Posted By at 11:25 PM on Tuesday March 29, 2011

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”
– Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

Monogamy is highly valued in western society. The monogamous union of marriage is traditionally considered to be the end-all-be-all of dating, with relationships acting as trial runs working up to the goal of finding a soulmate. Westerners thus invest a lot of time, effort, and emotion into their relationships, which then become deeply entrenched in their lives.

Because no one wants to give up without a fight something in which they have invested a significant portion of themselves, this entrenchment often makes it difficult to extract oneself when a relationship comes to an end. Individuals find themselves unwilling to let go of their partners, despite the fact that the object of their affection has decided the romantic arrangement is no longer viable. In severe cases, this clinginess can escalate to unhealthy behavior such as stalking and even situations in which one partner attempts to trap the other into staying, as with a staged pregnancy or other guilt-trip.

Secondly, dissatisfied lovers may also drag on a relationship they no longer feel to be satisfying. Partners in long relationships often become dependent on each other emotionally, rejecting the company of their friends and family to revel in the rush of chemicals brought on by new love. Without a fallback plan and possibly financially entangled, they avoid drastic action that will upset the stability and comfort of their current existence.

Sexual fidelity is a highly valued component of monogamy. This holds especially true for females. While men are often lauded for promiscuous sex outside of relationships, society perceives a woman who has slept around to have lost worth. Nonetheless, while lying about or concealing other behaviors in a relationship might warrant only a sincere talk or angry lover, both genders are harshly chastised for sexual infidelity ranging anywhere from a kiss to intercourse. Its sexual nature causes this deception to be seen as a serious-enough charge that it severely compromises the relationship, regardless of the romance’s viability in other areas. In addition, both men and women are warned against opening up their relationships regardless of whether both partners are willing, assured by others that doing so will surely lead to the loss of their lover.

Another expectation of monogamous relationships is emotional fidelity. Lovers in a monogamous relationship are expected to feel strong emotional attraction to their partner and their partner alone. Attraction to others is perceived as anything from a taboo to a thought crime. Love is seen as a finite quality, and feeling romantic attraction to people outside one’s relationship is thought to devalue the love one has for one’s primary partner.

How did this emphasis on tying oneself physically and emotionally to a single person develop? Is monogamy the natural state of humanity? According to Wikipedia’s citations on the incidence of sexual monogamy and emotional monogamy, the rate of monogamy versus polyamory (the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved) and polygamy (monogamous relationships including more than two partners) varies greatly between different cultures. In addition to the US divorce rate, perhaps this indicates that monogamy is not hardwired into human brains.

Why, then, this expectation for humans to suppress their extramarital emotional and physical desires? Is, as Juliet claims, romantic love truly infinite, much like the human capacity for friendship? After all, no one bats an eye at someone who has more than one close friend. It is also unlikely that such a person will claim that having multiple people to rely on, rather than trying to satisfy every need and desire with the company of one person, causes them unhappiness and instability.

Certainly, there are many that seek and are satisfied by monogamy. But rather than enforcing this as a societal norm, embracing the existence of other outlooks on relationships may reduce the frequency of infidelity, ensuring the polyamorous are able to be honest about their desires without fear of persecution or the sting of disbelief instead of shoehorning themselves into templates which are unsuitable for them. Rather than placing enormous importance on a single relationship and remaining in unhealthy or unfulfilling partnerships to avoid the pain, drama, and inconvenience of separation and the fear of loneliness, some prefer to share love and pleasure with many others. Those who forge a healthy romantic social network aim to sidestep the trap of codependency and the guilt of resisting natural desires without the promise of any clear gain.

As the western world grows more liberal and previously unconventional relationships and lifestyles become the norm, it is pleasant to imagine a world in which lovers drift together and apart as naturally and peacefully as motes of dust in a sunbeam.

“For our part, to stay together for the longest possible time is a poor goal for marriage. Other ends—growth, fulfillment, happiness, among others—are more important and may demand shorter relationships if they are given priority.”
– Constantine & Constantine, 1973

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8 Responses

  1. Bradley says:

    You seriously need to read “Stranger In a Strange Land” by Heinlein. He touches on just about everything you said in that book. It’s an advocate for all the same ideas.

    The only problem with all this is that we’re HUMAN. We still retain a lot of animal/neanderthal subconscious urges. In a lot of ways, a partner is still ‘territory’ or ‘property’ that needs ‘defending’ and ‘hoarding’ away from others. These feelings, to some extent, permeate every part of our daily lives. We are driven by these animal instincts, which are consequently the source of both our greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. We needn’t forget we’re just animals of flesh and bone masquerading about pretending to be something loftier.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree completely with everything you said. I think that should be the goal that we as a species are trying to move towards. But I also think that it may be several hundred or even a thousand years off. Given humankind’s current level of evolution, this kind of openness in relationships is just a dream. Men, women, and society as a whole will have to mentally evolve beyond things like materialism, hedonism (sex as a conquest), and the taboos of sexual freedom before we can have a “Stranger In a Strange Land” kind of world.

  2. Alex says:

    Humans are interesting creatures that way. We are both monogamous and polygamous, with some people being forced into those roles. Relationships are something that have different meanings for different people. Some people are born monogamous, and desire to be with only one person, while others are not born as such. Just as people are born hetero or homosexual, or anything inbetween.

  3. Denis says:

    Those who thought that the above essay was a rant… I personally would NOT agree. I whole-heartedly concur with Bradley’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” comment… a classic for sure. But the book’s title reminded me of “Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America” which show again how there is a need for a shift in societal views. I know of a young gay, Christian fellow that is struggling with the issue and he is rotting from the inside out.
    But your essay….
    WOW… having visited your site a couple of times over the past few years I had found NOTHING of interest (I’m not a gamer), but did find it an interesting glimpse at a world that I know fascinates many of my students. UNTIL NOW… your well-penned, (sorry, “well-typed” somehow does not have the same meaning!) truly expressive thoughts on “Relationships” has spurred a retrospective view and I penned a response that I will send to you personally.
    Relationships are SO important, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or religion. Spouse (again, regardless of gender), family and greater family is likely the MOST important factor in being able to cope. But of course, that takes tolerance and understanding even from within that group… yet alone with all of society.
    I will, again, look forward to chatting with you over tea and discussing this… well done.

  4. GlitterBerri says:

    >WOW… having visited your site a couple of times over the past few years I had found NOTHING of interest

    Haha, thanks, Denis. 😛

    This essay is actually from more than a year ago, but I decided to rewrite it because I was spurred to share my ideas with someone and realized it didn’t accurately convey all that I meant it to say, and included too many unfocused ideas that detracted from the original point.

    I’ll be looking forward to hearing your response!

  5. This has actually been one of many things on my mind lately, when it comes to questioning the structures built into our society and culture, and looking at those things in the light of “well, how does this compare to how we naturally function on a sheer biological basis?”

    I’ve dealt with far more relationship drama than I ever care to admit, but I’ve learned a lot from it in terms of learning to separate raw natural emotions from invented institutions such as “marriage,” which in my point of view, is doing far more harm than good these days, at least in America. We’ve developed an extremely neurotic and self-centered populace, where having close relationships with more than one person is frowned upon, where if you maintain close relationships (even of a non-sexual nature) with multiple members of the opposite sex you are accused of cheating, and where the only way for people to validate their own feelings for each other is to have external entities like a government or a church say it is OK in the form of marriage and paperwork that binds us to imaginary laws.

    Excuse me if I’m not making any sense, I’m half asleep.

  6. also: drinking.

    Anyways tl;dr – A lot of this is pretty spot on. I might chime in with more coherent thoughts when I’m awake and sober. Meanwhile I’m gonna go finish off this jug of wine and return to tripping out to some old school Jane’s Addiction. “We choose no kin but adopted strangers.”

  7. Anonymous says:

    Judging from penis size, promiscuity must have been the norm for nearly all of human prehistory. Otherwise, men would have 1 inch boners like gorillas (The only factor that causes penis size enlargement in a species is sperm competition.)

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