A blunt criticism of monogamy

written by Theis Trevor Egeberg edited by Tristan Brightman

This text is not for everybody. What I write here can be actively misread, and several points are reflections on my personal experiences and dialogues with others. If you are a proponent of open relationships you will probably cheer me on, but I urge you to be critical of my conclusions, and challenge my sometimes extreme statements. If you are in a happy monogamous relationship or looking for one, you will probably reject most of what I write and hunt for discrepancies and faulty reasoning. I am a proponent of polyamory, and my experience is that people in open relationships of all types are often asked to defend their position against the norm. In this text I want to put up a more balanced fight by challenging monogamy to explain itself instead. Heterosexual monogamy is by far the most normal mode of partnership in western culture but should sheer popularity be enough to convince us to join its ranks?

Monogamous heterosexual monoculture

Western culture takes heterosexual monogamy more or less for granted, and even very young children come to understand the concept of marriage and monogamous heterosexual relationships as the only way. Only later in life are they confronted with the alternatives, often leading to homosexuals only finding out about themselves after going through a period of attempted heterosexuality. Parents can get blamed for causing homosexuality by exposing a child to information about it. I find it weird that parents aren’t blamed for causing heterosexual monogamy in children by completely removing any other option from the table.

The problem becomes very clear when looking at stories in mainstream entertainment. When themes of homosexuality and/or polyamory are introduced, it is almost certain that it serves the plot of the story. There are no characters who just happen to be homosexual or polyamorous, unless their sexual orientation and attitudes serve the plot. And, sadly, when homosexual or polyamorous characters are introduced, it is usually to describe the problems that arise when their partnerships suffer from fictitious problems which seem quite far-fetched to the everyday polyamorous person.

I don’t mean to imply that heterosexual monogamy was pushed upon us by Disney or Hollywood, though. We need to look back to before the rise of judeo-christian religion if we want to find the roots. Today we treat fidelity with a sort of reverent righteousness and praise couples who manage to stay loyal for a long period. On the other end of the spectrum infidelity has been, and in some instances still is, considered a crime or at least morally offensive in western countries, but regardless of this it still thrives in both our mythos and our everyday lives. I will not cite statistics but let it be up to the individual reader to figure out how much infidelity goes on around them. Statistics on the subject range from 1.6% to 60% having had sex outside of their relationship within the last three years, and cannot be considered conclusive. But I don’t want to defend infidelity, I want to defend the individual’s right to break away from a monoculture which indoctrinates everyone through assumptions on what is natural and right for human beings. I find it disturbing that homosexuality and infidelity are still considered punishable crimes many places around the world. It is tyrannical to govern the freedom to enjoy sex in whatever way you want. These tyrannies are sometimes upheld by laws and police, although social exclusion and scorn is often more than enough.

The rise of monogamy

Most of nature isn’t monogamous - in fact, most of nature is strictly biologically polygamous. But it would be fruitless to claim on those grounds that polygamy is of better quality or that  monogamy is somehow morally or ethically worse. Almost all things that humans do could be considered unnatural when compared to even our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. When discussing the act of monogamy I believe it would be constructive to view monogamy as a cultural decision, rather than something imposed upon us by outside forces or something which is more natural or morally better.

As a culture, we made the decision to be monogamous a long time ago, yet now we seem stuck with it because it has taken on the guise of a moral choice rather than a practical one. By looking at the genetical evidence, we can tell that it happened roughly around 16.000 BC (the later stone age). It happened over a relatively short timespan giving the impression that it is not a biological mutation that caused it, but rather a cultural change. That is to say that we are likely not hardwired for monogamy, but our culture most likely is.

It is not the aim of this text to speculate on why monogamy arose, but we can see that it did. In the period from 16.000 BC to now we undergo a rapid technological and cultural upheaval where sheer population size grows to require an effective law system. There is no doubt that these laws of early civilisations reflected practical aspects of their everyday lives. Laws regarding ownership and marriage type deals (mostly reflecting the man owning the woman) are found in almost all civilisations’ history. Judaism is one of the first major religions to gain authority in the western world. In its traditional teachings we find a command from god to have children, doubtless mostly directed at the woman of the couple. And indeed the Torah tells us that homosexuality is to be considered foul and disgusting. I personally find it more likely that heterosexuality and monogamy was already decided upon at this time, religion simply hijacked the laws and explained them through a moral system.

Heterosexual monogamy makes for more and more diverse offspring. If everyone practised homosexual polygamy then no children would be born at all after all. Judaism explained through religious stories instead of pragmatic reasoning why infidelity/homosexuality is wrong and why people should follow the laws. What used to be just a set of practical rules and punishments, now became moral edicts presented by an omniscient omnipotent god. The stories carry with them a categorical moral which makes polyamory wrong by definition, rather than making it impractical.

Religion then moves through a sort of Chinese whispers game where stories are told and changed over and over again. They slowly become ingrained into our culture, and if we fast forward to today we are left with Hollywood telling us that having multiple sexual partners is a sign of low moral stature. To be promiscuous and have sex for any other reason than to have children is considered evil. Prostitution is the most foul job anyone can have according to christian morals. You can be almost sure that if a person in a Hollywood movie is sexually aggressive and experimental then that person is also evil. And if a person is evil in a movie, you can be sure that it will be punished for it (regardless of the fact that this innate karma doesn’t seem to be reflected anywhere in reality). That of course implies a sort of moral high ground or good on the part of the sexually restrained or as it is usually referred to “honourable”. I will now take a look under the covers of monogamous love and tell you what I see, and then question how “good” monogamy really is.

Here is what I see

 As a proponent of polyamory here is what I see at the heart of the vows of monogamous love:

“Because I love you, I want you to only love me and only ever fall in love with me. To make me feel safer that I will not be replaced I want you to limit or completely snuff out your initiatives towards meeting new people you might become interested in. Insofar that you accidentally meet someone you really like, you are to avoid this liking, so that I will not be replaced. I require that you stifle your sexual drives towards anyone but me, and I really do mean suppress to a point where you don’t even feel them anymore. Any inkling of expression of desire for anyone but me, will make me insecure and I might decide that I would rather be with a less sexually attractive and less active partner, or simply someone who can convince me that I am everything that person has ever wanted, and ever will want. These demands are indeterminate and can only be withdrawn by me, and thus I will hate you if you fail to do any of these things which you implicitly promise by engaging into a relationship with me.”

To me, that is the actual meaning behind the rosy words of “love” and “companionship” which are often chosen over “Thou shalt only love me” and other phrasings which come off dictatorial, petty and egotistic. My biggest gripe is not that I feel limited by this set of rules, because in fact I’m usually not. My problem is that most people want this form of love imposed on them. Yes, people in fact want me to force the rules upon them and they perceive it as an expression of love. The expression of love has become so insecure (and dare I say: adolescent) that the only proof of love that can shield the nervous insecurities enough is if the other person is equally insecure. We only feel safe sharing our food with someone as hungry and with as little food as we have, than sharing with a person who has enough food to function independently of us.

To put the meaning of love into perspective I want replace the word love with the word tolerance: “If I can tolerate you then I will tolerate you, if you tolerate me to the same degree. If you tolerate someone more than I like, or more than you tolerate me, then I will not tolerate you at all. Even seeking to tolerate others or meeting others that you can tolerate will make me suspicious of your intent to only tolerate me to this degree. And I would rather not tolerate you at all than live with this suspicion”. As opposed to: “If I can tolerate you, then I will tolerate you. I wish that we can tolerate as many others as is possible”.

But don’t we deserve the joy of monogamous love?

I believe we all deserve the joy of monogamous love, spicy food, base jumping and cross dressing. Also you deserve the joy of loving anyone you feel like and enjoying sex freely and openly. I believe you deserve all the joy you want, from whatever source you please. That doesn’t mean its possible or even feasible that you will find it though. But I don’t want to take the joy of monogamous love away from you. If your individual personae is only able to love one person at a time, and naturally have no attraction to anyone but this partner, then you should consider yourself lucky. If you also naturally feel like those you love should feel the same way then you should immediately stop reading this text and run out and buy a lottery ticket. You are extremely lucky, because you are naturally inclined to be completely aligned with the totally dominant and popular monogamous tradition. Through many conversations and in my work as a therapist I have found that a natural inclination towards monogamy is not quite as normal as it seems. I believe that a large group of monogamists are polyamorous without a partner with the same inclination. There are probably even couples where both are instinctively polyamorous but they end up keeping it from each other due to assumptions on the others attitude.

Maybe you feel like you deserve the joy of love but find that monogamous relationships are problematic and you end up cheating and/or leaving your partner after a short while. Or you feel trapped or keep a big part of your personality away from your partner by hiding your actual desires and passions. If you are having mixed feelings towards monogamy, or are incapable to function in accord with their rules, then I urge you to try another shoe size, and not let the given culture or the sheer seeming popularity of monogamy hold you back.

But I don’t want to be with someone else!

I am not asking you to want to be with anyone else. Sometimes I don’t either and sometimes I do. But regardless of how I feel, or what I want to do, nothing in the world could drive me to require of any partner that he or she should refrain from falling in love, loving and/or having sex with someone other than me. I would find it deeply tragic if my partner would go through life without experiencing all of those things a thousand times, or just as many times as is pleasurable. I want my partners’ lives to be abundant with love, companionship, experiences, magic and good quality ice cream. I would hate myself to the core if I asked a partner, for my sake, to hold back on those experiences. I assume that love is considered an extremely joyful and meaningful experience given rise to by the encounter with someone you come to like a lot. If that other person is indeed a big part of how this feeling comes around, then I do not understand how anyone would want to impose such harsh limitations around that persons experience of exactly this wondrous feeling.

It is important to notice how often people state what they don’t want in order to implicitly justify the demand that others should be the same way. To unmask how the path from I don’t want to You can’t want usually goes, I want you to imagine two back scratch enthusiasts having the following conversation after a long and enjoyable scratching session:

A: “Because I really like to scratch your back, I only want to scratch your back”

B: “I also really like to scratch your back, I want to scratch other backs as well though”

A: “Then I will stop scratching your back and you can’t scratch mine”

B: “But don’t you like to get your back scratched?”

A: “Yes, but only by you”

B: “But if you only want to scratch my back and stop scratching if I scratch others, then you will have no backs to scratch at all?”

A: “Oh, I will find someone else to scratch”

B: “I thought you just said you only wanted to scratch my back?”

A: “As long as you only want to scratch mine - I only want to scratch yours”

The first statement gives the impression that A’s primary reason to ONLY want to scratch B’s back is that it really likes it. But in the following sentences A show that its primary reason is actually that it wants exclusive rights on scratching in both direction, because it is willing to let go of scratching in order to get exclusivity. In monogamous relationships many are willing to sacrifice the love they have for the other person, in order to get the love they have for the other person. This is to me the most paradoxical point in monogamy.

Some statements about monogamous love seem unselfish and pristine on the surface, where in reality they are self-centered and calculating. I believe that these contradictions between surface and core are an important reason as to why so many relationships don’t last very long. To gloss over the self-defeating pitfalls we often use words like “fidelity”, “honourable” and “holy matrimony”. But wordplay is a poor defense against reality. And as it becomes more acceptable and easy to end relationships people break up a lot more often, statistics show that most can only manage to stay together for a less than three years. This doesn’t mean that open relationships necessarily have a longer lifetime, but they are at least free from the self defeating contradictions inherent in claims on mutual exclusivity. Personally I find open relationships more conductive to the honest and giving love often claimed to be at the heart of monogamy.

But I don’t want my partner to be with someone else!

No, I don’t believe you. I think you don’t want your partner to want to be with someone else. This is brilliant, then you can find a partner who is like that, the best news is that then you don’t have to make any rules afterwards. If both of you are revolted by the idea of being with others than each other then you have no need for any limitations. Many joyful monogamous relationships have this at their core, a deep desire to only be with that person ever. But if you find someone who is not like that, and still want that person to be with you, really know that it is your decision to try to change this person by holding your own love and sexuality hostage. You are trying to force this person to either become or impersonate your ideal for a partner. And all this regardless of how the other people might feel about this. You also want this person to completely let go of all those wonderful experiences in the name of your wonderful experience. This is your demand, and yes people do crazy things when they are in love, but understand that the change only lasts as long as that person is under your spell. Once the relationship gets boring or the two of you change in ways as to fall out of love, then that person will likely return to being a free spirit wanting to try other things. You might find this natural, I find this mode of being short sighted and self destructive.

But I want to build something special with just one person

If anything, a monogamous relationship is the most statistically plain thing there is. Special can thus not be meaningful in terms of the relationship’s structure. Obviously, we mean special to the subjects entering into the relationship, and not according to an objective observer. But what confuses me is the path taken to special. I hear people setting out to find a special someone and to build a special relation. But the most prominent thing about the relationship, when compared to other relations the subjects have, is the sexual monogamy. In fact, many oppose the idea of polyamory with the statement: “Well then it would be just like a sex friend.” But that argument actually also implies that the only difference between a sex friend and a monogamous partner is whether or not you engage into sex with other people. That is practically admitting that there is nothing special about it at all.

The oddest course of action, though, is taken when the special someone is found, and the first reaction is to impose a list of rules and demands. I think the time would be better spent actually building something unique and interesting with that person, maybe even talking about what kind of relationship the other person would like. What I see is a lot like if Columbus stated that he wanted to sail around the globe to India, and then immediately began drafting rules for what might happen if he found another continent on the way, emphasising his own rights as king over any hypothetical discovered continent. We would start to believe that Columbus somehow had a different agenda. And so to me, the word special seems to sometimes be a cover for another demand.

If I knew that I didn’t like dark bread very much, and I started making a mythology around white bread calling it “special”, then I would try to be critical towards myself and check if it wasn’t simply a practical truth I had invented. I might be deceiving myself in order to claim a more easily defensible position. But let us assume you have done this, and you actually just want a special relationship and consider that an end by itself. Of course you are free to do so, and I will not contest the meaningfulness nor right to do it. If this is the case then I urge you to find someone who feels exactly like you, and really be sure about this. Evidence seems to show that people are unfaithful in general, and that the average relationship lasts two years and nine months (David Brash’s excellent book “The myth of monogamy: fidelity and infidelity in animals and people” references a trove of statistics). Regardless of how special a person you might find then it is statistically likely that the special sauce expires after three years. Of course if monogamy is your goal in and by itself, I cannot take that away from you. I will regard you as a bit of an abstract artist in the realm of relationships, though, and would probably not trust you to water my plants.

If I accept that my partner is with others then I might be replaced by someone better

I actually understand this as an argument for polyamory and against monogamy. In a monogamous relationship replacement is required if anyone wants to be with someone else, but this does not go for a polyamorous relationship. I assume that most can agree that a relationship is made more unique by the personalities engaging in it, than by the decided upon rules or labels added afterwards. Only when we define the relationship based on its category and format, can a person’s position in the relationship be lost and someone else take it. But I find it very odd to call this replacement, as if the relationship remains but one part is exchanged for a better model. The position is taken by another, but all involved remain unique, and so does the relations between them. In an open relationship you remain in it as long as both of you like to. It is worth noting that people have many different interpretations of this point, I find that many interpretations resemble a sort of camouflaged monogamy though.

My personal interpretation is based around treating relationship in its verb form rather than as a noun. I believe it is an activity to relate, and we primarily relate when we are together physically or connected somehow by technology. The relating is the relationship, and once we are out of touch we stop relating, and so the relationship is not realised. To me there are no positions, although I accept that others might require them. To me there are no categories or labels for my various relations, they simply come into being once I relate and am related to. A long tradition of rings, titles and traditions lull us into seeing a relationship as an object with life outside of when we actively relate. We see a relation as something we possess and can interact with, and in the worst cases something which remains even if we stop relating. I consider this to be the foremost reason for bad relationships, but it lies outside of the scope of this text. Once any form of ownership, special rights or dominance of a partner is assumed I consider love to be out of reach. We enter into a form of possessive love rather than a form of mutual existence.

But I don’t want to hurt other people

I would like to use one of my favourite stories here: Imagine you arrive on an island by boat. You are wearing an orange cap, and orange trousers. You walk into the thick tropical forest and there you meet a group of tiny pygmys. They start shouting at you claiming that you are dishonouring their mighty god Atzuka. You look at them incredulously and ask “How is it that I am offending your Atzuka, I’m just walking here?”. To this the tallest pygmée answers “You are wearing the colours of the evil wasp god Tzechumba! He wails and points to your shoes and trousers, “behold the evil colour the wasp god!”. You look down over yourself “But it’s just orange, what’s so bad about that?” you say exasperated while ducking out of the way of the bananas some of the pygmys in the back are hurtling at you. The chieftain covers his eyes and says loudly so that all can hear “But we know that the evil giant wasp flew over this land many years ago and dropped evil on us, which made us sick and poisoned our water!” he points to edgings underneath the rather unimposing Atzuka statue, there are clear pictures of an aeroplane and objects falling from it. You start to understand and hunker down in front of him “So let me get this straight, this evil wasp thingy flew over here, and things fell out of the sky and now the colour orange is abolished because you got sick from it?” you ask trying hard not to sound patronising. “Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine, Tzechumba won’t come, you can stop worrying, and I need my shoes and pants here, or I’ll get bitten by snakes and mosquitoes” they look at you and the children start to cry. The mothers frown and shake their heads and mumble “All is lost now” and old pygmy steps forward. His odd trappings of shells and feathers reveal him as some sort of nature priest and you fail at suppressing a deep sigh and an expression that only says “What now…?!”. He looks at you with deep and old eyes “Understand big one, that you make us all very afraid, and very sad by doing this, you may be right that no evil wasp god comes, and you may be wrong, but still you are the cause of all this” he shakes his head wearily. End of story.

I understand if you do not want to hurt other people deliberately. But as the story shows, it is not so one dimensional. If you hold a certain belief, and your actions according to that belief hurts someone else, then you can choose not to act on them. But what if it is actually that they hold a certain belief and your actions hurt them because of their belief. And what if you consider it absurd, and even hurtful to you if you are to actively change your own actions to make sure they don’t get hurt. No, it is not the traveler in orange who causes this, regardless of the shaman trying to make him think so. The cause of the pain is the mistaken belief that orange will attract the wasp god. They are asking the traveler to expose himself to pain and possible death via snakes and mosquitoes to alleviate their fear of orange. You however understand their fear, and see it as absurd, and to follow it would be ridiculous. So I understand that you do not want to deliberately cause pain, but that is not what you are doing, in fact they are deliberately trying to make you feel guilty, and thereby trying to make you change your mind. The word for this is coercion. I often hear people use this form of language and logic when speaking of infidelity, attempting scare tactics in order to make everyone believe in Tzechumba. But the truth is that they believe in Tzechumba, so to them he is real, and they fear the person who does not believe, because that person will put them in danger. So they paint evil portraits of the wasp god to create a sense of fear. This is the actual intentional and deliberate hurt which is the root of all the pain.

But everyone follows this system, if I do not play along with this I will be alone

Just like any minority you will be shunned, booed and stereotyped. People will most likely fear that you will steal their partners. They might judge you based on demonised imagery and a simplified version of your personality. They will react with fear, and many - whom you otherwise would like to be in a relationship with - will not want one with you. You will want to slacken your ideals, you will want to just go back to claiming you are like everyone else. You will want to follow the flow of the system, and not swim upstream. And if you do so, forgive yourself for this and be happy about the decisions you make. I firmly hold the belief that love should be free, but this is a personal opinion. I don’t want to make your life miserable, I want it to be good. But also I don’t want you to excuse yourself. If you are like me, I want you to feel empowered enough to engage into a balanced discussion. Remember that there is a lot of pre-packaged reasoning and values which are built to make you want to follow the stream and become monogamous. Our world is designed around the 1-on-1 relationship model, so you are outgunned and outnumbered if someone goes on the offence against your ideas. So I write this to show you it is not necessary to feel outgunned. You are unique in your attitude towards love and relationships, and you are free to express this. If you are a person who wants to love those it can love, and have sex with those it is attracted to while having relationships freely and openly, then do not defend it. You don’t have to. If you want to, I present the above guns and ammunition for your last stand. I hope it helps.