Big Love21 March 2016
Love is a concept that is rarely challenged. Only a brave few heretics would dare question the essence of monogamous love: the desire for one person at the exclusion of all others. It’s a cultural institution in the West and we’ve all been led to believe that monogamy is the natural state of human sexuality and desire.
However, there is some compelling evidence that monogamy may be a contradiction. A fallacy beaten into us by non-stop Hollywood love stories and preached by evangelists who denounce lust as fleeting and anything but devoted commitment as frivolous. A robust history of extramarital sex and the ubiquity of infidelity are indicative of this contradiction.
Yet even now, despite the mounting pile of evidence, the narrative of monogamous love is inextricably sown into our collective psyche.
What is the genesis of this ideology? Who exactly does it benefit?
The bestselling book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacildia Jetha argues that monogamy manifested itself with the emergence of property rights. Paternity among hunter-gatherers was communal and only once lineage and inheritance became entwined with property ownership did people even acknowledge their own children to be theirs.
Monogamy emerged as a favourable framework for men to consolidate power over their property. Women were simply incorporated into this process, their sexualities constrained and neatly defined within the parameters of marriage. Or so Sex at Dawn contends.
The much later popularisation of romanticised love in the Middle Ages, which was further developed in the 17th Century, is really the model for how we understand love in the modern context. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet typified this ideology, perhaps fittingly at a time when marriage was a business contract but love itself was a heresy.
Now we champion love as an infallible notion, impenetrable and everlasting. Yet there is a sense that there are dissidents massing on the horizon, just a tinge of revolutionary fervour bubbling, a schism in the zeitgeist.
Jennifer Malarski of the Metropolitan University in Denver compiled a significant amount of data on polyamorous relationships in the US and around the world. She argues there has undoubtedly been a softening on the rigidity of relationship structures and people are beginning to experiment more openly with polyamory.
More precisely, Malarski contends that women are breaking free from the sexual conformities that characterised the 20th Century and challenging social norms and practices through alternative relationship models.
Given these conclusions and the prevalence of infidelity, it’s entirely possible monogamy could be a cultural manifestation that works infinitely better in the imagination than it does in reality.
I’m beginning to wonder if each of us will at some point be forced to confront the very awkward truth: no matter how much we may love someone, our desires are rarely – if ever – confined to one person.
I know this is true for me. It’s true for my girlfriend too. We’re both guilty of furtive glances and lascivious thoughts external to one another. While this obviously doesn’t constitute infidelity, it is an acknowledgement that our monogamy is a sacrifice of desire and not necessarily a natural state.
Given this, infidelity is now often touted as an inevitability, rather than a transgression, by the monogamy cynics.
Nonetheless, most of us still persist in our pursuit of a monogamous relationship. Despite a growing number of people experimenting with polyamory, most of us can’t handle the jealousies and insecurities that inevitably arise in alternative relationship models.
Sydney Morning Herald writer Katherine Feeney spoke with a polyamorous woman from Melbourne who described the lifestyle as being wholly liberating.
“What is common is that everyone who is successfully living the polyamorous lifestyle is clear on what they want,” Feeney states, “and clearly expresses this to others. I think that’s the liberating factor.”
She argues it is clear, precise communication and self-assuredness that allows one to be a successful polyamorist.
Despite this, she admits many who try end up failing – they find themselves falling into the old adage of not being able to have your cake and eat it too.
People are often willing to act on their own external desires but are fraught with fear and angst at the thought of their significant other doing the same. Herein lies the true purpose of monogamy.It is a means of protecting ourselves, a means of abating those nagging insecurities rather than a loving commitment.
It’s a means by which we are able to constrain our partner’s desires through an at-times flimsy social contract in an attempt to prevent any hurt or jealousy from being inflicted upon us. Sex at Dawn’s contention that monogamy is a means of control seemingly fits. Perhaps polyamory is a more ‘natural’ state of human sexuality.
That being said, this rather cynical view should probably be taken with a grain of salt – monogamy has both its purpose and its benefits.
Rather than a complete paradigm shift that could see monogamy usurped as the relationship mainstay, it’s likely that instead we are beginning to broaden our understanding of human sexuality and relationships.
Desire doesn’t have to be confined to a single person and, let’s face it, it never truly is anyway.
And that’s okay but it’s important to acknowledge it. Even if our monogamy is simply a symptom of personal insecurity, is it not an effective method of making us happy in our relationships?
Polyamory isn’t for everyone and many brave pioneers have come sheepishly back into the monogamous fold citing hurt feelings and raging jealousies.
It’s likely we will see more people experiment with alternative relationships but it may not have to be an entirely new model. Monogamy, despite its contradictions and unromantic history, doesn’t negate any real love we may feel for other people. Rather, it is simply one of many possible ways of having a relationship.
Learn to accept that all of us are at the mercy of our own desires. How you decide to incorporate those desires into your relationships is entirely up to you. But to deny them and to champion your own love as above the natural tendencies of humankind is a path beset by dangers and heartbreak, and one that may be doomed to fail.