Monogamy as the Social Standard


In our society Monogamy is kind of a given.  It’s so infused into the cultural consciousness that we don’t give it much thought.  When we enter into a relationship we rarely sit down to talk about whether or not we are going to be monogamous.  It’s often just assumed that we are.

But more and more people are beginning to question whether monogamy is right for them, and are exploring the alternatives.  Gradually, it seems, we are moving toward a time when non-monogamous relationships will once again be socially acceptable.

A lot of arguments have been put forth as to whether human beings are monogamous by nature, and the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that we are not.  This of course is not to suggest that there is no such thing as monogamy or that monogamy itself is unnatural, unhealthy or wrong.  I think that ultimately every relationship is unique, and that some people may be more inclined toward monogamy than others.  The problem with our society is that we don’t respect these unique differences, and we try to enforce the same standard upon everyone.  We live in a monogamy culture, a culture that excludes all other forms of relationships.

However, as I said, the evidence indicates that most people are not inclined toward monogamy, at least not in the strict sense.  And this suggests that there are a great number of non-monogamous people living under the guise of monogamy.  And yet we adhere to it (or try to adhere to it) because of this often unspoken collective agreement.  Under the pressure of conformity we have made that agreement, even though few of us really understand anything about it.  So let’s try to understand it, so we can know what we’re signing up for.

It should be understood that most of our beliefs about monogamy are based upon social customs and expectations, which do not take into account biology or psychology, and which completely ignore history and anthropology.   And because of this, many monogamous relationships are quite unrealistic and thus prone to failure.

Even when people vow to remain exclusive with one another, this does not automatically rid them of their attraction to others.  Whether that attraction is purely a sexual impulse or a deep emotional connection, the fact remains that we are not exclusive in our inmost desires.  We might adhere to remaining physically exclusive out of a sense of obligation and social pressure, but still the desire is there.  And often we can’t even express this to our partner because of societal shame and the negative way in which our partner is likely to react.  So instead we hide it and pretend as though we have no interest in anyone else.  Essentially, this obligatory adherence to social expectations teaches us to be deceptive with our partner.  We’re not encouraged to speak openly about our feelings concerning others.  We are encouraged, in fact, to lie about it.

For some people, and perhaps for many, being monogamous is just an outward charade.  They might proclaim to their partner, and even publicly, that they are sexually and romantically exclusive, but in the shadows one or both partners may be having an affair.

In a society that sets monogamy as the standard for relationships, there is so much cheating going on behind the scenes.  Cheating doesn’t necessarily mean having sex with someone other than your partner.  Cheating literally means to be deceptive.  So whether one is secretly acting upon their sexual or romantic impulses, or denying those impulses, that person is cheating because they are having to keep their impulses hidden.  So it’s no wonder there is such a lack of trust and intimacy in so many relationships when partners are discouraged from being honest and transparent with one another.

So what I really want to discuss here are the inherent problems with monogamy as a social standard.  Again, this is not to suggest that there is anything inherently wrong with monogamy itself.  Rather, I want to focus on the cultural ideas and assumptions that suggest that monogamy should be the standard for everyone.

If we look back at history and anthropology we find that this monogamous standard is fairly new.  It wasn’t very long ago that polygamy was considered quite normal, and in some cultures it has long been the primary relationship style.  Just as the word monogamy means marriage to one person, the word polygamy means marriage to multiple persons.  In the strictest sense polygamy doesn’t give any indication of whether the marriage consists of one man and many wives or one wife and many husbands, or many wives and many husbands.  Neither does the word indicate sexual orientation.  It simply refers to a marriage in which there are more than two people involved.

Of course, many societies throughout history have been primarily patriarchal and misogynistic, and while it was acceptable for men to have multiple partners and lovers, women were often denied the same privilege.  And because of this, the word polygamy has come to be primarily associated with relationships in which one man has many wives.

As I was saying, it wasn’t very long ago that this social custom began to shift.  Exactly how monogamy became the standard for our society is difficult to tell.  There are many various factors that come into play, and the transition occurred over a very long period of time.

It wasn’t very long ago in history when women were considered personal property, and marriage was a business exchange between a woman’s father and the groom.  But as our culture has evolved we now recognize that men and women are essentially equal.

We could speculate that between then and now it was gradually becoming apparent that the misogynistic style of polygamy was unfair and that something needed to change. However, because women were not yet fully acknowledged as equal to men, and because men were afraid to become submissive to their wives, most men would have been uncomfortable with the idea of allowing their wives to have multiple partners.  And so, rather than extending this privilege to women, it was somehow decided to relinquish it altogether.  And so it became the standard for all relationships to be monogamous.

Well, that isn’t entirely true.  Because for the longest time in our culture, even after monogamy was accepted as the general standard, it was still tolerable for a man to have concubines or a mistress on the side.  Many women throughout recent decades have later admitted to being aware of their husband’s affairs, but turned a blind eye because they didn’t want to end up divorced, as divorced women were considered socially undesirable and therefore unfit for re-marriage.  And while these secret affairs amongs husbands were tolerable, a woman having an affair has never been acceptable.  It’s just goes to show that double standards die hard.

When men gave up their sexual freedom, it was not out of love and respect to their partners.  It was a compromise.  It was given up to insure that their partners would not seek to have the same freedom.  And, I would imagine, that monogamy is carried on by both men and women alike for very much the same reason.

Most of us find ourselves attracted to other people aside from our primary partner.  It’s normal and quite natural.  And sometimes we would like to explore that attraction further.  Whether we’re single or partnered, exploring a new romantic interest is exciting and invigorating.  But when we imagine our partner in a similar scenario it can make us feel sick.  All kinds of fears and insecurities arise.  And we might question whether our partner truly loves us.

Seeing our partner even talking with, or looking at another attractive person can cause us to feel jealous and angry.  We feel threatened because our partner might potentially leave us for someone better.

Monogamy culture assumes that we are only capable of loving one person at a time.  And so, if your partner takes interest in someone else, we naturally assume that they have lost interest in us.  Furthermore, if one is only capable of being intimate with one person at a time, then, if our partner has taken interest in someone else, it is almost inevitable that they will leave us to be with that person.  In fact, this is what often happens, which only seems to reinforce this idea.  But the reason our partners leave us for someone new isn’t necessarily because they have lost interest in us.  It may simply be that they felt obligated to make a choice, and they will almost certainly choose the new relationship because it is fresh and exciting.

Society will tell you that you can’t be intimately involved with two people at the same time, and this causes a lot of stress and confusion for some of us, because in reality a person may have strong feelings for more than one person at one time.  Deep down they may not see any conflict in the possibility of having more than one partner.  But society is telling us it’s not permissible.  It is telling us that we cannot have feelings for two people at the same time, in spite of the fact that we do.  We’re lead to believe that this is wrong, although we’re not given a clear explanation as to why.  And we aren’t given any option other than making a choice between one partner and the other.

Because of this way of thinking, many people go from one relationship to the next, never committing fully to the long term.  It’s almost inevitable that they will find themselves attracted to different people over the course of a life time, but since society does not accept polygamy, they must always give up one partner in exchange for the other.  This can happen over and over again, always moving from one person to the next.  Serial monogamy, as it is called, has replaced the old standard of monogamy in which a person was expected to remain exclusively with one partner for life.  And it just goes to show that monogamy, in the strictest sense, is extremely difficult for many people to adhere to.

One of the major issues that arises in regard to monogamous relationships is the fear of commitment, and while it is generally portrayed as problem specific to men, the truth is that many women also seem to be afraid of committing.  But it isn’t commitment that scares people.  It’s the idea of losing their individual freedom. It’s the idea of being exclusively romantic (or sexual) with only one person for the rest of their lives.  And if so many people are uncomfortable with this kind of strictly enforced monogamy, then isn’t it a given that many people just aren’t monogamous?  So why do we go on denying this aspect of ourselves?   Maybe what it comes back to is the denial of this aspect in our partners.  Maybe the issue is essentially about the difficulty of accepting one another’s individual freedom.

Monogamy culture teaches us that our partner is our property.  Now this concept didn’t arise out of monogamous thinking.  It was actually carried over from the misogynistic polygamous culture in which women were considered the property of their husbands. As monogamy became the standard for our society, men relinquished the right to have multiple partners, rather than extending that right to women.  What they did not relinquish, however, was the concept of ownership.  Instead, the concept of ownership was gradually extended to include both partners.

This dynamic is quite problematic because it makes each partner the property of the other, and each the owner of the other.  Imagine a social system in which every person is everyone else’s slave, but at the same time everyone else’s master.  How would that system function?  How can a person be both slave and master at the same time?  It just doesn’t work.  What happens in relationships is that there is a constant struggle for power and dominance, and this creates conflict.  Conflict in turn creates tension and tension causes us to become disconnected from one another.  As long as there is disconnection there can be no real intimacy, and without intimacy the relationship falls apart.

So what is the alternative?  Well, let’s go back to history and imagine for a moment how things could have gone a little differently.  After centuries of male dominated polygamous relationships, what if, instead of men relinquishing their freedom to have multiple partners, they extended that freedom to women?  And in doing so, they also relinquished the idea of ownership?  How would our society have turned out then?

Now, I’m not specifically advocating polygamy, nor am I discouraging monogamy.  What I am suggesting, however, is that we base our relationships on mutual respect, open communication, transparency, acceptance and freedom, because these are the keys to authentic and lasting intimacy in any relationship regardless of its form.

And maybe relationships aren’t meant to be structured and defined.  Maybe relationships should be allowed to grow in whatever direction they naturally flow.  Some people may genuinely desire only one partner for the rest of their life.  Some people may desire two partners, or three or seven.  Some people may desire one close intimate partner but seek variety in their sexual experiences.  Some people may fluctuate between being content with one romantic partner, while other times wanting to explore other romantic connections.  Some people may find other people attractive without feeling compelled to explore those connections.  The thing is, it’s different for everyone.  In fact, every relationship is unique to those involved within it.  So how many relationship styles are there?  There are as many as there are people living on this planet.

How do you know if the relationship style you’re living is authentic to you and your partner, or if you’re just going along with the customs and expectations of society?  I’m not saying it has to be one way or the other.  But have you ever considered it?  I would challenge you to look deeply at your own relationships, and especially at how you relate to your partner(s).  Are you open and honest with them?  Are you authentic?  Do you respect their personal freedom?  Do you accept them for who they are?  Do you encourage them to be authentic? Do you love them without any condition?

Ultimately it’s all about love, and when did love come with limitations?

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