What monogamy really asks of our long-term partners and ourselves
Many of us grew up with the romantic ‘happily ever after’ notion that if we truly love someone, monogamy comes naturally. That if we feel attracted to or seek intimacy with someone other than our life partner, this reflects underlying issues with our relationship.
We then tie our self-worth to our partner’s fidelity — which we assume is easy provided they love us enough — and expect them to remain faithful for years and years, even when our own interest wanes.
It’s not realistic, it’s destructive, and it’s not fair on either partner. Relationships are not that simple and monogamy is far from easy.
Monogamy, as many people understand it, is about committing to one person, and only one person, in an emotionally and sexually exclusive relationship. In our fairytale scenario, as well as being our only lover, we expect our life partner to be our best friend, our confidante, a companion, a co-householder, and if you have children, a co-parent.
This type of partnership offers many benefits including stability, love, security, family, and a society that supports us. As the years stretch by, it can also be a huge ask to have so many expectations of one person.
We don’t demand as much from any friend or family member, who each fulfil — and share — particular compartmentalised roles. We don’t expect our friends, for instance, not to have any other friends, and we don’t ask our parents to also be our lovers. In these types of relationships, we limit the time we spend with one another and the nature of what we do and share, yet we expect a life partner to be a whole range of things to us and to meet a variety of needs exclusively.
During the early days of a relationship this is largely buffered by the positive feelings of new love and the rewards of being partnered. Once those feelings start to wane and we stretch our ask over many years, we can start to feel put upon, weighing the benefits of partnership against the burden of responsibility and what we are ‘missing out on’ by being bound to one person.
This is when our fairytale model of long-term monogamy starts to crack. Cornered, we can end up living a lie, resenting our partners, or leaving to find revitalised attraction and self-worth in the loins of someone new.
Some of us engage in successive long-term relationships to meet our desire for non-monogamy within the confines of societal norms, one monogamous connection at a time. Starting over like this can bring new insights and teach us lessons about ourselves and others.
It can also be a very poor choice, breaking up families and lives. We may learn very little, never seeing anything through, and eventually reach the same point when lust again dies down and resentment builds up.
Others hang on to relationships when underlying needs are not being met out of fear of being alone and taking a risk, or for the sake of a belief in life-time monogamy, not knowing they can make other choices.
Putting monogamy on a pedestal, investing so heavily in its worth — and placing our worth in it — prevents us from truly examining our relationships and making sound choices. Say we are lucky enough not to have succumbed to the drudgery of Married Sex and our partner still gets us percolating in the nether regions, chances are at some point we will find ourselves attracted to someone other than our mate.
Wanting to act on our desire transgresses the bounds of monogamous commitment, so we may feel that leaving is our only choice – if we don’t get caught and kicked out first. ‘Why didn’t you end your current relationship if you wanted to sleep with someone else?’ And if we forgive a partner who cheats on us, we are unlikely to find support from those around us: ‘Only a fool would take a cheater back; once a cheater, always a cheater.’
Society denies couples the opportunity to really understand what happened and why and make an objective decision about the best course for the relationship. Under the fairytale rules, experiencing outside attraction can create guilt and confusion, while our partner’s outside attraction can damage our self-esteem.
Long term sexual exclusivity can also lead to resentment when a couple has differing libidos, tastes and interests. If the rest of the relationship works just fine, but our life partner isn’t able or willing to give us the kind of sex we enjoy as often as we enjoy it, the fairytale says we should suck it up for the benefit of the Greater Good (i.e. monogamy), but what impact does this have on the relationship over time?
To use a fairly lame analogy, we might love to eat roast lamb followed by chocolate pudding, but do we really want to eat that same meal every single night for the rest of our lives? How do we start to view our favourite treat when presented to us again and again?
It’s also not only about the sex. Interacting with people outside the relationship can offer different energy and perspectives, and an esteem boost when they see us through fresh eyes.
Allowing our partners the freedom to have relationships of varying kinds with other people can add to life’s richness, helping us learn more about ourselves and others, while providing vigour and newness over time. Maybe this means having more than one partner or intimate relationship, or maybe we stop expecting one person to meet all our needs.
I’m not saying that monogamy is wrong or evil, or that we shouldn’t try to be monogamous. I’m saying we should acknowledge that the happily-ever-after model of monogamy is hard work.
Being honest about the challenges it presents and what we are really asking of our partners is a necessary first step to avoid looking at our partner and seeing all the things that might have been but for our monogamous commitment. Our partner shouldn’t represent denial and loss. The should represent nurturing, opportunity, and growth.
By taking away the expectation that we will always feel monogamous towards our partner, whether we act on it or not, we can be honest about our desires and motives, and objectively assess the health of our relationships.