Figuring out how to be in relationship with another human being is complicated, it is a process of continued engagement. Any structure that encourages us to check out of that engagement – to deny emotional truths or the extent to which possibilities for connecting to one another exist – impoverishes our lives. Material conditions and channels of power that force us to focus on our survival within a system are certainly examples of this kind of structure, but even when our needs for material safety and well-being are more or less met, the ways that we are expected to engage with people is often circumscribed by established stories about what is socially and emotionally acceptable. Monogamy is the centerpiece to a network of stories that we are told about the way that intimate human relationships are supposed to function.
When I say that I am against monogamy, I am not talking about being against people who are choosing to have sex with one partner at a time, or even people who are choosing to settle down with one person for a lifetime. Relationships are complicated and no one should feel bad about trying to engage in whatever kind of emotionally consensual relationship meets their needs. What I am against is the hegemonic system that views this form of relationship (two people being each other’s exclusive sexual partners and principal support system) as the best way to be in the world, as the only way that can bring someone a full and happy life, and the way that all other people are ideally expected to conduct their sexual relationships and build family structures. Several of my friends use the word monogcore to describe any social experience or cultural form that reinforces the dominance of this system.
For some people, beginning to consider non-monogamous models grows out of being in monogamous relationships that do not work for them either sexually or emotionally. For me, being critical of hegemonic monogamy is informed most by not having been in sexual relationships for the bulk of my adult life. When I was younger, accepting the ubiquitous narrative about happiness and human relationships often meant painting myself into a corner where I could never be fully present or alive without telling myself that I was building to a point where I would be part of a monogamous coupling. In this mental trap, the thought that I might never find a sexual partner to be monogamous with was enough to send me spiraling into despair; to turn myself into a person I did not want to be, into someone who bored me.
At some point, I made a decision to reject the idea that my life was empty if it did not involve significant monogamous sexual relationships because I did not want to become a person who was shaped so wholly by the presence or absence of that element. As a consequence, the whole way that I thought about the possibilities of friendship and the level of intimacy that I was interested in exploring in my friendships shifted. Coming out was not only a process of acknowledging that I like to have sex with men, but also a process of letting go of the idea that I had to find a monogamous partner in order to be happy and build relationships with people that I could call family.
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Monogamy serves as a major theme in stories about how adults seek intimacy with other, unrelated adults and what the rules and limits of that intimacy are. Non-familial relationships are fit into a framework and hierarchy in which sexually monogamous partnership occupies the apex. Other relationships are necessarily subordinated to this one relationship and are only allowed to grow in specific ways and to certain limits. Many of our most powerful words are affected. The way that we commonly talk about family, honor, fidelity, happiness, betrayal, intimacy, integrity, love and commitment are all tied up with this idea.
The story that monogamy tells about itself is one that puts an enormous amount of pressure on a single axis. It declares that each person should find one other person and that those two people should make each other responsible for meeting the bulk of their emotional and all of their sexual needs, to consider each other as the only avenue to build family and have a complete life. Living inside of this story can force you to become engaged in emotional drama and participate in conversations and dilemmas that are not your own; not necessarily connected to the stories you want to be telling, or that the people you are engaged with want to be telling about themselves. There are of course many people who do not end up in monogamous situations, but their lives are often either invisible or seen as inferior, as obviously less ideal than those bound by ‘normal’ sexual practices and ‘traditional’ families. One of the reasons I find it difficult to have much enthusiasm for gay marriage is because of the way that the rhetoric around it relies so heavily on the power of this story.
For people involved in a monogamous relationship that does not do all of the things it has promised, staying faithful necessitates the scrupulous building of a grand lie. A lie about how the meaning of a relationship is obvious, self-evident and solid, a lie that makes it impossible to talk about the ways that the significance of their relationship to each other might be evolving, echoing as it does through the different geographies of their individual lives and experiences. One of the more heartbreaking aspects of monogamy as it is generally practiced is the way that its emotional exclusivity is so serial. The expectation that the person you are sleeping with is the one that you share the most emotional intimacy with leads to the idea that you should have very little emotional contact with former lovers and means that many people find themselves cut off from those who they have been closest to in life.
In a patriarchal and hetero-normative context, monogamy is a tool that severely limits the way that women are allowed to be in relationships with men (and men with women) who are not their lovers or family members. The fact that one’s reputation hinges on their adherence to these rules means that all sexual energy existing outside the context of monogamous coupledom or potentially monogamous coupledom is viewed as threatening. People often feel compelled, either explicitly or implicitly, to police social interactions under the presumption of defending monogamy. This dynamic has frustrated my desire to have relationships with people that are intimate and life enlarging even when there is no explicitly sexual motive. I have often felt pressure to alter my behavior, by either curbing my friendliness or making myself more visibly queer, in order to have interactions with women that are not viewed as inappropriate by someone in the room.
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I resent the way in which stories about intimacy that hinge on monogamy restrict our language, limiting the words we use to describe our relationships to one another. I want words to describe what it feels like to have a platonic romance – to become best friends with someone in a matter of weeks. Words to describe my relationship to a person who I meet only once, but who changes my life forever or for the person who I see at a distance everyday for years and who knows things about me that no one else does; for trysts that I have with authors who are long dead and for rituals that commit me to people that I have no intention of marrying, or even necessarily sleeping with.
Finding ways to build our own definitions of these things as we go along which more accurately reflect our experiences with and desires for each other is certainly more complicated than accepting the definitions we have been given, but it expands the ways in which we are able to talk about living with each other in the world. Certainly there are constraints in every relationship and these constraints can be vital to the emotional health and well being of the people involved. But, wherever possible, they should be constraints that have been chosen by those involved according to their own particular emotional truth, rather than obligations wholly unconnected to the people making them.
There are, of course, people who are already doing this; people who are opting for polyamory because it makes the most sense for them, having sex with multiple partners in a variety of ways. People who are choosing to be exclusive sexual partners with each other for their own reasons, and are not threatened when other people make different choices. There are people who build families with people who are not responsible for meeting their sexual needs and people who have sex with people who are not responsible for meeting their needs for family. There are those who, for various reasons, choose not to have sexual relationships at all and people who are doing several (or all) of these things at different points in their lives.
Imagine what the world would be like if the terms of our relationships with each other were negotiated in every possible instance by the people involved and not by some abstract ideal about what people should be to one another. What grand possibilities would present themselves? How would the difficulties involved speak more directly to the problems we want to be tackling? I believe that our relationships are more meaningful when we are openly engaged in the process of negotiating them; when we open ourselves to the range of ways that it is possible to connect.