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June 15, 2011 9:00 AM Practical Monogamy

By Benjamin Dueholm

There’s a fine scene in the 2009 film An Education in which the schoolgirl-protagonist Jenny (Carey Mulligan) discovers that her older paramour David (Peter Sarsgaard) is a not-especially-scrupulous sort of businessman. Disgusted, she starts to walk away. He catches up and pleads with her, “Don’t be so bourgeois.” Jenny comes back, and eventually learns—at some cost to her—how very unconventional David is.

I’m not filing any briefs for the idea of bourgeois respectability, but the scene and its aftermath are a frank reminder that you can’t escape the restrictions of bourgeois respectability without forfeiting its protections, too. This is a problem I chewed over in my piece about Dan Savage for the Monthly a while back, and I thought of it again when I came across this sad, angry ‘I, Anonymous’ column over at Dan Savage’s stomping grounds, The Stranger . (The ‘I, Anonymous’ column is a confessional or accusatory note submitted by a reader.) Here’s a taste:

I was totally unfamiliar with the concept of polyamory before you introduced me to it. But I was lonely, and you were gorgeous, so even though you professed to be happily married, I threw caution to the wind…You were a matched set of Eastside suburbanites who wanted to feel edgy and be anything other than the child-rearing automatons that you are.. Now I’ve been sacrificed on the altar of your doomed marriage while you and Hubby dash ass-over-teakettle back into monogamy.

Speaking for child-rearing suburbanite automatons everywhere, let me just say that banking on getting us to be anything but child-rearing suburbanite automatons is a bad idea. We might be stupid, reckless, and selfish, but whatever else we may be, we tend to be deeply anchored in our child-rearing suburbanite automation. Most of us endure some level of dissatisfaction to stay that way, and just as many of us will think nothing of leaving others dissatisfied, too. I’m not saying that’s noble or good, but it’s life.

Among the many reasons for not attempting polyamory in my marriage is the thought of what it would mean to look my wife in the face after I have broken her heart, or she mine, or either of us someone else’s, by our own consciously-agreed-upon choices, and then to recommit to our marriage and our children. This is not me being virtuous. It’s just that I lack the kind of emotional musculature that my grandchildren will probably have in spades when it comes to managing cut-throat intimate transactions. Most of the people who write in to Dan Savage or anyone else to explain why sexual exclusivity is making them crazy are doing so because they want to stay married. They are looking for ‘variety,’ which some people don’t mind providing. But to any third party considering getting involved in this kind of situation, I would urge caution. However thrilling such an arrangement may be, at some point the music will stop and you’re likely to be the one left out.

That’s not to say that staying inside the lines of culturally-sanctioned mating rituals is any sure guide to happiness. Everyone has their heart broken. But walking into the middle of a “happily married” couple’s marriage-enhancement technique—that’s a pretty avoidable heartbreak. I’m no expert on polyamory, but you can’t read more than two stories like this one without noticing the endless refrain of ‘that’s not polyamory.’ Polyamory, you see, is a very communication-heavy, egalitarian, and respectful thing. If so, I may as well stipulate that monogamy is awesome, and every couple who isn’t awesome to each other isn’t really monogamous. The unfortunate fact is that people are bastards, and any human relationship premised on the human ability to never be a bastard is going to fail its participants, and all the more cruelly because it preys upon their idealism.

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Benjamin Dueholm is a writer and Lutheran pastor working in Chicago.