In defence of monogamy

Image by the lovely Stuart F Taylor

Here is a can of worms. Please sit down, make yourself comfortable, and watch as I try to sort them into delicate piles without squishing any of them.

I’m in a monogamous relationship. For me, that means that my partner and I both lust desperately after other people, but we try not to do anything about it, save sighing and making the odd comment about how beautiful those other people are.

When I tell people this, often they’re surprised, and some of them make efforts to persuade me that I really should consider opening up my relationship. That it’d be healthier if my guy and I could see other people, or that polyamory is actually the best course of action for everybody in the human race. I like the sound of it: I do. I like the idea that there’s a hell of a lot of love in the world, and you get to share lots of different kinds of love with lots of different people.

Thing is, I’ve tried it, and it sucks for me. It really sucks. I get jealous, angry, upset, and anxious. I feel worthless. My rational brain tells me that he can fuck other people without it having any bearing on how he feels about me, and that if he goes for a drink with a girl he fancies with a view to potentially snogging her at the end of the evening, that act itself isn’t sapping any of the fun or love that he and I share together.

Unfortunately, my irrational brain is a tedious Iago – piping up and screeching “I like not that!”, and ruining everyone’s fun.

Nonmonogamy is awesome for some people

Having stated my credentials as someone who is utterly crap at nonmonogamy, I’d be a twat if I filled this section with my own guesses about how other people go about these relationships, so here are a few blogs by some people who know far more than I do.

ArchedEyebrowBR, who is consistently amazing in a number of ways, has written on what nonmonogamy is. Here’s one from a long-ago guest blogger, who had a bit of a chat with me about poly, in which she took down a fair few of the lazy assumptions I had about it at the time. And here’s a super-gorgeous romantic blog from Pervocracy, about a non-exclusive relationship that works really well for them and gives me all the squishy feelings.

So: non-exclusive relationships, whether they’re casually open, polyamorous, or however people want to arrange them and whatever they want to call them, can be spectacular. Unfortunately, people in nonmonogamous relationships have been on the receiving end of a hell of a lot of shit, with conservative, judgmental people claiming it’s unnatural, promiscuous, or any number of things that realistically aren’t anyone else’s business. So they fight these assumptions, quite rightly, and they push back against the judgmental bullshit.

Unfortunately, some people push back so far it ends up toppling a bunch of other guys over.

Is monogamy unnatural?

The other day I stumbled across a blog which explained to me why monogamy is ‘just not natural.’ The blogger is actually not arguing for nonmonogamy, rather that the default way for people to conduct relationships is on a kind of serial-monogamy basis. Long-ish relationships that are never ‘for life’.

Up until ten thousand years ago, we were not monogamous because it made no sense from an evolutionary standpoint. For survival, nature prefers a strategy of mixing genes for as large a variety of specimens as possible.”

She also says:

Studies show that in nature, life-long, exclusive partnership rarely exist. Even in animals that were long viewed as sexually monogamous.”

Uh-oh. Using evolutionary theory to support the complexities of human ethical behaviour based on flimsy evidence? It happens a lot in the world of sex and dating advice, so when it happens my hackles are immediately up, as they would be if someone said:

“Oh but biology says that guys are programmed to hunt so is it surprising that they catcall women?”

or

“Women are naturally nurturing so they should look after the children.”

Arguments like this are far too simplistic. We are the product of evolution, sure, and there are certain things about people that are influenced in part by the way we’ve developed over thousands of years. But implying that we are that, and only that, makes a mockery of everything else we are: our culture, our society, our ability to exert willpower, our empathy and morality: our nurture.

Sure, nature tells us to do certain things. But our nurture often tells us to do otherwise. We often choose to do otherwise, and deliberately eschew the kind of behaviour that, from a purely evolutionary standpoint, we should be embracing. Claiming that a particular relationship style is ‘unnatural’ leaves a pretty gross taste in the mouth. What are we, the Westboro fucking Baptist Church?

Monogamy is possessive and cruel

So if we don’t accept the ‘monogamy is unnatural’ argument, where does that leave us? Well, I got a pretty interesting comment on a blog post I wrote a while ago, in which I lamented my drunken fuckups and the fact that every now and then I go to the boy and say ‘argh, sorry, I snogged someone in the pub.’ Commenter audren pointed out that 

‘In general, people should not commit to things for which the other would have to spy on them to know they failed to keep their promise.’

Which is an interesting point, I think. Is it bad to ask for exclusivity given that the only way you’ll know if someone has broken your agreement is if you spy on them? Perhaps. My gut reaction to this was that, even in a nonmonogamous relationship there are rules and boundaries.

If, for instance, you broke off an evening engagement with one of your partners at the last minute, claiming you were sick, then went out with someone else instead, I suspect that in most nonmonogamous relationships that’d be considered a shitty thing to do. And in order to find out, you’d have to spy or dig to work out that’s what the other person had done. The problem isn’t in making the original commitment – the problem is in breaking someone’s trust, or in a relationship in which the trust has been so eroded (or so bitterly given) that one person would actually delve into the activities of the other, like a crap detective insistent on discovering the miserable truth.

But the commenter also says:

‘I have yet to read convincing arguments that sex is somehow so different from everything else that I have a right to expect exclusivity, whereas I am considered a controlling phsycho if I get mad at my wife for going out to the movies with friends without telling me.’

I agree that we do tend to see sex in a different category to the way we see other activity – going to the movies, going for dinner, etc. But I don’t think this is exclusive to monogamous relationships. While any decent human accepts that a partner requires social contact, friendliness and love outside a particular relationship (family love and friendship, for example), rightly or wrongly sex is elevated to something different: either exclusive or negotiated. In my experience, it’s rare for polyamorous people to be totally fine with ‘anything goes, whether you tell me or not’, whether that’s from a simple sexual health perspective (I’d rather you didn’t shag anyone else without a condom/up-to-date STI tests) or from a more emotional perspective (I’d like to know in advance when you’re dating other people, so I don’t end up planning something cool for us then ending up alone on a Friday night).

Moreover, I think that equating nonmonogamy to a simple sexual free-for-all jars with what I’ve read and heard from people who practice it. With the exception of swinging (and even then there are often friendships surrounding the fucking), most nonmonogamy is about more than just finding a bunch of other people to rub genitals with. Partnerships and group dynamics are often supportive, loving and friendly in ways that go beyond (and often don’t even extend to) sex itself.

They’re still more open than monogamous relationships though, and I’ll concede that I certainly do ask my boy not to fuck anyone else, whereas I wouldn’t tell him not to go to the cinema with his mates. But I don’t think it’s a means of exerting control: it’s done in the spirit of love and compromise with which we try to do everything. We negotiate a tonne of stuff – where we’ll spend Christmas, when we’ll fill out a mortgage application, what TV we can and cannot watch alone (I’m allowed to watch The Apprentice without him but if I touch the new episode of The Walking Dead he will whimper like the saddest of puppies).

At no point is any of this behaviour (sexual or otherwise) dictated by one person and resented by the other. I haven’t told him that he can’t fuck anyone, and he hasn’t dictated that to me. We’ve tested nonmonogamy, and while it worked quite beautifully for me to begin with, it was always miserable for him and for me it quickly turned sour. So even though in the short term we both stare at and lust after other people, in the long term we’ve decided that monogamy works pretty damn well for us. If one or other of us changes our mind, we’ll talk about it.

In defence of monogamy

Monogamy is the most comfortable kind of relationship for me, even though I waver sometimes. I fuck up and I fail, and none of my relationships have ever been close to perfect, but that doesn’t mean that I have to try and force myself into a dynamic that doesn’t work.

While I bloody LOVE being able to write blog posts that conclude ‘OMG this is SUCH BULLSHIT’, my conclusion this time naturally has to be a bit more muted. Relationships (both monogamous and nonmonogamous) are naturally complex things. All of them involve a certain amount of negotiation, discussion and compromise. The key thing isn’t whether your relationships ‘fit’ a template that someone else has created, but whether they make you and your partners happy.

So please do push back if someone tells you that the way you ‘do’ relationships is wrong: whether it’s your parents telling you to settle down with one person, or a nonmonogamous friend telling you that you’d be much happier if you just did it like she did. I totally understand the spirit in which a nonmonogamous person might assert that monogamy isn’t natural, or that it’s unnecessarily controlling. For the same reason, when my Dad tells me I must produce a grandchild I’m liable to respond with ‘I am not a BREEDING CAVERN’, and end up upsetting those for whom ‘having children’ is one of their key life goals. When unjustly pushed to conform to a particular type of lifestyle, we’re liable to push back – hard – and accidentally topple a whole bunch of other people over.

Edited to add – I’ve just seen Meg John Barker’s excellent overview of monogamy + polyamory – please do check it out because Meg John is eloquent and succinct and always brilliant.

9 Comments

  • Blue Romantic says:

    Lovely stuff GOTN. Warmed my heart on a shitty, filthy rainy windy Sunday.

  • Dave says:

    My partner and I were monogamous for 11 years and then we opened up the relationship. The open thing has worked really well for us for the last 2.5 years. That said I certainly don’t think it is ideal for everyone. For us it’s partly a way of maintaining our long term commitment as we didn’t want to lose a good thing to betrayal and infidelity.

    I am also cautious of the word “natural”, the way I think of it is that generally humans have instincts that are not monogamous. However we have social norms stretching back for hundreds of years that push for (and police) monogamy. However you structure your relationship you have to negotiate both those issues. One if the pieces of evidence that many of us have these instincts is fancying people who aren’t our partners. Whether or not the way you negotiate these non monogamous instincts is by fantasing about these people when wanking, pushing down these thoughts completely, act on then as an affair, act on then openly but limitedly, avoid commitment and just have sex with lots of people or have multiple relationships is up to you. But whatever works best for you, or whatever doesn’t work best for you but you end up to doing anyway, you have to navigate these instincts. And if your preferred way of doing relationships doesn’t fit the accepted social models then you have to navigate all the pressure, shame and stigma that comes with that.

    I think whatever we do we should strive to be fair, honest and ethical in relation to the people we fuck. But I also have sympathy for people who fail to live up to monogamy and fuck up. Whilst I also feel sympathy for the feelings of the people who get betrayed when that happens I don’t like the way “cheaters” are generally socially punished (and it’s even more infuriating that women and men are treated very differently when they “stray” and also that the third party so frequently gets blamed even if they are betraying no one). The issue is for the couple (or multiple partners) to deal with not for the rest of us to jump all over judgementally.

    Of course all of the above leaves out asexuals and people who don’t take partners or lovers for any reason. Their choices are fine too and should be respected. And they are one of the reasons being absolute about what is “natural” or instinctual is problematic. They still have to navigate a world where they don’t conform to social norms but for whatever reason they often don’t have the same instinctual urges. And that’s fine too. It doesn’t hurt any one. In fact they have much less likelihood of hurting anyone.

    And also sex drives are variable and whilst for most the instinct to fancy many people exists many people may not be that bothered with it. To the point where many people either don’t notice that they fancy other people or maybe literally only fancy one person at a time. I certainly know people who claim that and I have no reason to argue with their experience. Whether they really don’t fancy anyone else or they just successfully convince themselves that they don’t doesn’t matter if it works for them.

    The danger I think generally though is that when we don’t acknowledge these non monogamous instincts it makes them harder to negotiate. People who try and push them down often end up cheating and then hating themselves for failing to achieve the standard they have set. I think that understanding non monogamous instincts helps people who want to achieve monogamous results. It will certainly help partners be more honest with themselves and others. It will help them avoid infidelity and to forgive it if it does happen.

    So I’m definitely not someone who suggests everyone should be open or poly. But I do think most people are helped by recognising that their instincts are not monogamous.

    • Desire on wheels says:

      *raises hand* If you want an example of someone naturally very monogamous, I’m one. I really don’t fancy other people when I’m partnered. I don’t fancy that many people anyway, and it takes me a while to start fancying someone (days is the shortest). Once I do, and it’s an ongoing relationship, I do fancy them quite thoroughly and have a fair amount of sex, though my sex drive isn’t near the impressively high levels of GOTN.

      On the other hand, I have no intention of marrying and dislike marriage as an institution. I have no idea how a partner and I will feel about each other in the distant future, and damned if I’m going to haver to ask permission from the state to break up if we’re unhappy. My partner has commented that it’s really strange how a relationship is only seen as successful if it ends with the death of one or both of the partners. We adore each other and make each other happy, we’ve been together for a while, and long may it continue to be like this. If it stops being good, there’s no point in forcing us to stay together.

      Lovely post, GOTN, and the Pervocracy one was gorgeous too.

  • KB says:

    What it’s important to remember here (says a layman up on his soapbox without so much as an unopened relevant textbook to his name) is that when people base arguments on biology etc, they tend to forget that evolution is a slow process even when it’s fast. Over the past few thousand years evolution has kinda had the rug pulled from under it by the pace of social change. Neither element of behavioural conditioning could really be said to be more valid than the other (at least, not without a long discussion that I’m just too squiffy for right now), but we’re in trouble when we try blindly to accommodate both imperatives.

    I was recently fortunate enough to spend a few months dating a young lady whose proclivities I viewed as unabashedly healthy, in that she gleefully sought (and took) sexual pleasure wherever she could with whomever she wanted. As the relationship ended though I was mightily surprised that my reaction to reading about her continued conquests (she’s a blogger) was incredible relief that I no longer had to manufacture the ambivalence towards this behaviour which I’d assumed had been coming naturally as a result of being a rational human being.

    Fair to say that I don’t think there are any hard-and-fast rules that can be applied across the spectrum of relationships, except, maybe, try to understand your partner (and yourself) and don’t be a dick…

  • Totally agree with this from KB: “Fair to say that I don’t think there are any hard-and-fast rules that can be applied across the spectrum of relationships, except, maybe, try to understand your partner (and yourself) and don’t be a dick…”

    DIfferent things suit different people; anyone who’s an evangelist for ANYTHING, (even if it’s the most ultra liberal concept ever) is always dodgy, I think. They’re just highly insecure and want to control the way people think.

  • schrokit says:

    Really well said. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what kind of relationship works for you, as long as you’re ethical, honest and all parties involved want the same thing and can communicate that. There’s no one right/natural way to do relationships. So much depends on individual dynamics.

    I think there’s just a large backlash at the moment by people who disagree that monogamy should be the societal default. And I think they’re right, if you enter ANY relationship style without conscious thought, or do it because “it’s the only/right way” says society or social group, then any kind of configuration can be doomed.

  • lamuella says:

    Honestly at its core it should come down to the question of what’s better for you. With “you” meaning “all the parties involved”. Insisting that a nonmanogamous couple are causing their relationship untold damage is obnoxious. Insisting that a monogamous couple would be so much happier if they opened things up is obnoxious. If people have a relationship that makes them happy, and that relationship and its arrangements don’t hurt anybody, it’s not really anyone else’s business.

    In my own relationships (well, relationship, I’ve been with the same person for 15 years) I’m entirely monogamous, albeit with the mutual understanding that agreeing not to fuck other people isn’t agreeing not to be attracted to other people. If we decided to open the relationship up (which we won’t, we’ve had this conversation before) it would be because we felt it would be a good thing to do, not because anyone else approved or disapproved.

    I do wonder about people who are in the unfortunate situation where one member of a couple wants to be nonmanogamous and the other doesn’t. Is it better for the relationship to entirely open? Half open? Stay closed? Break apart? I think all of those solutions could work providing everyone consents and nobody is made unhappy.

  • Mia says:

    I have a lot of friends in open or “nonmonogamous” relationships, and mostly it just sounds very complicated. Too complicated for my liking. They spend most of their time discussing their relationships. Because you have to be open and communicative in any kind of relationship, having multiple ones going just means you have to spend more time communicating. I guess it works for a lot of people, and that is great, but I in no way find that appealing. To me it always sounds incredibly stressful. I dislike when nonmonogamous friends of mine somehow assume that being monogamous means I am denying myself or my partner something, or that our sex lives must be somehow boring. I find it offensive. I also don’t like being told that monogamy “isn’t natural” or that I am just being “immature and selfish”. I think being immature or selfish would be forcing your partner into something they didn’t want to do, or lying about what you feel comfortable about in a relationship in order to please someone else.
    I love monogamy. I love being devoted to one person and having the most filthy, intimate times with them. It feels safe and comforting and loving to me. It doesn’t feel boring or unnatural and mostly it doesn’t feel overly stressful or complicated.

    Everyone is different and no one can say what is right or natural for another person.

  • Lee says:

    “Cruelty, knowing no love, spurns and dismisses it.
    Love, knowing no cruelty, flails in agony under cruelty’s lash”

    Not a good day today…

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