Okay, so the title is a little misleading — there’s no problem at all with the narrow practice of having one sexual partner at a time. I’m monogamous because that’s what works for me (and my girlfriend); it’s what works for lots of other folks, too. That’s great.
What is problematic is the massive culture conceptualization of monogamy, which, in my estimation, goes way beyond how many people one is sleeping with. It is, rather, the cultural construction of love itself, which seems to amount to the idea that each person should get (and give) all her love from (and to) just one person. It is the idea that we should have all our emotional needs met by a sole other person, and meet 100% of that person’s needs in turn. It’s the idea that adults should have only one really important adult relationship — that the (sole) person one is sleeping with should become the single most important person in one’s life, that one’s spouse should exist on this sacred plane of total devotion, while our friendships should be basically casual, basically unimportant, or, at best, less important.
I think this causes a lot of heartbreak, both in the form of the strange disappointment of discovering that one’s lover is not, as one had been taught to expect, a perfect carbon copy of oneself, but a complex human being, and in the form of the loneliness, anxiety and frustration of trying to get all one’s emotional needs met by one person and trying to singlehandedly meet all of another person’s needs. And I seriously think that many of our common ailments are the result of the pervasive lack of strong social support systems, the grievous lack of real community. So it’s a doomed mission and we would do well to abandon it, whether we practice sexual monogamy or any of the various forms of polyamory.
(By the way, I first put this idea into words in a comment over at Dave Pollard’s excellent blog How To Save The World some months ago, on this post. This post is largely an elaboration of what I said there.)
So, I don’t know how many sex partners humans are supposed to have — I suspect it varies widely, and I also suspect that that’s not really the point, in terms of what I’m talking about here.
Some people are much happier with polyamorous relationships, and that’s great; others do best with monogamy, and, as I said earlier, that’s great, too. I’m very glad for everyone who’s found what makes her happy. Those are important issues. They’re also, I think, personal issues. I don’t think it’s a matter for political consideration, really, how many sex partners each person has, beyond the obvious statement that we should respect and recognize each person’s choices.* What is a social and political issue, though, is how many people each of us loves — or, more to the point, how many people we are permitted to love, and what love means in our society.
That is the problem with monogamy: that we are expected to love only one person. Family relationships are recognized, but they’re also marginalized — we’re expected to see our parents, siblings, still-living grandparents and grown children only a few times a year (and what of our aunts, uncles, cousins?); they’re not set up as vital relationships in our daily lives.
What a bereft existence! I think it’s absolutely clear that no one is meant to love and be loved by just one person, and that we slowly kill ourselves when try to make this happen. No one can meet all of another person’s needs, and there is no reason to expect anyone to do so. People are complicated, multifaceted creatures; those of us who are waiting for someone who is totally compatible with every facet of our being are going to be waiting a long, long time.
A much better solution is to encourage everyone to have many important relationships (and again, this has no bearing on one’s sex life) — diverse, fulfilling, important relationships with many people, so that some parts of oneself get exercised and appreciated with some people, and other parts with other people. This both assures that our various needs actually get met, and takes the pressure off of other relationships — I suspect it’s much easier to forge a good romantic partnership, for example, if you’re not expecting your partner to be perfect or trying make the relationship as big as your whole life.
Having major relationships is, of course, work. It can be hard work. It is also some of the most fulfilling work a person can do. It is worth it. And the natural outcropping of this, when we do it daily — when we form many diverse loving relationships, as many as will grow, and treat their maintenance as important work — is community.
*And beyond discussions of legal arrangements and recognition, but that’s a whole other thing.
This post was written by Daisy on October 8, 2008