Beyond Monogamy: exploring the possibilities of the human heart

1 Feb


monogamy not amrried to the idea


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?

Love whoever you please




40 Responses to “Beyond Monogamy: exploring the possibilities of the human heart”

  1. 8 Degrees of Latitude February 1, 2015 at 5:30 pm #

    You nail it in your last two sentences.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. selkie February 1, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

    Jennifer, I’m really appreciating your exploration of monogamy (among other gnarly subjects) on NPfS.

    I’d consider myself a serial monogamist, in that I believe the whole monogamy thing was developed during a time when we died thirty or forty years earlier than we do now, that the childbearing and raising years are best with the support of two people and after that we should be able to love whoever the fuck we want. In 2015, this til death do us part thing has knobs on it. Yes a lifetime’s monogamy may work for some people but is an entirely unrealistic expectation for the rest of us. The social construct creates hurt because of the lies and omissions needed to maintain a semblance of society’s construct. It’s horse shit.

    I wrote to Bettina Arndt last week after she published a Weekend Oz article arguing that an affair can strengthen a marriage and/or allow the couple to stay together whilst straying. I wrote that she had never once mentioned the third party in her article. The lover. I’m well aware that I have ‘enabled’ a marriage to survive by remaining a secret under their regime of monogamy. Thanks for reinforcing that Bettina. Within that context, I found her argument a tad carnivorous: that the life of a marriage is more important than
    the secret life of a lover.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 8 Degrees of Latitude February 1, 2015 at 6:41 pm #

      You’re quite right. Marriage was designed by male dominated theocracies and given a “sacred state” by them on behalf of the preferred deity in order to function as a genetic screen and to provide a necessary child support system. It immediately became a means of social control. It institutionalized these rules in an age where life expectancy was half or less of what it is today (in economically advanced societies) and one in which most people believed in an avenging god and hellfire punishment in the notional hereafter for any who broke rules said to carry the imprimatur of god, including the allegedly sacred nature of marriage. In the secular west at least that is no longer the case. Monogamy’s fine for anyone who wants it. It’s not compulsory. And you’re right on your other point: marriage “counsellors” (using the term in its broadest sense) seem never to bother about the third party in an extra-marital relationship.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson February 1, 2015 at 7:51 pm #

      Ah, that’s exactly what I mean, Selkie, I haven’t read the Arndt piece but I can imagine it. It’s using another person as a means to an end that is justified by monogamy and that is morally rotten to the core. Why is the existence of a marriage more significant than any other human life? Did she answer you? I bet she didn’t,

      I’m glad you’re enjoying my gnarly stuff. It’s my way of working things out 🙂


      • selkie February 1, 2015 at 8:09 pm #

        She did reply, the same day.

        She wanted to know more. (which redeems her, in my eyes)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Elisabeth February 1, 2015 at 6:06 pm #

    Beyond the third party, the lover, there’s also the children of such relationships to consider. I heard a radio program where several polygamous couples spoke about the value of their experience together but then one young woman spoke of how difficult it had been for her when her mother and father decided that it was fine for her mother to share her life with another man.

    The parents were open about these things and happy to live in this enlarged family, but the daughter found her mother’s new found passion for this other man almost unbearable when she was thirteen or fourteen.

    So maybe it’s okay for us as adults but it might make it harder for us as kids, especially when, as you say, Jennifer we are already having to negotiate our place in relationships and roles – for instance between our parents and our siblings – from which we can feel excluded.

    It’s good to think about these things. It’s good to move beyond the notion that things should just be because that’s the way they’ve always been, which of course they have not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • selkie February 1, 2015 at 7:02 pm #

      I found it quite awful when my father overlapped his marriage with my Mum and another woman. Retrospectively, I realise my dismay was created by both Mum and Dad’s installation of their own beliefs; that marriages are meant to be forever. It was a grand, almighty set up and not at all their fault. When it blew apart, it was so much worse than being proved Santa or God didn’t exist. If people didn’t create these myths for children in the first place, then maybe it wouldn’t be so hard.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer Wilson February 1, 2015 at 7:54 pm #

      Elisabeth, I can imagine how difficult that was for a young woman, and it would take a great deal of negotiation I imagine, and maybe still wouldn’t work for her. She was a product of the culture, perhaps knew no one other than her parents who lived that way, how hard that would be.


    • sexhysteria February 1, 2015 at 11:18 pm #

      A 13- or 14-year old who has internaized the idea that monogamy is sacred may have trouble with polyamory, but in my experience much younger children have no concept of sexual exclusivity. Sex-play groups of very young children are always open and inclusive – welcoming new playmates. Worship of monogamy only comes much later, after considerable cultural indoctrination and inhibition of children’s natural openess.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. doug quixote February 1, 2015 at 6:21 pm #

    The critical reason for monogamy was to try to ensure that property and estates stayed in the family, especially for the aristocracy. If a woman (it is nearly always female fidelity that is meant in monogamy) were to have the option of having intercourse with whoever took her fancy, how could a father know it was his heir, and not a cuckoo in the nest?

    If only one man has “rights of access” a father can be sure it is his own child.

    Of course, now that reliable contraception and DNA tests are freely available the critical reason no longer has validity. Things can change, and they are changing.

    Women should now have the right to be free, if they can only realise that right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson February 1, 2015 at 8:03 pm #

      Yes, I omitted that reason for monogamy because I couldn’t be bothered with it!

      But you don’t say what you think of polyamory, DQ


      • doug quixote February 1, 2015 at 8:27 pm #

        I would have thought that was a given, Guinevere.

        Whatever consenting adults want to do, they should be able to do.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. Mayan February 1, 2015 at 7:54 pm #

    Another in this is that of consent, which is only meaningful if informed.

    Far from throwing off a straitjacket, the non-monogamist might in fact be taking on an even more onerous burden. No longer are there simple dynamics and clearly defined matrices of action and consequence. The core of this issue is one of consent, which is only consent if informed.

    It is not necessary for the relationship between a certain pair of people to be directly altered to bring this into plan. Instead, the entry of a new romance into someone’s life will, unsurprisingly, affect their relationship with others and their lives. Consent at the beginning is no longer sufficient because now we have a choice between unilateral action, which potentially negates the informed consent at the outset, or a potentially torturous path of consent, so that all involved at content with a new dynamic.

    I’m reminded of a book with a title like ‘The Ethical Slut’s Handbook’. It’s likely that an ethical non-monogamist must bear a heavy burden.

    (Disclaimer: I’m asexual and don’t care for romance, either.)


    • Jennifer Wilson February 1, 2015 at 8:01 pm #

      Polyamorists insist on consent. I can see it could be a torturous path, but many interesting and rewarding paths are, in my experience. Monogamy also seems to be a torturous path in many cases, so I’m thinking “torture” of some kind is inevitable in most human relationships at one time or another.


      • Michaela Tschudi February 1, 2015 at 10:06 pm #

        When the chosen path deviates from the norm, it may well be torturous for some. For others with ‘open’ hearts, it may be easier. Consent, respect, trust: these are some of the basic tenets for polyamory. There will be many others.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Michaela Tschudi February 1, 2015 at 8:11 pm #

    Your second last paragraph sums up the challenges for people seeking to live polyamorously. As you say, our dominant culture privileges exclusivity, and so we close our hearts to possibilities. Even close friendships are verboten among some people in monogamous relationships, which to my mind (and heart) is just insanity. We need to be open to compersion, the opposite of jealousy, a feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure in another romantic and/or sexual relationship.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson February 1, 2015 at 8:15 pm #

      I know a woman who won’t let her husband meet another woman more than once or twice without demanding to know what’s going on. I think I would rather be alone my entire life than live in such servitude.

      Liked by 2 people

      • selkie February 1, 2015 at 8:39 pm #

        I think I would like to know my husband better.

        Liked by 2 people

      • 8 Degrees of Latitude February 1, 2015 at 10:02 pm #

        Most of my friends are women. Without a sexual imperative in sight.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Michaela Tschudi February 1, 2015 at 10:09 pm #

          😊 But what about romance, or were you referring to that as well?

          Liked by 2 people

          • 8 Degrees of Latitude February 1, 2015 at 10:15 pm #

            I was not referring to romance. That is a separate imperative. 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

            • 8 Degrees of Latitude February 1, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

              I’d just go one step further in explanation and say that what attracts me to people is their intellect and capacity to engage. My personal experience is that, for me, women do it better. You do (I have) therefore run into an occasional friendship that appropriately or otherwise prompts you to move towards a sexual relationship. You deal with that, in whatever way is best. It requires some intellectual rigour to retreat, if that’s indicated by the particular circumstances. But it can be done, by either party. But friendships between the sexes (or even between the same sexes) need not be seen as irrevocably bound for the bedroom.

              Liked by 1 person

      • 8 Degrees of Latitude February 1, 2015 at 10:38 pm #

        So would I.


  7. Michaela Tschudi February 1, 2015 at 11:03 pm #

    Reblogged this on Wishful Thinking and commented:
    A thoughtful discussion on polyamory as part of a series by No Place For Sheep.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. 8 Degrees of Latitude February 1, 2015 at 11:11 pm #

    Reblogged this on 8degreesoflatitude and commented:
    Here’s an interesting point of view from Jennifer Wilson on Noplaceforsheep that’s worth absorbing.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Inthegazeoftheother February 5, 2015 at 11:06 am #

    Reblogged this on In the gaze of the other.


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