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.

2 comments:

Thomas 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).

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