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So here is a provocative question to ask next time you’re out with a group of friends at a cocktail party: “How’s the whole ‘lifetime monogamy thing’ working out for you?” (If nothing else, I’m a fun cocktail party guest.) Of course most people react immediately and decisively, as if there were no other option. “What? Of course it works. It works wonderfully. What lunatic would envision otherwise.” It’s not a lie, really; but are they being totally truth-driven?

Alas in my quest to question all things, and seek truth primarily through reason, science, and evidence, I find the answer isn’t as crystal clear as we’d like to believe. How many at your imaginary cocktail party have had an exlusive monogamous relationship throughout their adult lives? Ever cheated?  (Numbers say most do.) Ever divorced? (You know the numbers on this.) Those two statistics alone bolster the rational case that modern Americans are serially monogamous (one partner at a time, then change), but not truly monogamous.

(Lest you attack my bias, for the record I’ve made it into this, my 42nd year, with only two “fully intimate relationships,” and both in the confines of marriage; this second one is going on 19 years! But would I do it differently if I had it to do again? I’ll tell you at the bottom of the post.)

So to the point, I was going to write a blog entry dealing with some of these controversial questions, but then I realized I’d already written extensively on the topic. The following, seemingly dispassionate conversation between Ian and Samantha—from A Secret of the Universe—may appear a touch strange out of its historical context, but is nonetheless a “prelude” to a related epiphany for both of them. So from this story about God, sexual ethics, love, and death:

 A Conversation About Monogamy

Excerpt From Chapter 25 of A Secret of the Universe, Prelude to a Kiss“: A conversation between Ian and Samantha (Copyright 2007, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC)

Ian thought. “You know, I just don’t know. But the older I get, and the more I see, nothing would surprise me.”

“I just hope you’d tell me if you ever felt the need to go elsewhere. I can’t think of anything worse than being made a fool, a patsy. It’s not about the sex, its about the disrespect and the deceit . . . . I’d kill you.”

“I tell you, it’s why I think the whole Christian, puritanical view of the world might even be harmful. Hell, we tell kids sex is bad; we say we don’t, but we do. At the same time, unlike Europe, we’re both hypersexualized and prudish! I had friends whose parents actually told them sex was evil.

“The only thing my mom ever said . . . she walked in my room and said, ‘If you get pregnant I’ll kill you.’”

“Well my parents were relatively liberal and I would still lie in bed praying for strength not to sin and touch myself anymore. But then kids grow up and get married, and we pretend that each and every emotional and human need can be exclusively met within that relationship—the one created to preserve property inheritance for male successors,” Ian argued with a grin. “Between the hang-ups and the pressures, is it any wonder that so many spouses feel so inadequate, unfulfilled, or dissatisfied?”

“So would you marry me again today if you had it to do all over?” Samantha smiled knowingly; she just wanted to hear it.

“Of course. You know I would. And don’t get me wrong, I think that a lifetime commitment is so hugely important. The pledge to recognize that we are going to be here and grow in our love for each other, for the kids and for the grandkids, is huge. It’d be hard to overstate how important that is . . . . And it’s important that we work together in our community as well.”

“Yeah, well, if you ever leave me I’ll kick your ass,” Samantha joked. Confident and self-assured, she had joked before that they would have the easiest divorce any couple had ever seen, should they ever part ways. Of course it was an oversimplification, but Ian truly took her joke as a statement that she loved him so much that she really would ‘set him free’ if that was ever what he wanted. Ironically, he was touched by the statement, and it was just one of a million reasons he couldn’t envision living without her.

Ian laughed at her warning. “It’s just that to say in this day and age, when life expectancy will clearly reach close to ninety years or more—at least for our kids—at age twenty or thirty you’re supposed to select one person, love him or her so dearly and perfectly that you’ll be monogamous, totally fulfilled by only that person, in every want and need, for the next eighty years, just seems like a tall order to me.”

“It is a hell of a big promise,” Samantha agreed. “It almost goes back to the point you made when Bill and Megan were getting married. Is it humanly possible to pledge such a thing for certain? Can you really consent to an agreement to love someone for eighty years?”

Samantha paused, then answered her own question: “Clearly not, since more than half of marriages don’t last.”

Ian sat in thought. He said, “Okay, I’ll get back on my soap box just for a moment, but I mean . . . God seemed to fully condone concubines, back when people lived to thirty. How does monogamy for eighty years make sense? Actually, to your point, it doesn’t make sense in practice. I recently heard a woman on NPR say that most Americans are not monogamous; they engage in serial monogamy, which is simply one relationship at a time. Those don’t last either. So how is serial monogamy good for kids?”

“You know, for the record I do believe that you’ve lost it. You are officially a wacko liberal, one hundred and eighty degrees not the guy I married.”

“Thanks a lot,” Ian laughed.

“But that said, it does seem like a lot of pressure on the relationship to say that all your intimacy needs, forever, must come from this person—especially if what you say is true, that historically the real world hasn’t worked that way,” Samantha proffered.

“Not at all. Not only did the Biblical world work differently, but antisexuality paranoia didn’t really creep in to Christianity until Augustine, during the fourth and fifth centuries. And even then it came from the gentile mystery religions and philosophies, not from anything Christ or his apostles said.”

Ian became slightly more animated. “Priests married and had concubines up until 1022, when Pope Benedict VIII finally changed it and sentenced any children of priests to serfdom. But even then it was more about protecting the wealth of the Church from leaking out through inheritance. There was no theological basis.”

“I know. I know already, geek-boy. But you’re off topic as usual. And I was actually agreeing with you about the challenge of eighty-year marriage.”

Ian shot her a goofy glance. “Fine. But the central question becomes this: is love a zero-sum game? Is it a finite thing that is scarce and in limited supply?”

“Ahh. By that you mean just because you love one person, does that mean that the person you love uses up your available supply of love?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I think people are saying with regard to sexual relationships. Love is like gas in a tank, where once expended there is no more.” Ian caught Samantha’s quizzical look. “If I give my gas to someone else, that means I don’t have as much to give to you. They say that sex is reserved for only one person for your entire life, and that indeed it is cheapened if it is shared with anyone else, before or after. The funny thing about that argument is that it presupposes that sex must be the thing of greatest importance in all human relationships, and I think that’s wrong.”

Sammy still looked perplexed. “I’m not following you.”

“Those who say love and sex are a zero-sum game, are guilty of overprioritizing sex; they say we should save our sexual relations for only one person in a lifetime. And I think that’s a hypocritical argument. We’ve almost made sex a false God.”

“Still don’t follow,” Sammy said.

“Well for starters, let me ask you this. I love my brother Matt. Does that harm your relationship with me? Is that destructive to our relationship? Does it drain my gas tank and make less love available for you?”

“No it doesn’t. I suppose that it would if the relationship was dysfunctional, or if it was greatly troubled. Then it might hurt our relationship.”

“Good point. But let’s assume it’s truly a healthy, ‘Christian’ relationship. Now for a second let’s take my relationship with Bill as another example. Bill and I have a loving relationship, but obviously in a decidedly non-sexual way—”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Samantha quipped.

“Okay. So assuming we are using a Christian-style definition for love that defines it as authentic, pure, selfless and true, does it harm you if I have a non-sexual, loving relationship with Bill?”

“Of course not. Just like you said about getting needs fulfilled only within the relationship, I think most shrinks would say that you need to have interpersonal relationships outside of the marriage to keep it from crumbling under its own pressure.”

“Okay, but let’s take it a step further. Is it possible that I could have a loving relationship that is non-sexual, with another woman in life? Say that my mother was still alive. Would loving my mother hurt our relationship?”

“Of course not,” Samantha answered, playing along with the little game, “but get to your point.”

“What I’m saying is that the entire message about love being a finite quantity, zero-sum game, is said to apply only in non-intimate relationships. If sex is involved, then people must fulfill themselves emotionally, spiritually, and physically, only within the confines of a marital relationship, for their entire life. That argument centers entirely on sex. Sex is the determining factor of whether a relationship is destructive of others—limited in its available supply like a gas tank. I think that the zero-sum approach overstates the importance of sex in relationships, and devalues the importance of love. Sex becomes like a god or something. It’s almost like a false idol.”

“Let me see if I can hang with you on this before my brain retires for the night,” Sammy said. “Because of the insurmountable, all-important, and unharnessable power of sex, a sexual relationship, then, is somehow totally different. Once we dabble with this powerful sex thing, relationships are a zero-sum game. Every time I have sex with you, I’m draining the amount of love I have for my other lovers, or better yet for my future husband who doesn’t crash my quiet time with philosophical rantings.”

Sammy’s joke made Ian laugh. She further summarized, “So the argument is that if I physically and sexually interact with you, I have less love to give someone else. Other relationships are not zero-sum games, like you and your mother, but sexual ones are mutually destructive of one another.”

“That’s exactly what I hear them saying,” Ian confirmed.

Sam thought for a moment then countered, “I could certainly see where you could argue the opposite, that all genuinely loving relationships are the same as those that are non-sexual! They are not zero-sum games. Love is not limited, but is more like sowing and reaping. The more love we spread in life—and I do NOT mean that sexually—the more everybody wins.”

“Wow, did I just hear you say that?” Ian laughed, prodding her playfully. “Now you’re sounding like a radical lib.”

“But Ian, nobody questions that premise. That’s what every religion preaches. ‘Do unto others,’ the golden rule, ‘love thy neighbor,’ and you will reap benefits many times greater.”

“Right. Did you know that during the Victorian age in New York, doctors had vibrators and considered it a ‘non-sexual’ medical procedure to provide clitoral massages to their patients?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Samantha laughed.

“Absolutely not; it’s true. They thought that the relaxation of orgasm was quite helpful, and it turns out that hordes of women would very regularly see their doctor for that ‘therapy.’”


“But my point is that somehow if two female friends crossed that line today, and one provided the other with intimate contact or a ‘massage’ like the doctors used to provide, somehow we say such a relationship suddenly becomes destructive to others. The doctor-patient relationship would be removing ‘love’ from the woman’s tank, and thus depriving her husband of her love.”

“So you’re saying that sexual relationships are not different, and that so long as they are responsible, caring, mutually well-intentioned interactions between adults, without deceit and lying, they are complementary and helpful to the world?”

“How is it that you’re able to say in two sentences, what takes me five minutes?”

“It’s only because you help me flush out the real meaning, with your brilliant Socratic method,” Samantha smugly responded.

Although when it came to religion Sam was still uncertain and conflicted in her beliefs, she loved the bond that she shared with Ian. She treasured their late night, theoretical conversations and those special times that they spent talking. There was total safety. There was never a worry that a topic or a thought, genuinely expressed, was taboo or off-limits.

Ian felt the same way. To him such conversations and intimate, theoretical banter—the likes of which he’d never even imagined were possible in a marital relationship—were a testament to the refuge and comfort that was their love.

Ian replied to Samantha’s patronizing repartee, “Well your summary of my argument was perfect, even though I haven’t fully come to that conclusion yet. I’m certainly headed there though! It still fascinates me why we assign so much power to a muscle contraction.”

“But you’re not saying you think it’d be okay for our kids to just go have sex like it’s a new toy they got for Christmas?”

“Absolutely not. I assume it went without saying that I would never, nor would any theologian I’ve read who discusses these issues, argue that promiscuous or careless sex could be defined as loving interaction. It is not. And in no way is giving someone a disease, or creating sacred human life willy-nilly, an act of love. That is no more love than taking advantage of an unsuspecting young person who looks up to you. That’s rape! Any of these things are so not the caring, consensual, loving type of adult relationship I mean.”

Samantha leaned over to Ian. “Are you saying you want to be able to have sex with someone else?”

Ian paused, then said, “You know me. I’m all talk. That’s not my point.” He paused again. “Fantasy on paper? Sure. But practically, it’s hard to imagine. Mostly I’m just trying to formulate my worldview, is all. You know I’m very happy.” He cocked his head slightly and looked at Samantha. “How about you?”

Samantha laughed. “Furthest thing from my mind. Remember, I’m the one who wouldn’t even remarry if anything happened to you. It’s certainly not something on my radar. No one would want me anyway.”

Ian chuckled as well. “Yeah, and I don’t have time to have an affair! I don’t know how people do it. Not only do I not understand running around lying, cheating, deceiving, and even destroying other marriages, but even if it was done in the way I was just arguing, I don’t know how people have the time to do it.”

“Ahhh, so time just might be a zero-sum game,” Samantha summarized with a smile. “Could that make your whole argument moot?”

“Interesting thought. I suppose not though, because the same can be said for all those other relationships that society and religion tend to value as sowing seeds of love—all those non-sexual relationships. But I suppose that you always do run the risk of cheating the ones you love out of your time. I think that’s a separate issue though.”

Samantha and Ian leaned back and chuckled at their silly, theoretical banter. Soon they shifted gears and began to talk of the real-life logistics and plans for the upcoming weekend, and even the following week’s schedule, while Ian would be gone to the Chicago Desoterica. Before long, they kissed and said goodnight in their not-at-all-uncommon fashion: Ian headed to the kitchen to read, study, or write, and Samantha called it a night.

Alternative Vows?

The events of the night were on Ian’s mind. He thought about his dear friends Bill and Megan. He thought about the conversations of the evening concerning Bill and Megan, and the issues surrounding marriages and relationships. Why were they so difficult for so many people? Why were 50% of marriages ending in divorce? Why were 60% of African-American children being born out of wedlock—or perhaps more importantly and correctly stated, being born to only one committed caretaker?

Ian reflected back upon Bill and Megan’s chauvinistic and archaic wedding vows. He then pondered his own “devil’s advocate” position about marriage, and an idea hit him. He wondered, what might an ideal wedding vow look like? If I could do it all over, perhaps in a parallel universe, what would my vows look like?

After grabbing a snack from the kitchen, he headed for the computer. With his dear Samantha in mind, he crafted an alternative set of wedding vows:

 • I will always love you. I know your soul. I know you like nobody else does. I admire you. I think you deserve nothing but the best. I ache for you when people don’t understand you, or don’t treat you with the love and kindness you deserve.

 • I will always be here for you. No matter what. No matter when. You are the single-most important thing in my life—even ahead of kids. I will be here for you to talk with, to cry with, to laugh with, and to sit silently and watch bad TV with.

 • I’ve got your back. I will care for and look out for you. I will do so in sickness and in health, mentally and physically. I will tell you when I think you’re hurting yourself—and tell you what you may not want to hear, when it is necessary. I expect the same from you in return. This is the essence of long-term commitment.

 • You will come first. Forever. No matter what. I promise you will come first financially, emotionally, and in all regards. And if time and energy are indeed a limited commodity—a zero-sum game—you and our family will always have mine.

 • I will be totally honest with you. Ask me anything, and I will not lie—ever. Without trust and honesty, all else is diminished.

 • I will try to meet your explicit needs. I know “trying” is not “doing,” but I will always make an effort to be flexible and to address your needs and wants that go unmet—physical, mental, spiritual, or otherwise. I am not a mind reader and may need specific instruction—perhaps even in writing (as silly as that may sound), but I will genuinely make an effort because I love you.

 • I will aspire to love you at all times in a manner consistent with that described in I Corinthians: patient, kind, does not envy or boast, not self-seeking, rejoices in truth.

 There are also things to which a human being cannot possibly consent or promise. Here are the items I believe one should not pledge.

 • One should not pledge that he or she will never love another human being, male or female. As it turns out, love is not a finite commodity, like money or gasoline. Loving someone else does not mean there is less love in my tank for you. In fact, love is a multiplied commodity—the more you give, the more you get.

 • To expect that we should meet all of each other’s needs entirely, is simply unrealistic. Be it sexually, interpersonally, recreationally, as sporting partners, business partners, or otherwise, it isn’t possible for us to be all things to each other, and be a perfect fit for each other in all areas.

 • One should not promise to be monogamous. It seems clear that this unnatural pledge of exclusive sexual relations “forever” results in more hurt, lies, destruction of trust, and destruction of families and homes than any other cause.

 It was an interesting experiment. Ian looked back at the words to see if he had sold himself at all on the argument, but his thoughts drifted to the safety of his committed relationship to Samantha, and how others in his community would respond if they ever knew the content of such private, late-night conversations. He had to stop and ask himself if he had lost it and become a “wing-nut.” His journey of questioning was now extending to every aspect of life. Had he gone overboard? Was it too much? Where was all of this headed? Where would it end?

Food for thought? As always, my intent is not to offend, but encourage conscious decision making. The worst reasons to do things a certain way are “because we’ve always done them that way,” or because we blindly follow the masses. Among others I’d suggest for further reading: a) Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz (Penguin, 2005); and b) Living in Sin: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality, by John Shelby Spong (New York: HarperCollins, 1988).

So would I do it differently if I had it to do again? Honestly, yes; which isn’t to say I would have done so “casually” or carelessly. Lovingly to have shared intimacy with more people, while minimizing relative risk, seems like it could have been an enriching and joyous experience. But TMI, and who cares what I think. What do you think?

And if this conversation didn’t challenge you, the rest of A Secret of the Universe still has a very good shot, regardless of your particular worldview. 🙂 Note: The views expressed in this excerpt are not necessarily those of the author (though are close), and the “other side” is extensively argued in A Secret of the Universe (Amazon link)–and to some degree in an upcomong post.

The official web site for the book is at (Stephen L. Gibson, Copyright 2007 & 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC;;; full blog at

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