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
Mystery and Transparency
The roots of the
“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.