The Monogamy Trap

What do we talk about when we talk about love? How hard and boring it is to be faithful.

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.

Here we really do need our affable Massachusetts dad, because otherwise what he’s describing in his calm, precise way might be too unsavory and dark. In Jones’s view, long-married humans confronting boredom have three basic coping “strategies” to choose among. Some spouses become “quashers,” resigning themselves to their sexless fate either bitterly or with frenetic, Facebook-posting cheer. “Sneakers” stalk old flames online. Jones rolls up those flannel sleeves and allows himself a parody of the by now “yawningly predictable” scenario:

SNEAKER: yeah im married 2 but I dont know. we kind of do our own thing these days. what about u?
TARGET: lol I know how that is ...
SNEAKER: u and me used to have so much fun partying right?
TARGET: yeah like 100 yrs ago lol
SNEAKER: we should try to hang out sometime. get together 4 lunch or whatevs.
TARGET: omg that would be so crazy to c u again.
SNEAKER: how far away are u? like 3 hrs?
TARGET: yeah. long drive for just lunch lol!

Some scratch their itch more efficiently: “To the sneaker, nothing quite screams ‘compartmentalize’ more than being able to watch a whips-and-chains anal-sex romp on their laptop while their kids play Chutes and Ladders a few feet away.” Ew!

Unexpectedly, however, Jones reserves his most astutely acerbic commentary for the third group, marriage “restorers.” “Overachieving” restorer couples (according to him, there are no underachievers in this cohort) are typically “affluent, educated, successful, and highly motivated,” and they attack their sexual malaise as a project:

To figure out how to proceed, they’ll do what they’ve always done when faced with a thorny problem: conduct extensive research on the topic and then come up with a plan of action. And it won’t take long before they find out that, ironically, the most recommended strategies for reigniting passion in one’s marriage—passion that has waned in part due to the deadening weight of its routines—involves loading up the relationship with even more routines, albeit of an ostensibly restorative nature: date nights, couples counseling, dance classes, scheduled sex, ten for tens (committing to 10 hugs of at least 10 seconds in duration every single day), Fresh Flower Fridays (a boon to the local florist, if not your marriage), required kisses upon parting, lunchtime exchanges of erotic texts or e-mails, and possibly some creative midday play at the local Holiday Inn involving nipple clamps, silk scarves, and an eye patch.

The “solution” boils down, in short, to “Drudgery and Spice.” But as our guide notes, shedding a bit of humanizing light on his own perhaps-too-perfect-sounding marriage (the catalogue of titles that teeter on the nightstand of his fellow “marital boredom scholar,” Hanauer, is hilarious): “The drudgery may actually turn out to be fun (like reading to each other in bed from marriage-improvement books) and the attempts at spice may start to feel more like work.”

By Jones’s penultimate chapter, “Loyalty,” I was primed to consider shifting mine. I’d also been reading Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, the latest memoir by the bad-girl British author Rachel Cusk—overachieving destroyers, he might call us—and even I found the experience discomfiting. By the end, Cusk seemed so unhinged, and was crying so much in front of her children, that I was ready to sign on to the droll, clear-eyed wisdom of a bastard on the couch who has been a tirelessly attentive listener: some quashing, sneaking, or 10-second hugs in an eye patch may not be the worst ways to glue us humans together on this long, winding road called life.

My break was five years ago, my kids are well, and now that I live with my paramour, our fights amount to whether to allow the damned Sunday Times in bed. I won’t promise that we’ll start reading Modern Love essays aloud for fun, but Love Illuminated did leave me with a good story for some weekend when I’ve got everybody there with me under the covers—partner, daughters, and probably more than a few ads for Breitling chronographs. A man whose young wife was deeply depressed would hold her and talk to her gently about love for hours to keep her from suicide. Years later, she got better. As they bickered incessantly about household chores in the new “normalcy,” he missed the languid tales that had once filled their days. Ah! It’s that hard-earned, occasionally rewarding last turn in every Modern Love column. Pass the coffee.