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The Monogamy Trap

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We were at dinner with friends -- a couple we've known for years -- when the topic of monogamy came up.

Allow me to set the stage: He's 45 but looks, easily, 35. Of Spanish descent. An indisputably swarthy, handsome dude with a huge brain and the ability to talk anyone into anything. She's the quieter of the pair, diminutive and pretty, about 10 years younger than he and deceptively smart. Of all the Minnesota couples we know, this is the one most likely to be asked to do a reality show or be interviewed by a glossy magazine. They're glamorous, beautiful. Well traveled, well read.

In fact, it was when the topic of books came up that he -- let's call him Diego -- mentioned that he'd been reading "Against Love: A Polemic," by Laura Kipnis. Kipnis makes a compelling case against traditional marriage, he told us, and deconstructs entirely the "myth of fidelity." She reveals monogamous marriage to be nothing more than an artificial construct, he went on, devised by society to keep people docile and in their place.

What's more, the polemic was given to Diego by a brilliant young scholar he'd recently come to know. A woman of just 24 who was, in many ways, wiser than he. She had become a soulmate, an intellectual companion for him, someone who provided a level of stimulation he did not find elsewhere in his life.

I glanced to my left, where Diego's wife, Sara, sat. She smiled and nodded, her eyes unwavering when they met mine. Then I shifted to my right where my husband sat, looking absolutely sick.

Once home, I looked up the book (which came out in 2003) and discovered that both it and Kipnis are very well thought of in academic circles. She's a professor of media studies at Northwestern and the author of four books -- "Against Love" seems to be the most widely-known -- with endorsements from people I revere, such as the late Christopher Hitchens and David Shields.

Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review that contained these words: "With a razor-sharp intelligence and a gleeful sense of irony, Kipnis dismantles the myths of romance surrounding monogamy and makes the case for why adultery is a reasonable, often-used, escape hatch."

The terrific poet, memoirist and social critic Meghan O'Rourke wrote a piece for Slate that included this dystopian summary of "Against Love":

What's curious, though, is that even though marriage doesn't seem to make Americans very happy, they keep getting married (and remarried). Kipnis' essential question is: Why? Why, in what seems like an age of great social freedom, would anyone willingly consent to a life of constricting monogamy? Why has marriage (which she defines broadly as any long-term monogamous relationship) remained a polestar even as ingrained ideas about race, gender, and sexuality have been overturned?

Kipnis' answer is that marriage is an insidious social construct, harnessed by capitalism to get us to have kids and work harder to support them. Her quasi-Marxist argument sees desire as inevitably subordinated to economics. And the price of this subordination is immense: Domestic cohabitation is a "gulag"; marriage is the rough equivalent of a credit card with zero percent APR that, upon first misstep, zooms to a punishing 30 percent and compounds daily. You feel you owe something, or you're afraid of being alone, and so you "work" at your relationship, like a prisoner in Siberia ice-picking away at the erotic permafrost.


On screen, the ideas seemed so rational. I was unmoved, simply considering. I wondered, 'Does government-sanctioned marriage trap us? Is monogamy an unnatural and wrongheaded ideal?'

The debate came at a very interesting time for me.

I had recently finished the manuscript for "The Forever Marriage," a novel full of infidelities -- each one a betrayal that's understandable on some level. But as I have written before, editors were reacting strongly against the behavior of these flawed people. Especially my heroine.

She's a woman named Carmen who has never loved her husband: She cheats on him early in the novel -- shortly after they become engaged -- then again when they've been married for a decade and have three kids. And though you might not like her in these moments (I didn't like Carmen sometimes, even as I was channeling and writing her) her actions make sense. The early infidelity has to do with trying to avoid an epic mistake. The later ones are a response to exactly what Kipnis describes: the doomed, Gulag-like nature of a marriage that isn't working.

I provide a foil -- Carmen's best friend -- who questions and insists there are better ways of handling the situation. Divorce, for instance. But it becomes clear that the answers aren't quite so easy. Divorce has echoes, victims other than the adult spouses. Infidelity typically does not.

And there's a male character who cheats because his wife is a plastic doll: bulimic and shopping-obsessed. He married her, yes, but she's a woman who shudders whenever his hand hovers near her midriff because all she can think about (or talk about) is whether or not she's fat.

There are other infidelities in the book that I won't reveal, some sexual, others that occur in spirit and mind. Viewed as a whole, my story is riddled with people trying to escape their bad, broken marriages. Yet the theme -- as the title implies -- is that marriage between good people is positive, a force that sustains and improves us, a "forever" institution.

Ultimately, despite my own failures in this arena, this is exactly what I believe.

I'll admit, my judgments when it comes to infidelity are wildly inconsistent. John Edwards, for instance? Scum.

Whereas Bill Clinton... ah, I see many very human reasons for the foibles of this man. He's so dear and Bacchanalian, weak in the face of glazed doughnuts and French fries and voluptuous young staff. When he was interviewed on "60 Minutes" in 2011 and admitted his moral failings, I was nearly tearful with empathy and respect.

And it has nothing to do with my feelings about their wives. I'm a huge fan of Hillary Clinton's and believe she may yet make an excellent president. I suspect that Elizabeth Edwards was -- as this NY Magazine article depicts -- a spotlight freak and a shrew.

What's at issue for me, I think, is intent. John Edwards seemed to act out of the most venal of impulses. His infidelity was shrouded in dishonesty on every level: financial, political. He even denied his own child. Bill Clinton waited until he was caught to 'fess up... and I'm not gullible enough to believe the kneeling intern was his first. But he hadn't tangled all manner of state and other matters into his sexual life. He was acting badly, but in a way that was simple and mortal.

"Why do men chase women?" asks Rose, the beleaguered wife (played by Olympia Dukakis) in "Moonstruck." Then she answers her own question. "I think it's because they fear death."

In a possibly related side note, our friend Diego had just emerged from (successful) treatment for a potentially fatal illness when he broached the subject of infidelity at our table. His wife had been stalwart through a long year of worry and pain and medical expense. My sense that night was that she was being supportive still.

The truth is, I have no idea if Diego and Sara had adopted the theories in Kipnis's polemic and begun breaking the bonds of monogamy, or if his inquiry were strictly an intellectual exercise. Neither would surprise me. And it doesn't really matter. Whichever it is -- a way of life or a topic for debate -- he's certainly being honest about it. His wife is in on the conversation. It's a personal choice.

But here's what was interesting to me. As a married couple, John and I were provoked and unsettled. It was one thing to consider the pressures and exigencies facing characters in my book. But dealing head-on with the possibility that nice, thoughtful, happily coupled friends of ours could have this arrangement?

It was... well, what's the word I'm looking for? Weird.

I'm an academic by training. So I feigned a cool, objective approach (as we academics do). As I said, I researched Kipnis that night after dinner and found her writing to be insightful and trenchant, exactly as Diego had said I would. Meanwhile, my husband was quiet and a little (for him) moody. He worked for a bit and scratched the cat's neck, then told me he was tired and going to brush his teeth.

I spent a few more minutes on Google, traveling the links from Laura Kipnis to Waren Buffett's open marriage, but shut down quickly when "Interested in polyamory?" ads began popping up.

By this time, the bedroom was dark and John was already in bed. When I slipped in, he moved so his naked, nearly foot-taller body encircled mine and I understood (in a completely non-academic, subjective way) that I'm a person who loves the sameness of skin and repeated marital mantras. I buy 100 percent into the whole societally-constructed monogamous relationship trap.

"Tell me you don't believe what Diego was saying," John muttered sleepily. "You don't think infidelity is an option, do you?"

"No I don't," I said, burrowing into his warm chest. "Not for us."