Books April 2014

The Monogamy Trap

How hard and boring it is to be faithful?
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Javier Jaén Benavidas

Nestled within The New York Times’ luxuriously unsettling Sunday Styles section—where party shots of 27-year-old Silicon Valley billionaires cavort with Breitling underwater-chronograph ads—is the Modern Love page. Like a Velveteen Rabbit unfazed by the glitter, here a muted pencil drawing with wan stick figures accompanies a heartfelt first-person essay of love and loss. Slow-moving for those rushing to the dual-hedge-fund wedding announcements, the tale extends across four columns, taking its time to deepen, darken, and encompass such startling life turns as cancer, death, broken promises, sex-change operations, children who are lost, and couples who part at 20 only to meet again at 80, when one of the pair is perhaps now legally blind. Victories are hard-won; sometimes they don’t even feel like victories. Sadder and wiser, the writer often learns to live without.

I eye Modern Love warily between that second and third cup of coffee on Sunday mornings, calculating how much of a push I need to get through the day’s unhurriedly earnest saga of heartbreak and recovery. How, I’ve wondered, does the man behind the curtain—Daniel Jones, the editor of the feature for almost a decade—do it? As he notes in Love Illuminated, which is less a Modern Love “best of” than a rumination on the columns’ themes, he has by now read some 50,000 reader submissions. On the face of it, Jones is well cast as our Virgil, being half of America’s literary first couple of modern relationship angst. Jones’s wife, Cathi Hanauer, edited the best-selling anthology The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage, to which he responded with The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom. The good news: as that title attests, Jones is what many Modern Love columnists aren’t—funny.

But there’s that sterling pedigree to contend with: husband-and-wife writer-editors, ever so productive in their publishing, so thoughtful in their writing, so happily married for so long (and so ready to confess their minor spats over parenting and dishes). A simpatico family guy with cool glasses and a flannel shirt (he and his wife live in Massachusetts with their children, Phoebe and Nathaniel—such great names!) may be a pleasant fellow to have a beer with. But isn’t he the last person many of us might choose to hear talk about love? Having blown up my own long-term marriage via an extramarital affair, followed by a traumatic divorce, I tend to think of love as less a gently glowing hearth than a set of flaming train tracks you strap yourself onto. My library specializes in wild and messy opuses by bad girls, like Cristina Nehring’s A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century, Laura Kipnis’s Against Love: A Polemic, and let’s not forget Helen Fielding’s latest Bridget Jones installment, Mad About the Boy, which has our heroine at age 51, undaunted by embarrassing hair-coloring incidents and dropped reading glasses, shagging a 29-year-old.

So a book whose chapter titles echo a medieval morality play—“Pursuit,” “Destiny,” “Vulnerability,” “Connection,” “Trust,” “Practicality,” “Monotony,” “Infidelity,” “Loyalty,” and “Wisdom”—had to work to win me over. Perhaps this occasion to mark the influence of the Internet, catalyst of many a Modern Love tale, might supply intriguing new twists on these age-old themes? No: it turns out that true online adventures (at least the ones that have crossed Daniel Jones’s desk) typically pale in comparison to lurid plots we’ve already watched unfold on HBO. It’s hardly news that the search for a mate prompts us to lie—about our height, weight, annual income. Or that we winnow others by their equally unreliable statistics, artificially limiting our pool when the Republican smoker who lives three hours away may be the partner with whom we have mad sexual chemistry. I wondered if I’d found the ultimate Internet-era anomaly when I began reading about a woman who fell in love, via an online-dating site, with a Nigerian con man. The tale tested credulity: he proceeded to admit the con and insist that he, too, had fallen in love—and off she flew to Nigeria, where he greeted her with flowers and didn’t ask again for money … or at least not at first.

I tend to think of love as less a gently glowing hearth than a set of flaming train tracks you strap yourself onto.

It turned out that the tale was a hypothetical scenario envisioned by Jones. But the thought experiment that intrigued me more was trying to imagine what unfolded next, because the “happily ever after,” of course, is the part of modern love that most bedevils us all: not the ways we come together, but what happens over the years and years afterward (sexy Nigerian former-con-man husband begins worthy if underfunded Third World nonprofit?). So perhaps it isn’t as surprising as it sounds that Jones’s chapter on “Monotony” was where I perked up. Ever so casually, he drops the bomb: “Among my fifty thousand strangers, I’ve heard from only a handful of couples who claim to have maintained sexually charged marriages through the decades.” Jones wryly notes the standouts among the very limited array of naturally monogamous species (which do not include humans): anglerfish and a certain genus of tapeworms. The latter don’t just mate for life. They are literally fused together until death.

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