Forsaking All Others: Is Monogamy for Everyone?

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In Woody Allen’s 2008 movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz play two Spanish painters in a passionate but volatile off-again-on-again marriage. The problem, both lovers explain, is that their relationship has always been missing something. That mysterious lacking element, they decide, is Cristina, a beautiful American tourist with whom they eventually embark on a polyamorous affair.

The movie is billed as a comedy, not a meditation on marriage and monogamy, and—spoiler alert—none of the women in the film, monogamous or otherwise, ends up terribly satisfied in her relationships. Still, for the average American prude like myself, the film raises some interesting questions about the expectations and realities of modern marriage.

I watch Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and I read about the exploits of French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his model-singer wife, Carla Bruni (both have had public extramarital dalliances, and Bruni once famously told a reporter, “I bore myself silly with monogamy.”). Then I see that France and Spain have lower divorce rates than the United States does, and I wonder—religious imperatives aside—is fidelity as crucial to the success of a marriage as I’ve always believed? Or are the Europeans onto something?

The Talk vs. the Walk
In 2001, a group of social scientists compared two landmark surveys on national sexual attitudes in France and the United States. “Overall, adults in France and in the U.S. are remarkably alike in their sexual behavior,” the study concluded. In both countries, more than 90 percent of couples who lived together reported having only one partner in the previous year. The French were actually likely to stay longer in a monogamous relationship than Americans were. “The talk is usually bigger than the action,” the lead researcher told the New York Times. French sexual libertarianism, it seems, plays out more in the head than in the bed.

“In France, they value fidelity. They go into marriage like we do, but if someone slips, they’re more able to accept that life is complicated,” explains Pamela Druckerman, the author of Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee. “There isn’t the same level of shame.” In other words, the telling thing isn’t that late French president François Mitterrand had a mistress; it’s that his widow invited the mistress to her husband’s funeral.

Try to imagine Jackie Kennedy welcoming Marilyn Monroe graveside and one can see, as Druckerman says, “there’s something about this sin [of adultery] that’s really special for Americans.” The Americans she interviewed often felt their infidelity was so heinous that they couldn’t reconcile it with their idea of themselves as good people. “Every single person said to me, ‘I’m not the kind of person to have an extramarital affair.’” Explains clinical psychologist Elaine Ducharme, “When people have affairs in this country, there is a perpetrator, a betrayer, and a victim.” It’s not just a slipup. “We internalize it,” says Ducharme.

Mystery and Transparency
The roots of the Continental-American disconnect on infidelity might be traced to differing understandings of the individual as part of a romantic partnership. In 1989, American psychiatrist and family therapist Frank Pittman published a book called Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy that became the go-to reference for counselors working with couples on infidelity. The book endorsed total honesty and transparency in a marriage. Cheating became not about the sex, but about the lying. This kind of transparency is “unseductive and unsexy” to the French, observes Druckerman. They see no problem, even see an allure, in maintaining a private life within a marriage.

“To some extent, no one is cut out for monogamy,” evolutionary psychologist David Barash observes. His book, The Myth of Monogamy, written with his wife, psychiatrist Judith Eve Lipton, explores the rarity of monogamy in the animal kingdom. Still, it is the norm of our species, not to mention Barash and Lipton’s own choice, and so their follow-up, Strange Bedfellows, explored the biological and social benefits of monogamy. “We also believe that for many people—perhaps most—there can be some genuine and worthy benefits: not just facilitated child-rearing, but also trust, caring, [and] greater efficiency in meeting life’s goals.”

Life is long, and its goals are often moving targets. “[Marriage is] a relationship that’s continually being renegotiated—even if we aren’t conscious of the fact,” writes marriage counselor and sex therapist Tammy Nelson in a recent article on “The New Monogamy” in Psychotherapy Networker. Of the couples Nelson sees in her practice redefining their traditional concepts of marriage and monogamy, she says, “It’s far better that we negotiate with each other with honesty, sensitivity, and eyes fully open to what we’re doing than simply engage in magical thinking that it’ll all work out if we just keep pressing blindly forward.”

It’s worth noting that Cristina, of Barcelona, in the end decides polyamory is not for her. And if the rumors are correct, Sarkozy and Bruni are headed for Splitsville. Perhaps it’s wise of the French to keep their secret gardens. Certainly, the long view is more important. Still, I think I’ll cling to my quaint American view of monogamy for now. For some of us, fidelity is sexy.



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