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Let's hear about fidelity for a change

By Laura Sessions Stepp, Special to CNN
  • Laura Stepp: Portrayals of the difficulties but payoff of monogamy hard to find
  • Stepp: Sex columnist supports honest infidelity, disdains monogamy unfairly
  • Young adults marry later, she writes, hesitating to take on monogamy till they're certain
  • Stepp would like to see a show that depicts struggles, but also rewards, of fidelity

Editor's note: Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both," and "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescence."

(CNN) -- If you were to ask me the names of married couples on TV who are monogamous and enjoy a lively, contented if sometimes contentious relationship, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with any other than Eric and Tami Taylor on "Friday Night Lights."

And FNL is going off the air on Friday.

Maybe TV screenwriters and producers think only cheaters and marriages in crisis draw viewers. And maybe they're right. FNL, which will be shown in reruns on ESPN, was fabulously received by critics but did not do so well in the ratings.

What brought this to mind was the July 3 cover story in The New York Times Magazine, "Married, With Infidelities." It was a sympathetic profile of Dan Savage, the 46-year-old gay sex columnist who says that marriage partners, straight as well as gay, have sexual needs that in some cases are not being met by their spouses. Husbands and wives should be able to fulfill those needs with other people, he argues, and remain wed, as long as they tell their mates what they're doing and why.

His disdain for monogamy is pronounced.

According to various surveys, between one-third and one-half of college students say they've cheated in a relationship.
--Laura Sessions Stepp

"I acknowledge the advantages of monogamy," Savage told Times writer Mark Oppenheimer, "when it comes to sexual safety, infections, emotional safety, paternity assurances. But people in monogamous relationships have to be willing to meet me a quarter of the way and acknowledge the drawbacks of monogamy around boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted."

Boredom? Despair? Sexual death? Sure, fidelity can be difficult, but so are lots of things in life that can turn out to be ultimately satisfying. Monogamous love can be one of those, for lots of reasons in addition to the sex -- including companionship, support, and yes, forgiveness.

I think about young couples who are preparing to tie the knot this summer. They will have struggled, as every generation does, to figure out what marriage means and whether it's worth the effort.

Many have taken their time trying to figure that out and devised other arrangements in the meantime, including hooking up, dating and living together. And many have cheated on their partners.

One woman in her late 20s, about to be married, told me that the issue of infidelity has come up at least once among all the young unmarried couples she knows.

"In some cases, 'playing the field' or 'messing around' is seen as a rite of passage," she says, "just something you have to do to know whether or not your relationship is right."

According to various surveys, between one-third and one-half of college students say they've cheated in a relationship. That doesn't mean their generation has given up on monogamy, although some do wonder. One 23-year-old woman said, "We tend to have a wandering eye but maybe as we get older we'll change as our needs change."

They're finding out what their parents have already learned, what "thirtysomething," the groundbreaking TV show about baby boomers in the late 1980s and early '90s, reminded us. Faithfulness can be difficult to define.

Is flirting considered cheating? How about a kiss? Or a close emotional relationship with someone other than your partner? If you're attracted to someone else, does it mean you're losing the special feeling you once had for your partner?

One single, 27-year-old man wrote me, "From my experience, married couples and those in relationships don't just cheat because a breeze blows by and turns them on. They cheat because they feel a certain part of their relationship, perhaps sexual, perhaps not, is missing."

And what should they do, if anything?

He continues, "One has to be honest with these feelings and convey them to one's partner. If you say, "Oh, I'm cheating because my wife doesn't sleep with me enough," you probably haven't had a frank, and importantly, two-sided discussion with her about it."

Whether before or after you cheat, he doesn't say. Perhaps he doesn't know.

Young adults like this man are waiting longer than ever to get married: 26, on average, for women, 28 for men. Their unease about the economy and lack of jobs may be one reason. Their desire to become settled in a career before settling down may be another. But perhaps another is because fidelity is still important to them and they don't want to say "I do" until they can say "I do only with you."

Pop culture doesn't make it easy: Television execs love infidelity. For example, "Desperate Housewives," the award-winning ABC show going into its eighth season, has plenty of it, Bree Van de Kamp, who has a seemingly perfect marriage, and Gaby Solis, who cavorted with a 17-year-old gardener, being two examples. In the CW's "Gossip Girl," almost all the major characters, adults as well as teens, have cheated on their partners in some fashion.

I would like to see at least one show from Hollywood that depicts what fidelity really looks like -- not only with all its bumps and the occasional wrong turn but also its payoff. A show that tries to answer, at least partly, for younger viewers as well as the rest of us, "How can I get that?"

Call me idealistic, but I think it could be a hit.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laura Sessions Stepp.