Many Christians label their relationships as "monogamous," but what actually constitutes monogamy for the modern Christian? Does monogamy start in the mind or in the body? Is flirtation fair game? Is porn permissible? What if it's Hentai porn featuring carnal cartoons? Is it only our physical actions that determine our level of devotion? If so, then at what point do those behaviors cross the loyalty line? Hand holding? Rounding every base but home? If we do believe that our thoughts factor into our true-heartedness, then are our fantasies just for fun? Or should we adhere to the sentiment that "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he?"
David, a Christian newlywed, believes that monogamy does, in fact, start in the mind. "I should only think about my gift from God, my wife. The rest leads down to only dark paths, even if they only seem innocent at first. Divorce is just too high in this country to think the small things don't matter. It's when the small things add up into big things, and they always do."
Growing up in a Christian home, and attending Protestant schools and churches all of my life, I am intimately familiar with perspectives such as David's. I was always taught to take quite literally Jesus's proclamation "...anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Yet, has this interpretation of Biblical faithfulness become archaic in the 21st century? I mean, if variety is the spice of life, then is monogamy bland? Is this type of mental restraint healthy? Is it even possible? Mike, a straight single Christian man in the film industry says, "It's difficult for people in today's culture of instant gratification. People can click a button and see anything they want to see. It seems it's not as easy to commit to things that take longer periods of time, like years, or even decades, you know?"
I do know. Oh man, do I know.
This is where I wave my V-flag and tell you that being a 32 year old straight Christian virgin has well acquainted me with the temptation of instant gratification. At the same time, I find the wise use of sexual energy (however one defines that wisdom) to be a spiritual discipline worthy of passionate pursuit. Yet, when it comes to monogamy, especially of the mind, how does one decipher what is "wise" for themselves and for their relationship? Mason, a gay Christian man who works as a dating consultant, believes that good communication is key to establishing expectations around monogamy. He said, "If you feel an attraction to someone, you should just say it out loud because those feelings can build. I would want to have an open dialogue about what intimacy means to him and what it means to me. I would want to do a little bit of digging." Mason went on to say how essential it is to approach these conversations with a strong sense of self-worth: "People are going to settle for what they feel like they deserve, and I know that I deserve a lot. So, I should expect a lot from my partner, and I want my partner to expect a lot from me. If we have that equal understanding, there's less room for error."
But how do we approach these exchanges from a place of worthiness when so much religious judgment, guilt, and shame have tainted our discussions around sexuality? How do we create a safe space for our horny hallucinations and our humanity? Spiritual psychology student Mandy believes, "If I don't allow myself to have my thoughts, then how do I even know what's going on inside of me?" While Mandy attests that mental monogamy is useful in building an intimate and stable bond between two people, she warns, "I think judging a thought can stall it, and make it a bigger monster than it was in the first place. I don't think it's been productive in my life when I've held myself to a standard of 'always' or 'never'. That has always backfired. It sends me down a spiral of self-loathing. I'm more a fan of being a neutral observer of my thoughts and exploring them as a compassionate investigator. I don't see a problem with thoughts coming up. I think it's what we do with them."
As we get to know ourselves and our partners more intimately, hopefully a pathway to a more complimentary partnership will surface. I witnessed this kind of compatibility when I recently met a Catholic couple who have celebrated 33 years of marriage. While they both firmly believe in the benefits of being monogamous in every way, they also recognized that not everyone wants the same things out of a relationship. Therefore, the husband stressed the importance of asking ourselves what our objective is with regard to our relationships. He said of himself, "I'm personally seeking a lifetime union with my spouse, so to not practice mental monogamy would be counterproductive. There are enough forces working against marriage, I don't need to add to that in my own mind." His wife proudly chimed in with their mutual objectives: "We want to build up our relationship, not tear it down. We don't want any wedges between us. We want to give each other our best, not our scraps."
Being that my objective is to have a healthy life-long partnership, I've definitely done my fair share of exploring my own thoughts and if they are helping me work toward that end. As I continue to cultivate my Christian faith and sexual ethics, not only have I explored heteronormative traditional Christian views on sexuality, but as an active ally in the LGBTQIA community, I have also engaged in quality Queer conversations in both secular and spiritual circles. When I became a congregant of the Founders Metropolitan Community Christian Church, a congregation made up almost entirely of LGBTQIA individuals and their allies, I began to develop a rich respect for the rainbow of other colorful opinions that extend beyond monogamy and into non-monogamy and open relationships. In our society of such radically different belief systems, how do we practice radical inclusivity when it comes to things as sacred as our sexuality?
MCC's Reverend Dr. Neil G. Thomas, a gay husband and father, says: "The Queer reaction to the hetero norm is to go in the absolute opposite direction. What I think we're discovering as gay people are becoming more accepted in society- we now have role models of relationships and families being created- we're finding that, actually, the hetero norm is looking for the queer experience, and the queer experience is looking for the hetero norm, and we're finding some middle ground. We're discovering this at church: we have all these heterosexual folks who are seeking the queer space because it's more liberating perhaps, more authentic, perhaps. We're learning how to do this together. Like most things on a pendulum they come back to some kind of balance. I think it's exciting times. For those who want mental monogamy, God bless them, and be open to the reality that that might change. In the same way that those of us who've had this liberalism where 'anything goes' need to be open to the experience that that might change too. And they're beautiful things. Provided that we keep in touch with that spiritual grounding that's ours, I think we're going to be safe."
Another spiritual leader at MCC, Reverend Dr. Pat Langlois, who has been in both monogamous and open relationships and who is now a partnered lesbian mom, shares: "We as people don't understand the benefit of making an emotional, and physical, and mental, and spiritual covenant with another person because we're not taught to. We're just told what we can't do, but there's no explanation as to why that can lead you down a destructive path," she laughs and adds: "Marriages really are threesomes! God's in the middle. And when that's the basis of your relationship, then the trust grows deeper, and if I don't have to worry or wonder 'is my partner's mind somewhere else? Are her emotions somewhere else?' then I can trust her and go even more deeply into her than I would if I always have to wonder. That's where monogamy, I believe, becomes a huge asset. If you can do it in a healthy way, not because you have to, but because you want to, it can help to build that trust that can make that relationship fly."
For those of us who want to fly alongside a partner rather than soaring solo, this is a valuable conversation to have, and I was honored to chat with a man who I believe truly understands what matters most. Bruce, a retired Christian pastor and fellow congregant at MCC, has been married to his wife for an impressive 58 years. As he shared his vantage point, I was deeply humbled. He spoke to what is truly important in this discussion referencing Philippians 2:5 and said, "If we strive to take on the mind of Christ, the rest will work itself out, and furthermore, it will work itself out differently and uniquely for each individual person." While Bruce agrees that an open dialogue is important in regard to this topic, he goes a step further to say, "It will be a better, more productive dialogue, when it's not limited to or even focusing on the potential problem or difference, but focusing on what love is, what human love is, what love is as a gift to us from God, and how God has created us with all the variety- including the sexual and gender types of variety- but even more, the thinking and emotional varieties, and celebrating those. I just go back so much in my mind to Jesus as the role model in how to relate to everyone."
As I took in the wisdom that comes from Bruce's 58 years of a monogamous marriage and lifetime of loving the Lord, I found it greatly comforting to know that what unites us all is our connection to God, and if we remain faithful to that relationship, then as Bruce said, "the rest will work itself out."