“Monogamy is too cruel a rule”


“I don’t have a girlfriend, I just know a girl who would get really mad if she heard me say that.” ~ Mitch Hedberg

**If you’re one of those highly-religious, ‘I waited until marriage and had sex with the only girl I ever dated’ type people, then you probably won’t relate to this post at all.  There will be frank discussion of sexual attraction and non-monogamy.  Or maybe you’re exactly the person who should read this.**

So, I’m at work today, bored out of mind because it’s April and retail is slow as fuck.  What else am I to do but think about this week’s episode of House?

The plot was all about Open Marriages.  There was also something about a dying chick, but that’s to be expected.  If you’re even passingly familiar with the show, you should be unsurprised that the surly Dr. House is not a believer in lifetime monogamy.  Naturally, his most famous axiom, “Everybody Lies,” can’t help but come into play here.  Essentially, House maintains that our biological programming is anything but monogamous; it’s only because of social constructs that humans tend to expect fealty to one partner.  Alternatively, House’s personal philosophy implies that those who attempt so-called ‘open relationships’ will inevitably fail at it because one or both partners will be dishonest about their feelings or actions.

It’s  essentially a Catch-22.  People in monogamous relationships (no, not just men) will be attracted to other people.  If they act on it, they are despicable cheaters, but if they do not act on it they will grow to resent or despise their partner.  People in open relationships, on the other hand, can blatantly desire other people, but one of the partners will inevitably feel rejected or left out, or  worse, they will decide they do want to be monogamous, only with a different partner.

That is the Hollywood version of relationships.  They are so much more drama filled this way.

But some of you “Love conquers all” happily ever after-types would likely find the previous description of a monogamous relationship to be grossly unfair.  Sure, you might find someone else attractive (and everyone finds other people attractive, no matter how in love you are), but you aren’t unhappy being with one partner and you don’t ever resent or despise your partner.

That’s probably true.  Personally, I’m naturally skeptical of relationships and suspect that after the honeymoon period, everybody gets at least a slight case of the “Grass Is Greener” syndrome.  Maturity reminds us that if you’re constantly looking for the Super-High felt at the beginning of a relationship, you’ll never be able to survive in a long-term relationship.  (you’re either mature or you watched High Fidelity.)  But even the most grounded person will still miss that initial thrill of falling in love.  It’s about as sensational a feeling as there is, and it’s only natural we would yearn for it, like an addict for a fix.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that there are plenty of happy monogamous couples out there who are not secretly harboring feelings of resentment.  If we can accept that premise, might we also be able to accept that the Hollywood version of open relationships is wrong, too?

Some people will think this painfully obvious.  They will find nothing shocking, questionable or ill-conceived about an open relationship.  Those people are in the minority.  Even among those who can accept the premise that an open relationship might work, a majority would probably add the caveat, “But I couldn’t do it.”

I’ve never been in one, but it seems to me that if two consenting adults enjoy each other’s company, communicate reasonably well and freely admit that they enjoy the pursuit of sexual relations with new people, there should be no insurmountable problems.

Yes, jealousy can be an issue, but give me an example of a monogamous relationship where there isn’t jealousy.

Yes, one partner may decide to leave the other partner for a new lover.  But that’s a risk in any relationship.

The reality is, an open relationship is as manageable as a monogamous relationship.  Everyone has been in at least one serious monogamous relationship that has failed (maybe not you rare, super-religious newlywed exceptions).  Most of us have been in multiple.  How many of those relationships have ended because of infidelity?  Maybe none.  Maybe all.

Maybe you don’t even know.

As a non-romantic (go ahead, ask any of my exes), I don’t have any belief in ‘Soul Mates‘.  I don’t believe in souls for that matter.  There are people out there who make exceptional couples.  Those are usually the people I want to stab in the eye with my fork when I see them being all lovey-dovey at a restaurant.

For most of us, though, there is no perfect match.  There might be someone who adores you.  Maybe there’s a person who ‘gets’ you, you misunderstood genius, you (sod off).  Maybe there’s just someone who willingly ignores your hentai obsession.

It doesn’t mean they were created for you, or that they are the yang to your blubbering yin.  It just means that out of 7 billion people, your odds are actually better than you’d guess.

I’m not here to scream Monogamy is a lie!  A monogamous relationship can be great.  I’ve had a few, some better than others.

What most people seek in a monogamous relationship is not very realistic, and certainly nowhere near as realistic as having a completely functional, honest, open relationship.

The term ‘open relationship’ tends to be defined as ‘A relationship in which two people have extra-relational partners’.  Really though, an open relationship can simply mean a relationship where two people are open to each other, honest.  In that sense, all relationships should be open relationships.

Ideally, one individual could say, “I’ve developed an attraction to another person and am interested in pursuing a sexual relationship with them”, and their partner would be understanding.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that the partner gives their permission, but it does mean that there is a willingness to discuss it without making one or the other person a villian.

The silliest aspect of relationships for me is the part where two partners sit around denying their sexual attraction to other people.  What a waste of energy and time.  I understand that our pride and ego make us want to be The Most Attractive Person In The World, especially with a significant other, but let’s get real.  If I can say, “I want to fuck Rachel Weisz” (and I do), and a chick can say, “I want to fuck Ewan McGregor” (and you do), then admitting attraction to regular people in our lives is really no different.  We just like to pretend it is.  We hide behind our “Top 5 Celebrities We’re Allowed to Sleep With” lists because it feels safe, but in truth it just masks the fact that from time to time, we all have a natural desire to sleep with someone new.

Should monogamy be thrown out?  Well, no.  For starters, there is probably a not entirely recognized evolutionary reason why we as a species evolved to embrace one-to-one partnership (even while most animals do not).  Whether or not monogamy serves a purpose in the modern world is debatable.  Most ‘family experts’ would say it makes for a more stable environment to raise children, so I’m not going to argue the point.  But what about those of us who really don’t want any children (and would rather you kept yours away, thank you very much)?

The true issue is less about whether or not two partners should be allowed to sleep with other people and more about how open and honest we are in relationships.

How much emotional blackmail do we attach to even the slightest hint of non-monogamous attraction?  I’ve done it.  I’ve made a partner feel guilty when she expressed outside attraction.  And I’ve had it done to me.

We are self-involved people, and in relationships we are so often incredibly insecure.  (You might be the exception to the rule, but probably not.)  I don’t imagine being in an open relationship would change all of that.  At the same time, the honesty that an open relationship requires would hopefully help offset those petty insecurities.  It could deflate your ego to have a partner who seeks sexual rendezvous with other people, and at the same time, if that partner does sleep with multiple partners but at the end of the day still wants to come home to you, isn’t that just as much an ego boast?

The central focus of an open relationship, as I understand it, is not the sexual freedom.  Rather, the openness is the point.

Only you can know what type of relationship is right for you.  But, I’d encourage you to ask yourself:  Do you adhere to monogamy because you’re madly in love with one person, or is it because it’s a social convention, or is it because in your insecurity you’re trying to possess someone, insuring that you will always have one person in your fan club?

It’s a question worth answering before embarking on yet another monogamous excursion.


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4 thoughts on ““Monogamy is too cruel a rule””

  1. That’s thought provoking. I certainly think that there are people who sort of smother each other in marriage/monogamous relationships. I have seen that, and in a way that can stifle a person’s creativity.
    It sounds like you are saying that since getting with someone and breaking up is nearly inevitable because we all end up wanting that high of a new race and love, why not be open about that and just let it happen out in the open and just try to stay friends. Or just be open about the fact that we are at times attracted to people who are not our partners. I agree that happens. I guess I just say, that simply because you find your self attracted to someone does not mean its wise to act on that.

    I don’t know if I understand what you are saying. Without letting my religious bias influence me too much …….

    I’d say divorce/breakup of an intimate relationship is emotionally taxing and debilitating on people. I would argue there is research to back that up. Alanis Morissette was on to something, in my opinion, when she wrote You ought to Know. Namely, that her man leaving her for another woman was a cruel and destructive choice on his part.
    I guess you could say, “She shouldn’t have been possessive, or controlling. If she wasn’t insecure, then there wouldn’t be a problem. If she was okay with an ‘open’ relationship, there would be no problem.”

    I dunno, I think the problem in that song is the dude, the who walked out on her. It seems to me that the end result of cheating is like drugs. A cheap thrill, for which you must ultimately trade your life.

    1. Actually Chris, I agree with you. Cheating is absolutely hurtful, and it can be very hard to get over (sometimes, you never truly get over that loss of trust).

      My point isn’t that people should just ‘get over’ being insecure. My point is that we all are insecure (aside for psychopaths and such), and so often that insecurity leads us to want to essentially ‘possess’ someone else (and their love), as a kind of badge of self-worth.

      While being in an open relationship won’t make the insecure person any less insecure, it will eliminate that possessiveness that so often undermines a relationship.

      Is an open relationship for everyone? Certainly not. But I think it’s a fallacy to assume that monogamous love is the only true love. I believe it is just as possible to remain in love with a person and engage in a sexual relationship with someone else. Assuming, of course, that the openness and communication is there first. Cheating on someone and then saying, “But I still love you baby!” is not the same as establishing upfront that there will be other partners.

      Obviously, some of this is contingent on your your personal sexual mores…

  2. Hummmm…. That’s an interesting take. I can’t hide my own sexual mores on this. I take the Genesis metaphor as important. Sex is being one flesh with another person, hence the pain of breaking up, the tearing apart of that flesh…. ouch. I think early Judaism actually defined marriage as sex, and sex as marriage.
    So if that metaphor is descriptive of why people ‘want to possess the other person’ psychologically, emotionally, and physically, they feel they are in a sense one with that person. If that is the case a person necessarily wants to be able to exercise some level of control over one’s body. That’s not to suggest it is total, arbitrary, or dictatorial. Its more of a protective stance. “I don’t want someone to stab me with a knife, so I will exercise self defense.” I see it as mutual stalemate of veto when something the other, a person you are one with, is potentially doing something that hurts the new one flesh created between the two of you. Who would use one hand to stab the other with a knife? That’s insanity. But its fine if one hand scratches the ass while the other feeds the mouth, that’s fine.

    As far as self worth grounded in a sexually active relationship itself, that’s a false sense of self worth, at least from a Christian philosophical view. I see the NT as indifferent to whether a person marries or does not. Both are acceptable, and you are equally human regardless if you marry or not. Singleness is at least as honored in the NT as marriage, if not more than marriage, by Jesus and Paul also. Sorry to bring the Bible into it, but that’s my frame of reference to reality.

    As far as being ‘in love’ with one person and then engaging a sexual relationship with another…. that’s a very complex question. I guess from my point of view, we experience love irrespective to our explicit sexual activity and awareness.
    If I break love into the three greek categories, agape, phileo, and eros… we experience the first two among friends and sometimes family all the time. Eros is the one the NT treats differently, and insists it must occur only within specific settings and contexts and for the enrichment and enhancement of one specific relationship.
    So you are right, at least in a sense partly, we can experience love from other people and at the same time engage in a sexual relationship with another person.
    But eros is odd in that the connection or bond seemingly remains between the people long after the actual act itself.
    Do you ever really forget your ex’s? I would argue we actually don’t.
    But what is peculiar is that we have this sense that the bond remains, so long as it is not canceled out by a another act or event of eros engaged in by your partner with another person. Some how we have this sense that that cancels out the first bond. It does not completely remove the effects of it. But somehow it dismantles the first bond and leaves the pieces as evidence once a person starts to build another bond with someone else.

    I will say this, if a person knows that he/she can’t/won’t actually commit to a monogamous relationship, much better to be honest about that. I want to argue that the suggestion you could realistically hold ongoing sexual relationships with multiple people and not feel an incredible sense of self loathing is impossible. I would argue that you are destroying the possibility of deep connection with any of those people, simply by the fact that your energy and affection is spread too thin. Its more powerful for bonding when it is focused. I guess I think we are build for deep relationships also, not just a bunch of shallow ones. What Tiger Woods did destroyed his ability to bond significantly with any of the women he was wife, including his wife. There is recovery, I am just commenting on the initial state of his case, after his story broke. How could he feel bonded with his legal wife, when we was constantly texting, talking to, and visiting 15 other women. Even if she was okay with it, it still gets in the way of him building a close strong relationship to her, because to takes away energy, time, and uniqueness from the first relationship with his legal wife.

    I am interested in discussing sexual mores in general. I don’t take the stance that I just choose them, and just assert them, without actually thinking through if they work well, and are effective for guiding us to a more fulfilling and enriching life.

    1. Referencing the Bible in relation to monogamy is actually pretty ironic. Consider the most passionate lover in the Bible: Solomon. A man who wrote beautiful love poetry to a woman, yet still had concubines. Lots of concubines. This implies that even in the Bible, the open relationship was considered pretty common practice. The scriptures certainly never convey Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon or the other ‘heroes’ of the Bible as ‘filled with self-loathing’ because they bedded multiple women. You can say that was just the way of the time, but I can’t see how the different society makes any inherent difference in the human reaction to sex.
      (1 Kings 11:2-9 – notice, God rebukes Solomon for turning away from Him, but not for having so many wives.)

      Personally, I don’t put much stock in the Bible, so that kind of sets us down different roads.

      I will say this: I think the love you speak of is an ideal, perhaps even a nice one. Just not a realistic one.

      It’s like unconditional love. I don’t believe in it, and personally, I actually think it’s a contradiction in terms. Love without condition is meaningless. I don’t want to go too far down a tangent, but I needed to establish something. Namely, that while in an ideal world, we would all have our perfect match and that would mean true love for all, for all eternity, we don’t live in an ideal world and that kind of love is a fiction.

      Love is dirty. Love is imperfect. Love is the quintessential human emotion. It is not impervious, and it lends itself to over the top proclamations and rigorous defense from everyone who wishes to keep it on its pedestal. I will gladly stand in the minority and say, “Love, eh.” That is not to say that I don’t believe in it, or don’t enjoy it. I just don’t agree that it’s the end all be all of existence.

      Tiger Woods is not an example of a man failing in an open relationship, he is an example of a man in a monogamous relationship who obviously should not have been. It’s also likely that he is a sex addict, so that’s not really a fair example. That would be like condemning having wine with dinner because there are alcoholics.

      The fact is, divorce and break-ups are very common, and they are more so now then they have been in previous centuries. Some would argue it’s because we don’t respect love anymore. I’d argue it’s because we give love too much respect. It used to be that marriage was a business deal or a religious obligation (it still is in some places). The reason they didn’t divorce was because people just didn’t have the freedom. Nowadays, however, we put such an emphasis on loving our partner that we don’t marry for finances or faith. I think that’s a good thing, in that I don’t think marriage should be an obligation.
      But it’s revealing something that our thousands of years of amorous poetry never talked about: Love is a powerful emotion, but like any other emotion, it waxes and wanes. Add to that the fact that we live a lot longer these days and that people no longer marry for the sole purpose of having children and we have recipe for a 50% divorce rate.

      It’s notable that that rate is not much different among Christians.

      Again, my point is absolutely not that we should abolish monogamous relationships. My point is that the ‘open relationship’ does not deserve the stigma of being either a) doomed to failure or b) only for sex obsessed maniacs.

      The open relationship is, I believe, a healthy answer to the problem of love in the modern world. It frees us from a convention that arises out of a distant past that bares little commonality with the way we now live. It does not mean you’re trying to balance 5 different girlfriends. It just means you have one (presumably) serious partner at home, but you’re free to engage in sexual interactions with others.

      As for sexual mores… well, I’m happy to discuss those, too. It’s a related, but not necessarily connected topic, and I’d certainly be willing to delve more into that.

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