The summer before my junior year in high school I worked at a Christian summer camp. It was the best summer of my life, and I am pretty sure it’s the summer I first “fell in love” in that very coming-of-age way that you do when you have a new driver’s license and spend half your life in a bathing suit. Love was very much on everyone’s mind, because my boss, one of the women’s directors, had gotten engaged to one of the men’s directors and it was all just sunshine and roses. They got married in the fall and throughout the next year, we’d get coffee and check in. I noticed almost immediately that the sunshine was growing dim. When she filed for divorce the next year, the storm clouds were undeniable.
Her needs were not being met, she said. That didn’t shock me—I knew the guy, and I knew divorced people. Not every marriage is good, I reasoned, gotta choose better. But then, a frustrated mutual friend and mentor to us both, delivered what would be, for me, a stunning blow: “It’s marriage. Nobody’s needs get met.”
And that’s when, I think, the seed was planted for 1) my own premarital panic attack, and 2) everything that I’m about to say.
Before you go thinking I’m in an unhappy marriage…
Listen, I love being in a committed partnership. I love predictability, connection, and closeness. Also, Lewis is easy to champion, because he’s funny, and humble, and sweet, and he likes me. So committed am I to our vows that I am going to recite them to you, reader, throughout this loooong long post. Because even though we got married knowing each other less than a year, we wrote some killer vows, not the usual hot mess of “we wrote our own vows.”
It’s uncanny though, because I will tell you that my imagination of marriage—panic attack notwithstanding—was completely unrealistic. The vows really did outsmart me.
Lewis and I are happy because we’ve allowed our commitment to grow and evolve. We have acknowledged that it was desire that brought us together, not just desire for togetherness, but desire for a certain kind of life. We share a desire for meaning in our work, quiet contemplation, and community. Lewis also needs and desires things I cannot provide—like professional goals, certain kinds of space, and deeper appreciation of some subjects than I can share—and vice versa. So it’s been important to figure out what it means to love each other in those desires, and what it means to be faithful when our desires extend beyond what we had previously imagined marriage to be.
“I, Bekah, take you, Lewis, to be my husband”
Just like the vows suggest, the question of “why get married?” or “why commit to a partner?” is actually really personal and contextual. It has to do with our personal purposes and the gifts we have to offer. In the context of sacrament, marriage’s importance is derived from the Divine love it is supposed to embody. In the context of survival of the species, partnership is a commitment to giving kids what they need. In the context of the American legal system, marriage is taking responsibility for one another’s property. All of these are important things, but if you said that the union was only that, you’d have a mob after you.
We, the 21st century mob, want all of those things to flow out of what the union is at its essence. We want our sacraments, childbearing, and laws to reflect the ideal of what marriage IS.
The bummer is, I don’t think we know what marriage is, essentially. I think marriage has always been constructed around the purpose that it served, the container that it gave to love. The legal classifications are more negotiable now, we’re asking more questions about what kinds of adult relationships best serve children. And I think that’s a good thing.
Churches (where many of us get our imaginations of marriage) have a terrible habit of taking what’s available to us today, casting morals around it, and then claiming that these are the morals that have always been in place, always should be in place, and are somehow etched in the mind of God. I don’t want to debate the biblical absolutes of 21st century marriage, because I really think it’s a misuse of the Bible. And religion has a weird history with desire. I spent too long associating desire with sin, and not just questioning my own desires, but unquestioningly assuming they flowed from my evil, selfish, heart. That said: true faith informs our ethics of marriage and partnership, and guides us in the very deep sense of what it means to love in any context, including the context of desire. I’m interested in marriage or committed partnership as a context for Divine love, because I think it affords a surprising amount of latitude for the particulars, if we’re willing to consider them. In whatever arrangement you find yourself, love. Seek their best.
As sociologists have pointed out, marriage has evolved over time. It has served different purposes in different contexts: financial security, political alliance, social status, romantic ideal, family foundation, and, as Eli J. Finkel pointed out in his book The All or Nothing Marriage, it’s now a means of self-fulfillment. We typically only add purposes, we rarely subtract. So we’re putting a tremendous amount of pressure onto one person. At the same time, as therapist Esther Perel famously pointed out, at least two of those purposes—Eros and security—are mutually exclusive in the same moment. In order to get them both from the same person for all of time, we have to be relational shapeshifters who know how to cultivate both distance and closeness. We must support but also destabilize, open up but also hide, share but also withhold. We create a budget, trade off who gets to take the new job, help balance each other’s family obligations, and then also place obstacles between us so that the sexual desire stays alive.
We know that we believe in the all-or-nothing ideal, because we cry equally for the woman whose husband no longer expresses sexual desire and for the woman whose husband does not allow her to share her deepest fears. We think it’s romantic to “marry your best friend” but we have to remind our spouses that being treated like we are their parent is the opposite of an aphrodisiac. We can’t agree on what desire in marriage is supposed to feel like or what commitment requires of us, so we just went with “everything I could ever want and nothing that I don’t.”
“To delight in your happiness, and rejoice in your growth. To be sad when you are sad, and to help and comfort you“
This is where I could take the evangelical turn and, with my former mentor, say “marriage isn’t about your needs!” And certainly not your wants! Grow up!
But that’s not the route I want to go. Just because something cannot fulfill your every need or desire doesn’t mean you should pursue it only as a form of martyrdom. First of all, you don’t have to pursue it at all. There are plenty of ways to love and serve people without the lifelong vows, without being propositioned for sex right after changing a diaper, without the in-laws. I do not think marriage is more noble than any other life lived in love. If marriage sounds awful to you, don’t do it.
I also think that we do, many of us, have a desire for some kind of safe place to be known and accepted for who we are. Our souls and our survival instincts agree on the idea of committing to someone else’s highest good, and receiving that support in return. It’s possible that many of us realize that in order to grow, we will need to let another person see us as we are, and feel that exposing ourselves in that way without the commitment to stay connected is too terrifying.
The happiest our marriage has been was not when it was “about our needs” But our happiest times have been when we cultivated a love that inherently considers and desires to meet those needs—and thus is willing to let our ego step aside when we cannot meet the needs. He is air, not earth. I am earth, not air. He craves harmony, and I crave progress. He dreams, I do. His “what ifs” are utopian. Mine are plans already half in motion. My delight is not in being all to Lewis, it is in being the one who affirms and delights in his happiness and growth, and helps whenever I can. He does the same for me. We have the all-or-nothing marriage, but it’s not about what we can be for each other as much as it’s about what we desire for each other.
“In difficulty I will run toward you. In strife I will forgive you. I will trust you and tell you the truth.”
Marriage or committed partnership cannot be everything, but neither is it nothing. Commitments like this are a unique opportunity to love someone, giving them the kind of acceptance and security that will allow them to accept themselves more deeply, and extend out toward others. Love of any kind expands the Divine in us. Whether it’s economic security that allows you to be generous, emotional security that allows you to be bold, or a partner who marches alongside you so that you’ll never be alone in the mission. (Notice I said “or” not “and.” Your marriage doesn’t have to provide all that.) Ideally you receive whatever kind of love you give in return, and everyone is feeling safe and held and expansive. If that sounds like the kind of core commitment you want to make, marriage is what our society offers you.
Would I love to see that offer extended to other constellations of partnership that did not have any interest in whose genitals go where? I do. I would love to see community surround and celebrate more ways for people to intimately commit their lives to each other. Whether they are sharing every secret, sharing a bank account, making medical decisions, raising children together, or having sex, I want us to expand our visions of what intimacy and commitment mean. But for now, if you want people to know what you mean when you describe your partnership, you’ve got limited options, and marriage comes with the most legal benefits.
But loving someone enough to commit to their highest good and take the inevitable challenges that brings can look a lot of different ways. I think that we should be able to say what our marriage is about, and what its core commitments are.
I think that you should be able to get married to have and raise children. Or for a green card. Or to increase your financial security. Or for status in your patriarchal community. Or for companionship. I think those are all legitimate reasons—if clearly communicated and agreed upon—for two people to get married. But they need to outline what they are and aren’t committing to, and what faithfulness looks like in their context.
“And while I promise to choose you over anything else in this world, I will not look to you to provide what only Jesus can.”
Before I get to the “over anything else” I am first just going to say that the “I will not look to you to provide what only Jesus can” part of the vows has outlived my evangelical intent in writing it that way. I would still say that the Divine Creator is the Source of all love, both permeating and transcending what we give to each other. Which is actually what makes the rest of this conversation possible. Onward.
We really, really want to get absolute on this “over anything else” bit. I feel it. We want to say that faithfulness is not circumstantial. That it is given by an authority outside us. We want to say that the imagination we have is God’s imagination, and the boundaries inherent to it are God’s inherent boundaries. But we actually only really believe that about sex.
Allow me to explain. This is going to be a bit of a ride, so hang on.
Fidelity is, in some ways, unique to each marriage.
I have a personal bank account. I happily contribute to family expenses, but I also do not have to tell Lewis how I spend that money. He does not know how much my Pilates classes are. We generally don’t spend tons of money without telling each other, because we value each other’s input, but our threshold for unilateral purchases is very high. Our spending has, for our entire marriage, been our own business.
If we had committed to making all financial decisions together, as many couples wisely do, or had set a limit on the dollar amount that could be spent unilaterally, then abiding by that agreement would be a matter of fidelity. If, in that context, he found out I’d spent $3,000 on accommodations for a girls’ trip and then hidden it, he’d be right to say I’d broke my promise.
If Lewis were a video gamer or if I was an avid golfer we would have to set boundaries around how those time-consuming interests intersect with our vows to choose each other over all else. I have friends who are not bothered to be golf widows, and couple friends for whom video games are a togetherness activity. We all get to choose how we relate to time and attention in our marriages. It’s a mark of how much we’ve let capitalism weigh in on this that even the most marriage-centric purists don’t consider it abandonment when a partner works 50, 60 hours per week. If a wife delights to reap the financial benefits of her workaholic husband, or vice versa, no one is going to tell them they are in an open marriage with their careers.
Sometimes fidelity is a matter of degrees.
For me to demand that my husband share all of my weird-ass interests, talk deeply with me about all of my wild-ass feelings, or allow me to complain about him, to him, at any moment…we’d agree this is irrational. If my husband was too busy to watch a movie with me, or didn’t have the bandwidth for me to talk about the difference between ennui and lassitude, or if he maybe walked out of the room while I was mid-rant…would we call that unfaithfulness? He promised to run toward me in difficulty. He promised to delight in my happiness. Sure, but obviously this interpretation is unreasonable, and probably not even healthy.
But if I brought him my favorite movie, and said “it would mean the world to me if you’d watch this.” If I needed to share a feeling that was weighing on me so heavily I felt I could not breathe. If I needed to tell him the small thing he’d done that hurt me. Then, it might be fair to say that he would be living into his vow to love me by making time.
Conversely if he were to belittle and disdain my interests, refuse to acknowledge my feelings, and insisted on continuing harmful behavior, we might consider that a betrayal. If he continued to emotionally neglect me, I would say he was being unfaithful. (Lewis McNeel would never, by the way. This is where he shines brightest.)
What is important to me, in our marriage, is not that I know his every move and expenditure, it’s not that he spend more time with me than anywhere else (though that had to be negotiated early on), it’s not that I’m the only woman who ever catches his eye. What matters to me—how I apply our vows—is that he will support me as I think, feel, and grow. He will make time, take the kids, stay awake, and steel his heart in order to let me know that I am accepted and safe. He will not reject me because of something I believe, feel, or desire (or when I talk about theoretical open relationships on the internet).
Lewis maintains that all he wants is for me to like him. I like to think I can give that a little pizzazz. In addition to making sure he gets time with his friends, exercises, and sees his therapist, I also surprise him for his birthday, and sometimes just for fun. Lewis is a subject I study, and have become expert in, for the purpose of knowing exactly what would make him feel special and seen. I’ve stuck by him through difficult seasons and given him two children that he wanted very, very much. That’s what I was agreeing to when I married someone who said he didn’t think he’d feel fully fulfilled unless he was a dad.
So each marriage, maybe even each partner, has unique priorities and degrees of fidelity. Should exclusivity be a measure of fidelity?
A few of years ago some friends from church started a group text that has grown into a full blown best-friendship as we supported each other through the hardest and most transformative years of our lives. It was the first place I felt I could truly and fully share ALL my feelings without judgment. Even my feelings about Lewis, when I was furious or feeling unseen. The intimacy in that group text (which also includes as much face time and in-person time as we can possibly afford, being now scattered across the country) is pretty deep. I tell them things I don’t tell my husband.
But it was never a threat to Lewis. He values that friendship very much. Our friendly intimacy has never been what he might consider unfaithfulness—even though I do sometimes go to them for things I might have otherwise gone to him about. Why? Well, first, Lewis needed a break. I am a lot. I mean, I’m like this all the time. He’s happy for me to disperse the intensity. Second, and more to the point: I’m like a 1 on the Kinsey scale. Maybe a 2 if you put a LOT of stock in Tig Notaro. He was okay with those female friendships because there was very low probability of sexual connection.
By contrast, I went on a trip out of state a couple of years ago, and asked Lewis if he’d think it was weird if I went on a hike with a male friend who lived in that state. This friend and I were very close when we were single, but never romantically involved. Lewis balked. Just the idea of sexual compatibility made him feel territorial over the kinds of experiences I had with this man.
We had to talk about that. The intimacy I shared with my groups of girls is way more potent than a hike. Women have left their husbands for intimate girlfriends, and sexuality is dynamic, so it’s not even really about the threat to the marriage. Lewis, to his credit, has done the hard work, with me, of asking whether our boundaries are based on our own insecurities, or the actual strengthening of our marriage. He’s opened himself to the ways some male friends can nurture and care for me in ways that he can’t—based on their unique gifts and desires and, in some cases, his own exhaustion. Watching him evolve has been, frankly, quite a turn on.
He’s even acknowledged that what the Greeks called ludus—flirtatious love—is a potent source of energy for me, and that, similar to full-heat Eros, ludus requires a pretty unique mix of familiarity and uncertainty. Banter. Innuendo. I live for that shit. Lewis and I enjoy our fair share of ludus, but it’s not as potent when you already know you’re going home together to fold laundry. Or when you’ve just collapsed onto his shoulder cried your eyes out about how mean one of your kids is being.
There’s risk of sexual desire developing in sexually compatible, ludus-heavy relationships, sure. But that risk exists just by being a person out in the world though. We’ve all seen the ridiculousness that ensues when “avoid attraction altogether” is how we maintain sexual exclusivity. But desire also doesn’t mean that you cross that boundary. We did promise sexual exclusivity when we got married. Fidelity, for us, requires that our marriage to be the container where sexual desire can serve the purposes of love, until we decide otherwise.
And I think we get to decide. Lewis absolutely HATES these hypotheticals, but I subject him to them all the time: If something happened and I was no longer physically or emotionally able to have sex, I wouldn’t want Lewis to live the rest of his life without it. I wouldn’t want him to only have casual sex, or tear through half the state, either. I’d want there to be some way for him to give and receive love in that way. To experience that particular bond, even if it’s no longer with me. I would hope that he would not abandon me, like we’d still have our home and kids and love and serve each other in all other ways. I would ask that anyone who was bonded to him in that way to refrain from trying to steal him. I would hope that their shared imagination for their relationship would not be tied to sexual exclusivity as the basis for all other exclusivity. Even as they became inevitably close, I’d hope that it would be an expansive bond that included me. I would want to know and love that person. Other people (most people) feel differently about all of this. That is fair.
I, personally, think the meaning and specialness of sex does not come from exclusivity. It comes from the way we love and serve each other through it. Sex is special because it is generative (it literally gives life) and pleasing. It creates a bond—though not the eternal, unbreakable bond the church told us. There are other ethics besides exclusivity. Like mutuality, generosity, responsibility, even commitment—it doesn’t have to be monogamy to be a commitment. Non-monogamy and boundless promiscuity aren’t the same.
Exclusivity certainly strengthens my bond with Lewis. But it’s definitely not the foundation or even the core of our bond. The core of our bond is the commitment to be for each other. So that’s the big question: could having sex with someone other than your partner be, in any way, a benefit to your partner? Only you and your partner can answer.
Until death parts us, with all my spirit and body, I am for you.
So I guess this is my argument: In a world where marriages are expected to be ev-er-y-thing, most of us already have open marriages. We have emotionally open, socially open, spiritually open, and financially open marriages. We have boundaries around that openness—we don’t want them to undermine our commitment to our spouse. But that is just as much an invitation to look at the demands we have placed on our spouse as it is a reminder to make sure we are fulfilling our duty.
I promised to always be “for” my husband. To align myself with his best interests. My intimate friends—and sometimes my therapist— will validate my complaints about Lewis, but they also support reconciliation ALWAYS. The day they start cheering against my marriage, that’s the day this friendship violates my vow to be “for” Lewis. I used to imagine that to utter any complaint about him was a violation, but then I had to ask if the mountain of resentment was serving him any better.
I know that like 90 percent of people reading this will think I’m entirely wrong about monogamy. There will be some argument for the objectivity of marriage or the duties of partnership. And most of us have had our imaginations formed by particular visions of sexual exclusivity, and if we are in relationships that match that vision, we’ll want to keep it that way.
But we also have really high divorce rates. Lots of people have harmful affairs. Many languish in their marriages, and love struggles to extend past their own day to day survival of each other. My friend wasn’t all wrong when she said “It’s marriage! Nobody’s needs get met!” But I think she was definitely looking at the problem, not the solution. For those whose marriage is either in need of air, based on legitimate earthy needs, desperate to move like water, or consuming them like fire, I think we need to have a discussion about what we imagine a good marriage to be, and what other human connections might sustain it.