The edifice of monogamy

We have some sacred cows – beliefs that are so sacrosanct that we simply presume everyone shares them. Sometimes it feels like “progress” is the gradual elimination of those sacred cows. (Women’s suffrage, civil rights, marriage equality, rampant agnosticism all feel like “progress” to most of us.) I’m actually mostly agnostic on the question of whether we actually are progressing – as time marches on, as certain sacred cows are dispensed with, we seem to replace them with others. As some become less sacred, others seem holier than ever.

An example: monogamy is ascendant as a sacred cow. Sure, there’s a growing community of people who identify as “poly,” and “swingers” have been around forever. But our thinking about monogamy is at best stagnant and, truthfully, my sense is, ossifying.

Magazines, newspapers and web sites continue to report incidents of infidelity among politicians and stars as if it were news that many people (when individual people) find it difficult, or impossible, or simply undesirable, to remain faithful. As a married man looking for primarily sexual, but ongoing, relationships with women, I can tell you that among women open to, and even seeking, casual sex, the simple fact that I am married makes me considerably less attractive to the vast majority of such women. And, among those who enticed by my being married and unavailable, the fact that I’m open and honest is itself often a turn-off – perhaps the most powerful indicator of how unacceptable such a configuration remains.

There’s a blog called “Longreads,” a collection of long-form articles on the web, that I enjoy. They hunt down terrific, detailed, in-depth writing of the sort the New Yorker used to publish (and occasionally still does). They recently published a collection, “Beyond the Simply Salacious: Five Stories on Adultery,” that I was curious to read. In the end, I found it depressing. Each of the five pieces reinforced, in a different way, from a different angle, the ideas that constitute the monogamy sacred cow:

1) We all should be monogamous.
2) We all can be monogamous.
3) Infidelity is a form of totalizing betrayal that’s unforgivable. And, related…
4) It’s reasonable – even correct – to think that infidelity is incontrovertible evidence of moral stain.
5) The fact of rampant infidelity is evidence not of a problem with the way we think about fidelity/monogamy, but rather, of widespread depravity and loathsomeness.

Now, you know, I have a dog in this fight. I was, for years, a CPOS, a person betraying my wife repeatedly, magnificently, epic-ly. And today, we have a monogamish relationship, one in which we remain truly devoted to one another, in which each of us is indisputably the center of one another’s romantic, intellectual, emotional, social life, but in which, from time to time, each of us has sex with other people, people with whom we, from time to time, have three-dimensional relationships. I started this blog in part because I wanted to provide the world with one more example of an alternative configuration of a marriage, because I imagine(d) that, for some, it might be helpful to see how one couple does it.

And I believe – not that what I do, what we do, is right for everyone, but – that the world is a richer place when people understand that there are alternatives to the hegemonic ideal, and that our discussion of the hegemonic ideal features a certain tendency toward magical thought, toward religious fantasy.

I get in trouble occasionally when I write like this. Monogamists say I’m somehow assailing their monogamous relationships, the very hope of monogamy. Which feels to me a lot like further evidence of the extent to which it’s a sacred cow. I don’t think, honestly, that I’m saying anything controversial when I say the following:

1) Infidelity is not uncommon
2) Many people whom we otherwise respect have been unfaithful
3) Many successful, long-term relationships in part succeed because they have found a way to triumph over infidelity on the part of one or both members
4) Many many married men go to strip clubs, massage parlors, or otherwise consume some or other kind of sex work at some point over the course of their marriages
5) Most people fantasize about sex with someone other than their partner from time to time, including while having sex with their partner
6) Most of us have some secrets about our desires and fantasies that we don’t share with our spouses
7) There is considerable sacrifice for many of us in not having sex with people other than our spouses
8) Many people find it really fucking hard to be monogamous, to remain “faithful,” even in the face of undisputed commitment and love for their partners
9) Jealousy is a rampant, and painful, emotion – one that characterizes many spouses in monogamous relationships
10) Many people who think they’re in monogamous relationships are misled

What’s controversial isn’t the points. It’s stating the obvious conclusions implied by those facts that we all agree to ignore:

1) It’s not “surprising” when good people slip, when devoted partners “fail” at fidelity. It’s eminently predictable.
2) There might be some benefits, for some people, to alternate approaches to the hegemonic one.
3) Many of us can tolerate jealousy – it’s not necessarily the case that one must organize one’s life so as to avoid all instances of jealousy. (And, it may not be possible anyway.)

All that said? I really liked this piece from Guernica, called “The Cuckold.” It was excruciatingly painful to read, and made me really sad. The cuckolding woman is none too sympathetic, and the protagonist’s pain is exquisitely rendered. It made me grateful for the enormous distance between my story and the one rendered here.

As much as anything, it seemed to me, the inviolate beliefs of the narrator – and his friends and family, and his wife – about fidelity, monogamy, and marriage may well have foreclosed the possibility of a happier (or at least less sad) understanding of the meaning of all this.


  1. It happens that my partner and I are monogamous and married. But I can’t see how anyone else’s non-monogamy has any impact on that, in the same way that I don’t see how gay marriage can have any effect on my straight marriage.

    It may be true that humans on the whole tend to be fairly monogamous, but it’s a logical leap (a naturalistic fallacy, I think) to then conclude that all people must always be monogamous.

  2. My partner and I happen to be monogamous and married, but I can’t see how anyone else’s non-monogamy has any impact on that, in the same way that I don’t see how gay marriage can have any effect on my straight marriage. Humans in general may tend toward monogamy, but it’s a logical leap (a naturalistic fallacy, I think) to then conclude that all people must always be monogamous.

    A thought-provoking post.

    1. Your comment is here twice, and twice you assert that humans tend toward monogamy. I’m curious what you mean by this, what your evidence is. I’m unaware of any evidence humans are monogamous, or tend toward monogamy. What makes you say that?

      1. Sorry about the double post – that was a technical glitch.

        I didn’t actually assert that “humans tend toward monogamy”; I said “it may be true that…” (version 1), and “may tend…” (v 2). I was making a supposition for the sake of pointing out the subsequent logical fallacy, without intending to take any position as to whether the original supposition was correct or not.

        1. I see. I suppose I think it’s distracting, as you’ve written it, because there IS so little evidence we are monogamous creatures. The argument I make isn’t that we aren’t monogamous, or that we aren’t ALL monogamous. It’s that, when we discuss monogamy, we get dumb.

  3. I cannot thank you enough for saying what I have thought. There’s nothing wrong with being monogamous if that’s your bag. But it seems that it is a sacred cow.
    People who are happily monogamous think that’s the ultimate the thing to aspire to. If that’s their bag have at it. I don’t feel that way and I’m tired of either being a CPOS or being told I’m somehow wrong for getting out of that relationship and not getting into another monogamous one. Who the fuck said that was what I should aspire to?

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