What is monogamy? No, really, this is a genuine question. If we go down the biology route, we find it to be a life-long pair-bond between two members of a species. The animal in question reaches sexual maturity, finds a mate and that’s it. Even a cursory glance at our species will show you that definition doesn’t apply to us. It’s close though, we do pair-bond to a point. In my experience, we reach sexual maturity, find a mate and stay with them until the relationship ceases to function. Then we cut them out of our lives, find a new mate and repeat this process indefinitely, punctuating it with occasional bursts of promiscuity. This is an extremely broad generalisation of sexual behaviour and it should be noted that it is based on my experiences living in the UK as a white, middle class person.
What most people do in our society is usually referred to as “serial monogamy”. But do we even do that? People cheat. They cheat and they lie and they manipulate and they make excuses and they cheat some more and they deny their urges and then cheat again. It’s hard to back up statements like this with statistics or hard evidence but think about it. It’s pretty rare to meet anyone who hasn’t had some experience of cheating/being cheated on/being the person someone cheated on their partner with (which yes, is just as bad). Personally, I have reached a point of such extreme cynicism towards people and their relationships that if you’re thinking that you are one of those rare people who has avoided all the cheating, it probably just means they got away with it.
Let’s unpack this a little more. First of all, what do we even mean by cheating? What is the boundary of fidelity? I would imagine most people’s top answer would be “having sex with someone else”, but this presumes both a fixed definition of what constitutes sex, and that sex is the definitive feature of committed, emotionally intimate, romantic relationships. Is it cheating to kiss someone on the lips? Is it a betrayal of trust to have a drink with an ex-partner, even if there is no physical contact? I knew someone who didn’t think his girlfriend had cheated on him when she slept with another woman because he didn’t take lesbian sex seriously. I know people who consider themselves monogamous but have sex with other people at sex parties. All over the UK there are those who risk violence for daring to even talk to people other than their partners. The only conclusion we can really come to is that different people have different boundaries.
This is my main problem with the way we do monogamy in our society. It is not defined. When I tell people about my non-monogamous relationships I often find I can throw all their knee-jerk reaction questions right back at them. “What if your partner falls in love with someone else?” “Don’t you get jealous?” “How do you know they really love you?” There is nothing inherent in monogamy that means you shouldn’t ask yourself these questions, yet many people never do. The fairytale narrative of finding “The One” who will complete you is so ingrained in our culture that we forget to ask ourselves what our wants, needs, desires, and boundaries actually are. We forget that the word “relationship” comes from the verb “to relate” and that a relationship is something you actively do, not something that just magically happens. Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, you are in a relationship with every other human in your life, from your siblings and friends, to the people who run your local shop and drive your buses. All these relationships are different, they involve different levels of trust and emotional intimacy (for instance, you trust your bus driver with your life yet probably don’t know their name), and it is the responsibility of the people in the relationship to set its terms and boundaries. Sometimes those boundaries are implicit (you probably shouldn’t have sex with your siblings) but most of the time they require active participation to figure out, maintain, and redefine as contexts change.
In my experience, there are two kinds of monogamy people partake in. One happens when two people – having built up a level of trust, respect, and understanding – decide that, given their respective wants and needs, they want only to be physically intimate with each other. Perhaps with further restrictions on emotional intimacy, perhaps not. The other is what I like to refer to as “assumed monogamy”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Assumed monogamy is problematic because we can’t seem to agree on what it is we’re assuming. A lot of monogamous people I speak to about non-monogamy are shocked when they realise how much soul-searching, self-work, communication, painful honesty and emotional labour goes into non-monogamous relationships, doubly so when they realise that they are not exempt from these things just because (as far as they know) they and their partner are only sleeping with each other. It’s a horrible thing to realise that you have been conducting your relationships within an assumed framework that has too often gone unexamined. It’s scary as it can mean admitting to behaviour that was harmful to others. It’s difficult because it forces you to start unpicking your attitudes towards sex, attraction, boundaries, desire, and your own needs. To start figuring out where those attitudes came from and why you hold on to them.
At this point it is probably necessary to say that I am not condemning people who choose monogamy. I feel it’s important that people do what is right for their relationships and the people in them. My problem isn’t with monogamy per se, my problem is with the way our society expects us to conduct ourselves, the things we are conditioned to accept, to believe, to assume, to settle for. As with conditioned assumptions about gender, race, class, sexuality, disabilities, mental health, and any number of intersecting aspects of personal identity, the normative script for monogamy is potentially harmful to everyone. Doing that work of unpicking, questioning, and de-constructing it can be a wonderful thing and lead to a greater understanding of yourself, how you relate to others, what it is you can provide the people in your life, and how you can best go about meeting your and their needs. For me, engaging with non-monogamy was the first step towards a better understanding of my male socialisation and gender identity in general, my sexuality, and taking responsibility for the problematic ways I had behaved toward my partners in the past. It has given me powerful tools for building relationships with people, regardless of what they consist of. Non-monogamy is by no means a panacea, and I am far from perfect, but I feel non-monogamy has taught me to interact with people in a much more intentional and honest way.
I’m not out to convince everyone to abandon monogamy and just get in a big pile (although that would be nice), instead I want to explore the flaws in the narratives we’re presented when it comes to sex and relationships. We need to having more and better conversations around consent, desire, gender roles, sexuality, mental health, and many other things in terms of sex and relationships. These are always difficult conversations to have but they are even harder within a framework of socially conditioned, assumed monogamy. Ultimately it’s no one’s business but yours how you do your relationships, but I hope that however you do it, it’s because it’s what you have chosen.