Is Monogamy Realistic? No, Says Dan Savage

Writer/activist Dan Savage and I have a lot in common.

We’re both sex columnists; we’re both parents of teenage children; and we’re both married to men who look hot in their bathing suits. But when it comes to talking about sex, I’m as bland as vanilla baby pudding compared to the spicy, brutally honest, often controversial Savage.

His advice column, “Savage Love,” is syndicated in independent newspapers around the country (including Chicago’s Reader), and his lectures draw huge audiences on college campuses. I met him in October at Chicago Ideas Week, where he spoke about his newest book, “American Savage: Insights, Slights and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love and Politics,” and his “It Gets Better” project supporting LGBT youth.

Privately, we discussed his views on monogamy in modern marriages, which he discusses at length in the book. Here are highlights from our conversation, which I hope will spur a dialogue:

Marjie Killeen: Do you think monogamy is a realistic expectation in modern marriages and long-term relationships?

Dan Savage: It is unrealistic. The stats show that expecting someone to be monogamous all their life—especially that your very special snowflake marriage will be untouched by this thing that happens to almost all marriages—is unrealistic. I’m not saying that people who want monogamy shouldn’t go for it and shouldn’t expect their partner to honor the monogamous commitment they made. I just want people to be realistic about what happens the day after an infidelity. Who do you want to be?

The conversation we need to be having is not is monogamy good or bad—it’s how much importance you’re going to place on perfectly executed monogamous behavior over the course of five decades of marriage. And if you think monogamy is more important than every other consideration, then you’re probably going to get divorced.

Are there times when you think it’s OK to cheat?

It is glib and unhelpful for people to say cheating is always wrong. People write me about real circumstances for which there is no good or easy answer. I’ve received letters from people where their partner of 25 years is done with sex, refuses to have it. They (the writer) have been doing without sex for years, and they’re going out of their minds. But their partner is dependent on them for health care, they have small children, or they can’t afford to break up or get divorced. I look at that situation and I say, “Cheat. Cheating is the least worst option.” There are higher forms of loyalty than the loyalty you show with your [private parts].

Why tell somebody to end what could be a very fulfilling partnership and a terrific friendship because of sex? Is it more honorable to divorce and then find sex than it is to stay married and stay faithful in other ways, and get sex elsewhere? Especially when it’s nothing your partner values or desires? That’s not cheating. That’s relieving your partner of a responsibility and a burden they don’t wish to shoulder.

Some women, as they get older, do lose interest in sex. Is it unfair for one person in a relationship to opt out of sex?

It’s not unfair to take that stance unless you’re telling the guy in your life that he’s not allowed to get it elsewhere—that you unilaterally declare an end to his sex life and that he’s somehow obligated to shut systems down at the precise moment you do. You may be happy without it, but your husband isn’t a dog you can have castrated.

When you talk about being “monogam-ish” you don’t just mean forgiving your partner for the occasional slip up or affair. You mean having an ongoing understanding that some infidelity is OK.

Monogam-ish isn’t prescriptive; it’s a term I coined to describe my relationship. We’re mostly monogamous, much more monogamous than not. But there is some allowance and wiggle room around the edges that we both agreed to that makes us both happy—which is different than cheating.

If you open the door to other partners, isn’t that like opening Pandora’s box? How do you navigate that without it getting out of control?

That hasn’t been my experience. What it can do is force you to have a lot of detailed conversations about what’s permissible. It makes you communicate in a very straightforward and constructive and honest way. That would be good for a relationship.

A lot of people react very aggressively to any suggestion that a non-monogamous relationship might be loving or healthy or good or something that they might be interested in one day. And then 20 years into their marriage, their point of view may change. Most people that I’ve met who are in non-monogamous relationships were monogamous at one time. So keep an open mind and do what’s right for you now, but you might find that after 15 or 20 years, it’s not as important.