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Perversion As Progress

Does polyamory make for happier marriages? A question that only a civilization on its way out poses

A reader sends in this latest example of the Law Of Merited Impossibility (“That’s never going to happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it”): a big piece in The New York Times asking if open marriages are happier marriages. From the story:

Elizabeth, baffled by Daniel’s disappointment, wondered: How great does sex have to be for a person to be happy? Daniel wondered: Don’t I have the right to care this much about sex, about intimacy? Occasionally, when he decided the answer was yes, and he felt some vital part of himself dwindling, Daniel would think about a radical possibility: opening up their marriage to other relationships. He would poke around on the internet and read about other couples’ arrangements. It was both an outlandish idea and, to him, a totally rational one. He eventually even wrote about it in 2009 for a friend who had a blog about sexuality. “As our culture becomes more accepting of choices outside the norm, nonmonogamy will expand as an acceptable choice, and the world will have to change as a result,” he predicted.

An outlandish idea back then. But you know what happened next to Elizabeth and Daniel, who are now living in an open marriage. The Times story says that polyamory has become much more accepted today, thanks in large part to the efforts of Dan Savage:

In recent years, probably no one has made the idea of open marriage more accessible than Dan Savage, who coined the word “monogamish” to describe his own relationship status. Savage, an internationally syndicated, podcast-hosting and often-quoted voice on sexual ethics, is gay, married, a father and nonmonogamous. He has used his vast reach to defend consensual nonmonogamy, which Savage says is widely accepted in the male gay community as a choice that can foster a relationship’s longevity, provided all parties involved behave ethically.

And technology:

Technology also imports nonmonogamy into mainstream heterosexual dating life, making the concept more visible and transparent. On the popular dating site OkCupid, couples seeking other partners can link their profiles; users can filter their searches for people who label themselves “nonmonogamous.” The site, an intimate tool in the romantic lives of its users, renders no judgment, and therefore normalizes, institutionally, a practice few people had neutral language for in the past. Among 40-to-50-year-olds who identify themselves as nonmonogamous on OkCupid, 16 percent also announce that they are married, according to the site.

The taboo is eroding:

Two-thirds of Americans feel that “a growing variety in the types of family arrangements that people live in” is “a good thing” or “makes no difference,” according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center.

And this is surprising:

Conventional wisdom has it that men are more likely than women to crave, even need, variety in their sex lives. But of the 25 couples I encountered, a majority of the relationships were opened at the initiation of the women; only in six cases had it been the men. Even when the decision was mutual, the woman was usually the more sexually active outside the marriage. A suburban married man on OkCupid told me he had yet to date anyone, in contrast to his wife, whom he called “an intimacy vampire.” There was a woman in Portland whose husband had lost interest in sex with anyone, not just her. A 36-year-old woman in Seattle said she opened her marriage after she heard about the concept from another young mom at her book club.

Perhaps the women in the couples I encountered were more willing to tell their stories because they did not fit into predictable unflattering stereotypes about the male sex drive. But it was nonetheless striking to hear so many wives risk so much on behalf of their sexual happiness.

… risk so much on behalf of their sexual happiness. I guess this is what counts as courageous in this post-Christian culture. If you read the entire story, you will see — surprise! — that the author pretty much concludes that polyamory can strengthen marriages:

Daniel and Elizabeth had turned their union into an elaborate puzzle, one they could only solve together, had to solve together, for the well-being of their family, even if doing so demanded more from each of them than their marriage ever had. Energy for generosity in a marriage can easily suffocate beneath the accumulation of grievances and disappointments, or even laziness of habit; now both Elizabeth and Daniel felt the weight of those histories somehow shifting, if not entirely lifting. They had experienced enough to know that they could not predict how much their lives might change in another year or two; but they felt more confident that they could weather what was coming their way. “The marriage is better than it was when it started,” Daniel said in March. “It is. It really is.”

Look, at this point, why argue? This kind of thing means the dissolution of family and eventually of society. Marriage is damned difficult, as anyone who has been married for any length of time knows. It requires immense sacrifice on both sides. The priest who prepared my wife and me for marriage told us that sometimes, the burden of sacrifice would fall heavily on one of us, and at other times on the other. But neither of us would be able to avoid sacrifice and suffering within the marriage; that is in its nature. When we made our vows at the altar, we entangled our fingers around a crucifix. The priest said at the altar that as long as we hold on to Christ, we can hold on to each other, but if we let go of Christ, we would find it hard to hold on to each other.

Today, after 20 years of marriage, I think of what the priest told us, both in the wedding rite and in our preparation, was profoundly true, and profoundly useful. It’s not for nothing that in the Orthodox Christian wedding rite, both bride and groom receive a symbolic crown. It is the crown of martyrdom, for dying to self is key to the mystery of marriage. Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest, writes:

No issues in the modern world seem to be pressing the Church with as much force as those surrounding sex and marriage. The so-called Sexual Revolution has, for the most part, succeeded in radically changing how our culture understands both matters. Drawing from a highly selective (and sometimes contradictory) set of political, sociological and scientific arguments, opponents of the Christian tradition are pressing the case for radical reform with an abandon that bears all of the hallmarks of a revolution. And they have moved into the ascendancy.

Those manning the barricades describe themselves as “defending marriage.” That is a deep inaccuracy: marriage, as an institution, was surrendered quite some time ago. Today’s battles are not about marriage but simply about dividing the spoils of its destruction. It is too late to defend marriage. Rather than being defended, marriage needs to be taught and lived.

The Church needs to be willing to become the place where that teaching occurs as well as the place that can sustain couples in the struggle required to live it. Fortunately, the spiritual inheritance of the Church has gifted it with all of the tools necessary for that task. It lacks only people who are willing to take up the struggle.


The classical Christian marriage belongs to the genre of martyrdom. It is a commitment to death. As Hauerwas notes: faithfulness over the course of a life-time defines what it means to “love” someone. At the end of a faithful life, we may say of someone, “He loved his wife.”

Father Stephen continues:

Some have begun to write about the so-called “Benedict Option,” a notion first introduced by Alasdair MacIntyre in his book, After Virtue. It compares the contemporary situation to that of the collapse of the Roman Christian Imperium in the West (i.e., the Dark Ages). Christian civilization, MacIntyre notes, was not rebuilt through a major conquering or legislating force, but through the patient endurance of small monastic communities and surrounding Christian villages. That pattern marked the spread of Christian civilization for many centuries in many places, both East and West.

It would seem clear that a legislative option has long been a moot point. When 95 percent of the population is engaging in sex outside of marriage (to say the least) no legislation of a traditional sort is likely to make a difference. The greater question is whether such a cultural tidal wave will inundate the Church’s teaching or render it inert – a canonical witness to a by-gone time, acknowledged perhaps in confession but irrelevant to daily choices (this is already true in many places).


The “Benedict Option” can only be judged over the course of centuries, doubtless to the dismay of our impatient age. But, as noted, those things required are already largely in place. The marriage rite (in those Churches who refuse the present errors) remains committed to the life-long union of a man and a woman with clearly stated goals of fidelity. The canon laws supporting such marriages remain intact. Lacking is sufficient teaching and formation in the virtues required to live the martyrdom of marriage.

Modern culture has emphasized suffering as undesirable and an object to be remedied. Our resources are devoted to the ending of suffering and not to its endurance. Of course, the abiding myth of Modernity is that suffering can be eliminated. This is neither true nor desirable.

Virtues of patience, endurance, sacrifice, selflessness, generosity, kindness, steadfastness, loyalty, and other such qualities are impossible without the presence of suffering. The Christian faith does not disparage the relief of suffering, but neither does it make it definitive for the acquisition of virtue. Christ is quite clear that all will suffer. It is pretty much the case that no good thing comes about in human society except through the voluntary suffering of some person or persons. The goodness in our lives is rooted in the grace of heroic actions.

In the absence of stable, life-long, self-sacrificing marriages, all discussion of sex and sexuality is reduced to abstractions. An eloquent case for traditional families is currently being made by the chaos and dysfunction set in motion by their absence. No amount of legislation or social programs will succeed in replacing the most natural of human traditions. The social corrosion represented by our over-populated prisons, births outside of marriage (over 40 percent in the general population and over 70 percent among non-Hispanic African Americans), and similar phenomenon continue to predict a breakdown of civility on the most fundamental level. We passed into the “Dark Ages” some time ago. The “Benedict Option” is already in place. It is in your parish and in your marriage. Every day you endure and succeed in a faithful union to your spouse and children is a heroic act of grace-filled living. [Emphasis mine — RD]

We are not promised that the Option will be successful as a civilizational cure. Such things are in the hands of God. But we should have no doubt about the Modern Project going on around us. It is not building a Brave New World. It is merely destroying the old one and letting its children roam amid the ruins.

Please, please, please read the whole thing. This is the bold, clear, hard, shining truth. There is no point in trying to argue with this culture anymore. Shake the dust off your feet. The ark is here, within the Church. Turn your back on this culture, and run towards the ark of the Church. There you will not find relief from suffering, but rather the strength to endure it, to sanctify it, and by God’s grace, overcome it.

I have written a book called The Benedict Option, which I hope will inspire Christians to wake up to the reality around us, and to take necessary measures to hold on to what we know to be true in this age of lies. As Father Stephen writes, “It is too late to defend marriage. Rather than being defended, marriage needs to be taught and lived.” The fight that many conservative Christians have committed themselves to, to “defend traditional marriage” is over — and we lost. We lost not because we were wrong, but we lost all the same. My friends who are still involved in trying to fight this culture war at the level of policy and politics are battling for a lost cause.

The cause of traditional marriage is not lost, in the sense that it has been proven wrong. But the forces of atomization in the modern world did overcome it; the changing laws reflect the changing cultural consensus. The great fight now is within the Church, to hold on to what we know to be true — and to pass it on despite overwhelming pressure from outside. The Church will have to be prepared to take on castaways and refugees, children who have been left to roam amid the ruins. We cannot do that if we do not teach and live out a model of marriage that stands in radical contradiction to the way of the world today. 

This is the Benedict Option. It’s not anything new, but rather something very old and tested by time. The Times story documents one aspect of the decadence and self-destruction of Western civilization. Let the spiritually dead cuckold the spiritually dead. Life is elsewhere.