How Monogamy Soothes Our Existential Angst

Sex

Sex (Photo credit: James Hopkirk)

We are an infidelity obsessed culture. Our media is saturated with it, politicians’ careers ruined by it, and self-help authors and talk show hosts play on our fears of it. Earlier last month I attended a talk here in NYC by therapist Esther Perel on Infidelity: From Trauma to Transformation. Perel, the author of the excellent book about keeping relationships passionate, Mating in Captivity, presented a model on addressing infidelity in (straight) monogamous relationships. (Here’s her TED Talk this past Valentine’s Day) Certainly there is a lot to be curious about as to why people have affairs, what function an affair serves both for the individual having the affair and for the relationship itself.

I can’t help but wonder whether rather than “treating” infidelity and demonizing the infidel if we instead need to focus on addressing the underlying foundation of monogamy. Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, infidelity is not necessarily a product of a bad or problematic relationship. Many affairs happen in relationships where the degree of satisfaction is fairly high and become unhappy only after the disclosure, where the lying and deceit that typically accompany it tend to cause more damage than the sexual infraction itself. Although we will never have completely accurate statistics, it is estimated than anywhere between 30-50% of marriages have at least one episode of extra-marital sex. So either we have a lot of bad and immoral people who need help or we need to more closely examine the construct of monogamy and increase our understanding of the human experience.

Monogamy is a valid choice for some people but straight couples I’ve seen don’t typically question or examine whether monogamy is the right choice for them or not. They just assume it. Why do we still gravitate toward monogamy and what are the inherent difficulties we encounter by doing so?. For some people monogamy is like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. It just doesn’t fit. So if you’re going to choose monogamy,  it warrants examining what that choice actually means and where it comes from.

THE HISTORY OF MONOGAMY IN LESS THAN 1000 WORDS

When most people get into new relationships they tend to default into monogamy. Rarely are there discussions about “why monogamy?” or what purpose will monogamy serve and is this the right choice for us. In Western cultures, we have come to think of monogamy as natural or the norm, when in fact that historically has not been the case. What is “natural” is often only a product of the time. In Kyle Harper’s Ted Talk on The History of Monogamy, he notes that somewhere between 73-93% of the world’s societies have been polygamous, and of those societies that are monogamous, they have only become so in the last 200 years. He describes why societies that descend from the Romans tend to be monogamous and how the move from hunter/gatherer societies to the agricultural revolution in about 8000B.C. also spurred this shift. In short, as people relied on their land to sustain themselves, men in particular had to be cautious about the number of people they could feed based on the land that they owned. It served them to limit the number of wives and children they had to support.

WHEN PEOPLE DIDN’T KNOW THAT SEX MADE BABIES

In the book Sex at Dawn, authors Ryan and Jetha note that it was only as the agricultural revolution took so did the notion of property. Whereas previously in hunter gatherer societies there had been no real incentive to move away from a model of sharing, men could now own the land , own food, own shelter and “own” sexuality (i.e. women’s sexuality became men’s property). It was only then that people began to realize that the act of sex lead to pregnancy and men became invested in leaving their land to their own biological off-spring. In order to do so, a man had to know which children were his. The biological evidence about the whether there is an evolutionary imperative to be monogamous is controversial, but as soon as there is a societal norm that supports accumulation of wealth and property (by men alone), then men become invested in keeping women monogamous.

WHAT TO LEARN FROM LGBTQ FOLK

When it comes to examining whether monogamy is the right choice for a couple, it would serve people to take a note from the LGBTQ community. One of the best things about being queer in the last few decades is that queers have had unique freedom. Living on the margins means we are less constricted by conventional narratives. LGBTQ people have been free to define our own relationships, who we want to love, who we want to have sex with and how. The gay men’s bathhouse movement, especially prior to AIDS, is the most obvious example of men who proclaimed their sexuality in opposition to the dominant heterosexual monogamous norm.

The heteronormative narrative of boy meets girl, they fall in love, gets married, have kids and stay together forever is in fact the overwhelming dominant script to which Americans are exposed. Americans, seemingly more so than their European counterparts, fall for it hook, line and sinker. There is pressure for straight people to appear “normal” and to play their part. Out LGBTQ people have already gone through the process of accepting their sexuality and reflecting on its complexity. Through a coming out process and forging relationships with same-sex partners or multiple partners, they have already come to terms with a sexuality that is perhaps different from the way we are told it is supposed to be. When people live on the margins of heteronormativity, there is a tremendous paradox in that although they experience personal and institutional oppression, they are also freer to write their own stories and question the monogamous dyad as the ideal. Many couples I see default into monogamy because that’s what we are taught is normal and natural without examining the choice they are making.

EXISTENTIALISM AND MONOGAMY

Existential psychotherapists write about the four givens that are part of the universal human experience: 1) The knowledge that we inevitably die and we die alone; 2) The need to create meaning in a world which there is no obvious meaning; 3) The desire for freedom vs. the desire for structure and security; and 4) the desire for connection when we are isolated within ourselves. Perhaps monogamy is a means of managing the anxiety that accompanies some of these realities.

1.Death

“Til death do us part” is an integral part of  the construction of the western marital narrative, perhaps as a means of assuaging the anxiety that arises when we think of our own death. Do we comfort ourselves with the illusion that we ultimately will not be alone? There is relief in imagining that our loved one can accompany us out of this world and into the next when actually there is only so far a loved one can walk with us. We must all face the inevitability that we will make that journey alone.

2. Meaning

Marriage helps create meaning, but not because marriage is necessarily a “natural phenomena” but because society imbues the institution with meaning and status. Marriage gives us a road already travelled that is socially sanctioned that helps organize and give shape to our life. It is part of the human experience to question “What am I doing here? What is my purpose? How can I have meaning in my life?” We must do something with our time here and for many people the notion of marriage and family, which are highly valued in our culture, may relieve people from some of the struggle about what to do with the time they have here. Pretend you live in a world where for some reason monogamy and child-rearing are not options. How would you create your life? What kinds of emotional and sexual relationships would you choose to have? How would you grapple with the great fact that ultimately no one knows why we are here or what we are supposed to do with this life time?

3. Security.

Security, or the illusion of security, is one of the primary function that marriage serves. Marriage makes us feel like we are ok. In entering into a marriage, people hope for the dream: that they will be loved, taken care of, and that they will not be injured or hurt by betrayals. I have worked with so many unmarried couples who talk about the security that they hope marriage will give them. The notion of life-long commitment assuage their fears of abandonment, of being alone. They often look at me in shock when I offer that marriage alone will not solve your fears of being left, your need to be unconditionally loved or your sense of not being an adequate person/partner.

Certainly good monogamy can bring a great sense of security and there is tremendous gratification and contentment in a deepening long-term intimacy. However, when we choose monogamy we need to be aware of what we give up. Security and freedom and autonomy are on opposite poles of the same continuum. When we choose the security of a monogamous relationship we relinquish the excitement and adventure that come with seeking out new relationships and sexual experiences. We are a culture that tends to value security, perhaps partially because since the industrial revolution we tend to be disconnected from extended families and larger communities. Increasingly we have internalized the idea that our partner is supposed to be all things to us (best friend, lover, worker, confidant, activity companion, child caregiver, intellectual sparring partner, etc.) So we have tremendous anxiety about losing that one person or knowing what do we do with the needs that our partner can’t meet (because no one can meet every need another person has).

The need for freedom and why some women cheat

When coupling with someone, it is worth understanding that yes, of course security is important and comforting, but to know that with that choice we are giving up or suppressing a fundamental human need. We are giving up freedom, taking risks, autonomy, the thrill of being seen and known by someone new. In Ester Perel’s talk, she named several variables that increase the likelihood that a heterosexual woman will cheat. I thought this was fascinating.1) Across the world, once women have access to a car, the rates of infidelity start to climb, which I interpret as once women have access to freedom, they start to take it. 2) A woman is most likely to have an affair when her youngest child is three years old. Again, once women are less trapped by the demands of child care, they seek something else. I joked with Ester that it was probably the first time they felt able to take a shower and be presentable enough for sex. And of course, it has been well documented that women’s rates of infidelity positively correlate with financial independence. As dependency lessens, women are more likely to pursue their desire for autonomy and freedom. Couples have to discuss how they will balance these competing human needs. Certainly there are other ways to address the need for freedom, autonomy, and desire than to have an affair or be non-monogamous, but those needs are there and you can guarantee they will find their ways to the surface.

4. The desire for connection

As marriage becomes a more egalitarian affair in the United States, it has become a place for people to place their hopes about being fully known by another person. Partners speak of being married to their best friend and in couples therapy, there is an emphasis on knowing and understanding one another. Embedded in our current culture is an emphasis on honesty, disclosure and transparency, as if we can fully ever know another person. Couples therapy focuses on hearing and understanding the other person’s experience. As human beings, we long for a sense of connection and being fully known by others but yet we are limited. We can never completely know what it’s like to be another, what they feel, what they think. The communication of self is limited by our language and by our physical bodies. We cannot transcend another person and facing that reality may leave us with an intense sense of loneliness.

COMPULSORY MONOGAMY

In 1980 Adrienne Rich wrote that women were subject to the lie of compulsory heterosexuality. Today I wonder if people, and women in particular, are subject to compulsory monogamy. Certainly, monogamy is a valid and good choice for many people. Here I am only suggesting that we make conscious choice about how we live and how we construct our emotional and sexual relationships. Just as the polyamorous person gets the question, “so why did you choose polyamory?,” it will serve people who want monogamous relationships to be curious about their choices, to know the historical roots of monogamy, and to face both the benefits and pitfalls of monogamy with open eyes.

11 thoughts on “How Monogamy Soothes Our Existential Angst

  1. I love this piece. I think it opens up such an interesting dialogue around our false sense of security and the role that socialized norms play in that. We have finally begun to recognize a range of institutionalized oppressions, and yet compulsory monogamy is rarely questioned. Why has institutionalized non-monogamism (I’m guessing that’s what it would be called) not yet been illuminated and deconstructed? Then we’d really have to look at our American dream and the “ideal” family that we’ve created. Monogamy is great for some people, it just shouldn’t be assumed unquestioned.

  2. Wow! Intense. I really like your writing. As a secular existentialist I would say that yes, a monogamous, ever-deepening relationship with my wife does, in fact, offer me purpose, a purpose that I’m certain I would not otherwise have. True–it’s delusional for one to think it will mean one does not die alone. I know I will die alone, and I also suspect (and hope) that my love for my wife will be my last thought. This is a difficult but worthy conversation.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts. It’s true I think that we have to find a way toward our own meaning, even if it is some what delusional, otherwise we’d walk around in a state of constant anxiety and purposelessness. If anything I have found relationships to be the most meaningful, as opposed to other cultural valued institutions like the accumulation of money and work-as-life.

  3. I co-wrote a lengthy essay a couple years ago dealing with the question of “compulsory monogamy,” it’s great to see someone else using the term.

    I can really relate to a lot of what you have to say here about the existential drive for the meaning and security of marriage. I’m polyamorous and in two marriage-like relationships; I’ve often questioned what it is that drives me to desire more “traditional” commitments (if you can call it traditional when there are more than one…) even while ideologically I value the potential of loving in a very open, fluid way. The conclusions I reach about my own desires are similar to what you describe here.

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  5. I believe in a lifetime monogamous partnership. One of the major cornerstones of it is trust because broken trust destroys it. Why setup the marriage with a fragile corner stone. Allow the possibility of an outside relationship. Discuss this and allow for this part of human nature to be part of in. That would make the trust cornerstone stronger. The forbidden fruit would loose its meaning and the grass would not look greener on the other side of the fence. The trust would become stronger and thus the relationship stands stronger for a lifetime.

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