There are times today when you read about new conventions of behavior and pause to wonder: really? When today’s newsfeed started with a USA Today article about marriage that incorporates consensual outside relationships, this divorce lawyer’s reaction was one of disbelief. Yes, four decades of practice has revealed couples who occasionally “swing” to add spice to a marriage. And, there are those cases where once spouse tolerates outside hookups because: “Sex is not my thing anymore.”
But the USA Today article and a similar piece from Vogue in April 2022 suggest that some folks think that different relationships can meet different individual needs and that couples are giving recognition to those various needs. This writer takes issue with that.
So, in 2013 you were 27 when you met Clarissa. She was smart, well-educated; everything you thought you wanted in a mate. Ten years and two kids later there is nothing measurably wrong with your now decade old marriage. But Clarissa is a homebody who focuses on the kids and making the house seem just as a home should be. Meanwhile, as you approach mid-life you are feeling a need for adventure. Let’s keep this story non-sexual. Megan is a co-worker who in many ways is not on your radar. She is single and not physically your type. But Megan is intrepid. She travels the world in search of fine food and great museums. She read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon and fixed on a vacation in Spain with a stay at a duke’s former home, the Santo Mauro. It’s the Prado in the morning and an afternoon at Las Ventas. Megan found a driver who will shuttle her between the galleries and the bull ring and who knows where the locals eat.
You hear this and you become very jealous. This is your dream vacation. Meanwhile, your coffee table at home is burdened with guides to Disney World and Universal. You will stay outside the parks and rent a Ford Escort. Dinner will be at Olive Garden and Outback because they serve food that your kids genuinely like. You will be tucking your tired children in for the night while Megan will be asking what cava goes best with her tapas.
Clarissa is a wonderful spouse and an outstanding parent. You’re good too. You coach and teach Sunday school and lead a scout pack. But, you love Hemingway and Goya and chorizo. You approach Clarissa. She knows Megan and knows that Megan is no threat. You’ll each have your own room and Clarissa much prefers Orlando with kids to a foreign country that has no chicken fingers.
This is a tee up for Modern Monogamy. Needless to say, we could have proposed a sybarite holiday in Bangkok. The latter comes with dozens of threats ranging from kidnapping to robbery to transmissible disease. There are very few spouses who are going to endorse that package of modern monogamy. But Spain is a cultural adventure with a person who is just a “friend.” No harm in that, right?
In a world where it was just you and Clarissa and your kids, MAYBE, this could work. Unfortunately, no matter how kind and giving Clarissa is, the two of you live in a world filled with friends and family and business colleagues and scoutmasters and the people at church. Those people are NOT going to understand how a 37 year old dude with a wife and two kids at home is in Spain with a strange woman. And they ain’t buying the “Clarissa is fine with it” crap even if Clarissa is fine with it. So now your goal of spending time as a bon vivant has made you into a self-indulgent cur and your colleague Megan is a home wrecker. In case you haven’t noticed society is not wired to think the best of people. There are no kindness infused analogues to the Globe, the Sun and the National Inquirer awaiting you in the check out line. You certainly can try out your mantra about learning bull fighting traditions and the messages Velazquez imparted into Las Meninas but no one will be buying any of it. Face it, lots of people in your world would be jealous of your Iberian holiday.
Then there is what I will call the “domestic whiplash.” Clarissa said she was fine with your Spanish holiday. She likes and trusts Megan and she really didn’t like what became of Spain after the Muslims were driven out. You went, had a fabulous time, and returned to your family, your job, your church, and the scouts. All was quiet on the Western Front until Clarissa approached you about your son playing ice hockey. Yes, he really wants to play, and he has some talent but, other than horses, hockey ranks high among sports that stress out families. You mention the cost of ice hockey and the fact that ice time often comes at insane hours. This is supposed to be a hockey discussion. Until it isn’t. Now, Clarissa grabs for your recent indulgence. The room at the Santa Mauro was $800 a night. The driver was split with Megan but your half was over $100 a day. So, Mr. Culture Vulture, your mid-life amusement tallied at $1,000 a day while your loving child is told there is no money for ice hockey? The kid could play hockey for a year on what you spent in a self-indulgent week drinking cava and watching animals tortured by grown men wearing capes and barrels.
“Modern monogamy” is like world peace. Viewed in the abstract it seems attainable and, even fulfilling, if practiced right. Alas, as we learned from the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and the U.N Charter of 1945, peace looks lovely in the abstract but does poorly in any real world environment. Modern monogamy has the same problems. The aspiration of human fulfillment inevitably yields by the perspiration of jealousy and perceived self indulgence. It’s fun to read about in magazines but it doesn’t do well off the printed page.