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A Time for Every Purpose

Disability and chronic illness establish an excellent case against monogamy

If you are the (somewhat more) able-bodied person in a CWD, the day arrives when your partner just isn't able to engage in sexual contact. We don't mean in the sense of "Not tonight, I have a headache," but over a protracted length of time. Couples with disabilities know all about "bad days" and "good days" and manage around them well enough, but when "bad days" turn into "bad weeks" and then "bad months," it can be uncomfortable.

With the recent criticism levied at Newt Gingrich, who has divorced two disabled/seriously ill spouses after choosing to have intimate relations outside of marriage, we believe it important to address the concept of monogamy within the context of chronic conditions. This is not a defense of Gingrich, but rather an attempt to address the more general case, the discourse raised around him. The easy answer (usually given by people whose relationships have not been tested by such challenges) is that vows say "sickness and health" and that should be the end of it. Of course, the lived experience is much more complex.

In sickness and in health

We know that we're outnumbered by thinking of monogamy as a "value" that needs to be eliminated from the list thereof kept by this society. Still, the possibility of it being severely mitigated is promising. The empirical evidence reveals that spouses regard monogamy as a commitment that is absolutely binding in the second person but not so much in the first, and that inconsistency alone suggests that it has served its purpose. It is nothing if it is not reciprocal. The difficulty it has presented in this respect suggests that life might be easier, or at least less hypocritical, if the convention were restricted to religious circles and not part of secular law or common tradition.

There is another issue that destroys comfort and beggars the ability to deal with it and maintain integrity to the extent that sexual dysfunction does. The issue we have in mind is abortion. As with sexual dysfunction, the possibility of regarding certain situations as more critical than others is present. Discussions of abortion set up a continuum of circumstances, from conception via sexual assault on down. We feel confident in suggesting that prolonged sexual dysfunction on the part of a spouse would be near the top of a similar list for recognized exceptions to monogamy. The parallel is grotesque, but it is illustrative. And the most important part of the analogy is choice. At some level, this is a personal matter, not a matter of the state.

Even in lieu of such a far-reaching understanding, the specific case remains an extreme one. "I can't," is and should be an absolute defense on the part of the disabled spouse, but the caregiver's situation remains unaddressed by it. A marriage is a contract, and contract law is not absolute. True, divorce has become cheaper and more plentiful in the past few decades, but if the couple in question does not want to divorce, or cannot, it should not be required. Sometimes one does fall in love, it appears, and that love can be maintained even when monogamy is not.

The object of marriage should not be to make the daily lives of the spouses infeasible. A disabled couple is used to having one situation after another arise that defies their ability to respond with dignity. In a substantial way, it defines their marriage after a period of years. It is the story they have written together, and as individuals. Adjusting to the absence of a specific type of intimacy that they have enjoyed and upon which they have relied is tragic, but our stalwart pair have endured and persevered in situations that make the absence, and their need to respond to it well enough, look like a parking ticket by comparison. Certainly making such adjustments tests the resolve of many partners and some couplings do not survive. To tell them that they simply cannot initiate, or withstand, a transition to a status that is less fastidious is to insult everything about their intellect, their resilience, and their capacity for harmony.

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