On monogamy

Adam Phillips, an eminent British psychoanalyst, wrote a great book called Monogamy – a collection of micro-essays on the subject. I should re-read his book. I don’t remember if he made exactly this point (though I suspect he did), but….

Whenever I hear someone describe a relationship as “monogamous,” I do a bunch of mental math. First, I just parse what it is they’ve said, vs. what they mean. I think they mean, “both parties in the relationship have agreed not to have sex with others.” As far as it goes, that seems fair.

What doesn’t seem fair – what seems, in fact, almost psychotic, is to conflate that fact – the existence of a promise – with an implicit claim about both parties’ behavior – always, from the moment of the agreement extending forward indefinitely into time. And then – and this is the part I find most difficult – to demand of the listener that they subscribe to that claim – knowing nothing more (except for what they might know about monogamy, generally). Or at least, that they pretend to believe it.

In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s (and of course, up to this day, but more, back then), every year or so, there would erupt a scandal involving some public figure – almost always a man – having some sort of sexual outlet outside of his “monogamous” relationship. Republican politicians tended toward gay, or group, or “deviant” sex. Democrats, pop stars, athletes, tended just to have affairs. Or sex with sex workers. Back then, I always thought it was strange that newspapers published these stories breathlessly, covering them as if the stories they were reporting were the story, when, it seemed to me, the interesting story wasn’t that, say, Larry Craig had sex with men in airport bathrooms, but that we all subscribe to a myth of monogamy that requires us to perform periodic shock and outrage when people fail to hide their departures from monogamy from public view. Larry Craig reminded us that, in 2007, an Idaho senator might (re)solve at least some of the conflicts between his desire to be an elected official, his desire to have a family, and his sexuality, by sucking off the odd guy in the airport.

The actual news story: “monogamy” is a totem. We all must pledge fealty to it, whether we practice it or not, and Larry Craig offered an example from reality that reminded us of the pantomime aspect of all this. Which we do not like, and so must react against.

Curmudgeonly me, I struggle.

When someone describes a relationship as “monogamous,” I first think something like, “Um, how do you know that?!?” I’ve been in some “monogamous” relationships that I knew weren’t monogamous. I’ve been in some “monogamous” relationships I didn’t know weren’t monogamous. Ditto my friends, family, colleagues, etc.

Romantics, and monogamists, may accuse me of cynicism, of anti-romanticism.

I disagree.

I believe monogamy is possible. I believe it happens. I believe that, for the people for whom it is the right configuration, it’s terrific.

I also believe something that should be uncontroversial, but that isn’t: perfect monogamy just isn’t that common an occurrence. Dan Savage has written and said lots on this, amounting to, “We have unrealistic expectations when it comes to monogamy, and should right-size them.” I’m not far from Dan Savage on this, but with a twist: he’s trying to normalize non-monogamy, and to “take the pressure off of” monogamy, to make space for people to slip up, to have affairs, crushes, etc., and not to tell themselves they’ve somehow committed the worst possible sin.

I have no normative agenda. I don’t care what others do, or say.

What rubs me wrong is, as I said, the demand (and I experience it as a demand) that I accept as uncontroversial, uninteresting, unchallenged, the elision between “we’ve promised not to sleep with others” and “neither of us sleeps with others,” or, perhaps most honestly, “I don’t sleep with others, and I believe my partner when they tell me they don’t, won’t, either.” That? I can believe.

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