Is monogamy irrelevant in 2018?
Warning: Reading this article may result in awkward conversations between you and your partner. And if you don’t have a partner, it may result in some uncomfortable soul-searching.
Here in London in 2018, we are living in the midst of a quiet but dramatic sexual revolution. Everything we ever knew about relationships is being challenged. Simply assuming the vows you recite misty-eyed in a dusty church will serve you till death or divorce do-you-part, might not help.
All our sexual, relationship and gender boundaries are being rapidly redefined – it’s a combination of the Tinder effect, post-Weinstein introspection and both marriage rates and monogamy failing.
More of us live alone than ever before. Each decade the percentage of people who are old enough to marry but choose not to grows.
The movement known as polyamory – having meaningful relationships with more than one person at once – continues to amplify.
So what happened to the 20th century suburban dream of 2.4 children and a Labrador? And what does all this have to do with the majority of Londoners who would like to have a meaningful relationship with one person?
Is polyamory the future?
‘People aren’t monogamous in their fantasies or memories, so where does monogamy start?’ asks Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist whose TED talks have been watched tens of millions of times. ‘Is it flirting with somebody? Being attracted to someone? Is that monogamous? Is that allowed? These are not fixed entities.’
The problem, she says, is that our traditional ideas of monogamy are a myth.
‘Originally, monogamy had nothing to do with love. It was an economic imposition on women in order to know whose children these are and who gets the cows when I die. Now we expect our partner to be our best friend, trusted confidante and passionate lover all in one. We ask one person, today, to give us what once an entire village would provide.’
So what do we do? Is it time for us to all embrace the exciting-but-slightly-daunting-sounding world of polyamory? Not necessarily.
Apart from anything else, most of us don’t want to manage a harem of lovers alongside all our other slightly more mundane commitments. It does mean, though, that the definition of infidelity keeps expanding, and there’s no universally agreed interpretation of what being faithful actually means.
So we have to do it ourselves. Today, she says, the definition of monogamy needs to be negotiated.
What counts as cheating?
Is light Whatsapp flirting infidelity? What about sexting? Do you tell your partner when you watch porn? Is an intense emotional conversation in a bar being unfaithful?
What about stepping it up a notch. Secretively being on a dating app behind your partner’s back. Is that unfaithful? The modern world offers so many options for ambiguity. You might not actually be doing it with the person on the other side of that screen, but does that make it right?
And it doesn’t matter whether we’ve been with our significant other 10 minutes or 10 years, Esther is insistent if we don’t address the new sexual order with them, we’re in trouble.
‘Is monogamy an emotional contract, or is really just about sexual exclusivity? And what does sexual exclusivity mean when you’ve had 10 years in which you could hook up with whoever you liked?’.
So does that mean every couple need negotiate their own rules? (Here come the awkward conversations).
‘Today you can no longer assume monogamy in a relationship – that there’s nothing to talk about because it’s a given. If you enter into a relationship in your early 30s, and you have been ‘at it’ for at least 15 years, you bet you need to negotiate.’
So if not monogamy, what about polyamory? It’s always sounded rather time-intensive – where do you find the time for everything else in life when juggling your ‘multiple meaningful relationships’?
So-called ‘caveman sex theories’ propagated by the likes of author Chris Ryan, whose book Sex At Dawn (£10.99, Harper Perennial), co-written with Cacilda Jetha, state pre-agriculture humans lived in small communities where all adults pretty much had sex with everyone else.
He argues that we are ‘sexual omnivores’ who need a nuanced understanding of the relationship options open to them. It’s something Esther agrees with.
‘Monogamy is not natural,’ she says. ‘It’s a choice and a practice. To remain faithful and exclusive to your partner is a practice. It’s very inspiring, but it’s very hard.’
How ironic that anyone who doesn’t follow the one-partner ideal is seen by society as strange, or promiscuous or counter-culture. It turns out the society-defined rules of monogamy were the unnatural bit all along.
Esther goes on to observe how it’s interesting to know what happened in the past, but it doesn’t help us with the model we choose today.
And if you want an exclusive relationship with your partner, good. That rules out the caveman template. The thing is, she clearly isn’t anti-monogamy. Despite having just written a book about infidelity, she’s certainly not advising it as a route to happiness.
One partner for life can potentially work in her world. She just wants there to be more of a conversation (that word again) about what it means in each individual relationship.
Conversation is the key
It does seem that society’s attitudes are slowly changing. More people than ever before are creating their own rules.
Outspoken comedian Sarah Silverman contributed to the debate on monogamy and vows when she said she will never get married, and described it as ‘barbaric’.
Whether you think it’s barbaric, or simply confusing, the problem with this new world of sexual possibility is we are given very little guidance on how to navigate it. The first step, Esther tells me, is to talk.
‘Relationships can make you feel in bliss and they can make you feel you’re in hell. In the past you didn’t have to talk about sex, desires for others, intimacy, infidelity. Now, if you want to have a monogamous relationship, you do.’
The State Of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel (£14.99, Harper) is out now.
3 (basic but effective) ways to give your relationship a refresh
1. Sex toys: Sure, it will require a ‘conversation’ but it’s a surefire way to fire things back up and opening up those paths of communication is only going to be a good thing. Remember to mention it’s not that you think anything’s lacking per se, it’s just that you want to experiment. Generally speaking, there are two types of sex toy: they either look tastefully modern or as if they could pick up TV reception from Poland. Aim for the former for minimal awkwardness.
2. Date night: Sounds a bit lame, but is actually a normal and pretty necessary way of keeping things fresh and fun when have children/pets/a mortgage. Have a proper break every few months and book a hotel stay after dinner.
3. Dance classes: Is there really a ‘curse of Strictly’? We highly doubt it. Likely it’s just red-blooded couples spending hours every day with their bodies intertwined as their hips gyrate, which seems fairly self-explanatory. Go with a GSOH and you’ll be surprised by how much fun it is.