Most of you might think that monogamy needs no defense: it’s the norm. Most people are monogamous, and polyamory or open relationships are still considered bad or screwed up in some way. In general, I agree with you. In mainstream culture, monogamy is living a fine and boisterous life.
However within certain strains of atheist, feminist, and social justice communities, monogamy has a really bad reputation. It’s understandable that many people who are poly or open feel like they need to defend their lifestyle. It’s understandable that they’re angry. But what isn’t understandable is the bizarre bashing of the entire concept of monogamy.
There are blog posts out there that suggest that monogamy is necessarily non-egalitarian. There are people who have suggested that the only reason monogamy still exists is because of religion. Monogamy is considered backwards, overly traditional, conservative, religiously motivated and stifling by many people who are poly or people who profess to be forward thinking. It’s almost considered a brand of shame to be monogamous: you probably aren’t very liberal, you’re probably really repressed, and your sex life must suck.
I have news: monogamy can be feminist. Monogamy can be practiced happily and healthily by atheists in a completely non-religious way. Monogamy can be a choice that fully recognizes and respects the needs and desires of both parties. Monogamy can even do all these things if the two parties have mutually agreed upon rules about what they are and are not comfortable with in their monogamy. Boundaries are not non-egalitarian.
People have different sexual impulses. Most of us understand this, but in practice it’s easy to become defensive of our own choice when someone else says they prefer a different choice. What is it about monogamy that is so upsetting to many people, and what’s wrong with those arguments? Why is monogamy a valid life choice?
One of the arguments against monogamy is that it’s unnatural and restricting. Many people who are poly or open can’t imagine being satisfied with one partner, so they generalize and assume that all people cannot be happy with one partner. The way that monogamy is constructed in our society is certainly far from natural, in that it generally requires a particular narrative, but monogamy in and of itself does not have to be unnatural.
It’s fairly simple to look at animals and see that there’s a number of animals who pair-bond without any societal influences. There’s nothing inherently stifling to one’s sex drive to stay with the same partner for your entire life. We don’t know much about what the human sex drive looks like without any societal influence (hint: we never will because it’s impossible to study that), but we can see that monogamy exists in a variety of ways and places and thus there is no a priori reason to label it as unnatural.
Others say that monogamy will just never work because everyone will wander or want something different. However there are many people (myself included) who crave the things that monogamy provides and have little to no desire for the positive things that polyamory provides. Monogamy provides a great deal of consistency, which is a fairly basic human drive. It also prioritizes a very deep relationship with one individual over more relationships with more people. There are many people who prefer this style of relating: I would rather have one or two incredibly close friends than a variety of decent friends. It’s significantly easier to reach that level of deep connection when you focus your attention on one person for an extended length of time. Finally, polyamory or an open relationship requires a great deal of trust for more people, as well as balancing of time, energy, money and resources. Some of us just want things to be as simple as possible and having less people involved is simpler. I have never had a desire to move away from monogamy because its positives are two important to me.
My least favorite argument against monogamy is that it’s selfish. Interestingly, this is a claim that’s been leveled against polyamory as well. Perhaps we all want to think of our choices as selfless, but if I could make one request of the world it would be to stop calling other people’s sexual choices selfish.
The reason that some people call monogamy selfish is because they say it places your jealousy or discomfort over your partner’s interests, desires, and happiness. This is an extremely worrying argument to me. It implies that we should ignore or minimize any pain or discomfort we have so that our partner can do things that make them happy. It sounds disturbingly like rape apologetics to me. In reality, if our emotions are telling us that something is wrong, that something has crossed our boundaries, that we’re unhappy or distressed, or that we’re anxious and afraid, we should listen to them. We all have the right to take care of our emotions in the ways we need to, and if that means asking your partner to stop doing something that’s making you unhappy, then that’s ok.
Emotions are not trite, unimportant things. I know someone who has had a PTSD related panic attack after being triggered by her boyfriend being with another girl, and his response was that she was being selfish asking him to be monogamous while she dealt with her PTSD. Emotions are serious, and the distress we feel over some jealousies is very real and very painful. Asking people to prioritize their partner’s physical enjoyment over their own mental health is a dangerous road to take.
In conjunction with the selfish argument is the idea that relationships shouldn’t have rules or limits for our partner because that limits them in a selfish way. I call bollocks. In every relationship, we have some rules that we set. If you prefer to call them boundaries instead of rules, then whatever floats your boat, but we all have the right to lay down certain behaviors as unacceptable because they hurt us.
We ask our partner to respect our feelings and desires, and in turn we do our best to respect theirs. These do not limit us in a negative way, they keep us from hurting the other person. They are good restrictions. I have some extremely hard and fast rules in my relationship. My boyfriend is not allowed to hit me. My boyfriend is not allowed to yell at me. One of these rules happens to be that he won’t sleep with another person, or I won’t date him anymore because that would hurt me deeply. I’m sure he has similar rules. These are not negative rules. They are expectations that the other person will respect me and my boundaries. They indicate self-respect. ANY relationship we’re in, romantic or not, has these expectations of good behavior and respect. Some people may prefer not to make them explicit because they think it’s stifling, but I simply find that it makes everything more clear.
Finally, many people seem to assume that no one would choose monogamy because they really want it. Lots of people assume that the only reason people are monogamous is because of jealousy, or an attempt to control, or the desire to take an exclusive place in their partner’s life. Interestingly, none of these are reasons that I am monogamous. I am monogamous because I see absolutely no appeal in being poly. Sex holds little to no appeal to me, particularly not sex with new people as I’m very shy about my body. I’m quite happy having one partner. I have no desire for anything more. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything at all. I get a great deal of happiness and fulfillment from my current relationship and I couldn’t ask for anything more. I am built perfectly for monogamy. I am good at focusing on one person and one person alone. I’m bad at managing multiple people’s needs at once. I prefer having one person to fall back on. I really like the consistency of one person. Monogamy is good for me as a person. It has nothing to do with religion, with tradition, with social expectations, and it certainly doesn’t have to do with fear of societal retribution.
There is no best or even necessarily better relationship set up. Having different boundaries in your relationship doesn’t mean someone else’s boundaries are bad or inappropriate. We’re all built different, so our relationships should be too.