Transcript

95:

Monogamy
Transcript

Originally aired 03.06.1998

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Yes, yes, yes. Like you, I have heard everything I ever care to hear for the rest of my life about President Clinton and his marriage. But you know, there was a brief moment, at the very beginning of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when the public discussion included not only the questions of impeachment and lying and is it about sex, or isn't it about sex-- all that stuff-- but also questions about marriage, about how bad it is, how common it is, for people to be unfaithful to their spouses.

And it wasn't just the Lewinsky scandal that made that happen. Around the time the Lewinsky story broke, Roy Romer, the governor of Colorado, the head of the Democratic party, publicly declared that for 16 years, he'd had a relationship outside his marriage with an aide named B.J. Thornberry. He told the press that his wife and family knew about the relationship and that they accepted it. And he argued in his press conference that it might be helpful if we would talk about what really happens in marriages, long-term marriages, instead of what we usually pretend.

Roy Romer

Bea and I have been married 45 years. Is that right, 45? And it's a very strong relationship, solid. In the course of 45 years, in many marriages in this country, different attitudes develop in a marriage. About 50% of them end up in divorce. They can't work it out. But in those who remain married, there still are times in which there are different feelings and different relationships.

All families, I think, have these kinds of problems from time to time. They handle them differently. All of you listen carefully. All of you listen carefully. I'm trying to live out a life based upon what I truly believe and truly value. Now, oftentimes, the societal norms don't fully accommodate the way I see it. I have to work that out. I'm trying to say I have conducted myself to my wife, to my children, and to B.J. in a way which I tried to be very honest and open and true to what I felt and believed.

Ira Glass

Here is the window of discussion that's being opened up right now in our country. It came up with Roy Romer. It came up with Bill Clinton before him. And it has to do with monogamy, how to think about it. In a magazine called Critical Inquiry, a Northwestern University professor named Laura Kipnis makes the case that there are a lot of marriages where people are simply unhappy. And these people are like workers who are alienated from their jobs, numb, going nowhere.

You know, we're told these days that we're supposed to work at marriage the way that we're supposed to work at a job. And so you work your job, and you work at home. And what do you get? And for these people in unfulfilling marriages, she says, having an affair is like a wildcat strike. It's an action, a civil action, a small attempt at altering the business-as-usual of their own lives.

Laura Kipnis

All the norms that people feel are the ones that you have to subscribe to and live up to don't work for a lot of people. And I think that's what's so interesting about politician adultery, is that everybody's very morally punitive about it, or that's kind of the usual way of talking about it. But nobody really talks about, well, why are these guys risking their careers and having these affairs? These guys who are supposed to be so streetwise and savvy and canny in every way, putting everything on the line.

Ira Glass

So and why?

Laura Kipnis

Well, I guess what I'm saying is that one, people are trawling around for ways to somehow improve the quality of their life, that people feel, in a lot of cases, that they're somehow not getting what they should be getting, that normal life and the couple form, it just doesn't deliver what it's supposed to. It doesn't cover everything. It doesn't work. It doesn't make people happy. I know that sounds a little banal. It doesn't seem to say enough. But I guess I think happiness is a pretty big question. And it's one that there just are very few ways of talking about. And I think that's what's so interesting about what's going on now, because it's opening up this way to talk about things that are just never talked about. What would it be like if politicians talked about, really, the fabric of people's daily lives, what it would take to be happy, what it would take to be fulfilled?

Roy Romer

Just to summarize, I was trying to describe life as it really happens to families. And when you're in political life, there is such a hot stream of focus on you that you really do not have opportunity, the chance to say, there are tough, ambiguous things you have to decide.

Ira Glass

Most of us, I think, are very hesitant to believe that any kind of non-monogamous relationship can work. And Roy Romer did not have an easy press conference. The 69-year-old professional pol, a glad hand from the world of soundbites and fund-raising dinners, found himself theorizing publicly about trust and love and what marriage is.

Roy Romer

You see, this is the issue. What is fidelity? Fidelity is what kind of openness you have, what kind of trust you have, which is based upon truth and openness. And so in my own family, we discussed that at some length. And we have tried to arrive at an understanding of what our feelings are, our needs are, and work it out with that kind of fidelity.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today in our program, monogamy and its discontents. Stories of people struggling to redefine monogamy, to stay monogamous, and what we should make of these ad hoc experiments in everyday life. Today, we hear case examples. Act One, Scientific Experiment, the story of a couple, the wife got a crush on another man, and how they tried to contain the crush, channel the crushy feeling, and what happens when you apply rational ideas to irrational feelings. Act Two, Love and Happiness. Dan Savage talks to real non-monogamous couples, who explain whether they're actually happy and why it might be OK to see other partners, but only if it happens in other time zones. Act Three, Istanbul. Ian Brown talks about the experience that most of us have struggling to stay monogamous, and what we should think of that struggle. Stay with us.

Act One. Scientific Experiment.

Sylvere

We started one evening, an evening like any other, which we spent as a couple with a friend, actually, somewhat of an associate of mine. And we just had dinner in a restaurant. And after that, we decided to go and have a drink at his place.

Chris

Ah, dinner. Well, at dinner, I noticed that Dick was making eye contact with me across the table. And at one point in the evening, he'd looked at me, the way I was dressed. We'd met each other once or twice before. And he said, "You look as though you're really ready to come out, come out with something." Anyway, it was very strong, and it was very sexy. It was like Dick and I were speaking a secret language in front of Sylvere.

Sylvere

He lived in a desert somewhere. And it was quite a long drive through the mountains and down the desert, and then winding along roads until we reached his house, which was the last house in a little desert town, really the last stop before nowhere. And then we had an evening together, which was, I thought, pretty nice. And we got some drinks and listened to music and saw Dick's video. And it was one of these evenings that turns to be like morning.

Chris

Dick played us a video that he'd made that was commissioned by English Public Television of himself dressed as Johnny Cash, riding his horse into the heart of darkness and talking about earthquakes and longing and despair. And it was then that I fell totally in love with Dick.

Ira Glass

Watching him dressed as Johnny Cash?

Chris

Yeah.

Sylvere

I was not quite aware that there was anything happening between Dick and Chris, my wife. And there was not much happening, except in her mind, I guess. And then we went to bed.

Chris

We stumble off to bed at 2 o'clock in the morning, me and Sylvere on the sofa bed in the living room, Dick in his bedroom on the other side of the wall with the door closed. And all night long, I found myself dreaming that I had moved across the wall and I was in bed with Dick.

Sylvere

And in the morning-- we're on a kind of extended sofa-- and in the morning, Dick was gone. And Chris started fantasizing about the fact that he-- before realizing he was left, she fantasized about the fact that he was like smoking a cigarette in his bed. And then we discovered he was gone. And we waited a bit and then decided to go back to our place. And that was the main substance of what became an extended story.

Chris

We left, and we went and had breakfast at the IHOP down the road. And I couldn't stop talking about it.

Sylvere

We talk about all these things and things that go through our head. And I guess I pay attention to them, but I didn't pay special attention to it at that point. It didn't seem like anything real. And I didn't feel threatened by it at all.

Chris

We weren't really very sexual at that point in our relationship anymore. And the way that we compensated for the lack of sex was we would deconstruct everything. We'd tell each other everything. That's how you stay intimate with somebody. So I told Sylvere everything that had happened to me that night and everything that was on my mind. And we couldn't stop talking about it. And all the way back, we kept talking about what happened last night with Dick, last night with Dick, our night with Dick.

Sylvere

Chris has crushes once in a while. The only defense with a usual couple, I guess, is that we talk about it and laugh about it or explore it a little bit. But that's part of being together. We share everything.

Chris

Well, I was tormented. So I went to Sylvere, and I was, "Oh, Sylvere, what should I do? What should I do? Maybe I should write a letter." And Sylvere said, "Yes, of course. That's a great idea, Chris. I think you should write a letter. I'll help you. Let's get the computer. Let's set it up right now. We'll write a letter to Dick."

Sylvere

Turning it into a project was turning it into something we could do together. See, I decided from the beginning I wasn't going to be jealous, because I've been through that. And I don't have any respect for it. And I don't think that marriage is a property in which you own anyone. I never agreed with myself when I felt jealous, although I recognize the emotion, which is very powerful.

Ira Glass

And so you started writing letters. And you wrote the first letter.

Sylvere

I wrote the first letter, yes, because I knew Dick much better. And I liked the idea. I liked Dick. I liked him then, and I kind of like him now.

Chris

Sylvere wrote the first letter. And Sylvere wrote a really good letter. But it wasn't enough. And when Sylvere finished his letter, I knew that there were things that I could add. And his letter prompted me to write my letter. So I wrote my first letter. And then Sylvere was very critical of my first letter. And he said, "This and this and this are wrong, and you could do it better." Well, we both sat down to write the second draft, Sylvere's second letter and my second letter.

Ira Glass

And the notion from the very beginning was that you would write the letters, but you would not send them?

Chris

No. I think the notion at the very beginning was that we would send them. But after you've written a first draft and a second draft, and then a third and a fourth and a fifth letter, and you have a stack of letters-- in fact, after three days, we had maybe 80 pages of letters-- it reaches a point where you can't possibly send the letter.

Sylvere

Well, first of all, the way we wrote the letter was the essential thing, because the idea was not to write letters in repose and think about the words. We both have a computer. And we're sitting in front of each other and basically dictating the letter to the other person.

Chris

OK, this is from the first letter that I wrote to Dick. "Crestline, California, December 9, 1994. Dear Dick, when you called on Sunday night, I was writing a description of your face. I couldn't talk and hung up on the bottom end of the romantic equation with beating heart and sweaty palms. It's incredible to feel this way. For 10 years, my life's been organized around avoiding this painful elemental state. Sylvere, who's typing this, says this letter lacks a point. What reaction am I looking for? He says I'm squashing out all the trembly little things he found so touching. But Dick, I know that as you read this, you'll know these things are true. Being in love with you, being ready to take this ride, made me feel 16, hunched up in a leather jacket in a corner with my friends. A timeless image. It's about not giving a [BLEEP] or seeing all the consequences looming and doing something anyway. Sylvere thinks he's that kind of anarchist. But he's not. I love you, Dick. Chris."

Ira Glass

Could you open to page 49? Most of the letters take the form of real letters, but this is a letter which takes the form of dialogue between the two of you.

Sylvere

Do you want me to read that?

Ira Glass

Yeah. Basically, it's this dialogue between you and Chris. And yeah, could you please?

Sylvere

Yeah, each of us typing on a typewriter. "Chris-- Sylvere, this is like the institute of emotional research.

Sylvere-- The only way we can recapture any feeling is by evoking Dick.

Chris-- He's our imaginary friend.

Sylvere-- Do we need that? It's so mixed up. At times, we reach these peaks of real possession at his expense. But through it, we're able to see him more clearly than he ever would himself.

Chris-- Don't be so presumptuous. You keep talking about Dick as if he was your little brother. You think you have his number.

Sylvere-- Well, I don't have the same take on him as you do.

Chris-- I don't have a take. I'm in love with him.

Sylvere-- It's so unfair. What has he done to deserve this? 8:45 PM."

Ira Glass

Sylvere, as you wrote these letters, did you find most of the time that you were writing in the letters, urging Chris not to love him, or urging Chris to love him?

Sylvere

Well, it all depends. What happened is that I got involved in the project. And when she got too intense about it, I started being anxious about it and upset. But when, somehow, the project became elusive and we were beginning to lose the thread, then I would somehow push her to get back into it, I guess because it was a form of communing. It was a form of being together. It was a good excuse to play a game together-- the conjugal game, the jealous husband game. I don't know.

Ira Glass

Do you feel like part of what writing the letters was about was trying to keep this feeling, this transgressive feeling, this crush, penned in within the bounds of your marriage vows?

Chris

You know, we never said to ourselves, "We're going to write letters because we don't want to transgress the bounds of our marriage." We never said that. But at a certain point, Sylvere and I looked at each other and said, "This is the closest we've been in years. We're having more fun together having this adventure, writing these letters, being in love with this third person, than we've had in our entire marriage. What's threatening to tear us apart is, in fact, bringing us closer together."

Sylvere fell deeply in love with me while this correspondence was going on, in a way that he had never been in love with me before. Our connection had been very intellectual, very professional. But it'd never been a grand passion or a great love. And I really felt the lack of that in my life.

Ira Glass

So one of the things that happened between the two of you is, as you went through this process, your sex life returned.

Sylvere

Right, which is one of the good things that can happen out of bad ones.

Ira Glass

And that's a great gift.

Chris

At the very last phase of this dual correspondence to Dick, of me and Sylvere writing letters to Dick, we were at our house in upstate New York. And we decided that our lives were a lot like Charles and Emma Bovary's, trapped in the provinces of Yonville. Sylvere decided to become Charles Bovary. So he wrote a letter to Dick as Charles Bovary, thanking him for the fact that he and I had started having sex together again.

Sylvere

"Thurman, New York, January 12, 1995, Thursday. Dear Dick, this is Charles Bovary. Emma and I have been living together for some nine years. Everyone knows what this entails. Passion becomes tenderness. Tenderness turns soft. Sex became short and somewhat wobbly. We had sex rarely, pretending it didn't matter. Our love increased, and sex was sublimated to more worthy social endeavors-- art, careers, property. Still occasionally, the troubling thought surfaced that a couple without sex is hardly a couple at all. It's at this point, Dick, after we'd convinced ourselves that a life without sex was a better life, that you entered our life like an angel of mercy. Emma's desiring elsewhere enabled me to regain desire. How it happened remains a miracle. It returned suddenly about a week ago, the spirit of sex, like one of these little Roman gods, touching every part of my body, arousing them to the sacredness of pleasure, as if the veil had lifted and a new field of human possibility revealed. I dedicate this letter to you, Dick. With all my love, Charles."

Ira Glass

Do you think that Sylvere had any feelings of jealousy?

Chris

Well, of course he did. I mean, how could this happen and Sylvere not be jealous? But Sylvere is a very reasonable and reflective person. So as these emotions start to come up, like jealousy, he looks at them and says, "Well, hmm. Is that really the way I want to feel? Is that the way I want to handle this? Is that the kind of person I want to be?" And he says, "No." So then he looks around for another angle. What angle, what position could he take, that would avoid jealousy? Because jealousy-- really, to be the jealous husband, is just to be such a buffoon.

Sylvere

Yes, there were moments where I felt dumped and I felt betrayed and I felt it was going too far and I wanted to backtrack. And it wasn't always possible.

Ira Glass

Months passed. Chris kept writing love letters to Dick. The experiment of containing her feelings in a rational little art project was, in fact, unleashing her feelings. She became obsessed. She says it was like self-hypnosis. Dick never wrote back. She fell deeper and deeper in love. And as she wrote, she started to reflect on her marriage, on how she'd become an appendage to Sylvere, how she no longer had a separate life, a separate identity. She was resentful.

Sylvere

It became a roller coaster. And you're not always in control. And of course, the marriage was at stake. And the marriage, she broke.

Chris

After months of writing these letters to Dick, it became impossible for me to continue living with Sylvere the way I had.

Ira Glass

Explain that.

Chris

Well, OK. Things changed very drastically, because at the end of what I call the first round of letters, after we'd written about 200 pages together, I actually gave them to Dick. We were out in California, and we had another dinner with Dick. And I presented the letters to Dick. Well, Dick was gob-struck. He couldn't believe it.

Ira Glass

What did he say? Was he horror-struck?

Chris

No. You see, Dick had said something to me pretty early on in the correspondence. He said, "Right now, I'm at a point in my life where I'm experimenting with what it's like to never say no, to say yes to everything that comes along." So he decided not to say no to me and to my project. He didn't give me any encouragement. He didn't participate in it. But he never said no. He never said stop.

We had a house in upstate New York, and I moved up there alone that winter to be alone to write to Dick. And I called Dick, and I told him that I'd left my husband and that I really wanted to see him alone, and could I come out and spend a weekend with him. Well, he said yes. He said, "I won't say no."

Sylvere

When she actually met Dick, I was out of my mind, of course. So.

Chris

Well, the plan was that I was going to drive out to his place as soon as I got off the plane. And I did that. It was a Thursday night. It was raining. I was terribly nervous. I'd changed clothes two or three times-- on the plane, in the rental car office. And I got to Dick's house. And he was there. And I saw him through the plate-glass window. And he was deep in thought. He was grading papers. And I knocked on the door, and he answered it. And he brushed me very lightly on the side of the cheek. And I came in. We had a drink.

And very soon, the conversation came around to him asking me, "Why are you here?" He started attacking me. And he said, "I think you're demonic and psychotic." He started screaming at me. "You don't know me. We've had two or three evenings, talked on the phone once or twice. And you project this [BLEEP] over me. You kidnap me. You stalk me, invade me with your games. And I don't want it. I never asked for it. I think you're evil and psychotic." I didn't know what to do. I was completely devastated.

Ira Glass

Except for the evil and psychotic part, do you see why he would say, "You don't know who I am, and we've only spent a couple of times together, and you've imagined this intense thing?"

Chris

Well, yes. I suppose on a certain level, he had his point. He had his point. But he was so resolutely and methodically cruel to me. There was a definite turning moment, where he just decided to kind of play things a different way.

I asked him if he wanted to see me again over the weekend. And he turned to me and said, "I don't know. Do you want to?" And I said, "Yes, I do. Absolutely. Definitely." And he started repeating my words, "Yes. Definitely. Absolutely." And then he said, "Well, I'm sorry. I have a friend coming into town for the weekend." And he made this friend sound like, of course, a longstanding affair from way back. So when he saw that I was disappointed, he jumped on me. And he said, "What's the matter? Did I burst your balloon, destroy the fantasy?"

Ira Glass

Sylvere, one way to read this story of what happened is that Chris had a crush. And by having her write all these letters, by encouraging her to write all these letters, that you unconsciously, perhaps, created a situation where she would have all these things to present to Dick, and he would reject her.

Sylvere

Maybe you're right in the sense that both of us started writing letters, making it very difficult for him to have a position in relation to it. It wasn't as if something was happening between him and a woman. It was a whole marriage that was coming down on his knees. That's what you mean. And I think it's right. And I guess it was something in the back of my mind, yes. As long as we made it a project and we were together, that started in such a way that may have made it impossible to turn into a private affair, because it was, to start with, so public.

Ira Glass

After some time, Chris and Sylvere were reconciled. They're still married, but their jobs have now taken them to opposite sides of the country. He lives on the East Coast. She lives on the West. They talk every day, or nearly every day. They lean on each other, share their lives. And for now, they're non-monogamous. Each of them sees other people from time to time.

Sylvere

We married, and things keep changing. In a sense, we see each other for a week once a month, sometimes more, sometimes less. And we spend time together. We enjoy being together. Most often, we feel very close. And we manage, I guess, after a few years, to keep this closeness in spite of other involvements that we are in. Some of them may be final. We don't know. It's a very shaky proposition, in the sense that you get carried away by the situation you're in. We live in totally different situations. So the risk is always there that something is going to happen and make it final.

Chris

It's after having gone through this experience together-- and at every moment, really, we were in it together. In all of my pain, in all of his pain, we were there together with each other, because we didn't have any other way of being. After going through that, well, it just seems inevitable to us that, one way or another, we will be intimately connected. We will be responsible for each other for the rest of our lives.

Ira Glass

When you think about this whole experience, what do you think you learned from it?

Sylvere

What do I think I learned from it?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Sylvere

Well, I learned that you have to pay for indulgence, because, at some level, it was also indulgent. It was a project. It was a risky operation. It was also playing with fire.

Ira Glass

I think the thing that most of us find so threatening about a non-monogamous relationship is we just don't want to have to go through the jealousy.

Sylvere

I know. But I guess if you've been through the jealousy to the extent that I have been and I'm sure other people have been, and you learn from it. And what you learn is that there are ways of avoiding it. And one of the ways is not try to imagine what the other person is doing and try not to have images or to focus on that. And you realize that the partner can very well have a life. And you don't have to take it as something that concerns you. See, it concerns the person. It's not done to do you harm. It's not done to betray you. It's done because the other person has a life.

Chris

The whole question of faithfulness and fidelity seems so-- I don't know, small, compared to loyalty and a lifetime commitment to another person.

Ira Glass

Sylvere Lotringer and Chris Kraus. She collected their letters, plus an account of what happened, in a book called I Love Dick, published by Semiotext(e).

Coming up, 82 monogamous couples, 82 non-monogamous couples. Who's happier? Who's more likely to stay married? Answers, real answers, in a minute, from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Love And Happiness.

Dan Savage

With apologies to Leo Tolstoy, monogamous couples are all alike. Each non-monogamous couple is non-monogamous in its own way. For a non-monogamous arrangement to function properly-- "properly" meaning no blood, no tears-- both persons involved have to agree on a set of rules. The rules of monogamy are pretty simple and straightforward. After you've said, "Honey, let's not have sex with other people," what's left to discuss?

But functional non-monogamy, the having of sex with persons other than your partner, with your partner's foreknowledge and consent, well, that sort of an arrangement requires some delicate negotiation. If it's OK with you for your partner to have sex with other people, does that mean it's OK for your partner to have sex with other people under any circumstances? In the bed you share? With your best friend? Probably not. And that's where the rules come in.

The rules vary from couple to couple. I've heard of couples who weren't allowed to sleep with each other's friends or with their exes. Not in our apartment, house, bed, is a common one. I've been in three non-monogamous relationships. In one, we could sleep with other people so long as we weren't in the same time zone. In another, outside encounters were limited to a certain few and very specific sex acts that, for a certain few and very specific reasons, we didn't enjoy doing together. One straight couple I recently heard about has a rule that requires them to lie to each other. Not just lie, but lie convincingly. The idea seems to be that it's OK if they sleep with other people. They're just not allowed to make the other person feel bad by actually letting them know about it. A clumsy lie would be as bad as telling them. I interviewed one woman who was in a non-monogamous relationship for three years.

Woman

The rules were very jokey. The rules were mostly centered around making sure that nobody got involved with somebody who was better than the person they're already involved with, which was each other. So I wouldn't want him to have sex with someone who was terribly sexy or smart or witty or funny--

Dan Savage

So nobody sexier, smarter, wittier, or funnier than you.

Woman

No, they all had to be a little bit lame.

Dan Savage

The rules seem to fall into three broad categories-- who you can have sex with, under what circumstances, and what you can tell your partner about it. It's that third set of rules that are the stickiest. How much do you want to know? If your partner has sex with a tree in a forest and you're not around to hear it, did it actually happen?

The woman I interviewed made a non-disclosure pact with her boyfriend. But ultimately, they couldn't live up to their "don't ask, don't tell" policy. They began sharing their experiences with each other, which resulted in competition. If one got some on the side, the other felt entitled and would go looking for it. Breaking their own "don't ask, don't tell" rule was complicating their arrangement, which begs the biggest question of all. Do these non-monogamous arrangements work? Was this couple happy?

Woman

Well, it worked and it didn't work. There was a part of me that felt like being non-monogamous sort of created this hollow core in the center of the relationship. Like I really loved this person, but I wasn't sure I could trust him as far as I could throw him.

Dan Savage

You didn't fully possess him.

Woman

I didn't fully possess him. And I think part of it was I didn't want to be fully possessed.

Dan Savage

Back when she was in her non-monogamous relationship, all her straight friends thought she was crazy. Her gay friends, however, were supportive and provided her and her boyfriend with role models. Non-monogamy is more common among gay couples than straight or lesbian couples. It makes some gay politicos uncomfortable when anyone points this out. But every study of long-term male couples has demonstrated this. Sometimes, gay couples even skip a formal rules conversation, so established are non-monogamous relationship models in the gay community.

I think non-monogamy is easier for a lot of gay men because gay men think about sex differently than straight people do. We recognize that different sex acts carry different degrees of intimacy. Many non-monogamous gay couples have a rule that stems from this commonsense notion. Outside sex is OK, goes the rule, so long as it does not include penetration. This rule allows for outside encounters, protects both partners from disease, and holds in reserve a few especially intimate sex acts that the gay couple, while non-monogamous, share only with each other. Since so many straight people-- not all, but many-- can't imagine having sex without intercourse, this rule just wouldn't work as well for them. My friend Dave is gay, and he's currently in a non-monogamous relationship.

Dave

The rules we set down came about without really speaking of them. We just had a friend over, and things got kind of saucy. And we found ourselves goofing around with a third person. And--

Dan Savage

Very often, when gay men talk about these open arrangements or something, they'll use words and phrases like "goofing around" or "playing," and all these sort of harmless sounding-- whereas when straight people talk about it, it's like you "had sex" with another person. One of the things about gay sex that I sometimes think straight people have a hard time understanding is the possibility of having sort of Boy Scouty, camaraderie sex, where you're just sort of goofing around, to get back to that phrase. You think that's part of the difference between--

Dave

Absolutely. It truly is goofing around. It's mashing, it's making out, it's rolling around, because it's got to stay physically very superficial.

Dan Savage

As I said earlier, I was in three non-monogamous relationships-- past tense. All of them ended. And the woman I spoke with earlier is no longer in her non-monogamous relationship. Judging from just her and me, you would think non-monogamous relationships don't last. Well, you'd be wrong.

Dr. Arline Rubin conducted the single largest study comparing non-monogamous couples to monogamous ones. Dr. Rubin interviewed 164 couples, half monogamous, half not, and did follow-up interviews with all 164 couples after 5, 10, and 19 years. Dr. Rubin discovered that there was no difference. Non-monogamous couples were just as happy or just as miserable as monogamous ones. And the number of couples who stayed together was exactly the same. Non-monogamy was no indication of instability or a lack of commitment. According to Dr. Rubin, whether a couple is monogamous has nothing to do with how long they stay together. Dave and his boyfriend, Eric, had been together for five years, and they're still going strong.

Dan Savage

What would you say to people who assert that monogamy in a relationship is an indication of the seriousness of the relationship? That if two people are being monogamous, obviously, they're in it for the long haul, and they take their relationship seriously, and they put each other first, whereas if people are in a non-monogamous relationship, obviously, they're more casual about each other and their relationship isn't going to last as long.

Dave

As for the first part of that, that monogamy is the sign of a true relationship, I would say, if it's true for you, then it's true. As for the assumption that a non-monogamous relationship is inherently less valuable or less committed, I would disagree just on the fact that the conversations that Eric and I have had to have in maintaining a somewhat open relationship have brought about a level of intimacy we wouldn't have tapped any other way.

Woman

I mean, it seems like everybody talks about monogamy as something that you do for somebody else, that I will be faithful to you because I love you. But I actually came to feel like non-monogamy was something that you could do for somebody else. You could let them be who they were and still love them and still be committed to them.

Dan Savage

The other assumption that is often made about non-monogamy is that it's a phase. A couple may open their relationship for a time, but they will, once they get serious, return to monogamy. Dr. Rubin's studies have shown that this isn't true either. The couples she followed, all straight and now all in their late 50s and 60s, with houses, mortgages, and kids, as their marriages went on, these couples pretty much stuck to what they'd been doing all along, whether it was monogamy or non-monogamy. So it isn't an experiment or a phase. It's a choice. And like Dave says, it works for the couples that it works for.

Ira Glass

Dan Savage writes a syndicated sex advice column, Savage Love. He also works at The Stranger, a newspaper in Seattle.

Act Three. Istanbul.

Ian Brown

There's a couple across my street who make love in their living room. I hear them in the evening when I walk after dinner. From the sidewalk, I can see cream walls, a mantel draped in animal hides, African carvings. The woman makes most of the noise, mid-range "ohs" a second apart, dropping like small, crystal cups out of the open French windows of their flat. Passion and disregard for the neighbors, a tremendous combination. The air stops moving around me.

Is their sex better than my own? I wonder what she looks like when she's moaning. Does she love him? Presuming it's a him, which I always do. Or is she there just for the sex? I can never decide which would be more exciting. I imagine she's in her 30s and that she has dark hair, an ordinary woman with ordinary chores, whose passion is nonetheless excitingly unsuppressable in the evening. But which woman is it? Is the moaner the doctor who just had a baby, only now returning to sex? The Mexican girl who works out all the time at the gym? Or the Chinese caterer, the woman who drives the Volvo with Ohio license plates?

Her cries never last more than half a block. Walking back to my house, I usually have a few bent, embarrassed thoughts. I think, you're a 39-year-old married man who stands in front of his house, listening to an unseen couple make love. You're sick. But I keep stepping out there, hoping to hear that little duet.

My wife wants to have a baby. And it's not just talk or a plan she inherited at birth or the fantasizing she used to practice with her girlfriends-- "Well, I want to have four." No, this is different, more insistent.

"When would you like to start?" she said again this morning, third time in a week, as we read the newspaper over breakfast. The sun was already bearing down furiously at half past 8:00 in the goddamn morning. I could hear the buzz of a weed whacker next door. "Anytime you like," I said, not taking my eyes off the paper. I didn't want to encourage her because the truth is this. Some days, I'm for it. But when I'm not for it, I'm really not for it.

My wife's body has changed. Her body, overtaken by hormonal committee, is telling her to get on with its grandest physical purpose. I can see it in the slight post-marital widening of her hips, no less sexy than the originals, but still, wider, when she lilts away from the bed at night to perform her ablutions. I can see it in her taste in clothes. She doesn't go anymore for the sprayed-on Lycra skirts I used to buy her. Even in her sexual habits-- she has less interest in sex than she used to. She wants to make love now, for keeps. Pause here for sadness.

Last week, as if by magic, two baby books appeared in the pile on the floor on her side of the bed-- at the bottom of the pile, but there they were. I walked into the bedroom, saw them like a promise I made long ago, and had to leave the house. I went to a matinee.

When did all that happen? I can't remember anything. The dates of our courtship, the countless touching things she claims I said, they're at best a blur to me, a fog of declarations. One day, I was living my comfortable life. And the next, she was living with me. On a bad day, it makes me nervous to remember all this. On a bad day, when I think about the slow gelling of our togetherness, its gathering weight and formality, the muscle around my heart closes in and my breath come short and I start to panic. One day, she and I were dating. And then we were living together. And then we bought a house. And then we'd married. And then she wanted to have a baby. An escalator of commitments onto which I had apparently stepped.

My friends were astonished. They said I wasn't the type to marry. A few of them had made bets against it. I told them I wanted "to find out what lay on the other side of boredom." I stole that line from an old girlfriend. I thought I was an adventurer. And yet, here I stand, in a well-trimmed front yard, surrounded by neighbors and swing sets and sport utility vehicles, the movable monuments of domesticity, listening to a couple copulate. And across the yards, I see another man looking warily back at me, doing exactly the same thing.

Just because I'm married now and practicing what's known as monogamy doesn't mean I don't think about other women, because I do. I still conjure up women from my past. And I still ask myself the question. You know the question. Every man does. Women have their own version of it. The question is the question you ask yourself every time you see a woman on the street, every single time, no matter who she is, how old she is, no matter how attractive she is or isn't. And the question is, "Would I sleep with her, or her, or how about her?" Not "Will I sleep with her?" or "How can I sleep with her?" or even "Could I sleep with her?" The question is, "Would I?" But even though I always ask the question, I don't act on it, because I'm trying to be monogamous.

That's why monogamy has such a bad reputation. It's boring. Monogamy is the habit of not acting on what you want. I even hate the word itself. It sound so staid, so bourgeois. Monogamy, like a board game, the approximation of excitement.

Sometimes, of course, I hear about open marriages. Jung had one, Sartre had one, Henry Miller, Dickens, Freud. I hear about open marriages, and they seem like some fabulous, exotic city that I've always wanted to visit but never seem to get to. Istanbul. Open marriages are like Istanbul, some ancient, mysterious place where there are minarets and strange music, where one entire civilization suddenly ends and a whole new, stranger one begins. A whole new religion, even, the mysterious East. I've always wanted to go to Istanbul.

Like most couples, my wife and I sometimes talk about open marriage. Well, I say we talk about it. It'd be more accurate to say that the subject comes up and immediately lies down again. We'll be lying in bed in the dark and talking about our lives, about what we like and what we miss, in that quiet, pleasant way you do when you're trying to be monogamous. Then my wife will say in the dark, "You know, if you ever have sex with someone else, some passing fling, I don't want you to tell me about it." And I say, "Really?"

I say, "Really?" because I don't know what else to say. If I say, "OK, Honey, that's fine with me," she'll say, "What, are you thinking about it?" And then I'll have to say, "Of course not," even if I am. So I say, "Really?" Or I'll say something noncommittal, like, "Don't worry." Whatever I say, a few minutes go by. And then she always says, still in the dark, "But I don't want you to sleep with someone else, anyway. OK?" And I say, "OK." That's the kind of conversation you have when you agree to be monogamous.

I don't want to sleep with anyone else. Or to be more exact, I'd like to, but I really don't have the constitution for infidelity or for an open marriage or for the guilt. Monogamy may be boring, but the alternatives take up a lot more time and energy. When I hear stories about the president and I think, he must have an arrangement with Hillary, I think, gee, that must be great.

But some part of me also feels-- not disappointed, not morally outraged, nothing that loud and sharp and pompous, but-- sad. That's the word-- sad. And I'm not sure I know why. I'm not even sure I know why I'm trying to stay monogamous. Why have I chosen this route over the other? I don't pretend it has anything to do with moral standards. In fact, I suspect it comes down to something my wife once said to me.

We were having one of our conversational minuets in the dark, one of our gentle but ever so delicate chats about faithfulness, when my wife said that the only thing she missed as a monogamous woman-- at least I assume she was speaking as a monogamous woman-- was newness, new bodies, new hands, new sex. I said I knew what she meant. And I said, "But isn't that kind of sad? I mean, if you go through your whole life, 20, 30, 40, 60 years of marriage without ever straying, you do that, you never get to know what it's like to be unfaithful. You never get to know what it feels like to be emotionally illegal. And that's an important feeling, one of the great human themes, after all, a whole constellation of humanity you'll never know."

My wife was quiet for a long time. And I could hear the fridge downstairs. And in the street light coming through the curtains, I could just see her outline. And I thought to myself, I've spent a long time in this bed. "Yes," my wife said then, "That's true. But if you do sleep around, you'll never know what it's like to be faithful to one person your whole life, which might also be an 'important constellation of humanity.'" There was just a touch of sarcasm in her voice.

And then it was my turn to lie in the dark for a long time. I'd never considered monogamy as an adventure. I thought it was, well, domestic travel, where no international borders are crossed. But monogamy is an adventure, and in some ways, a more mysterious one than open marriage. Because trying to be faithful to one person is a trip that takes time. And you never really know if you're getting close or if you've reached the destination. You never really know when you've arrived.

For my generation-- the first one that assumed free love for both sexes was a birthright-- for us, monogamy is the last sexual mystery on Earth, the great unknown. We've tried everything else. It's certainly a different kind of trip than open marriage, which has lots of stops along the way. But most of them are the same. Maybe that's the problem with open marriage-- not many surprises. It's titillating, but not very mysterious. Maybe that's why hearing about open marriages always makes me a little sad, why there's always a whiff of defeat about them.

I lay there in the dark beside my wife, thinking about all this, as I say, for a long time. I thought about that dream of hers, to be faithful her whole life. I thought, it's a sweet dream, almost like an ideal. And I knew I didn't want to be the one to prove to her that it couldn't come true. It scared me, too, all that responsibility, because it's not such a wise thing to promise.

Anyway, I'm trying to be monogamous, maybe not even for myself. Maybe I'm just doing it for her. Is that so unusual? Maybe if I do it for her long enough, I'll start to do it for me, as well. It's not that I don't want to go to Istanbul anymore. I really want to. In fact, I think about Istanbul all the time, if only to remind myself that it's still there. It's just that there's this other place I want to get to first, a little town that, for the longest time, I never even knew was there.

Ira Glass

Ian Brown is the host of Talking Books on the Sunday edition of CBC's This Morning. Part of his comments are from his book Man Medium Rare.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself with Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder. Senior editor Paul Tough, contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Rachel Day, Jorge Just, Todd Bachmann, and Sylvia Lemus.

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If you'd like to buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Or you know you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website, www.thislife.org. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister, who runs the site. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

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WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who says about being a program director,

Dan Savage

It isn't an experiment or a phase. It's a choice.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.

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