I don’t remember much from Psych 101, but I do remember Sternberg’s Triangle of Love. Sternberg sees Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment as the three corners of love. Pick any one or two components and you have various kinds of relationships; combine all three, and you have what he calls the Consummate Love.
Which is sort of what 99.99% of romance novels is about. Except in the romance world, there’s a fourth corner: Fidelity.
Wait. Isn’t that the same as Commitment? Well, not according to Dan Savage, the love and sex columnist who was featured in the New York Times Sunday Magazine two weeks ago. He recognizes that monogamy is right for most couples, and that’s great. What he doesn’t like is our society’s assumption that monogamy is right for all couples:
“Folks on the verge of making those monogamous commitments need to look at the wreckage around them (Schwarzenegger, Clinton, Vitter)…and have a conversation about what it’ll mean if one or the other partner should cheat. And agree, at the very least, to getting through it, to place a higher value on the relationship itself than on component of it, sexual exclusivity.”
Mr. Savage doesn’t support thoughtless infidelity, but he’s asking for smarter boundaries and honesty, an acknowledgement that:
- Monogamy is hard. Much harder than anyone ever thinks.
- Because of this, mistakes happen.
- In any case, sometimes there are things, sexually, that our partner simply can’t, or won’t provide.
- So if we were all honest about our needs and desires, it might make things a whole lot little easier when the going gets tough. Commitment is not the same as monogamy.
Which stopped me in my tracks. Because let’s face it, that would put a big stopper to Disney, romantic comedies, and of course, romance novels. And it doesn’t sound romantic. No one wants to consider that they’ve chosen someone flawed enough to cheat, or they’re not the whole answer to their spouse’s basic needs. For all of our modern sexual liberation, North Americans still generally subscribe to Sternberg’s Consummate Love as the ideal – but with monogamy.
Now look at romance novels. This is what they sell, a love between two people that is strong enough to overcome not just the serial killer next door or the totalitarian space dictator. This is a love that can withstand the job that gets progressively more disillusioning; the colleague whose every word is spite; the new neighbor who looks more attractive mowing the lawn than your spouse. This is a love that can keep two people wanting each other with the same fervor at 60 as at 30.
In short, this is a love that many would call unrealistic.
While I read the article, a part of me had to wonder if Mr. Savage isn’t on to something. And that, even more, if romance novels and romantic comedies aren’t doing their part in adding to the pressure of monogamy. Yes, I know they’re just stories, and we can all tell the difference between fact and fiction. But I also know that infidelity is one of the hottest hot-button issues with some readers – we hear about it, and we’re gone. After all, who wants to read about adultery in a romance novel?
I have a huge respect for authors who dare to broach the topic, and feature couples who work past their mistakes. I don’t think the romance world is quite ready yet to see a HEA with “extramarital encounters” on the side, slaking our happy couple’s need for variety. Erotica is different; it’s made to push boundaries, and authors like Maya Banks, Lora Leigh, and Emma Holly have written books featuring multiple simultaneous partners, all parties satisfied.
But in the romance novel world, we also have books like Private Arrangements and Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas, The Marriage Bed by Laura Lee Guhrke, and of course, Mary Balogh’s classic The Obedient Bride. All of these books deal with the consequences of infidelity in a marriage, and the repaired, stronger relationship that follows. More, please.
I’d be very interested to hear your views on this topic. Is infidelity a hot button for you, and why/why not? Do you think that romance novels need a dose of reality, so to speak? Can monogamy actually be successfully optional in a long-term relationship?
- Jean AAR