Originally published in First Things on 1/11/2024
By: Robert P. George and Daniel Frost
A recent article in the New Yorker paints a rosy picture of the many ways that polyamory and non-monogamy are making inroads into American culture. Amid a great deal of wishful thinking, one claim stands out: that opening your marriage to additional sexual partners can make it stronger. The New Yorker article notes that non-monogamy “is increasingly being presented not as a threat to bourgeois marriage but, rather, as a way to save the institution and all that it affords.”
This claim would be laughable if it weren’t being taken so seriously. It’s a bit like the infamous (and apocryphal) claim from an American military officer in the Vietnam War that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Marital infidelity strikes at the heart of marriage, at its total commitment, expressed in vows of permanence and exclusivity. Spouses who engage in sexual non-monogamy, even if they act with each other’s consent, undermine the basis of an authentic and honorable marriage. And when their actions are public, and especially where they are publicly affirmed and celebrated, they further wound the culture of marriage that everyone benefits from when it is secure and flourishing.
Consider, by analogy, friendship. An ordinary friendship has a certain structure and point. In a true friendship, each friend wills the good of the other for the sake of the other. Without this goodwill, there is no friendship. As it weakens, a friendship withers.
Now, imagine that one friend, upset at the other for some perceived wrong, speaks maliciously of his friend behind his back, impugning his character. We would all have to admit that this action was a betrayal of the friendship, defying the norm that each friend acts for the other’s good.
But now imagine that the slanderer’s goal was to blow off steam over the perceived wrong and then return to the friendship with less resentment. If he is successful in this goal, someone might say that “the slander saved the friendship,” but this would be a mistake. The friendship was not saved, because the unrepentant friend stopped willing the good of the other, the very thing that made them friends. The opposite impression depends on a mistake about what friendship is—the deeply mistaken (and harmful) assumption that it’s most fundamentally a matter of feelings, not wills.
Now compare this to marriage. Like friendship, marriage has a structure and point. This structure is not subject to endless revision and modification but is a function of basic aspects of human well-being and fulfillment. As Western law and culture historically recognized, marriage is a two-in-one-flesh (“conjugal”) union of husband and wife. As a distinctive human good, marriage is an all-encompassing union. It unites a man and woman at every level of their persons: heart, mind, and body (for the body is part of the person, not just a tool). In this vision, sexual intercourse is not just a way of feeling closer to someone, different only in degree from other gestures of affection. It alone can seal a marriage, a comprehensive bond—by extending a total union of heart and mind (including total commitment) into the bodily dimension.
Pursuing sexual pleasure without total commitment undermines this human good many times over. It dishonors marriage by seeking a kind of illusion of total union—the connection of bodies without the total commitment of wills; a depersonalization. And choosing sex outside marriage makes one incapable of then using sex to express total commitment within marriage. So even if a couple who engages in non-monogamy finds their psychological experience enhanced by sex with other partners, their marriage will not be improved. What they will be living out is not a comprehensive union of persons in love, but a kind of sexual-romantic domestic partnership with a rotating cast of characters.
Of course, whether we are right depends on whether our account of marriage is sound (for those interested, this account has been defended in several publications over the years). If our account is wrong—if marriage is really just sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership—then perhaps it could indeed be enhanced by non-monogamy.
But marriage revisionists rarely trouble themselves to defend their implicit view on that crucial question of what marriage is. They point out that marriages have rough patches, then claim that some find greater emotional connection by engaging in consensual short- or long-term infidelity, and conclude that non-monogamy can make marriage better. This simply assumes that marriage is the kind of thing that could in principle be improved by multiple sexual partners—that it is not inherently a one-flesh union (just as the idea of “improving” a friendship by blowing off steam at the friend’s expense assumes that friendship is about feelings, not goodwill).
In other words, polyamory advocates just assume that marriage need not be sexually exclusive—the very conclusion they need to be defending. A better conversation would lead with a discussion of what marriage is and what sex has to do with it.
Such a discussion would reveal one final way that polyamory harms marriage. Its mainstreaming by some would erode everyone else’s ability to understand and live out true marriage.
As the late Oxford philosopher Joseph Raz, whose views on sex and marriage were much more liberal than ours, nevertheless conceded, “monogamy, assuming that it is the only valuable form of marriage, cannot be practiced by an individual. It requires a culture which recognizes it, and which supports it through the public’s attitude and through its formal institutions.”
The normalization of non-monogamy would change what people think they are getting into when they get married, and how they go about it. For example, if non-monogamy is normalized, it will become increasingly difficult for a husband or wife to resist a request from their spouse to open their marriage to other sexual partners. The expectation of marital fidelity could come to be seen as clingy or possessive—the sort of thing that someone should go to therapy for. The pressure will be on the spouse resisting non-monogamy (more often wives than husbands) to “get over” their hang-ups and allow more sexual experimentation for the “good” of the marriage. In short, a culture that accepts and celebrates non-monogamy is one in which it will become more difficult for everyone to be in faithful and committed marriages. As for the consequences for children, it doesn’t take much imagination to grasp what they would be.
Everyone has a responsibility to promote a culture in which others are supported in understanding and acting on the truth. Infidelity is a “solution” to marital difficulties in the same way that euthanasia is a “solution” for illness. In each case, the “remedy” actually destroys the thing in need of rescue.