Like many of our abstract sacred moral concepts, the cult of monogamy is reified to the degree that it’s considered “natural” for humans to live within its framework. Never mind that people break out all the time, and that the entirely monogamous relationship exists more in the theory than in the practice, still the monogamous ideal dominates our culture’s sexual and loving relationships.
However, “it just is” has never been a persuasive argument for me, and the reification fallacy of misplaced concreteness always comes in useful when thinking about morality.
I’ve wondered often if one of the unacknowledged goals of monogamy is to protect us from experiencing difficult emotions such as jealousy, insecurity, a sense of abandonment, of being displaced by another. Of loss, of insignificance, and so on. These are emotions we first experience in childhood, for some of us when we acquire siblings, and for all of us when we realise that no matter what we do we will never be able to enjoy an equal relationship with any of our primary carers. As children, we will always be excluded from their adult mysteries. The parental figures upon whom we are entirely dependent will never be exclusively ours. They are our centre, but we are never entirely theirs.
The only chance we ever get to heal this insulting psychic wound is in an adult monogamous relationship of our own. In this, we believe, we will be loved to the exclusion of all others, and we will love exclusively in return. In this way we will at last achieve what we have so long yearned for: the exclusive gaze of the beloved lover.
There is an enormous industry dedicated to the maintenance of monogamy, and the healing of sexual and emotional betrayal. One of it’s more bizarre branches is the one that claims infidelity can save and enrich your marriage, and none of its proponents seem at all aware of the irony of recommending breaking out of monogamy in order to make it easier to stay in it.
The idea of using the aftermath of infidelity to strengthen a marriage has spawned a million books and papers. In privileging the relationship of marriage, however, any other relationship and any individual other than the married couple is perceived as little more than a means to an end. The morality of that use and manipulation of a third-party is rarely examined, so strong is the stranglehold monogamy has on our culture.
But what if the desire for exclusivity is based on a deep need to avoid the difficult emotions we struggled with and never managed to resolve in childhood? And what if learning to negotiate those difficult emotions could enrich our lives and deepen our intimacies? And what if intimately loving more than one person is not “wrong,” but struggling not to love more than one person is our biggest relational mistake?
Which brings me to polyamory, defined as:
The practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved. Polyamory, often abbreviated as poly, is often described as “consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy” An emphasis on ethics, honesty, and transparency all around is widely regarded as the crucial defining characteristic.
Overcoming difficult emotions that close the heart rather than open it is the goal of polyamorists. Challenging the inevitably tribal nature of family founded on monogamy, and replacing it with family founded on an acceptance of the remarkable ability of humans to love more than one person deeply and intimately at the same time, is their daunting task. Imagine a society in which intimate love is not exclusive but inclusive, and the emotions that prevent such open-heartedness are viewed as emotions to be grown out of, rather than avoided through confinement and threat of punishment.
According to polyamorists, it isn’t a betrayal of one person to love another as well, it’s a skill that can be decently acquired. The heart can learn to be open instead of closed. This makes so much more sense than a monogamous ideal in which we are rewarded for confining ourselves in a closed system, in which we must be everything to one other person, and that person must be everything to us.
Because monogamy is a closed system. Not only are many married people forbidden to intimately love anyone else, they are frequently urged to avoid close friendships with others, or to engage in any kind of affection that might be threatening to the primary relationship. The monogamy industry produces another million books and papers on how friendship can threaten the marriage, how work relationships can threaten the marriage, how emotional attachment to others can threaten the marriage, even how other family members can threaten the marriage. Just about anything, it seems, can threaten monogamous marriage, and it is privileged to the degree that every other relationship is by default subservient to it.
This admitted fragility of the monogamous marriage, it’s susceptibility to threat, ought to be telling us there’s something seriously awry in the arrangement.
We have to learn to manage and overcome all kinds of difficult emotions in the process of maturing. We can’t give anger and aggression the physical expression we did when we were two, unless we want to end up incarcerated and friendless, for example. Is it really so outlandish to imagine mastering jealousy and insecurity in much the same way, so that we can allow ourselves and others the freedom to love and express that love? People do fall deeply in love with more than one person, and usually have to make a choice. The experience is fraught with secrecy, guilt, and shame, and powerful distress all round. But does it have to be? Who says it has to be?
I’m not suggesting it would be an easy way to live, because it demands a generosity of heart and spirit of which our dominant culture currently has no recognition, and thus permits no expression. As things stand we privilege exclusivity, and all the undesirable ramifications that can lead to, inside and outside of the monogamous relationship. Polyamory requires a new way of thinking about love, and about being human. It requires a level of honesty and ethical interaction that is quite foreign to monogamy. In monogamy, loving another is treachery and betrayal, usually done in guilty secrecy and fear. In polyamory, loving another is done openly, in transparency and in willing negotiation through inevitably difficult emotions and tensions.
I am hard-pressed to see much moral virtue in closing the heart, as opposed to opening it. If I love you, and I see that another’s love enhances and enriches your life, am I “right” to demand that you forego it? And if I do, what do I gain?