Families are incredibly peculiar.
Part of what shapes innate familial idiosyncrasies is their approach, both in theory & in practice, to relationships.
In theory, most in the modern age practice monogamy — and commit to this ideal at the altar. This forms the basis of a family nucleus designed to support the ongoing wellbeing of their progeny. In practice, nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce, with circa 45% of those that stay together doing so unhappily.
Yet this is not another attack on the institution of marriage as a construct but, rather, a playful reexamination of its configuration.
My family, like so many others, experienced the tragedy of divorce. For the partners most directly involved it is cataclysmic: emotionally, financially, reputationally, and psychologically. It also has 2nd & 3rd order impacts on those around them.
Overarchingly it seems to me that once a relationship reaches this point, of no return, then separation is a positive step. Taking action to salvage the remnants of that connection, either for the direct benefit of those concerned and/or to benefit those around them e.g. dependents. However given how damaging this outcome can be, and the extent to which it has now become normalised, is it worth at least half of us recalibrating the evidently ambitious (or unmanageable) expectations being set at the outset of marriage?
. . .
An American 2014 study found that 40% of adults who have ever cheated on their significant other are currently separated or divorced, with infidelity said to be responsible for 20–40% of divorces. That is to say that the unfulfilled expectation of monogamy is responsible for about a third of divorces, with research showing that even within those that stay together there are increased levels of marital distress, conflict, anxiety, depression, etc thereafter.
All You Need Is Love” ~ The Beatles
Read Sex At Dawn and you might be forgiven for conceiving of monogamy as a phase we’ve already gone through in the pursuit of our a mutual manifestation of long term commitment with our life partners. For about a third of marriages, monogamy is wholly incompatible and leads to their dissolution. There are also negative effects on the cohort that press on together, through counselling for instance.
Perhaps there is another way.
A chance meeting with a free-spirited delight of a soul recently led me off the well trodden path in my conventional thinking around monogamy/marriage. Specifically that they are these inseparably conjoined ideals. Both evidence, and personal experience, suggest that this approach gets a B for effort (C for achievement)! With this dualism failing so many, as a vehicle of commitment, it is worth considering a more pluralistic worldview on relationships, love, partnership and our collective realisation of long-term connection.
Is modern marriage evolving past monogamy?
The union of partners, in the form of a recognised civic union called Marriage, has been embraced by virtually every society globally, in one shape or another, since time immemorial. This ceremonial ensconcement of intended longevity is as much aspirational as it is practical.
Yet, despite the ostensible good nature of this vehicle for monogamy in its current incarnation, there are clues as to the strained societal reality underpinning this institutional arrangement embedded across the social sphere. For instance, lets for a second focus our lens on the etymology of languages spoken across the world.
Japanese: ‘husband’ / ‘prisoner’ are near identical (Shujin 主人, shūjin 囚人)
Hebrew: the word ‘husband’ also means ‘boss/employer’ (ba’al בַּעַל)
Swedish: the word for ‘married’ is the same as ‘poison’ (Gift)
Spanish: the words for ‘wife’ and ‘handcuffs’ are identical (Esposas). Moreover, the words for Hunt, Marry, & Tire are all similar (cazar, casar, cansar).
Strange right — what can/should we infer from these examples?
What do such deeply entrenched oxymoronic verbalisations tell us?
. . .
The purpose of marriage has evolved through time. Originally conceived as a means of strategic alliance, succession (of property rights later), and the protection of bloodlines — two hundred thousand years ago — these values have stood the test of time in many cultures.
Monogamy however is new, and humans are part of the tiny minority (circa 5%) of 5,000 mammal species who attempt it. A plethora of options used to be common — before monogamy became the dominant hegemonic frame.
- Polygamy: Having more than one spouse at the same time
- Polygyny: One man, many female partners
- Polyandry: One woman, many male partners
- Polyamory: Having more than one open romantic relationship at a time
Monogamy has now eclipsed these other relational structures for about the last 1,000 years of human existence. Yet most things are cyclical (music, fashion, art, etc) — so why not the structural fabric of our relationships? Reflexively our innate sense of inertia, from the western perspective at least, is slowly being eroded once again with regards to these alternatives.
Exceptionally high divorce rates, gargantuan (and growing) pornography usage, as well as the profligacy of affairs are playing no small part in this attitudinal sea change. Nascent generations are delaying marriage, and questioning from the outset whether it is truly realistic for a single life partner to satisfy the wide gamut of roles prescribed as marriage medicine: a best friend, sole sexual partner, co-parent, business associate, therapist, travel companion, property co-manager, kindergarten teacher, soulmate, etc till death do us part.
“To a greater extent than we perhaps realise, when it comes to what sort of relationships we are allowed to have, our societies present us with a menu with only a single option on it: The Monogamous, Cohabiting Romantic Relationship, usually served with a Side Order of Children.” School of Life
In western societies, and others heavily influenced by their cultural norms, a rotund level of romanticism has entrenched itself pervasively only in the last 250 years when it comes to the significance of monogamy in matrimony. This has been deeply ingrained through years of social conditioning in the cultural zeitgeist. From Disney princess (damsel in distress awaiting her one saviour prince) narratives, to the onslaught of marketing dollars extolling the virtues of spending 1–3 months salary (!) on a diamond engagement ring, to the predictable gestalt of romantic comedies and the plethora of legal benefits bestowed upon the betrothed.
Yet at a time when pornography use is at all time highs, divorce rates are spiking, and less people are getting married; the rise of a new ethical consensus is rebirthing the notion of alternatives within this fabled institution. Ethical non-monogamy seems to be an expansion of the premise that we can do whatever we like as long as we’re not hurting anyone (and are honest). And, sexually at least, it is a concept that is being adopted apace.
What this speaks to is quandaries of love that we’ve grappled with incessantly since time immemorial. Esther Perel eloquently posits them as follows:
- How do we negotiate the elusive balance between our emotional and our erotic needs?
- Is possessiveness intrinsic to love or an arcane vestige of patriarchy?
- Is it really so? That what we don’t know doesn’t hurt?
- Can love ever be plural?
Alternatives which seek to compassionately unpack these questions are flourishing.
For me it’s difficult to understand why the first dialectic is often framed as so oppositional. Anthropological and empirical evidence points to our erotic needs being wildly opposed to the idea of the sanctity of monogamous marriage pact (in a third of cases at least). So rather than placing the onus on this fallible weak link in the chain, would the relationship enriching sanctity ideal be better placed within spiritual and/or emotional bounds?
With regards to possessiveness it strikes me that since the dawn of mythology, in the story of Adam and Eve, we have collectively acceded that temptation of the forbidden fruit is often too great for humanity to bear. In which case, why then ignore this behavioural realisation when it comes to possibly the most significant relational entanglement of our lives? Perhaps instead of saying stuff isn’t allowed, thus making it more tempting, we go with saying it is allowed but agree to negotiate what that means. As kids for instance no TV, no Video Games, no Porn, no Alcohol, no Anything usually works (for a little bit) but eventually becomes untenable. The mature approach tends to evolve into “everything in moderation” (even moderation :D) — so why not with relationships?
Perhaps, to a certain extent, it is a question of disposition. Some are like Eliud Kipchoge, the Kenyan running phenomenon who won his first title aged 17 and became the first human to break the two-hour mark for running the marathon distance aged 34. When asked how/why he has been so successful for so long at a recent talk a friend attended, he broke it down to focus and consistency. Running is literally all he thinks about, trains for, and has loved all his life (apart from his family). Many are wired this way: for singular, or at least very limited, focus. Others are wired to excel at a breadth of exploits, perhaps not to the same depth/extent but they derive joy/value/meaning from multiple inputs/outputs. This does not seem to be a universally applied trait however, I do believe that one can be singularly focused in relationships and a jack of all trades in business for instance. Disposition, however that is measured, might go some way to unravelling the kind of characters/personae for whom love can indeed be plural.
. . .
The shift towards romantic liberation was propelled in earnest by free love proponents in the 1960s who worked hard to expand our sexual boundaries and were dispositionally inclined to a more expansive outlook. This movement slowly gained momentum and seeped into how relationships themselves are structured with such precedents as in Italy where parliament has ruled that couples in civil unions have no obligation to be faithful. And in Colombia, where three men made history in 2017 by being the country’s first legally recognised polyamorous relationship. In the US, three fathers were granted joint custody and parental rights in 2017, giving rise to the book ‘Three Dads and a Baby: Adventures in Modern Parenting’.
Yet it was this same liberation that may have spurred the advent of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s; and greatly encouraged monogamy once more. This is a pattern that’s been seen often through the ages: the prevalence and spread of STDs playing a significant role in governing societal attitudes and behaviour around monogamy. A research team at the University of Waterloo in Canada used mathematical models to simulate the evolution of different mating norms in human societies in a recent study. They found that when societies become larger, the prevalence of STDs becomes endemic (a regular occurrence) within a population. But in smaller societies, of 30 people or so — typical of earlier hunter-gatherer populations — STD outbreaks would have been short-lived and had no significant impact on a population.
Monogamy is the most difficult of all human marital arrangements ~ Anthropologist Margaret Mead
A 2016 survey of nearly 9,000 single US adults showed that one in five had previously been in a consensually non-monogamous relationship. A 2017 Canadian survey of 2,000 adults came up with the same results. Columnist Dan Savage coined the term ‘monogamish’ to describe couples who are faithful with a few carefully negotiated exceptions.
The Netflix series Wanderlust explores this emergent widespread theme through a married couple who mutually agree to sleep with other people. Other examples include HBO’s Big Love, Unicornland, You Me Her, and others. ‘The New I Do’ is a book, by Vicky Larson and Susan Gadoua, which uncovers a number of ways couples are re-envisaging relationships, outside the traditional monogamous structure:
- Couples can live in separate houses and be just as committed as if they lived in one.
- Couples can have outside lovers and be just as committed to their spouse as a monogamous husband or wife.
- Couples can marry for reasons other than love (like marrying for money and financial security or to have children) and have a happy relationship.
- Couples can marry for a short time and still call their marriage a success when they go their separate ways.
- Couples can marry for reasons other than wanting to have children and call themselves a family.
- Couples can raise children successfully together even if they are not in love with each other.
Alternatives such as these are viewed by some as an antidote to the vicissitudes of toxic monogamy culture where, when taken to extremes, heteronormative relationships are evangelised whilst others are marginalised. Symptoms of this toxicity include the normalisation of jealousy (insecurity and doubt) as an indicator of love; viewing a partner as a panacea for every want & need; commitment being synonymous with exclusivity; marriage/children being the only valid teleological justifications for being committed to a relationship; and so on. Arrangements which push back in the face of such expectations include:
- Ethical non-monogamy: With agreement and consent from all involved, exploring love and sex with multiple people
- Swinging: Generally casual sex without commitment
- Monogamish: “A relationship that is mostly monogamous, but occasionally exceptions are made for sexual play” [Urban Dictionary]
- Unicorn: Single person who has sex with couples
- Don’t ask don’t tell (DADT): A couple who agree to intimacy outside of the relationship, but don’t share information about it with each other
Seems like there’s lots going on out there. I’m Kenyan/British and can promise you that this is all relatively new to me too! Culturally its really quite different and fascinating to say the least. What I’ve observed, and seems constant across political, social, geographical and cultural lines; is a real tussle between innate reproductive energies and the purist vision of devotion expected in marriage. It rarely seems to work for very long without allowances, negotiation and renegotiation, innovation, effort and luck!
We do know that humans are social creatures, and loneliness has significant negative impacts on physical and mental health. Yet some would argue that being in a bad relationship is worse than being on your own. So one question worth exploring: does marriage (specially in its current monogamous form) make us happy?
The research is conflicted on this.
On the one hand a 2011 analysis of 18 long-term studies finds that getting married doesn’t make people lastingly happier. A 2017 study, likely a reanalysis of one of the original 18, came to the same conclusion regarding life satisfaction. After a brief honeymoon period near the wedding married people end up just as satisfied/dissatisfied as when they were single.
On the other hand Dan Buettner writes the phenomenal Blue Zones which tracks the parts of the world where communities live healthily for the longest. Costa Rica, Japan, and the Mediterranean all feature. His subsequent interview with Marta Zaraska quotes studies showing that building a strong support network of family and friends lowers mortality risk by about 45 percent, and he even personally suggests that ‘you’re three times more likely to be happy if you are married’.
So is some sort of evolution happening (or has happened) away from monogamy within marriage? Are the two even compatible? The proliferation of these alternatives suggest that, like flavours of ice cream, it is really down to the subjectivity of each individual to determine their favourite/optimum. Sometimes combinations of some flavours will work better than others. Or you may like vanilla for ages, then get introduced to pistachio and become a little discombobulated, then go to Italy and find out about Gelato di Fragola….and die. I’m certainly more open to that possibility.
The School of Life perspective on the standard marriage and its seven alternatives indicates that there’s no “right” way, really. Embrace the notion that we are Damned if we do and damned if we don’t — you will have regrets regardless. So nothing should stop you from experimenting, swimming against the current of societal dogma, and finding the most suitable relationship model to suit your personal needs (if you want to).
This is probably a wildly tangential anecdote to finish on, but hey: we got this far! The edict shared by Jim Carrey below (yes, the comedian) speaks to this inquisitive approach — often shunned with respect to relationships. Whilst the standard marriage offers innumerable benefits as a vehicle of monogamy, it detracts from aspects of human nature which are then often realised through acts of infidelity and subsequent divorce.
“I learned many great lessons from my father, not least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want. So you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” Jim Carrey
Jim Carrey’s father was a promising comedian (surprise, surprise). Hilarious round the house, with his friends, and specially with his son. Bringing delight and joy to those around him. He could have followed that path and sought to earn a living from it. He wanted to. Instead he took a ‘safe’ accountancy job to support his family. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact statistically it was probabilistically the best decision to make, from a financial security perspective, on average. The only problem here is that he had absolutely no passion for this line of work. Due to a rough economy, he was fired from the ‘safe’ option. This taught his son, Jim, a valuable lesson that would propel him into becoming a phenomenon the likes of which this world rarely ever sees.
Regarding the myriad alternatives shared here…
It is important to note that within most of them there are, of course, different approaches to that alternative. What might work well with one partner could go terribly with another. Dynamic within the partnership is a major factor; one particular mate’s behaviour (or simply the chemistry between you) could incite jealousy/envy/insecurity, while the same or similar behaviour with a different match may not, and you could find yourself enjoying and trusting this second partner with a “longer leash” resulting in deeper trust, and unable to do so (without agony) with the former. In the end it’s always about trust and transparency above all else.
“Perhaps the answer lies not in a new kind of relationship as in improved capacities around emotional skills. The solution to the dilemmas of relationships should be to increase our understanding of love — rather than merely to make it easier to find and fire new lovers.” ~ School Of Life
Suffice to say there is much to unpack, and there will never be a one size fits all answer to this. Flexibility is key. In that vein monogamy may work for some, whilst for others exposure to (and normalisation of) these ideas may hold the key to happier, healthier relationships filled with love, trust, respect and decency.
. . .
Thanks for reading, do share thoughts 👊🏿 Love to Lilly & Basak for inspiration
I came across a bunch of super interesting material that I couldn’t work out how to squeeze into the article (ninkampooop!). So I thought why not pop them at the end as a gift for any/those of you who make it that far.
- The School of Life, hosted by hero philosopher Alain De Botton.
- Huffington Post, hosted by thought leader Ariana Huffington (happy wife, happy life?).
- PsychCentral, with Harvard prof. Dan Gilbert on why some singles love singledom.
- Psychology Today, featuring therapist Seth Myers on the virtues of swinging!
- The Happiness Index: Love and Relationships in America, including insights like ‘3/4ths of the happiest people have sex weekly’ (who knew?!) ‘but having sex regularly doesn’t mean you are in a happy relationship’ (juicy). Or ‘71% of people with household income > $200k say they are completely in love (ha), yet those making less than $30,000 a year come in second at 65%’ (awwww).
- Marketwatch say that married couples are happier than everyone else, whether they’re single, divorced, widowed or separated. Apparently it especially helps alleviate ‘causes of the mid-life dip in life satisfaction’ (mid life crisis).
- Berkeley shared behavioral scientist Paul Dolan’s findings which really make you question the saying “better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all”. Turns out that actually, historically, large studies show that, on average, married people report greater happiness later in life than unmarried people. Separated and divorced people tend to fall into a less-happy bucket, while the never-married and widowed fall someplace in between.
- Cosmopolitan reveal multiple non-monogamy-geared dating apps that make it easy to find others looking for multiple partner relationships or sexual experiences (news to me).
DISTANCE album| NFT series Rarible / Hicetnunc |Mailing list.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
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