Four years ago, I wrote a book called Is Monogamy Dead? At the time, various radio and podcast hosts incorrectly announced the title as a statement: “Monogamy is dead.” But I don’t believe that statement to be true. I’m now part of what many people would describe as a “monogamous” partnership – in other words, a sexually exclusive one.
However, I felt that our contemporary interpretation of monogamy warranted some interrogation. As the human lifespan has extended way beyond our child-rearing years, our understanding of the original Greek “monos gamos” – meaning “one marriage for life” – has extended to a looser acceptance of our more serially monogamous tendencies; “one marriage at a time,” if you like.
Yet is this peripatetic approach to commitment really monogamy? Until we find a way to regenerate and have more than one life, perhaps not.
I asked my friend, “What is the opposite of monogamy?” She ventured, “An open relationship?” Yet I see those two approaches as very closely connected. An open relationship is, for a growing number of people, a modern form of staying “faithful” to the promise of staying together.
In fact, the vast majority of couples I’ve spoken to who have agreed to open up a central (or “primary”) partnership have done so precisely as a way of neither having to cheat nor leave. For them, it’s a case of sustaining a good thing and allowing one another to thrive. To me, this feels way closer to the “one marriage for life” principle than a divorce. After all, ancient Greece was rife with prostitution. So who’s to say that monogamy was really ever about sexual exclusivity so much as commitment to a partnership?
In my LGBT peer group, lesbians have historically tended towards fiercely exclusive sexual relationships coupled with a rapid rate of serial monogamy. It is not uncommon for a midlife gay woman to have had over ten very serious relationships. Just imagine how expensive all those divorces would be if we’d been able to get married all along! Fortunately, we tend to stay friends with an ex, having pioneered a form of “conscious uncoupling” long before Gwyneth Paltrow ever uttered the phrase.
Meanwhile, gay men have typically favoured more relaxed arrangements around sexual exclusivity, just so long as the emotional commitment to the primary relationship remains constant.
Neither of these patterns of behaviour is right or wrong. But both perhaps indicate how we have redefined “monogamy” to accommodate our restless human natures, our thirst for connection – and suggest that we have gendered preferences for doing so.
If people are going to seek ways of fulfilling some of either their emotional or sexual needs outside of a relationship, I would far rather see this happening honestly and openly.
Perhaps for serial monogamists this might include a first date declaration along the lines of: “I’d love to stay with you for about three to five years and then think about upgrading.” And I use the term “upgrade” as we do tend to stay more committed to our mobile phone providers than any romantic partner. In fact, one 2018 poll for the Coalition for Marriage revealed that a quarter of young people believed that marriage contracts should work like mobile phone contracts, with a renewal date every couple of years.
And during those years where we are locked into our monogamous contract, perhaps we should be looking to our non-monogamous friends for inspiration about how best to communicate our desires. I believe that my own “new” form of monogamy is, ironically, largely informed by non-monogamy. Where the “old” monogamy I knew in my twenties and thirties was laden with affairs, assumption and secrecy, the emerging alternative relationship forms of polyamory and ethical non-monogamy demand high-level communication skills. If you are going to negotiate an open relationship, then you really need to know how to talk to your partner.
During the time that I very tentatively dipped my toes into the world of polyamory, largely for the purposes of book “research”, I performed a comedy set at a sex party. On entry, attendees had to sign up to a list of key rules around consent, respect, boundaries and safety. They seemed like tools that would be pretty essential in any type of relationship. Yet, in my mid-forties, this was the first time I had ever seen them written down so clearly. In my mistily romanticised monogamous experience, the practicalities of lust, sex and desire had always been glossed over, the Hollywood film scene tastefully edited.
I conducted an online survey asking “In a monogamous relationship, what counts as cheating?” and found it to be a far more nuanced question that we might realise. Monogamy is not only something that is evolving within our wider culture, but something that is ever evolving within our individual experience, too. It needs to be discussed with a partner. Their understanding of fidelity will mostly likely be slightly different to yours. How do they feel about the new wave of online flirting behaviours that come under the banner of “micro-cheating”? Or kissing? Or fantasising about someone?
For me, sexual exclusivity has become far more possible now that it can feel more like an active choice. Yet for something to be an active choice, you need to know that other options exist. And we can most certainly learn from those alternatives, even when we want to stay “monogamous”. Even where we don’t want to have fully open relationships, perhaps we can have open-minded ones.
This Slow View started life as a perspective at a ThinkIn. You can catch up on the whole event below.
The Gateses, the Bezoses and you: is this the beginning of the end of marriage?
Is a genuinely happy marriage even possible anymore? Tell us what you think.