Monogamy for the masses

rumpled bedsheets

I’m not sure how common it is for people to take a good hard look at monogamy and decide that they want it. My guess is that monogamy is so well ingrained into our culture that it’s almost invisible. Sure, we spend a lot of time thinking of whom we’ll marry. Some of us spend a lot of time even deciding if we’ll marry. But how many of us think about or decide between monogamy and polyamory? I mean, really think about it.

In my discussions with people, I hear a lot of arguments against polyamory and in favor of monogamy. Yet I’m not sure that they aren’t just knee-jerk reactions to something that is utterly foreign to them. “I mean, polyamory? Come on. You can’t seriously be considering that. Everyone knows….” And then I am presented with something that, to me, at least, usually doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Am I not considering the full consequences of my decisions? Or is it just hard for people to reject something that has become simply a backdrop in our culture, the fabric upon which the other choices of our life are made?

Think of the plots of books, movies, TV episodes you’ve been exposed to lately. How many of them have the idea of monogamy as a central or contributing theme of the protagonist’s struggle? You might actually have to think about this one for a while, because monogamy is so central to our culture that the dilemma of choice imposed by it never needs to be stated or explained. It is almost invisible. But think about it. Almost every romantic comedy. Should she choose boring but predictable Bob or exciting but dangerous Ted? Especially pronounced in this regard are the story lines presented to children. Even though it’s not marriage, almost invariably the teenage relationships are almost always presented as needing to be exclusive. I recently watched Camelot again. King Arthur didn’t want to have to fight Sir Lancelot, but because polyamory wasn’t an option for them, he had no choice. I also watched Anna Karenina. The heart-breaking tragedy of that film wouldn’t have even caused anyone to blink if polyamory rather than monogamy were the socially accepted framework for relationships. Affairs are exceedingly common plot devices. But rarely in a way that makes us question the validity of marriage itself. More often than not, as in a few episodes of Breaking Bad I watched recently, the perpetrator of the affair knows, even as she is engaged in the affair, that it is a mistake. Sure, there are extenuating circumstances that allow her to make the choice. But it’s not really a choice; it’s still a mistake, plain and simple.

My mother was in town recently, and I was able to spend some time with her. Since my errant ways weigh heavily on her, she didn’t hesitate to talk with me about my recent decisions. She told me, “I just fear that you’re going to end up alone and sad. You know this can’t go on forever. How long do you think he’ll be able to share her with you?” (He being Mr. Wonderful, and her being Girlfriend.) “Eventually, he’s going to make her decide. And if she doesn’t choose you, then who will you have in your life? Look at your father and me. You know we have our issues, but we love each other, and especially as we get older, we know we can count on each other. I always know I’ll have someone to love me. You aren’t going to be young forever. Do you want to be alone and unable to find anyone?”

I heard quite a few concerns in that brief conversation that I’ve also heard from other people, and I’d like to discuss those concerns one by one rather than all at once as I attempted to do in the actual conversation with her.

Polyamory can’t last. I think this is one of the most common arguments against polyamory that I hear. “People will be jealous. Even if love isn’t diminished by sharing it, there’s only so much time in the day. Eventually the strain of the jealousy and trying to work out the details of daily life will cause the relationship to break up.” This is another place where the unspoken assumptions of monogamy come into play. “If it’s not til death do us part, it’s a failure.” The only problem with this argument is that most relationships don’t last forever. Marriages? Over half end in divorce. And when a marriage fails, is monogamy blamed? I’ve never heard a monogamy proponent blame monogamy after a failed marriage. They blame the individuals involved in the relationship instead. Why blame polyamory, then, if it has “failure” ratios similar to marriage?

A relationship that doesn’t last forever has failed. Why is the length of the relationship an indicator of its success? Why not let the relationship be what it is? If the relationship has run its course and both participants know it, why not let the relationship end? In my view, the real failure is trying to continue a broken relationship that neither partner wants, but both feel obligated because marriage demands it. Is it possible to view the relationship in terms of what it accomplished for both individuals during the time that it lasted? Do we really have to be so binary that we say it “failed” because it ended? Is a relationship that provided happiness for a year and then ended after a brief period of tension really worse than a relationship that brought a year of happiness followed by a lifetime of misery because neither party wanted to terminate the relationship?

Who will love you when you’re old? I think one of the attractions of monogamy is the sense of security that it provides. Conversely, the perceived lack of security is one of the scary things about polyamory. “What if my partner finds someone else and then leaves me?” My grandmother has been a widow for over 22 years now. Monogamy didn’t work out so well for her. My other grandmother was a widow for 12 years before she died. It seems to me that if they had somehow been able to engage in multiple relationships, they would have had a far greater chance of having someone love them in their old age than being monogamous and then only (potentially; so far as I know, neither did) entering the dating scene again after their husbands died.

Monogamy gives you a guarantee of companionship. Right? Because you both promise to stay together until death separates you. Assuming, of course, that your partner keeps his or her promise. And doesn’t die too many years before you. But what about the quality of the relationship? Personally, I’d rather be single than have the kind of relationship I see in many of the old couples I know. Do I want to be old with someone who only tolerates me? Not that these long-married couples don’t have love. Not that they couldn’t possibly be satisfied with their relationship. They obviously must have their needs met. But I’ve often thought silently to myself: I do not want to live that life. I don’t pretend to know what is best for them, but if I’m in a relationship that makes me miserable, would I be too afraid of being single to leave the relationship?

You have to choose. Another silent assumption of monogamy. “If your partner loves more than one person, eventually either you or the other person will be hurt when your partner finally decides which of you he or she would rather be with. Because obviously the indecisiveness is the only reason that you aren’t in a monogamous relationship. And when the time comes to make the choice, you can never be sure that you’ll be the one your partner chooses.” A choice doesn’t always have to be made. Sometimes you really can have your cake and eat it, too. It’s true that in some cases life presents situations where choices must be made. But the same is true for monogamy as well. The point may be made that there are fewer people and hence fewer variables with monogamous couples than with polyamorous groups. But assuming that the choice is already made for you with monogamy is a bit disrespectful of people’s agency, I think. Take the example of a new job opportunity in a different city. In a monogamous marriage, it is often assumed that the wife and children will uproot and move with the father in that situation. That’s obviously not always how it works out, but barring a breakup of the couple, the other alternative is for the job opportunity to be lost. With polyamory, you still have those options, only it’s more clear that each individual gets to weigh his or her choices and make the best decision for the individual. Yes, life can be hard, but at least with polyamory, you choose the path that works for you, rather than feeling forced into making compromises that would be sub-optimal if you felt you had the freedom to choose otherwise.

The idea that a choice must be made is also, in my mind, an argument against monogamy. What happens when you are married to someone for years, and your partner discovers someone who fills some piece that he or she didn’t even know was missing. With monogamy, your partner is faced with the difficult choice of leaving you and being fulfilled, or staying with you and missing out. If polyamory were an option, then your relationship with your partner would be more secure, not less. Your partner could continue the long-standing relationship with you while at the same time pursuing the new relationship. It’s a win-win situation that monogamy makes impossible even to consider. How many marriages fail simply because monogamy forces people to make a choice?

Interestingly, in my discussions with people, I have never heard some arguments against polyamory that I see as being very difficult to dismiss.

Polyamory is complex. With monogamy, you have one major relationship to deal with: that of your spouse. Everything else is secondary to that. With polyamory, the number of major relationships can quickly escalate, especially if each member of the group relates with every other member. For example, with the three of us, there are four relationships that we need to be aware of. Girlfriend and me. Mr. Wonderful and me. Girlfriend and Mr. Wonderful. And finally all three of us together. If any of those relationships is tense, it can affect every other relationship as well. If you expand the group to four people, there can potentially be eleven different relationships to worry about. It gets complex quickly. It takes greater skill to navigate these interconnected relationships than it does to worry just about a single relationship. In addition, it could easily be the case that a problem in one of the relationships ends up destroying all of the relationships. There is more risk because of that.

It’s socially unacceptable. Even if you are able to choose polyamory for yourself, and you and your partners are able to navigate the complexities of the relationships, you will have to face social disapproval. If you are familiar with Anna Karenina, this is what led to the tragedy in that story: she wanted to have a new relationship and she still wanted to maintain the social acceptance she had enjoyed when she was monogamous. While we don’t live in Czarist Russia, unfortunately polyamory is still the ugly step-child of society. I think if you choose polyamory, you choose certain social consequences, most of which you likely won’t realize until you try to go about your normal routine. For those not used to disapproval, it’s a more difficult road to travel down than it at first seems.

You have to be mature. I believe it takes a higher level of maturity to be polyamorous than monogamous. You have to be willing to share. You have to think more of your partner than yourself. I think it’s really easy to be jealous. It’s really easy to see your partner’s happiness with another person and feel bad that you weren’t the one to give your partner that happiness. Perhaps it’s just the social conditioning of our monogamous culture, but it’s easy to want your partner to be everything to you and to want to be everything to your partner. When my partner experiences happiness, am I happy? Or am I jealous because I couldn’t be the one to cause that happiness? When my partner meets someone new and has an opportunity to experience love, to grow, to expand, do I jealously forbid that new relationship?

While I don’t necessarily think polyamory is for everyone, I think that most of the time, the desired relationship benefits that purport to be provided by monogamy aren’t actually guaranteed. Interestingly, polyamory actually gets closer to providing those benefits than monogamy does. Granted, it currently comes at a price, but for me, I think the trade offs are worth it. There is risk. There is also the potential for reward. And for me, it just seems to make more sense morally and philosophically as well.

What do you think? Have I mischaracterized the potential of monogamy to deliver on what we want our relationships to provide? Have I oversold polyamory? Am I sadly mistaken and destined for a life of loneliness?

2 thoughts on “Monogamy for the masses”

  1. I used to encourage my parents to split up as it was clear there wasn’t much love and they’d be happier with other people. Not quite polyamory, but viewing relationships as not necessarily permanent. They’ve stayed together – a combination of religious, economic and social reasons I guess. One thing I’d point out, that even as an adult, it makes my life easier, more comfortable and more stable to have the continuity of an easy ‘home’. The awkwardness of getting to know a parent’s new girlfriend or boyfriend, or several of them, and for many kids, finding they don’t like the partners much or just never feel quite comfortable in new parental homes, must definitely be a major downside to polyamory. From what I see, the effects of insecurity on children, even as young adults, can be substantial.

    The other thing that polyamory potentially may lose is a shared and more intimate historical continuity through life. Again, there’s something about this that has the potential to make life easier but maybe not better.

    You make excellent points about the negative aspects of monogamy that people tend to gloss over – like being left alone on the death of a spouse. I also think you may be right that people embarking on polyamory would have to have a mature attitude towards relationships. I would definitely mess it up if I gave it a go. I;m quite fascinated by the biological nature of attraction (even though I know nothing of the science!) and have been able to write off passing attractions to hormonal reactions on an animal level that aren’t worth pursuing.

    Can I ask if you married young or had many serious relationships before marriage? That may be completely irrelevant but I know if I’d settled down with the guy I was with in my early 20s, I would always have wondered what else was out there.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I can see that having both parents in a single location would certainly make things easier for visiting during holidays later in life. But I hardly think that is a valid reason for them to stay together. (And yes, I realize you weren’t arguing that it was.)

    I can say that in my limited experiences, I see nothing at all detrimental in the lives of Girlfriend’s children. They now have another adult in their lives who cares deeply about them and wants what is best for them. I can see that it might be different if they felt I was trying to replace their father. But since polyamory doesn’t force relationships to be exclusive, I see only benefits for the children.

    I married at age 23. I had very few serious relationships before marriage. I didn’t wonder at the time, but have definitely thought more about the “what ifs” since I separated from my wife.

That’s my truth. What’s yours?