Hardly any subject can get a writer in as much trouble with readers as the societal phenomenon known as the “open marriage” or at least absence of marriage fidelity by one of the partners.
The cult classic on the topic is Sex At Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha.
The best selling work at 35 million copies and counting is Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples by George O’Neill.
“’Till death do us part” has long been ingrained in our Western society through the standard marriage contract. Is that something new? Paleo-anthropologists say monogamy may have evolved early in human history. But newer genetic studies suggest that monogamy might have evolved much more recently, less than 10,000 years ago.
Current American culture approves of marriage, so partners who frequently stray from that coupling try to do so with the greatest discretion. Violations lead to messy divorces and shunning.
So if there is as much straying from the marriage bed as books, movies and bar talk would have us believe, where did marriage come from and why?
Probably the guy who’s most studied this is anthropologist Jack Goody (his real name, not a pun.) He thinks it was the advent of plough agriculture which brought on the monogamous relationship. Plough farming was men’s work and was associated with private property, so marriage tended to be monogamous to keep the property within the nuclear family.
In Roman Empire times, Augustus Caesar encouraged marriage and reproduction to force the aristocracy to divide wealth and power among multiple heirs. But the aristocrats kept their legitimate children to a minimum to ensure their legacy while having many outside copulations.
It’s complicated and infidelity is practiced by many men and women. The “open marriage” (both spouses are okay with some outside copulation) tends to be even more hidden than the individual infidelity.
Is marriage fidelity a Biblical thing? I posed that to UH religion professor Jay Sakashita. Here’s what he emailed back:
On the one hand, marriage is viewed as a distraction and something best avoided. The apostle Paul makes this clear in his New Testament letters. Paul was not married and he believed that the end of the world was coming within his lifetime. He thus counseled Christians not to get married because they would be more concerned with their marriage rather than focusing on their faith. Christians are to be in the world, but not of the world. They should not lose themselves in worldly concerns. Marriage is a worldly endeavor. Christian monks and nuns today are expressions of this view. There are no monks/nuns in Judaism and Islam because these religions don’t have the world-denying emphasis that you find in Christianity. Indeed, Christians believe the world rejected and killed Christ. Marriage, then, is viewed as a compromise to one’s faith.
On the other hand, as Christianity developed and Christians began to accept the idea that the world would be around for awhile, they sought to portray their faith as a boon for society. Another view of marriage emerged as a result. Christians were urged to be model citizens, as their behavior would be a reflection on the church. Some of the later New Testament letters take this view. Men are to be ideal husbands and women ideal wives. Slaves are to obey their masters and children are to listen to their parents. And wives should be submissive to their husbands, as just as Christ is the head of the church, a husband is the head of his wife. Marriage was thus viewed as a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church. Obedience and fidelity were emphasized.
My observation is that we are in a state of flux today. Probably more affairs because of more opportunity as men and women meet in the workplace. Alexandra Kollontai was a Marxist revolutionary and in her book Make Way for the Winged Eros argued that monogamy is an artifact of capitalist concepts of property and inheritance. She wrote:”The social aims of the working class are not affected one bit by whether love takes the form of a long and official union or is expressed in a temporary relationship. The ideology of the working class does not place any formal limits on love.”
Well, let’s see how much heat I take for even bringing up the subject!