Love without monogamy

Expanding the meaning of marriage beyond heterosexual relations captures the spirit of the times but misses the pulse of the future.

Rebecca Gould
15 August 2016


We live in a monogamous age. But with the demise of the nuclear family and the increasing recognition that is being granted to alternative sexualities, that age is slowly coming to an end. I think that’s a very good thing.

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the historic ruling that legalized gay marriage across the United States in 2015, US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy revealed the prejudice in which even the most liberal public discourses about sexuality remain enmeshed when he concluded that “No union is more profound than marriage.”

Justice Kennedy’s words, which were widely praised in the popular press, captured the spirit of the times but missed the pulse of the future. The Supreme Court’s expansion of the meaning of marriage beyond heterosexual relations was a step in the right direction, but the real triumph for men and women alike will come when marriage as we currently know it is allowed to co-exist with more plural understandings of love.

Many unions are more profound than marriage, including the forms of heterosexual and homosexual love that marriage often validates. Love precedes marriage, and in a non-monogamous world it will not require the validation of the state.

In a non-monogamous world, courtship rituals will become less codified than they are now, and women will become equal partners with men in the search for love. They will enjoy the same flexibility as men do with regard to sexual relations, and men will feel less pressured to define themselves as all the things that women are not.

Although we are trained to think of monogamy as an institution that benefits women, it is worth remembering that monogamy evolved along with patriarchy as a means of insuring the integrity of the nuclear family—of keeping the wife at home and the husband at work. Monogamy is an essential component of a patriarchal society. We can’t undo patriarchy without displacing monogamy.

In a non-monogamous world, women will not squander their lives in seeking for the perfect man. Intimacy will be an ever-present possibility, and the biological clock won’t define a woman’s life trajectory since the concept of the family will be less bound to biological reproduction. It will be harder to conflate love with ego, and more difficult to use others to hide from ourselves when we no longer require our intimate others to be extensions of who we are.

Differences between men and women will become less regimented and people will be free to identify with the gender that most suits them in any given moment.  A non-monogamous world will offer less security. We will not be able to take our partners for granted as we do now. We will not stay with our lovers simply from the fear of being left alone.

When monogamy is seen as an aberration rather than the norm, hypocrisy will have less room to fester. Honesty will no longer be shoved to the margins where it exists today, causing us to lie to ourselves and others about what we really want in life. People will lie for other reasons, and in other ways, perhaps no less insidiously than before, but at least some of the old lies will be washed away.

In a non-monogamous society, new arrangements will have to be made for raising children. We will have to think more seriously about adoption than ever before, as a preferred method for raising children rather than a measure of last resort. The implications for social justice are clear: for the first time in history, children’s lives will not be wholly determined by the families into which they are born.

As Bertrand Russell pointed out in his unjustly forgotten masterpiece Marriage and Morals, social institutions such as schools now do much of the work, and provide much of the education, that used to be left entirely to the family. In premodern societies, the continuity and integrity of the family was an absolute necessity because there were few institutions aside from the church to which children who lacked a strong family network could turn for support. So monogamy, Russell argued, had much more justification, and was more necessary to the social good, than it is today.

Non-monogamy will not suit everyone. But for the many who find their lives and sexual orientations excluded from monogamous society at present, it offers a welcome alternative.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, many of the most forward-thinking women writers experimented with non-monogamy in their intimate lives. Think of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf, and Vita Sackville-West, for example, and also Simone de Beauvoir and Dora Russell (Bertrand Russell’s wife). Katie Roiphe, in her study of Bloomsbury Movement marriages, adds several other examples from this same milieu. It is not coincidental that these female non-monogamists confined most of their experiments to lesbian relations, since it was more difficult for women of that time, as it remains in our own, to practice heterosexual non-monogamy in public ways.

Meanwhile, male writers were left free to practice heterosexual non-monogamy however they pleased, not always with the full consent of the women with whom they were involved. Such forms of monogamy were socially unjust, and shaped by patriarchal norms just as monogamy is today. Although my examples of non-monogamous relations come from the first decades of the twentieth century, when we compare the biographies of Millay, Goldman, Woolf, Sackville-West, de Beauvoir, and Russell to the contemporary lives of women it appears that not much has changed in terms of sexual norms and the freedom that is (not) accorded to women who live non-conventional lives. 

Non-monogamy is a path to multiple possibilities. It is monogamy that is pathologically singular and grossly unimaginative in imagining the full range of human intimacy. To break free from this confinement we must seek alternatives to the monogamic norm. We must resist the impulse to be monolithic and exclusive, to be unrealistic and to live under the shadow of our lies. We must do this even if we wish to remain with the same partner for the rest of our lives.

Non-monogamy isn’t perfect, but it is better than monogamy for those whose lives are devoted to a cause, who seek partners to inspire them rather than pillows on which to rest their heads, and who value truth over conformity and love over convention.

As yet, non-monogamy has not received the legal recognition it deserves. Polyamory is a freakish term, an aberration with no legal standing and an eyebrow-raising neologism. Non-monogamy is increasingly debated in the public sphere, and has become a frequent subject of scholarly debate, yet it lacks a name. It remains a negative identity, defined against the monogamous norm.

Given its commitment to reimagining sexual politics, feminism ought to have taught us how to break free from monogamy’s laws. It ought to have given us a name for an emotionally robust and sexually fulfilling non-monogamous life. But so far it has failed to live up to this mandate.

Non-monogamy will generate new difficulties—as it has throughout human history—but on balance men and women will both be better off when they are free to explore their sexuality with multiple partners, outside the bonds and illusions, the oppressive and self-defeating expectations that are fostered by monogamy’s law.

Non-monogamy is not a panacea for the world’s woes, but we all stand to gain from its embrace. Both individuals and societies will benefit when legal, social and political recognition is extended to the full range of ways of loving and desiring others, outside of the bonds, illusions, and self-defeating expectations that are fostered by monogamy.

This proposal may come across as utopian, especially coming from someone whose life has been a series of more or less unsuccessful monogamous relationships. However, the world is coming to recognize that monogamy is overdue for transfiguration. It is premature to predict the forms of social and sexual intimacy that may emerge in the wake of that critique. But if they are feminist, progressive, and non-heteronormative, then it follows that they will also be non-monogamous, albeit in many different ways.

A non-monogamous society won’t bring immediate or even long-term happiness to everyone, but it will bring greater freedom and openness to the many of us whose life options are limited by monogamy’s domination.

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