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Status anxiety

What’s the point in being married if I can’t feel superior to my single friends?

It took me a while to work out. But I now think I know

9 August 2014

9:00 AM

9 August 2014

9:00 AM

I’m due to speak at an Intelligence Squared debate on Saturday and I’m worried that I might be on the wrong side. The motion is ‘Monogamy equals monotony’ and I’m opening the batting for the opposition. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly happy to make the case for monogamy. But the problem with framing the debate in this way is that it invites those of us opposing the motion to argue that, in fact, being faithful to one person is every bit as exciting as sleeping with whomever we choose.

Not only is that a difficult argument to win, but if we base the case for fidelity on those grounds, we deny ourselves one of the main pleasures of being in a monogamous relationship — namely, the sense of superiority you have over those who are too shallow to commit themselves to one person or too weak to keep their promises. When I compare myself with my unfaithful married friends, I don’t want the difference between us to consist in their failure to appreciate just how stimulating monogamy can be. Rather, I want to feel morally superior. I know that being unfaithful would probably be more fun, but I’ve chosen not to because I think keeping my marital vows is more important than massaging my ego via an endless series of sexual conquests.

My position is that, yes, monogamy does equal monotony in the sense that fidelity is more boring than infidelity, but that’s not a reason to abandon it, because doing your moral duty is more important than ‘following your bliss’, or whatever awful phrase the free love brigade come up with next.

Nevertheless, I think I can still comfortably oppose the motion, because at bottom this is a debate about the pros and cons of monogamy and I think the pros outweigh the cons. I intend to cite the work of the American sociologist Charles Murray, who makes the link between family breakdown and social deprivation. In Coming Apart, his most recent book, he points out that in 2010 only 48 per cent of white working-class adults were married, compared with 83 per cent of the educated elite. That’s a dramatic decline since the 1960s, when 84 per cent of the white working class were married, and helps account for their declining fortunes as well as the increasing gulf between those at the top and bottom of American society. After all, children born out of wedlock fare worse according to every measure. They’re more likely to drop out of school, more likely to become drug addicts, more likely to go to prison, etc. The same is true of the white working class in Britain. In 2010, less than 50 per cent were married, compared to over 80 per cent in the 1960s, with a similarly catastrophic impact on the life chances of their children.

I don’t intend to argue that we should return to an era when it was socially taboo for women to have children out of wedlock, but liberal policy-makers and opinion-formers should be less squeamish about making the case for marriage, particularly as they’re nearly all married themselves. An attitude they think of as ‘enlightened’ and ‘non-judgmental’ has devastated the white working class and exacerbated the social and economic inequality they claim to care about.

No doubt someone on the other side of the debate will make the point that it’s perfectly possible to be married without being faithful — that it’s ‘bourgeois’ of me to assume that marriage and infidelity are incompatible. I expect they’ll cite some successful open marriages, where each person enjoys the benefits of being in a stable relationship without having to pay the price of monogamy.

That’s so much hot air as far as I’m concerned. As a child brought up in the 1960s and 1970s, I’ve seen plenty of open marriages, but few of them were happy. In almost every case, they favoured men over women, particularly as the couples grew older. They were not mutually beneficial contracts, as the men liked to claim, but bargains that the women had struck in order to avoid losing their husbands. The fundamental injustice of this arrangement was rarely lost on the children, who ended up despising their fathers and pitying their mothers.

The problem with advocates of open marriage is that they want to have their cake and eat it, something that’s generally true of those who belittle monogamous relationships. If you want to sleep around, be my guest, but don’t expect to enjoy the happiness that comes from being surrounded by a loving family.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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