For Fidelity: How Intimacy and Commitment Enrich Our Lives

For Fidelity: How Intimacy and Commitment Enrich Our Lives

by Catherine M. Wallace

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375700729
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/28/1999
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,226,262
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Catherine M. Wallace was born in Chicago in 1950. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1977 and was Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University from 1976 to 1982. She set aside her scholarly career in literary theory to stay home full-time with newborn twins and a two-year-old--all three of whom are now in high school. She has spent the last fifteen years reading eclectically, speaking and writing about literary approaches to spiritual issues, and working as a homemaker. Her writing has appeared in pamphlets published by Forward Movement Publications and in scholarly journals.


From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

Intimacy in Relationships

Casual Sex

I argued throughout the preceding chapter, in various ways, that sexual desire is far more than a simple physiological need. Sexual desire is powerfully and intricately interwoven with the deepest levels of human identity and with the most difficult questions we have about who we are or what it means to be human. Sexual desire can be repressed, or it can be heedlessly indulged, or it can become a calculated part of a marketplace exchange. Or, I will propose in this chapter, sexual desire can be integrated into the whole of who we are. The question, of course, is how. How or where does sexual desire "belong" in the whole that we are?

The answer demands a return to my initial observation about sexual desire: It cannot be genuinely satisfied on the cheap or by the solitary individual. At its most potent, most vital, most delightful levels, sexual desire must be reciprocated to be sated. That's why we cannot "locate" an appropriate sexuality without considering the human relationship in which it is realized or enacted. We need to know the basis of the interaction in which sexual intercourse participates. Is it really mutual, for instance? Are both partners offering and seeking the same things? Consider rape, or prostitution, or the sexual abuse of a child. Consider how sexual access has been demanded as a condition of employment, promotion, business contracts, or social acceptance. The disparities are self-evident. It's easy to see what's wrong, which is a first step toward articulating an appropriate sexual relationship.

It may not be as easy to see what is wrong with what I have called "marketplace" sexual ethics. Consider this scenario, for instance: Two adults meet at one of those exhausting and tedious professional meetings held in banal hotels near the airports of cold, bleak cities. After three days of grueling seminars predicting the imminent collapse of the industry that employs them, they decide to join a few friends in skipping the Annual Self-Congratulatory Dinner. They pile themselves into a couple of cabs and head off for real food somewhere remote from the peculiar antiseptic smell of big hotels. They share a meal and a few drinks, grousing and joking and telling stories in the usual friendly way of bored and lonely strangers at meetings. En route back to the hotel, the two people we are watching find themselves distinctly enjoying the physical attraction that has buzzed about the edges of their interactions over the last few hours and days. They linger in the lobby as the group disperses, quite aware that they are very attracted to each other.

There is the possibility here of a free, independent sexual exchange between mature adults who are equal to each other in age, status, and so forth: just tonight, no strings, no phone calls later, no promises, and no regrets. Good contraception, let us suppose. Safe sex. Privacy assured. Suppose both are single and neither is willing to consider a permanent relationship. Or suppose they are, both of them, actively looking for life partners; or suppose one is. Or suppose one or both are married. Under any of these circumstances, is a casual sexual encounter OK?

My short answer in any of these situations is no, and my long answer is the burden of this chapter. Casual sexual encounters are morally wrong because the exchange is partial even when it is entirely equal or open or honest. Sex in these situations is not genuinely reciprocal but rather mutually exploitative and, ultimately, mutually self-denigrating. In such an exchange, each regards his or her own sexual desire as a primarily physiological need essentially separable from the deeper psychological and emotional union that is physically enacted in sexual intercourse. I contend that we cannot split ourselves into parts like that.

Body and heart or soul are one. Any attempt to dissociate them is both doomed and dangerous, and that is how casual sex injures even free and willing participants. It severs vital connections within the self, thereby silencing or at least muting one of the most powerful and literally vital foundations of our richest and most creative relationships with other people. Casual sex easily devastates the capacity for serious sex.

This risk remains inescapable even if the sex is much less casual than this imaginary encounter between people who have known each other only briefly. I contend that we are not wise to regard sexual intercourse as an essentially ordinary and acceptable expression of affection between men and women who have made no permanent commitment to each other. Of course, many people will disagree with me, in effect arguing that sexual desire can be merely an appetite or a friendly gesture in some relationships and yet still retain its role as the symbolic embodiment of commitment when they are ready to make that sort of commitment. The disagreement has less to do with sex, I believe, than with the philosophy of symbol and the psychology of symbolic expression and perception--which leads quickly into complex theories of imagination and creativity.

Those woods are lovely, dark and deep; let me but steal a twig and then keep going. I said at the beginning that sexual fidelity is an art, and like all arts it is dependent upon disciplines and practices learned and sustained over time and within communities. Let me take that idea one step further. These disciplines and practices--and especially the most embodied or material and "technical" of them--provide the crucial foundation for symbolic perception and expression. The glorious coherence and lucidity and passion of a fine musical performance are not possible except through years of excruciating discipline, both in the exact actions of fingers or other parts of the body and in the detailed material and technical aspects of music and musical composition. Literature too involves an array of word choices and technical strategies that critics spend lifetimes trying to understand and to appreciate. The art that is sexual fidelity also depends upon a deeply complex, not fully conscious array of spiritual and m aterial aesthetic practices and disciplines. Casual sex, even between good friends, threatens to inhibit or unduly complicate the practice of faithful sex just as, in any artistic practice, it is difficult to overcome "careless" techniques learned early in one's career.

One does not need to be an artist or art critic to know how this reality works. Mistype a word once, and of course you are apt to keep mistyping it that way for the rest of the day. In the era before spell-checkers, I copied the list of words I persistently misspelled onto the inside cover of the dictionary I still keep next to my keyboard: I gave up hope of getting them straight in my mind. It's and its; to, too, two; that and which: Get them confused for too long early in life, and you will be doomed to keeping them taped to your monitor for the rest of your days. That's not a matter of intelligence. It's the power of embodiment, eyes and fingers together establishing neuron pathways.

As recent reports about the brain document, we are all the creatures of past experience, the more powerfully so in the less conscious and more highly embodied aspects of our lives. Erotic responsiveness is extraordinarily complex and subtle, so we are wise indeed to approach its depths with great care for what we understand to be its ultimate significance in our lives. To the extent that sexual fidelity is understood to be a central virtue, casual sex of any kind is, at the very least, an unwise risk. Plenty of folks come through apparently unscathed, I realize. But I still think it is a significant risk, particularly for people who might be sexually active for ten or fifteen years prior to marriage. For a vocalist or a violinist, that much "bad practice" would be devastating.

We teach our kids to be honest in all things, even in small things, because life's most important moments of costly integrity depend upon exactly the same consistent spiritual discipline and practice across time. We correct their lapses not in high moral outrage but with the quiet persistence of piano teachers reproving a stiff flat finger or baseball coaches correcting batting stance: "Not like that, like this." "Here's how," taught with care and learned with care, involves the transmission of many "habits" whose meaning and value become clear only after a long time. People achieve full or mature integrity only by internalizing it so that they know for themselves and in themselves exactly what is at stake in any particular situation they face as adults. The same is true of sexual fidelity: It can't be reduced to a simple list of "do" and "don't" that will obviate the need to develop mature judgment and self-knowledge. The best guide to sexual fidelity is a life of fidelity--to self and to other--in all of our social encounters.

What People are Saying About This

Hugh Prather

A lovely, tightly reasoned, energetic presentation of an ancient wisdom: fidelity. (Hugh Prather, author of Spiritual Parenting)

Stanley Hauerwas

To write truthfully about marriage and sex in our day would seem to be impossible. To write beautifully about marriage and sex in our day is even more unlikely. Yet Catherine Wallace has written a beautiful and truthful book about marriage and sex, all the more remarkable because she discovers in Christian practice the resources of truth and beauty. If any book can help us 'turn the corner' on speaking well about sex today, this is the book -- Author of Character and the Christian Life

Rt. Rev. John Spong

Books advocating monogamy are usually from the pens of those disturbed about changing patterns of sexual behavior and eager the call the world to the standards of the past. This book is unique in that it embraces the sexual revolution. Then it calls its readers through it and behond to a new understanding of sexuality in which monogamy can be seen as the appropriate modern response to an expanded consciousness. It makes its case well. -- Author of Liberating the Gospels

Reading Group Guide

The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading and discussion of Catherine M. Wallace's For Fidelity: How Intimacy and Commitment Enrich Our Lives. We hope they will facilitate your critical evaluation of this wise argument why monogamy still works and how we can teach sexual honesty to our children.

1. Chapter One (pp. 3-24) provides an overview of the quandaries besetting any consideration of sexual behavior. When should parents start to talk with their children about sexuality? Is "just say no" an effective practical response to adolescent sexuality? Is it morally and intellectually sufficient? Can -- or should -- parents assert absolute authority over their children's sexual behavior? Has religious faith or spiritual belief played a role in your thinking about these issues? How or why or why not?

2. Do parents today face questions about sexuality in a sharply different cultural climate than parents of earlier generations? Do you think that many parents have different, more skeptical or more critical attitudes towards "the sexual revolution" than they had as teens and young adults themselves? Why do you think these attitudes have changed? What should parents do if they feel that they made some mistakes in their own sexual choices over the years? Should they talk honestly to their teenagers about what experience has taught them?

3. What is the difference between sexual fidelity and mere sexual exclusivity? Is there "something more" to marital fidelity than rules about who sleeps or does not sleep with whom? As you look at your own experience and at the lives around you, to what extent do successful marriages look like a set of carefully negotiated rights and obligations, and to what extent do they resemble a creative process?

4. What does it mean that sexual fidelity is intrinsic to marriage? Can people have both a long happy marriage and multiple sexual partners? To what extent is a happy marriage a matter of good luck and to what extent does it depend upon serious, sustained effort on by both partners?

5. Chapter Two (pp. 25-55) argues that we have an immediate erotic need for fidelity. What is the difference between "I am a body" and "I have a body" sorts of experiences? Have you ever had experiences of one kind or the other? Do you agree that both claims or both kinds of experiences are true, each in their own ways? What cultural traditions or inherited attitudes and opinions have influenced your thinking in these regards? When has that influence been helpful, and when has it been detrimental?

6. What is the difference between mind-over-body self-control and wholistic integration? Can you have one without the other? Should you have one without the other? Can sexual morality be grounded in psychological integration or whole-heartedness rather than in strict sexual self-control? Why—or why not? Can sexual morality be grounded both in psychological insights and in religious tradition simultaneously? Why or why not?

7. Are hedonism and repression the opposite of one another, or do they both depict sex as "just a physical thing"? Do you agree that marketplace concepts like cost-benefit calculations shape a lot of contemporary thinking and talking about sexual relationships? How does "the dating game" or the "singles scene" -- especially as represented in movies and on television—manage to combine the worst aspects of hedonism and repression? Do sex-education programs in your community feed into this marketplace individualism? What alternative traditions or communal resources are available?

8. Chapter Three (pp. 56-61) argues that we have a profound psychological need for fidelity. How is sexual desire different from other physical desires and needs? According to this chapter, what's wrong with casual sex between consenting adults? Do you agree with this conclusion? What's wrong with the idea that sex can be a casual expression of friendly affection with a variety of partners before marriage, and then function successfully as the embodied language of commitment after marriage? Do you agree that sexual intercourse "ought to be the exclusive and embodied language of commitment between two people"? Should these prohibitions and moral norms apply with equal seriousness to same-sex relationships? Why or why not?

9. How does Wallace define marriage? Is that an adequate definition? What is the difference between seeing marriage as a licensed activity bound by a legal contract and seeing marriage as a sexually embodied friendship bound by a moral commitment? Why do we have licenses and laws pertaining to marriage? Do they help people to understand how marriages work or why they succeed? What is the difference between seeing marriage as a moral commitment and seeing it as happily-ever-after romantic bliss?

10. How does the security of a serious and permanent commitment to the relationship facilitate the development of psychological intimacy? How does the experience of intimacy influence a person's ongoing adult development? In that regard, what is the connection between vulnerability and compassion?

11. Take another look at the specific behaviors or virtues underlying successful marriages (pp. 69-85; see also the table of contents, p. x). Are such virtues appropriate only within marriage? Are these virtues familiar to you from religious teaching or other sources of wisdom about interpersonal morality? Do they seem characteristic of the happiest intimate friendships and marriages that you know? Why might it be easier to attain these moral ideals of personal responsibility within an intimate and committed relationship than with other people in general? What role might a community play in supporting or in discouraging these virtuous ideals?

12. Chapter Four (pp. 99-132) argues that we have an ultimate spiritual need for fidelity. What are the three layers of meaning shaping the concept of "blessing" in the Bible? How does the concept of blessing undercut our tendency to claim personal credit for our achievements? Why is claiming that kind of personal credit a hazardous proposition no matter what? Does it make sense to you that it can be a blessing to survive catastrophe and suffering with our humanity intact? Is it, for some people, a blessing to get a divorce-or to survive one? How can the concept "blessing" help marriages to survive bad times without breaking up?

13. Sarah and Abraham: How is the open-ended, unconditional commitment of fidelity in fact an ambiguous, distinctly hazardous undertaking? Why should we undertake it? Jacob: How does sustaining a committed relationship over a long period become a life-defining or identity-defining struggle? Can we let ourselves be influenced by other people without necessarily betraying our own identity? Mary of Nazareth: How is fidelity-in our marriages, in our lives generally-a confrontation with or a liberation from consumerist self-absorption and psychological slavery to the rewards and demands of the workplace? Psalm 1: How is fidelity a spiritual discipline or practice rather than a product or a state that we either attain or fail to attain?

14. Chapter Five (pp. 133-146) describes the ways in which we can help children to develop a capacity for fidelity both in marriage and in all relationships. Why is fidelity important to any real friendship of any kind and at any age? Can you remember times when a friend's kindness or loyalty or support made an important difference in your own life or in the lives of children that you know? Do you think it is likely that someone could attain fidelity in marriage but remain a ruthless, exploitative person in other relationships? What does that suggest about when and how children develop the capacity to sustain faithful, happy marriages?

15. How do moral, familial, and religious traditions help to sustain and strengthen children when they are under peer pressure? What's inadequate about letting children think that the difference between right and wrong is an entirely subjective, personal matter grounded in private opinion? How do telling stories and listening to stories help parents to teach their children about the role and importance of the virtues? What stories about moral expectations or moral achievements do you remember hearing as you grew up? How do such stories influence attitudes and behavior?

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