Salon.com has been running a series of articles by Tracy Clark-Flory on monogamy, prompted in part by a New York Times Review article that quizzed sexpert Dan Savage about the Weiner affair, and in part on the seemingly endless list of celebrity infidelity scandals. The first Salon article interviewed marriage historian Stephanie Coontz on how monogamy has evolved (basically, from an arranged economic compact to a personal commitment based on romantic love). The second article interviews cultural anthropologist Judith Stacey, author of the book Unhitched, on the world’s non-monogamous cultures.
I wrote a review a few years ago of Laura Kipnis’ wonderful book Against Love, in which she argues that monogamy is unnatural and unhealthy, and possibly complicit in our emotional detachment from political life and our ecosystem as well. Kipnis sees monogamy as part of the cultural indoctrination that leads to wage slavery and mindless consumerism — it’s all about creating scarcity (in this case, scarcity of love and sex) to drive up the ‘value’ of both, and hence needlessly drive up the hunger, desperation and jealousy (and, alas, resultant domestic violence) of so many in their anguished search for them. And ultimately, it’s all about creating a ‘consumer’ populace that is (financially and emotionally) endlessly needy, unsatisfied, and wanting more, that can be exploited and oppressed.
The problem with the pontifications of Savage, Coontz and Stacey is that they all seem to equate monogamy with sexual fidelity to a single partner. Mark Oppenheimer, who interviewed Savage, notes:
What if a woman, or a man for that matter, looks outside marriage for the other emotional satisfactions that come along with sex? Savage has less to offer that person. He does not tell people to take long-term boyfriends or girlfriends. He is skeptical that group marriages, of three or more partners, can last very long. Nor could he have much to offer the person who feels a partner ought to constrain his urges. There is a reason that sex advice is easier to give than relationship advice. Satisfying a sexual yearning is easier than satisfying a hole in your life.
It’s pretty clear that a lot of ‘infidelity’ in monogamous relationships is in search of something other than sexual excitement or variety. The whole argument behind polyamory is that it is unreasonable to expect any one person to fulfill all your life’s desires (social, intellectual, emotional, financial, physical, and sexual). The “marriage is hard work” mantra that we are inculcated with in our culture calls on us to stifle our desires, suppress our impulses and disappointments, and accept our one partner for who s/he is and what s/he can offer us — in other words, to settle for less. Anthropologists have concluded that such settling is unnatural, and that is why the chemistry of love binds us to a single partner only for a brief period sufficient to produce offspring and ensure they are sufficiently provided for until they are weaned.
In my review of Against Love I speculated idealistically about the emergence of a new polyamory society within our culture, one that in retrospect sounds very much like the Mosuo culture in northwest China described in glowing terms in Unhitched. This is what I imagined:
A lot of people, some of their own free will, and many more who have been pushed, have recently broken free of wage slavery and are now working, mostly for much less income, for themselves. That’s probably a good thing in many ways — it reduces the supply of the remaining wage slaves, which might actually, in time, allow them to bargain from a position of at least a bit of power. It increases self-sufficiency. It reduces excessive consumption. What if there were a similar revolution against marriage slavery? What if a whole generation just refused to define themselves (in more ways than one) as married, or to live with the constraints of monogamy, and instead opted for a polyamory life-style?
Paternity ‘rights’ and responsibilities would both probably suffer, as the new family unit would be a woman (or possibly, and more logically, a group of women, in self-selected community) and their children. They would have the power, and could strike whatever contract they chose with males who wanted the responsibilities and privileges of fatherhood. The nuclear family and the ‘single-family dwelling’ would disappear. Conjugal relations would not attach to parental responsibility, and could be negotiated between any two people as individuals on a one-shot basis, with no responsibility other than the responsibility to prevent unwanted pregnancy and disease. This would probably be bad for the oldest profession, as the supply/demand ratio for quick couplings would soar. Jealousy and the consequent domestic violence that is the scourge of our nuclear spouse-as-property society would, slowly (old habits die hard), disappear. I think the vast majority of men, driven by million-year-old biological imperatives, once they reached a certain age, would choose to attach themselves to one of the matriarchal communities (if so invited), and would do their share to provide for its well-being, in return for the company and sense of purpose that would bring.
Since my marriage ended three years ago I have opted for polyamory, not for any ideological reasons as much as because I enjoyed “playing the field” in my youth and see no reason why I should not do so again, having lived monogamously, faithfully and responsibly, for the better part of three decades. Poly just works for me, and makes sense to me. I am much better at it now than I was thirty years ago, I think: I am more knowledgeable about who I am and hence can be far more honest about what I seek and what I offer in loving relationships. I am much fussier about who I love, and can’t envision trying to juggle more than two or three relationships.
I’ve actually found I’m quite willing to make a (non-monogamous) commitment to those I love, and I think I’m a lot more generous than I used to be in what I’m willing to offer. What is critical to me is that my relationships be mutually healthy and happy (and it’s my intention that, if and as long as they are, they be lifelong), and that they leave enough room (time and space) for me to be alone, since I’ve discovered I really like, and perhaps even need, time alone in warm, natural, beautiful places.
This got me thinking about, if we were to shift our society from a scarce-love monogamous one to an abundant-love polyamorous one (not that everyone would have to be poly in such a society, just that it would be equally acceptable as, and probably more popular than, monogamy), what would people look for in an ideal poly partner?
I think the list would be very different from the list of qualities for an ideal monogamy partner, mostly because love in a world of abundance is very different from love in a world of scarcity. Our modern love-scarce world, I think, is due partly to social and cultural conditioning (what we ‘learn’ from experience about love, from infancy to adulthood), and partly to the enforced busyness of our lives, which leaves a scarcity of time for everything, including love.
Based on my own experience with both, and on a superficial review of some sites that suggest what these qualities might be, here is my list, in approximate order, of the (somewhat overlapping) qualities that would seem to make an ideal partner:
|Love-Scarce World: Ideal Monogamy Partner Qualities?||Love-Abundant World: Ideal Polyamory Partner Qualities?|
|1. Compatibility: Ability and willingness to reciprocally meet all or most (enough) of one’s partner’s social, intellectual, emotional, financial, physical, and sexual needs.||1. Chemistry: The combination of physical attractiveness, right pheromones, and general good vibes that make you instinctively know it’s going to work.|
|2. Fidelity: Ability and willingness to restrict intimacy (as both parties define that) to your one partner.||2. Honesty/Integrity: Being totally transparent, candid, up-front and forthcoming about your relationships, wants, needs and feelings.|
|3. Maturity/Patience: Ability to work at the relationship and overcome the inevitable challenges, conflicts and stresses. Acceptance of partner’s family and friends.||3. Self-knowledge: Awareness of who you are, what you seek and have to offer, and your strengths and vulnerability.|
|4. Respect/Responsibility: Willingness to honour and support the other person for who they are and what they believe, no matter what happens.||4. Generosity: Thoughtfulness, attentiveness, effective listening, and genuine affection. Freedom from narcissism.|
|5. Forgiveness: Willingness to acknowledge and allow for occasional foolish mistakes and misbehaviour by the other person, and not let it destroy the relationship.||5. Compersion: Ability and willingness to take joy from one’s partners’ loving relationships with others. Freedom from jealousy. Acceptance of partners’ families and friends.|
|6. Honesty/Integrity: Ability and willingness to see and acknowledge what has happened, is happening and may happen in the future.||6. Playfulness: Ability and willingness to bring pleasure and joy to and find pleasure and joy in others’ company, to laugh and have fun.|
|7. Physical Appearance/Mannerisms: Acceptable level of attractiveness of looks and behaviours, cleanliness, neatness etc.||7. Compatible Energy: At the end of a busy day, and balancing needs of other relationships, comparable levels of energy, attention span, passion, patience with working through relationships etc.|
|8. Shared Worldview and Interests: Belief in the same principles, goals and ideals. Enjoying doing, reading about and talking about the same activities and subjects.||8. Shared Worldview and Interests: Belief in the same principles, goals and ideals. Enjoying doing, reading about and talking about the same activities and subjects.|
|9. Compatible Energy: At the end of a busy day, comparable levels of energy, attention span, passion, patience with working through relationships etc.||9. Respect/Responsibility: Willingness to honour and support all your partners for who they are and what they believe, no matter what happens.|
|10. Generosity: Thoughtfulness, attentiveness, effective listening, and genuine affection. Freedom from narcissism.||10. Time Management: Ability to provide sufficient time to each partner, while leaving enough for your work, and for yourself.|
Not much doubt which I’m better suited for. It just took me most of my life to figure that out.
It was the writing of Glenn Parton that first got me thinking about love as (in modern monogamist society) a commercialized, scarce-ified resource. When I discovered polyamory, it was liberating — I had not thought that there was an alternative to monogamism. And then it occurred to me that our way of thinking about love is analogous to the way we think about everything in our society: from a worldview of scarcity, competition, jealousy/envy, and insecurity.
Perhaps if we can start to liberate our thinking about what is possible by discovering that love is abundant, if we want it to be, we might then be able to realize that everything in our society and economy is abundant, if we want it to be. If we choose to stop competing, to stop working for, voting for, paying taxes to, listening to, buying from, and otherwise supporting corporatists, then we might liberate ourselves from corporatism the same way we liberate ourselves from monogamism — by just rejecting it, and choosing another way to live. I’ve called this the Generosity Economy, but it’s commonly called the Gift Economy. It’s an economy — and in fact a whole set of systems: social, political, economic, technological, health, educational, etc. — based on abundance and self-sufficiency. And the only thing holding us back from realizing them is our false belief, instilled through centuries of propaganda, that the only way to live is a life of scarcity and struggle.
Such a realization, if acted upon, would not only make us much happier, and less driven by stress, it would dramatically reduce our impact on the environment and greatly increase our resilience in the face of the crises we will have to face in the coming century — crises not of scarcity, but of the consequences of believing for far too long that a society driven by anxiety about scarcity and the endless need for more is the only way to live.
Cartoon: By Peter Steiner from The New Yorker, in the Cartoon Bank
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Interesting idea, but my reality is that I find it rare I even find one person I feel sufficiently compatible with to want a romantic relationship, let alone several at once. On top of that, everyone is so busy working to keep their head above water in insecure financial times like these that when one does find someone they “click with” it is likely one or the other simply won’t have time in their schedule to adequately attend to multiple relationships to keep the energy of connection flowing with each. I at least find that I need more regular contact with someone (say two or three times a week) in order to maintain an interest in intimacy. I can’t imagine the men I’ve dated trying to schedule in me and more women at the same time, while also keeping up all their hobbies and career ambitions. I know you write about free time and less of a production oriented lifestyle, but I’m just pointing out that until that is the norm for enough people (so a big enough pool from among whom to find partners one is interested in), it would be hard for such “way of life” to standardize. I think it would look more like the free love 70’s, in which everyone was sleeping with everyone but no one was feeling particularly fulfilled or emotionally centered.
I saw a documentary on Bonobo monkeys that was really interesting. Can’t remember what it was called. Good post, thanks.
I am not against polyamory per se but when society as a whole does not support such liaisons it’s an uphill battle. As long as no STDs or offspring are involved it probably works fine but having lived in the kind of household you suggest (multiple women + children) all I can say is, it’s complicated. And in a world where it takes everything you’ve got just to survive our current social and cultural structures, complications can be really hard to deal with.
Under ideal circumstances it no doubt can work. And almost anything is better than what we’ve got now, but getting from here to there is really really hard. Most of us just don’t have that kind of stamina. If you’re in a position to live outside of current social and cultural structures and can deal appropriately and positively with both expected and unexpected outcomes, then more power to you.
I actually believe that most people I know would be happier if given the societal freedom to be in polyamorous relationships. However, I am sick and bored with polyamory being pushed as a relationship ideal over monogamy. People should be able to choose whatever relationship structure they feel most comfortable with. Frankly, I think your ideal qualities list is manipulative and narrow-minded. While I understand that becoming poly for you after many years of monogamy has been positive and liberating, please do not assume that there is one right way to live or that everyone feels that way.
I have intimate but non-sexual relationships/friendships with many people whom I love. I am a sensitive human who chooses to have sex/a partnership with only one other person. The level of connection, bonding and intimacy with this person is so intense that I can’t fathom why I would ideally want to fracture this over multiple partners. I don’t expect my partner to meet all or most of my needs even sexually, although I am very satisfied on many levels.
There isn’t one quality that you list in your ideal polyamorous qualities list that I don’t have in my monogamous relationship. I think the emphasis needs to be on allowing people to pursue what kinds of relationships nourish them and improving relationship quality in general. I think #1 on any list of any relationship needs to be open and effective communication.
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