This is a weird way into this post, I realize, but I have a severe case of jet lag right now so... we're going in the weird way: reading Dear Prudence today made me think of this section from one Sister Mary's monologues in Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You:
I want to be very clear about the Immaculate Conception. It does not mean that the Blessed Mother gave birth to Christ without the prior unpleasantness of physical intimacy. That is true, but is not called the Immaculate Conception; that is called the Virgin Birth. The Immaculate Conception means that the Blessed Mother was herself born without original sin. Everyone makes this error, and it makes me lose my patience.
So, like, jet lag, anyway...
In today's "Dear Prudence" live chat, Slate's terrific resident advice columnist, Daniel Mallory Ortberg, took a question from a "white, married, heterosexual, cisgender" reader. This LW was upset that her queer, kinky, non-monogamous friends—one or more of them (it's unclear in the letter)—were mocking her for being vanilla and monogamous. (The LW'S queer friend(s) also scolded her for referring to a drag queen as "she," which is pretty standard. So it's possible her queer friends are clueless and/or playing games.) After telling the LW that her friends were jerks (which I can get behind), Ortberg wrote this:
Some of what you’ve described is legitimately rude and unfriendly behavior, and you don’t have to put up with anyone telling you that you and your husband should stop being faithful to one another because you’re “not supposed to be.”
Monogamous ≠ "faithful" and non-monogamous ≠ "unfaithful."
Nearly everyone makes this error, and it makes me lose my patience. But I was surprised to see Ortberg make this error, as he's queer and usually so careful about avoiding loaded or stigmatizing language. And while I'm sure Ortberg didn't mean to imply that people in non-monogamous relationships are by definition unfaithful, that's the message we send when we use "monogamous" and "faithful" interchangeably.
Open relationships have rules, of course, so people in open relationships can be unfaithful to their partners/spouses—just as it's possible for people in successfully monogamous relationships to be unfaithful. A person can be married to someone for fifty years and never touch another living human being with their genitals and still cheat their partner. As Esther Perel says...
Betrayal in a relationship comes in many forms. There are many ways that we betray our partner. With contempt, with neglect, with indifference, with violence. Sexual betrayal is only one way to hurt a partner. In other words: The victim of an affair is not always the victim of the marriage.
Sexual exclusivity successfully executed over the decades is one measure of faithfulness in a monogamous relationship; successfully honoring the rules over the decades is one measure of faithfulness in a non-monogamous relationship. But neither is the only measure. If a person is contemptuous of their spouse—or neglectful or indifferent or violent—they're breaking faith with someone they promised to love and care for. They're being unfaithful.
I take this slightly personally due to the grief I've gotten over the last twenty years for being in a non-monogamous relationship. (Or, perhaps, for being honest about it.) To be told, as I have been told so many times, that my husband and I don't really love each other and that we're not really committed to each other because we're not monogamous—to be told, as we have both been told so many times, that if we really loved each other we would be faithful—makes me lose my patience. Because we do love each other and are committed and we are faithful.
Funny story: a guy tells me he could never do what Terry and I do—he could never be in a non-monogamous relationship—because he "values commitment too highly," and then adds, "all three of my marriages were monogamous." I pointed out that he was committed to monogamy, not his any of his spouses, whereas I'm committed to Terry.
Un-funny story: Terry had a health crisis last year and for a minute it looked bad. We've been together for 24 years—maybe we'll start getting rounded up to "committed" when we hit 25 years—and after all this time I can't imagine my life without him. If someone had walked into the doctor's office while I was holding my big, tall, strong, weeping husband's hand and said, "Yeah, but you two aren't really committed to each other," that person would've suddenly experienced a health crisis of their own—one involving blunt-force trauma. I was there for Terry that day, just as he's there for me every day, because I'm committed to him. I'm his faithful husband. (And he, of course, is mah faithful huzzben.)
Anyway... like I said... everyone makes this error, and it makes me lose my patience. And, man, jet lag is a bitch.