Monday, 14 January 2019

Taking the ‘Mono’ Out of Monogamy

Posted by Emile Sorensen

The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1500
Monogamy has failed -- by all reasonable metrics -– and we have been unwilling to ask monogamy the hard questions. The divorce rate amongst Baby Boomers is pushing upward of 50% and if one includes the more than 30% of married men and women who will succumb to secret dalliance at some point, the rate is way worse than that.

If 50% of an investment fund turned belly up or half the airplanes that took off each day crashed and burned, we would consider them intrinsically flawed and publicly unsafe. According to Psychology Today, ‘... in the U.S. 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second, and 73% of third marriages end in divorce. It is now becoming unusual to find two people who remain married to each other for their entire lives.

The word monogamy itself has changed. Just a few decades ago it described the practice of marrying only once during a lifetime. Now it is also used to describes the practice of having only one sexual partner at any given time (as per the definition in the Oxford Dictionary). Anyway, the title ‘monogamous’ is often simply a veneer hiding a complex compromise of temptation, emotional affairs, suppressed regret and hidden unfaithfulness.

Young people are often misled into thinking that marriage can provide them with a lifetime of sexual fulfillment and emotional security – and invariably hit a wall of rude awakening when reality falls short of their expectations and temptation redefines their truth. Even when we verbally advocate monogamy, in reality we tend to deviate from it. And so traditional family structures are being challenged on many fronts. Where relationships were historically based on a sense of religious or social obligation, they are now more apt to be an expression of self-authentication. And the ‘thou shalt not’ from the pulpit has failed to stem this social shift from a ‘theocentric’ or family-centric worldview to one that is egocentric.

As the deception and pain in cheating are still recognised as distasteful and immoral (in the US military adultery is still criminal), social creativity has sought ethical alternatives to infidelity -- and consequently, there has been a commensurate rise in non-traditional relationships. We are seeing a social and cultural evolution taking place regarding the kinds of relationships men and women seek, and what they find fulfilling. It is not uncommon to meet people who have been married two or three times, or more.

As the deception and pain in cheating is still recognised as distasteful and immoral (in the US military adultery is still criminal), social creativity has sought ethical alternatives to infidelity – and consequently, there has been a commensurate rise in non-traditional relationships. We are seeing a social and cultural evolution taking place regarding the kinds of relationships men and women seek, and what they find fulfilling.

Homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexual, polyamory, polyfidelity, polysensual, open relationships, monogamish (mostly monogamous) relationships, swinging, kinky, the lifestyle, serial monogamy and consensual non-monogamy and many others have all become terms we must navigate as we talk intelligently about healthy consensual adult relationships. While most of these relational constructs are still invisible legally, they are undeniably here to stay socially. For example, one Canadian based ‘kink’ websites boasts over seven million members.

Should we abandon monogamy as a great idea whose season has come and gone? What is the new normal? Is there even such a thing as normal any more? We must individually explore where we fit into (or do not fit into) these new social constructs. Ought polyamory, serial monogamy or consensual non-monogamy be recognised as an ‘orientation’ in the same way that homosexuality or lesbianism are?

Ann Tweedy, of Hamline University School of Law recently explained why we may speak of orientation. ‘Sexual orientation,’ she says, ‘is defined as attraction to either the same sex, the opposite sex or both sexes – but it could be broadened to include other sexual preferences that are entwined with identity.’ These alternatives must be addressed as we forge the social pathway forwards. And possible even deeper, we must understand why traditional monogamy is unravelling, what to do with this antiquated system that was the ‘gold standard’ of society, and how to engage the new norms as we live in the real world.

What then has caused the ‘gold standard’ to topple? What has caused this shift, and how should we respond? What is bringing monogamy to its knees? An in depth look at the cause reaches beyond the limitations of this post -- but here are considerations to start the discussion.

Fundamental to understanding our change in behavior surely must be a dialogue about our shifting roles. The marketplace has now been enriched by equality – and with that, sexual temptations and opportunities proliferate for both sexes. Women have come of age and emerged as equal vyers for their share of the economic pie. We work more and travel more – and are connected to and are communicating with others more. On top of that the media bombard our sensual appetites consistently – stimulation overload. And exhaustion!

Online pornography and internet dating have not served traditional structures well. Ashley Maddison, a ‘married dating site’, boasts almost eight million members with about sixteen thousand sign-ups every day – half of whom are women.
It is said that modern technology has fostered an immediate gratification mindset – and if sexual appetite and opportunity is out there – why not? Social conservatism – as espoused by the religious front – is losing traction, even amongst the faithful, as society embraces a more open mindset. And it seems we are not having affairs as much because we are looking for someone else as much as we are looking to authenticate ourselves.

Yet interestingly, the one thing that has not changed -- that threads itself consistently through every style, type and description of relationship -- is the destructive power of deception and the fundamental need for trust. It seems no matter what your preference of relationship structure is – monogamy or otherwise – deception is still the killer and cheating is still cheating. Yes, the structure and context of relationships may be changing. How we understand our needs and the creative ways we give expression to our sexuality may be shifting, but fundamentally – we are still the same. We still look for relationships we can trust, and people we can enjoy the richness of mutual connection and exploration with. We still find satisfaction in the consistency of respect. Monogamy may have fallen on hard days – but faithfulness has not.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

In our age, things have become physically possible which were impossible one or two generations ago -- sex changes, cloning, surrogacy, and so on -- not to speak of what has become possible, in a sense, though a changed legal landscape.

However, little attention is given to the psychological or pastoral aspects surrounding these changes, and these may be big. I would be worried about that. The divorce statistics seem a bit adrift here, as one can make few comparisons.

What has changed today, which I think is significant, is the acceptance of those who are seen, or were seen, to have transgressed or failed. This was a great burden in previous generations, though not only a burden.

Keith said...

I’m concerned to see ‘homosexuality’ and ‘lesbianism’ lumped into a narrative otherwise primarily about ‘the failure of monogamy’ within the gamut of sexual behaviours cited. Being gay is a matter of the biology a person has been born with. It is not capricious, or the outcome of the exercise of free will and simple lifestyle choice, as some of the other sexual behaviours — ‘relational constructs’, as referred to here — may be. And in (loving) same-sex relationships, monogamy is no less the habit. I therefore suggest it’s a false equivalency to juxtapose ‘homosexuality’ and ‘lesbianism’ with many of these other ‘relational constructs’, such as ‘swinging’ — especially in a discussion lamenting monogamy’s underperformance. By way of an aside, as for ‘norms’ in society as they relate to same-sex marriage in particular, in the United States they have changed dramatically over the years. Polls have shown that. And a Supreme Court ruling in 2015, endorsing the legal rights of same-sex couples to marry, punctuated the point. I doubt that bell will be unrung. Gays, and their rights, have become ever more woven into the ‘social contract’, if you will, as a matter of justice and intrinsic morality, fairness, and equality. Bottom line? To avoid unfortunately tarring with the same brush, my preference would be not to encounter ‘homosexuality’ and ‘lesbianism’ (biology) in a list with ‘polyamory’, ‘open relationships’, ‘swinging’, and ‘kinky’ (lifestyle choices).

docmartincohen said...

Is the consolation of honesty appealed to by Emile in the last paragraph not a bit of a false friend? After all, the bulk of relationships break up not in 'parallel' so much as in linear series - one partner becomes increasingly estranged and then breaks away. Far from hiding their contempt for their previous partner, they may add to the pain of the separation by broadcasting it - in words and in deeds. This is surely not better than the -dishonesty? - of remaining respectful of the other's feelings.

Emile said...

Thomas Scarborough - there is no question but that the advances in medicine and the adjustment in the legal landscape to accommodate more contemporary perspectives have facilitated the greater public exposure to and acceptance of non-traditional relationships (NTRs). The growing body of analysis and guidance on NTRs is not only creating broad base awareness, but also widely available and impacting healthy relationships in the active NTR community (currently about 5% of the USA). Authors like Esther Perel and Dan Savage etc. have contributed significantly to the growing body of understanding and questions that need to be addressed - deeper than simply asking 'What would Jesus do?' and 'take 2 verses and see me in the morning'. The church, pastoral community and counselling centers have a huge and unique opportunity here to engage constructively as they accept and build strength in what is fast become a viable option in the experience and expression of our sexuality. Publications like this are a great platform for interaction and discussion.

Emile said...

Keith - your comments are well expressed and your point your point well made. And that is one of the very questions at the heart of this discussion. I would be uncomfortable suggesting that any form of consensual relationship (that is legal and non-abusive) is inferior or that monogamy is necessarily superior both in terms of acceptance or health. Just as many recognize the role of genetics in sexual orientation, it is well researched that people in gay or bi-sexual relationships are more likely to be poly than the general population. One of the current discussions is whether polyamory is a distinct sexual orientation (genetics) and should attract the same legal recognition of some other orientations now do.

Emile said...

Martin Cohen... Your comments are helpful as they highlight some real concerns NTR proponents will have to address. I tried to present honesty as the fundamental need and the common component of all human relationships no matter the style - rather than the consolation. Breakups do sometimes result in public displays which can feel disrespectful but healthy polyamory is not typically punitive or public. The concern about flaunting may not be specific to the NTR discussion, but more the result of unhealthy responses to hurt we feel generally. Has your experience of polyamory suggested a different scenario to you, or are you simply exploring with dialogue?

Innovator said...

Very well written as usual, you are an excellent writer, & extremely intelligent. My thoughts...I think the break down of the family unit is at the core of all our issues here on earth. Having NTR is just taking things further in the opposite direction-further away from God & how He created us to be. NTR is being of the world in my opinion. Saying and thinking “I’m going to do what I want no matter the consequence”. My perspective��.

Emile said...

Innovator - thank you for your gracious response. There is not doubt in my mind that the loss of wholesome relationships does not bode well for the health of society. As goes the family - so goes the society. Would you say David had NTRs (his first seven children came from difference wives) or Solomon with more wives and concubines than he knew what to do with? Yet they were known as 'a man after God's own heart' and the wisest man that ever lived respectfully. Would you consider a LTR with disrespect and abuse more healthy that a respectful and thoughtful NTR? We are grappling with the corrupt heart of man, are we not - no matter how we structure it?

Innovator said...

Correct me if I’m wrong...the Bible is there to guide us and show us how to live our best lives. People are sinners, we know this but because David was a sinner does not give us the license to sin. Yes, God knows our heart, God knew David’s heart.

Keith said...

You might find somewhat interesting, Emile, recent research results regarding a possible link between monogamy and genetics. The study was performed on various species of animals, of course, but if and how the results are perhaps transferable to humans (speculative at this juncture) is worth considering. Per a recent Boston Globe article: “Researchers [at the University of Texas at Austin] made an incredible find: a set of activated genes linked to monogamous behavior. Scientists are only starting to understand the interaction between this behavior and the gene expressions they found. ‘We’re not yet making any claims that you have to activate or deactivate these particular genes to get monogamy,’ said study coauthor Hans Hofmann. ‘It could be the other way around — monogamous animal behaviors may give feedback to the brain and change [gene expressions].’ ” Here’s the link to the Boston Globe article, which gives an approachable summary, should you be game to read a bit more: If you confess to a taste for more heavy-duty science, here’s the link to the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Emile said...

Keith - thank you for your response. I have been following the discussion on Monogamy, Adultery, Faithfulness and Genetics. Our genetic preconditioning and our social nurturing may well end up having a direct influence on our proclivities. We are now able to stimulate a rats brain to perform behaviors not natural to a rat, have a resulting warm feeling inside of him once the behaviors are performed and all, although artificially stimulated, performed by his own choices. All sensory information upon which we base life and our choices is a function of neuro-stimulation as both a base and expression of our personal choices. We have the potential to artificially create feeling of wholeness and warmth in a brain - and link it to our present relationship. In other words - we can artificially create a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. It waddles and quacks like the real thing - but can be artificially introduced into the equation.

Emile said...

innovator - I would not be in a position to point out if you are wrong - but appreciate your input. One would hope the Bible is there for such guidance. The challenge is that it does not seem to impact us the way it should - and in some areas, hardly at all. The divorce rate in the church is not very different to the divorce rate outside of its walls. But then again, there are many things in the Bible that we have somehow managed to ignore or somehow disempower - certainly they do not have the impact on us that they should. For those with a biblical outlook, you are right, the Bible does not give us permission to sin - just grace in our sinfulness.

docmartincohen said...

[This is a comment I received by email from a philosopher-reader who did not want to login to Google to post] in relation to my point about honesty.

“Is the consolation of honesty appealed to by Emile in the last paragraph not a bit of a false friend? After all, the bulk of relationships break up not in 'parallel' so much as in linear series - one partner becomes increasingly estranged and then breaks away. Far from hiding their contempt for their previous partner, they may add to the pain of the separation by broadcasting it - in words and in deeds. This is surely not better than the -dishonesty? - of remaining respectful of the other's feelings.”
18 January 2019 at 01:38

“Indeed. People easily misdiagnose their own feelings. So being "honest" about a - necessarily subjective - feeling, or its absence, may mean unintentionally misreporting it.
There is also, crucially, the matter of timing. Not every moment is an apt one to convey an unwelcome truth. Does the recipient deserve to hear this, and to hear it now? Does the "need to know" principle apply? Hence that moment may never come, especially if not invited or needed.
There is another way in which time intervenes. Love, or attachment, or revulsion, are patterns of feeling and response, intermittent, but over extended periods of time. So a snapshot report of feeling at a point in time cannot tell the whole story. Any more than a few bars of music can reveal the “essence” of a symphony.
"Respect" is another awkward concept, a two-edged sword. Respect may take the form of holding someone to account, which may in turn mean holding them in contempt. This is only possible with persons. Not with dogs, and not with those who are (considered as) mentally incapacitated.”

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