Monogamy

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one I did on monogamy:

Are we hardwired to be monogamous or is it a social construct that is arguably unnatural?

Like most aspects of human experience our relationships styles are biopsychosocial. It’s not a matter of nature or nurture, hardwiring or social construct. Rather the way we form relationships is influenced by a complex web of biological, psychological and social aspects which would be impossible to disentangle.

Certainly the diversity of relationship styles across humans and other animals suggests that it is very unlikely that any one kind of style (monogamous or non-monogamous) is ‘hard-wired’ from the start. However, the processes of our bodies and brains certainly operate together with the experiences we have through life and the messages we receive from the culture around us to shape the ways in which we experience love, desire, and so on.

How hard or misleading do you think it is to live with the view that boy meets girl, they fall in love, get married, remain faithful and live happily ever after?

I think that there is a problem when any one model of relationships gets presented as the ideal and/or only acceptable way of doing relationships. It would be just as much of a problem if the ideal was that everybody had to have five concurrent partners, or that relationships were only expected to last for two years, for example.

The reality is that different things work for different people at different times. There are a vast diversity of ways of doing relationships: serial monogamy, polygamy, hook-ups, friends with benefits, life-long relationships, celibacy, swinging, singledom, open relationships, polyamory, and relationship anarchy, to name just a few. And even within any of these examples, there are a myriad different ways of understanding and experiencing the relationships involved.

A one-size-fits-all model is damaging for anybody who doesn’t fit and is therefore excluded, and often stigmatised and given fewer rights. It is also often damaging for those who do fit, but feel a massive pressure to ensure that their relationship meets the narrow range of expectations which are placed upon it. For example people often feel that they must meet every marker of a ‘successful’ relationships (living together, marriage, kids) at the ‘appropriate’ time, and believe that they have to demonstrate ‘happily ever after’ constantly, rather than being able to admit to the inevitable tough parts of a long term relationship.

How much has our concept of marriage changed over time and how would you describe it now?

Marriage has changed a great deal over time. I’m not a historian myself, but Stephanie Coontz’s book ‘Marriage: A History’ is very helpful on this. She explains how, in Western cultures, it is only in recent decades that marriage has become so much about romantic love. Previously it had much more to do with, for example, bringing families together and matters of economy, work and child-rearing.

Changes such as declining religion, unstable jobs, and the fact that people move around rather than staying in smaller communities have all meant that people look to romantic relationships to meet all of their needs in a way they never have before. Partners are often now expected to be best friends, passionate lovers, constant companions, support networks, sources of validation, co-parents, and carers-when-ill. And romantic love relationships are often viewed as being by far the most important relationship in our lives rather than one of many relationships.

I think this does put relationships under a lot of pressure. Many people – whether in monogamous or non-monogamous relationships – are looking for ways of managing things differently in this rather new situation that they find themselves in.

How acceptable do you think polyamory, negotiated infidelity etc are in the UK? Why do we shun these?

Things have certainly shifted in the last decade to the point that there is greater awareness and acceptance of various non-monogamous ways of doing relationships: whether openly (like polyamory) or more secretly (like negotiated infidelity). However, there is still no legal recognition of such relationships (indeed the very notion was ridiculed on all sides of the recent same-sex marriage debates) and there remains a good deal of stigma around both infidelity and forms of consensual non-monogamy.

In a time of uncertainty I think people often want to cling to the idea that there must be one true, natural, right, normal way of doing things, and that ensuring that everyone does things that way is the best way of keeping everyone safe. However, I think that actually the opposite is the case. Restricting people in this way is often very damaging to both those who fit the ‘norm’ and those who don’t.

A model which appreciates that there are diverse ways of doing relationships, being sexual, expressing love, parenting, forming families, and so forth, is kinder and more flexible, and enables us to focus on things that really matter such as how to treat each other ethically and how best to communicate and support each other in all our relationships.


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