Good Christian Sex, Chapters 8 and 9--Hedging Your Bets and Other Relationship Problems

Good Christian Sex ends with two topics that, often, are taboo when talking about sex in a Christian context--infidelity and ending relationships.  Or, if not actually taboo, then so clear as to not be worth talking about--you shouldn't do either of them, so what is there to talk about?  McCleneghan argues, rightly, that there is quite a bit to talk about on these topics, actually.

Before getting into the meat of the matter, there is something that I think is worth highlighting in the way McCleneghan approaches these topics, and it demonstrates how important it is to not limit the voices in these discussions to guys.  There is an idea out there--in more conservative contexts especially but not exclusively--that infidelity and lust and recklessness in breaking off relationships is primarily a guy problem.  Women by contrast, in this narrative, are "naturally" built to be faithful and relationship-focused, and thus have to "civilize" these out-of-control men.  This narrative is garbage; not only is it insulting to men, it is simply not true in my experience.  McCleneghan challenges this narrative in the most effective manner possible, which is to (1) tell her own stories of being a woman and struggling with the challenges of fidelity, and (2) assuming that these challenges are essentially the same for both genders.  In doing so, she sidesteps this whole tired story, leaving it in the dustbin where it belongs.

Anyway, let's talk about fidelity.  If you are approaching this topic from a Christian context, there is a way in which the discussion of fidelity can be boiled down to an exegesis of this passage from Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 5:27-28):

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Clearly, we have two levels of fidelity here.  The first one being "do not have sex with people who are not your spouse or partner."  And then there is a second, deeper level, in which can be unfaithful in one's mind without doing anything physical.  I think most people would agree that there are forms of infidelity that don't involve genital contact, but defining the contours of that non-physical infidelity (or "lust" as Matthew describes it) is very difficult and contested.

McCleneghan calls out two unhelpful and unworkable, but common, definitions of this non-physical infidelity.
The first is a model which requires your partner to be the exclusive source of your emotional needs and intimacy; thus, to have an emotional connection with someone else is to be unfaithful.  This is a destructive idea, because it is impossible.  No one person, no matter how close you are with them and no matter how hard you try, can meet every one of your emotional needs, and you will grind any relationship to dust if you try.  That's why we have friends, and that's why we have family--sometimes we need other people to carry the weight, or add a different voice or perspective.  

The other problematic definition is one that states that any kind of sexual attraction to another person is an act of infidelity.  It is true, as McCleneghan points out, that this definition was often used in Christian commentary on the passage in Matthew's Gospel, but McCleneghan asserts that it is just as impossible a definition as the total emotional fulfillment one.  Sexual attraction is a thing that happens, and it happens for all sorts of reasons, many of which are beyond our conscious control.  The only way to avoid being sexually attracted to some subset of people in a fleeting way is to "turn-off" our sexuality, which reduces us a person.  The experience of being attracted to someone is part of our embodied humanity and a source of genuine joy--as I have said in a slightly different context, and I am sure McCleneghan would agree, it is important that Christians make peace with that.

If that's not what "lust" means, though, what does it mean?  McCleneghan provides two very helpful ways of thinking about lust.  The first, drawing from Margaret Farley among others, is that lust is a way of focusing and expressing sexual desire that de-personalizes the object of the desire.  This person whom you lust after is not longer a person with whom you seek a mutual relationship, but an object used to satisfy your needs, whether physical or emotional.  Such a set-up is, to use Farley's terminology, an "unjust love."  The other way to think about lust is to say that we lust when we focus and express sexual desire with another in a manner that causes us to "hedge our bets" with regard to our primary relationship.  To borrow from McCleneghan's example, if you spent your time lingering on the notion of leaving your current partner for some other person and fantasizing about what that would be like, you are compromising your commitment to your current partner, as you in a sense already have one foot out of the current relationship.  Your lust for this alternative is eroding the status of your current relationship.

One last point on infidelity.  McCleneghan does a good job of laying out the fact that being faithful to someone and managing attraction to other people is often hard work.  Attraction feeds on mystery and distance, as McCleneghan says, and these things tend to get eroded through the natural process of being with someone for the long-term.  It is important to acknowledge this, I think, because it sets more reasonable expectations.  If you know going in that there are going to be times when you are not feeling very attracted to your spouse, and maybe you do feel very attracted to someone else, you won't immediately jump to the conclusion you are in the wrong relationship and need to pull the eject handle.

Speaking of pulling the eject handle, when is it time to get out a relationship?  In a sense, there is no one universal answer to that question that applies to every couple and situation.  But McCleneghan provides two very useful places to look to find an answer in any particular context.  The first, dove-tailing with the lust discussion, is that a relationship is over when one person is "hedging his or her bets" and is not all-in to the relationship.  Relationships take work and they take commitment, and you can't really fake any of that.  There is a sense in which it doesn't really matter why a person is not all in, but only that they are not.  If you are not all-in, you won't (and in a sense, can't) do the work to meet the needs of the other person and the relationship.  You really are just playing out the string.

The second place to look is to ask yourself the question "does this person make me a better version of myself?"  I like "better version of myself" rather than "a better person" because so often people try to "fix" their partner and mold them into something "better."  That's almost never works--people resent being turned into a science project, and the person who is willing to go along with a Pygmalion project brings with them other difficulties.  But at the same time, you need someone who brings out a better version of the person you already are.  So many bad relationships are characterized by each party being at their worst when around the other, and that's a horrible way to live.  McCleneghan argues that if you are not a better version of yourself with this person, then its time to go.

It's hard to argue with any of that intellectually.  But part of me wants to push back a bit, especially in the context of marriages.  McCleneghan certainly recognizes that marriage implies a commitment to to stay and work through the problems that may come.  My worry about the "better version of yourself" test is that it allows you to foist the blame for your own failings onto someone else.  "It's not that I am terrible, he/she is bringing out the terrible in me!"  And I wonder if the hedging your bets problem is in a certain sense circular--if I know there are circumstances under which it is OK to get out of a marriage, aren't I in a sense hedging my bets?  Whereas if I decide that I am going to stay no matter what, I am by definition not hedging my bets.

I recognize that much of this line of thought in me is a product of the fact that I come from a long line of people that have been more or less happily married for a very long time.  My parents have been married for 40 years; both of my parent's parents' relationships ended in the death of one of spouses (prematurely in the case of my dad's father, but they were still together for almost 30 years).  Because of that, I think I am inclined to view staying together permanently as eminently doable with the application of some fortitude, while viewing people that get divorced as folks who cut and run and take the easy way out.  In looking at things that way, I think there is no question that I am underselling just how horrible and toxic some marriages can be.  I get all that, but I am still more inclined to give the "suck it up and work it out" message than McCleneghan seems to want to do.

Nevertheless, what McCleneghan has to say strikes me as wise and thoughtful, like the rest of the book.  As Chapter 9 is the last chapter, I'll finish with some closing thoughts and some ideas on where to go from here.   

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