In Praise of Monogamy
There are lots of different ways of approaching non-monogamous relationships, such as:
Polyamory: Usually emphasizes developing full-on romantic relationships with more than one partner, in which all partners are aware of one another. Lately I've been pondering and working on a number of tricky questions about implementing polyamory. (I've been researching polyamory since my teens, but only in recent years did I decide to actively pursue it.)
Swinging: Usually emphasizes couples with their own close bond, who have relatively casual sex with other partners. (Another difference between swinging and polyamory is that swingers tend to be more at home in mainstream culture, whereas polyamorists tend to be geeky or otherwise "alternative." Here's a great, long piece on poly culture versus swing culture.)
Cheating: One partner does something with an outside partner that wasn't accepted or understood in advance. In monogamous relationships, cheating usually involves having sex with an outside partner. Cheating exists in polyamorous or swing relationships as well: for example, a person might cheat on a non-monogamous partner by breaking an agreement -- an agreement such as "we don't have unprotected sex with other partners."
Just in case it needs to be said: I never advocate cheating, ever. As for the first two, I know both poly people and swingers that I consider totally decent and wonderful folks! I have more personal experience with and interest in polyamory, though.
Yet one thing that often gets lost in conversations about all these options is the advantages of monogamy. Of which there are many. Although I don't currently identify as monogamous, I had a very strong monogamous preference for years. I knew that polyamory existed, and I thought about it a lot, because it's interesting -- but I just didn't feel like it was for me.
In fact, my most adamantly polyamorous friend used to call me his "reasonable monogamous friend." He said I had examined polyamory enough to reasonably reject it, whereas he felt most people never consider polyamory deeply enough to have a thoughtful opinion.
And lately lots of my monogamous friends have been getting married. So I've been thinking about the positive aspects of their relationship choices as I dance at their weddings, devour mini-quiches, flirt with their brothers and try to avoid offending their parents. (Okay, I've actually only flirted with one brother. So far.)
A Few Advantages of Monogamy (this is not a complete list)
Some people experience jealousy more than, or less than, or differently from other people. Plenty of people in non-monogamous relationships experience jealousy -- and plenty of non-monogamous people handle it just fine, through open-hearted communication. (Often, jealousy is managed through very detailed relationship agreements such as this fascinating polyamory "relationship contract".)
But there are also plenty of people who appear to lack the "jealousy chip." And then there are plenty of people who experience so much jealousy, who feel that jealousy is such a big part of their emotional makeup, that the best way to manage it is simply through monogamy.
Personally, I used to get a lot more jealous than I do now. I think I'm less likely to get jealous these days partly because I've gotten better at finding low-drama men. Jealousy has a reputation for being an irrational emotion, and sometimes it genuinely is an unreasonable, cruel power-grab. But I think jealousy is often quite rational, and often arises in response to a genuine emotional threat ... or deliberate manipulation.
There's another reason, though: I've also noticed that some switch in my brain has flipped, and I've started to eroticize jealousy. I occasionally find myself fantasizing about men I care about sleeping with other women, and sometimes the fantasy is hot because I feel mildly jealous. I cannot explain how this happened. It surprised me the first time it happened, believe me. What's really fascinating is that I think the same part of me that eroticizes jealousy, is the part that used to make me feel sick at the thought of my partner sleeping with someone else.
I think it's important to note here that I didn't become less jealous because I felt like I "should," or because I was told not to be jealous. In fact, I had an early boyfriend who acted like I was a hysterical bitch every time I got jealous and he made things much worse. With him, I just felt awful when I got jealous; I couldn't get past it. I felt like he was judging me for something I couldn't help; I felt like my mind was fragmenting as I tried to force myself to "think better" without any outside support; and worst of all, I felt like I couldn't rely on him to respect my feelings.
It was the men who treated my emotions like they were reasonable and understandable who decreased my jealousy. It's much harder to be jealous when your partner is saying, "I totally understand," than it is when your partner is saying, "What the hell is the matter with you?" Maybe that's what makes monogamy such an effective jealousy-management tactic: monogamy can be like a great big sign or sticker or button you can give to your partner that says, "I respect your jealousy." Which is not to say that monogamy is always effective for this -- we all know that monogamous people get jealous all the time! (Which only adds to my point that monogamy might be viewed as just one of many tactics, rather than an answer, when jealousy is a problem.)
There's an oft-repeated joke among polyamorists that "while love may be infinite, time is not." And sometimes, I've found it a little difficult to "switch gears" to a different partner. New Relationship Energy can be a little harder to manage in the polyamorous context than it is in serial monogamy.
I've heard of polyamorous couples who specifically take periods of monogamy when one partner really wants one. This seems like it could be problematic -- for example, if my hypothetical primary partner wanted a period of monogamy, and I had a secondary partner (or partners) with a serious emotional connection, then I probably would not be cool with straight-up ignoring my secondary for weeks or months. There'd have to be more of a conversation about it. But regardless, this whole line of thinking makes an interesting showcase of how sometimes, people feel like they just have to focus on one relationship.
Personally, I'm quite interested in S&M games of orgasm denial, though I've never had a chance to mess around with it as much as I'd like. I'm also interested in long-term lust management strategies like karezza, where the partners involved choose not to have orgasms -- instead, they maintain a low level of mutual arousal at all times.
I have no moral problem with my partners looking at porn or having orgasms on their own, but sometimes when I hear about the effects of choosing not to do those things, it sounds like there's really powerful bonding potential there. Something to keep in mind for the next time I'm really serious about someone, I guess. Monogamy isn't necessary for these things, but it would definitely make doing them less complicated.
Straight up, monogamy is the Western societal default. In some ways this makes monogamy hard to understand and communicate about -- because there are so many assumptions and built-in expectations, and folks don't always agree on those expectations!
A recent study found that 40 percent of young couples don't agree about whether or not they're monogamous. That amazes me, because I have never assumed that I was monogamous with a partner until we had a conversation establishing that we were monogamous ... but I guess I can see how it happens, if people feel anxious about communicating and fall back on assumptions instead.
Usually, however, being the societal default makes monogamy easier. Heterosexual monogamous people can get married with no problem, for example, and while marriage is obviously contested territory for non-hets, it's instructive that "gay marriage" is such a big political issue (while "polyamorous marriage" is currently nothing more than a specter right-wingers use to scare people about gay marriage).
Outsiders usually assume that you're monogamous when you introduce your partner. Romantic comedies exalt monogamy; the media, and many people around us, associate monogamy with love. When you're monogamous, you never have to articulate your weird relationship structure to your parents. You rarely have to think outside the box about relationship problems, and you can go to any Western advice columnist or therapist and be sure that they'll recognize your relationship as legitimate.
Some people just like it better
Occasionally, people will toy with the idea of an "orientational" element to polyamory or monogamy: some folks just plain feel aligned with monogamy or non-monogamy. (I have similar thoughts about this as I do about BDSM as a sexual orientation.)
Personally, I always think it's really key, during any sex-positive critique, to emphasize from the start that whatever you like is cool as long as the actions you take are consensual. I know people who act all apologetic for being monogamous, usually because they've been overexposed to "polyvangelists" who argue that non-monogamy is "better" or "more evolved." This is silly! Liking monogamy doesn't have to be justified, as long as you don't turn around and claim that non-monogamy is bad and wrong. And liking monogamy is a perfectly awesome reason for preferring monogamy!
Clarisse Thorn is a feminist, sex-positive educator who has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences, including New York’s Museum of Sex, San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture, and universities across the USA. She created and curated the original Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum; she has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable BDSM institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. Clarisse recently returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. She blogs about sexuality with a focus on S&M at clarissethorn.com, where this piece first appeared; tweets @clarissethorn; and disseminates sex & gender news for Time Out Chicago. She also occasionally contributes to Feministe.