When two people decide to make a sexually exclusive commitment with an intention to permanence, it’s a big deal. A huge deal, if for no other reason than it runs contrary to evolution and biology. I’m saying that none of the other great apes (gorillas, chimps, orangutans) are monogamous. And there’s nothing to suggest otherwise about the great ape homo sapien. Nope; in terms of pure biology, female great apes are designed to turn the heads of the strongest, fittest males. And male great apes are designed to make as many little great apes as there are available and willing females.
So, like I said, it’s a big deal.
There is only one reason, of course, to do something so against the grain of nature. That’s because human beings are the only life form that makes sex into symbol. You can teach a chimpanzee American Sign Language. You can revel in their intelligence. You can see they experience emotion. But, chimpanzees don’t exchange wedding rings. And, after sex, they never say, “Was that good for you?”
We are the only life form that symbolizes sex. That is, sex is never just sex for a human being. Not even for the ones who insist they are seeking, enjoying and having “just sex.” Saying it doesn’t make it so. Sex is consequential. Powerful. Big medicine. It changes us. For good or for ill.
So, we make commitments to exclusivity. We contain and direct the powerful psychic energy released in sex, to the end that it is less likely to become chaotic, destructive or confusing to the sexually active individuals or the tribe at large.
Yet, exclusivity does not merely protect; it also provides. Tying ourselves deliberately to one partner obliges us to confront and demand the most from ourselves. The best of ourselves. Exclusivity demands that we bring an intention to growing love. Which means growth will be demanded of us.
If you can, with a straight face, say and mean “People should accept me just the way I am,” then good for you. Just don’t ever get married. Don’t ever make a lifetime commitment to grow love with a life partner. Because to do so means inevitably discovering things about you that even you will no longer be willing to accept. You will want to grow and change some things as much or more as your mate hopes you will grow and change those things.
A commitment to sexual exclusivity reminds me of the rules for campfires, because the power of heat, fire and flame are a lot like the power of human sexuality. You get warmth. Light. Things get melted, cast and forged. Matter is rearranged at the molecular level. Atoms are exchanged. Energy is released and transferred. It’s a good thing. It’s the very nature of fire. And of sex.
But, when my boys and I go camping, we don’t merely drop a match on the forest floor. Why? Well, because that’s the way you burn down and forest, that’s why. Nope; we rake away pine needles to a safe distance. We get out the camp shovel and dig a pit. We fan out and bring a collection of rocks to make a fire circle. We lay the dry leaves, twigs, and kindling. Now we light the fire.
The flames grow. We add larger branches, and then fire logs. Now we can enjoy the fire, without being afraid of its destructive powers. The fire has the proper container.
No; we’re not afraid. But still, we never disrespect the fire. We stand vigil over it and around. We attend the fire. We never make assumptions about it. We never assume it will always keep burning, nor do we assume that it will keep burning safely. The fire is never absent our attentive stewardship.
Covenant commitment to sexual exclusivity is like the discipline required for a thriving, happy campfire. Trying to maintain more than one campfire in different locations means that whatever fire has your attention in the moment …well, the other fire or fires will not have your attention. And the other fires might burn out. Or burn up. Or burn things down.
Fidelity is not some begrudging favor we do for our life partner. It is first and foremost a commitment we make to ourselves. It is the pricey membership fee for willingly joining a gym that will drag you through every agony and every ecstasy that love can provide.
Fidelity is the tuition cost for a higher education in love.
(Steven Kalas is an author, therapist and Episcopal Priest. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)