppenheimer observes that ?Savage believes monogamy is right for many couples.  But he believes that our discourse about it and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest.  Some people need more than one partner, he writes, just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped; others need lovers of both sexes.  We can?t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them.  In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission.  In both cases, honesty is the best policy.?  Among other things, Savage is also a committed advocate of same-sex marriage.  So, his support of a new ethic of marriage is dangerous, for the gay lifestyle is stereotyped as compulsively promiscuous.  Nonetheless, Savage ardently defends his position.  He believes that a more flexible attitude within marriage may be what the ?straight? community needs.  Oppenheimer writes that ?Treating monogamy, rather than honesty or joy or humor, as the main indicator of a successful marriage gives people unrealistic expectations of themselves and their partners.  And that, Savage says, destroys more families that it saves.?

Savage has been writing his column, now syndicated in more than 50 newspapers across America, since 1991.  Raised in Chicago in a Catholic family, he is married to Terry Miller?a same-sex marriage.  He and his ?husband? adopted a son, DJ, as an infant.  He and his partner have published a video project entitled It Gets Better, a manifesto to gay youth to tough it out, with all the bullying and ostracism that still exists for gay guys, for life will get better.  Gay marriages are possible and you can be happy, he argues.  Out of his own life as a gay man he forged his sexual ethic, which is at the core of his newspaper column.  At bottom, he believes that we need ?a more realistic sexual ethic [that] would prize honesty, a little flexibility and, when necessary, forgiveness over absolute monogamy.?  In his own same-sex marriage, Savage and Miller practice what they call ?monogamish,? allowing occasional infidelities, which they are honest about.  According to Oppenheimer, during the interview, Savage and Miller admitted to nine such ?affairs.?  Savage offers somewhat humorously his dictum for marriage:  ?GGG?good, giving and game.?  By ?game? he means ?skilled, generous and up for anything.?  Savage writes that ?The point is that people?particularly those who value monogamy?need to understand why being monogamous is so much harder that they?ve been led to believe.?  For that reason, Savage believes that the male gay community might be able to show America the way to a new sexual ethic that is honest and forgiving and therefore can make room for certain infidelities in marriage.  The goal is to keep the marriage together?almost at any cost.  Savage implores us to know the people we marry and to know ourselves and to, therefore, plan accordingly.

As I read this lengthy article on the new sexual ethic of Dan Savage, I alternated between disbelief and pity.  Disbelief and shock that such an ethic is even worthy of discussion; pity that, as a civilization, we have come to a point where a nationally syndicated columnist can propose such an ethic.  It certainly validates a dialectic I have observed many times in Western culture:  What was once unthinkable becomes debatable and then gradually becomes acceptable.  How then should we think about Dan Savage?  Several thoughts:

  1. Our culture has already made the decision to accommodate to the gay lifestyle and now, it seems, to same-sex marriage.  New York now joins five other states, plus the District of Columbia, in recognizing same-sex marriages.  Gradually, the other states will no doubt fall in line with making same-sex marriage the moral and ethical equivalent of heterosexual marriage.  For that reason, Russ Douthat writes that ?Over the decades ahead, the[se political] choices will gradually transform gay marriage from an idea into a culture:  they?ll determine the social expectations associated with gay wedlock, the gay marriage and divorce rates, the differences and similarities between gay and lesbian unions, the way marriage interacts with gay parenting, and much more besides.  They?ll also help determine gay marriage?s impact on the broader culture of matrimony in America.?  For that reason, Savage?s proposal for a new sexual ethic, modeled on the gay community?s sexual ethic, is disturbing, one in which infidelity is an expectation to be tolerated, accepted and forgiven.  Douthat correctly observes that ?The trouble is that straight culture already experimented with exactly this kind of model, with disastrous results.?  I agree with his additional observation that ?institutions tend to be strongest when they make significant moral demands, and weaker when they pre-emptily accommodate themselves to human culture.?  A successful marriage culture depends not only on a general ideal of love and commitment, but on specific promises, exclusions and taboos.  ?The less specific and more inclusive an institution becomes, the more likely people are to approach it casually, if they enter it at all.?
  2. What is the best foundation for a successful marriage culture?  I believe strongly that it is our Creator?s Word and the ideal He constructs in His Creation Ordinance.  Our Creator links the institution of marriage to two fundamental realities?gender difference and procreation.  You cannot study His Ordinance in Genesis 1 and 2 and come away with any other foundation.  But you also must read on into Genesis 3, one of the most depressing chapters in the Bible.  In it one sees the fall of the human race into sin and rebellion.  We are living with those consequences now.  The fallenness of humanity has produced the waves of new sexual ethics and experimentation and the ongoing challenge to God?s ideal for marriage.  Marriage is difficult in a fallen world but its parameters are clear.  The Bible is filled with bigamous and polygamous relationships?and none of them are positive.  The Bible presents, often in graphic detail, the tragedy and ultimate dysfunction that come with abandoning God?s Creation Ordinance.  Dan Savage is proposing an ethic that is really not that new.  Humanity has been experimenting with this ethic for 5,000 years?and one cannot find any positive results of this ethic.  God has spoken on the ethic of marriage and His words are profoundly challenging but require only one response?obedience.  When we obey, He promises blessing.  When we disobey, he ?gives us over? (Romans 1:18-32) to our base desires and the self-destructive lifestyle choices we have observed throughout the history of humanity.  This is not a new sexual ethic?it is a very old one warmed over for the 21st century.  It will fail, just like every other one outside of God?s ideal has failed.  May God give us the courage to stand for His ideal for marriage?Genesis 2:18-25.

See Mark Oppenheimer?s article on Dan Savage in the New York Times Magazine (3 July 2011), pp. 22-27, 46; and Douthat?s essay in the New York Times (4 July 2011). PRINT PDF

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4 Comments to “Fidelity in Marriage: A New Ethic?”

  1. June says:

    Thanks, Dr. Eckman for your clear statements from the Bible. God gave His commands for our best , knowing the sad results when we disobey.

  2. Bomsaka says:

    As a true African, I find homosexuality as abhorrent but homosexuals as people who needs God’s grace. I am amazed to hear that a person is proud for allowing a fellow male to use his back passage for sex, something even animals do not do! Where is America heading if not destruction?

  3. Lexie Rafael says:

    I agree with Dan Savage when he speaks that what marriages need is constant honesty. You must speak to your partner about what your needs are, what you are feeling and how you see him/her. Im not too gallopy with the “conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission.” I think we can still be faithful to our partners with his suggestion of being all out honest. I am married and we have problems, but after being taught to be very honest during marriage counseling things are looking up! I thank you for posting this and I want to say I am up for same sex marriage. Thanks.

  4. Louella says:

    I for one have a lot of friends of the third sex, however I am against same sex marriage. Dr. Eckman is correct, our society now accommodates the “gay lifestyle” however that doesn’t mean that it is just OK for many states to even consider accommodating same-sex marriage. We have a responsibility.