Robert Levithan explains why monogamy might not be for everyone.
Monogamy remains the societal ideal for relationships. Those who choose other forms are pathologized as immature, irresponsible—even defective.
When my relationship with my Brazilian boyfriend was floundering, I stopped and asked myself an important question, “What is the best relationship I can have with this man?” What if I throw out the frame for an “ideal” relationship and strive for one that reflects our actual selves and needs. We were not meant to be monogamous; we weren’t meant to live together. We were meant to be friends for life—friends with benefits in that case. I applied this formula to my more recent five-year relationship. We were truly committed lovers. We never pretended exclusivity; we always told the truth and acted with respect.
A recent piece on Dan Savage in The New York Times Magazine, where he questioned monogamy as the only viable model, was a big deal. It crossed over into the “straight” world with an issue, which is always up for discussion amongst gay men. Suddenly my (happily) long-married female friends were talking about the importance of commitment and continuity as primary values, monogamy as secondary—both for couples but also for the family unit.
I know men, straight and gay, who are monogamous by nature. I believe they are the minority. It is a cliché, but males are programmed to spread their seed. It’s natural to want to get it around. The chemicals released during sex make the male want to linger with the female last for an hour or two. The same chemicals released in females last for days, often bringing on the urge to make a nest for the child that might have just been conceived. Our free will, and variances in personality, psyche, chemistry, and environment, creates a spectrum of possibilities for the modern man and woman, but nature significantly influences most of us.
Monogamy as deprivation rarely works: “I will give up what I want in order to have you (and society’s blessing).” Monogamy is valuable as a choice: Opt to be with only one partner in order to explore the depths of that relationship. Every relationship form has its inherent challenges and concomitant rewards. Each of us needs to look at what we are up to and ready for. What matters is commitment—to self, partner, the relationship, the lessons.
A healthy relationship has three members: Two I’s and a We. They all need attention and nurturance. For some, monogamy may be necessary to nurture a fragile We. For others, it might starve one or more of the I’s.
Ultimately, what matters for a couple (and for the family unit, if they have children) is trust, continuity and integrity. The first definition of integrity in the dictionary is wholeness. What makes us whole? What makes our marriage whole? What makes our family whole? These are questions for which there are so many answers.
Each of us is responsible for identifying our deal breakers. Monogamy can be one, which is fine, as long as it isn’t a cop out—an unwillingness to look at what we need, value, and truly hold dear. My honest open relationships have resulted in ongoing intimate friendships with my lovers. Success was in not playing by someone else’s rules.