Despite what many of my critics say, I am not opposed to monogamy. I think if two individuals get together with a full understanding of the kind of relationship they want to create and they decide together, consciously, that they do not wish to involve other people in their lives sexually or romantically, then that's great. That is a completely valid form of relationship structure, and as long as everyone involved understands what they're agreeing to, then cool.
The trouble is that most people who enter into monogamous relationships really don't know exactly what they're agreeing to. They're just doing it because it's normal.
By normal, I mean that monogamy is the accepted default relationship structure of our current society. The intention of moving toward monogamy (and its usual end, marriage) tends to assume its way into nearly all of our interactions in the dating world. It's the reason you may have been on a date and heard the plaintive cry, "But where is this relationship going?" Usually that person is referring to a move up the Relationship Escalator -- "the default set of societal expectations for the proper conduct of intimate relationships; progressive steps with clearly visible markers and a presumed structural goal of permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive), cohabitating marriage."
The Relationship Escalator works for many people, but according to the current rate of marriages ending in divorce, it fails just as many, too. It fails even more if we consider how many monogamous relationships break up before marriage is even reached.
The Relationship Escalator is hard. Lifelong monogamy, the ideal to which our society has told us we ought to aspire in order to be a good and credible person, is really fucking difficult. As my hero Esther Perel, author of Mating In Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, points out in her TED talk,
Marriage was an economic institution in which you were given a partnership for life in terms of children and social status and succession and companionship. But now we want our partner to still give us all these things, but in addition I want you to be my best friend and my trusted confidant and my passionate lover to boot, and we live twice as long. So we come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide: Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one. Give me comfort, give me edge. Give me novelty, give me familiarity. Give me predictability, give me surprise. And we think it's a given, and toys and lingerie are going to save us with that.
So why did we end up choosing a structure for our conventional norm that is so difficult to sustain?
Well, I'm glad you asked. It was farming.
I touched on this before in a previous blog post two years ago, and the fact that I am now going to quote exactly what I wrote about it back then demonstrates either precisely why we need to keep talking about it, or my laziness as a writer:
Drs. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha explain in their book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality that monogamy became a big deal right around the agricultural revolution. Before farming, there was no such thing as land ownership; humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies, and while careful mate selection and pairbonding still occurred, children were more or less raised in a communal setting as the whole tribe was somewhat invested in a child's survival. When food (i.e., valuable goods) could be cultivated on a piece of land rather than hunted/gathered, having land became paramount. Monogamy became important because a guy with land wanted to make sure that the kid he passed his land on down to was actually his, and so like land, a wife became synonymous with property. Thus began our culture of ownership, and when ownership is important, any threat to it results in jealousy.
Needless to say, most of us today aren't farmers. We aren't living in a society in which our survival is predicated upon our sexual fidelity (as if monogamy and fidelity are synonymous anyway, as though the exclusive access to our genitals is the apex of faithfulness). We can have amazing relationships and produce healthy and well-adjusted offspring without putting such unrealistic constraints upon our sexual desires. And yet we're still doing things in the same antiquated fashion.
It reminds me of a passage from Paulo Coelho's novel The Zahir about the construction of modern train tracks:
I went to a train station today and learned that the distance between railway tracks is always 143.5 centimeters, or 4 feet 8 1/2 inches. Why this absurd measurement? I asked my girlfriend to find out and this is what she discovered. When they built the first train carriages, they used the same tools as they had for building horse-drawn carriages. And why that distance between the wheels on carriages? Because that was the width of the old roads along which the carriages had to travel. And who decided that roads should be that width? Well, suddenly, we are plunged back into the distant past. It was the Romans, the first great road builders, who decided to make their roads that width. And why? Because their war chariots were pulled by two horses, and when placed side by side, the horses they used at the time took up 143.5 centimeters.
So the distance between the tracks I saw today, used by our state-of-the-art high speed trains, was determined by the Romans. When people went to the United States and started building railways there, it didn't occur to them to change the width and so it stayed as it was. This even affected the building of space shuttles. American engineers thought the fuel tanks should be wider, but the tanks were built in Utah and had to be transported by train to the Space Center in Florida, and the tunnels couldn't take anything wider. And so they had to accept the measurement that the Romans had decided was the ideal -- 143.5 centimeters apart.
You guys... the fact that I have to point all this out is ridiculous. We have so many options at our disposal for the ways in which we choose to relate to people today, and so many of us are failing to even look at them before deciding.
One reason I feel this is particularly tragic is that there are a lot of people out in the dating world who assume that because they aren't down for the goals of the Relationship Escalator, then they must stay away from relationships at all. But by keeping people at a distance out of fear that we will end up in a relationship structure we don't want, we are missing out on opportunities to explore intimacy, when exploring intimacy is kind of one of the best reasons to connect with a person in the first place.
This is why we need to start talking about non-monogamy. We need to understand that the Relationship Escalator is not our only option, that there are many ways of relating, that maybe some of them will be right for us while others will not, and that just because we may not be interested in one form of relationship doesn't mean that we must exclude ourselves from any of them. Even if you decide that monogamy is the right choice for you, that choice needs to come out of a thorough vetting of all your options. You need to decide that that relationship structure is the best one for you because you have consciously examined it, not because you are stuck in a holdover from the farmers.
It is getting better. Within the last year specifically, mainstream journalism has begun to look at alternative relationship structures in ways that are measured and unsensationalized. This piece by the NY Post that came out a year ago was surprisingly fair and non-marginalizing -- although the fact that I personally know all three people they're talking about in their exemplar poly triad also speaks to the fact that these things are more obvious in my world than in most. Six months later a journalist contacted me to speak on this piece for Refinery29, which was also evenhanded and non-judgmental.
This is not to say that non-monogamy is inherently better or easier than monogamy. Non-monogamy presents a different set of problems. My point is that it is our right as human beings to choose the set of problems that we want. You can choose non-monogamy and navigate jealousy, or you can choose monogamy and navigate boredom. Pick your poison.
I was going to dedicate this post to a thorough bullet-pointed breakdown of all the various relationship structures with which I am familiar. And then I came across this image, which explains it all way better than I could have hoped to:
Isn't that awesome? Isn't it cool that we have so many choices? (The only one I think they missed was swinging, in which the relationship partners agree to have sex with other people but only in the presence of one another. Also I rather wish they hadn't included "cheating" as I really don't feel that cheating is a valid relationship agreement.)
Consider this much. We know that love and sex are not the same thing. We know that we can be completely in love with someone and yet still want to have sex with other people. And yet in our relationship practices we keep treating sexual desire as an affront to the nature of love. We know this isn't logical, but we do it anyway.
We enter into our mid-twenties and we see people around us getting married. We may have only had one or two serious relationships before that, but suddenly we think we are properly equipped to choose the person with whom we are going to plan to spend the rest of our lives. We haven't even lived half of our lives yet, but we think it's a great idea to legally contract ourselves to another human being, the failure of which contract will result in great emotional, logistical, and financial stress. I don't know about you guys, but I don't want a partner who's with me mainly because we've decided to make it hugely inconvenient for each other to leave. I want someone who is showing up enthusiastically one day after the next because he wants to be there.
It's our job as human beings to examine the normative social constructs that are handed to us by the world we inherited and to decide which parts of them are right for us and which are not. Me personally, for example, I totally want to have a wedding, even though I don't want to actually get married -- because while legally contracting myself into a relationship doesn't feel right to me (I mean, admit it, it is kind of weird to need permission from the government in order to break up with someone), having a party about being in love with someone and getting to wear a white dress and eat delicious cake totally does. (The whole thing may devolve into an orgy, which might be awesome, but I want my goddamn dress and cake.) But I want that wedding because I've thought about it and what it will mean to me, and perhaps even more importantly, what it won't.
So, do me a favor. The next time you're on a date with someone and they ask you Where is this relationship going?, take out your wallet and hand them a printout of this:
And then look at them and say, "That's a great question. There are so many possibilities. Where would you like it to go?"