A bunch of friends voted for me to write about open/closed relationships via twitterpoll. I listened (sorry granny).
— Harriet… (@TheScribbleBug) May 10, 2016
So some of you might remember that a while back my flatmate and I were invited to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to do an interview talking about modern relationships. Discussing sexual politics, we were particularly looking at the conventions around the ‘magic number’ of sexual partners for men and women – ie. can a person have ‘too few’ or ‘too many’ partners.
“Is there such a thing as a magic number?” We were asked.
“Do you care about your partner’s magic number or your own? Why does such a huge disparity exist between what’s acceptable for men compared to women? How does this relate to conventional closed relationships and the apparent rising interest in open ones?”
And that led to the stumper: “When it comes to relationships, should we accept that monogamy might not be the best answer – that perhaps as a species, monogamy is out-dated, antiquated, merely a social construct?”
Big question. Now I don’t know if the interview was ever aired or if it ever will be, but since attending that recording (which was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my adult life), those questions have all played on my mind. And if you’re reading this, I suspect they’ve crossed yours too.
We know the stats. The average woman will sleep with seven partners in her lifetime. The average man will sleep with twelve. For any of us falling in the millennial bracket this number is not only higher but we are more likely to divorce than to change our banking provider. We are also statistically unlikely to marry in the first place and whilst in ‘monogamous’ relationships just over-half of men and a little under-half of women will ‘cheat’ on their partner at least once.
None of this presents a particularly strong argument in favour of monogamy as an innate, evolutionarily determined trait.
Rather it suggests that monogamy may be a social construct – a cultural expectation rather than a fact of human life.
But if that’s the case, why do so many societies demand monogamy or ‘closed’ relationships? Why is it so lauded, idealised? And why do so many species of primate (as well as around 9% of other mammals like elephants, wolves, bats etc) also form monogamous bonding pairs?
There are theories (lots and lots of theories) including:
- The threat of infanticide leads males to stick with only one female, protecting her from other males” ie. becomes monogamy (Opie).
- That monogamy evolves when females spread out, making it hard for a male to travel around and fend off competing males“(Lukas & Clutton-Brock).
- That monogamy is a result of socio-economic differences between men and women (also explaining why more equal societies are less monogamous).
- Monogamy developed “for order and investment” because of the unusual amount of time men give to the family unit during childrearing (a distinction that may also account for our 20% bigger brain size).
Of course, humans like to ensure things are absolutely as complicated as they could possibly be.
Our mating system is incredibly flexible. Whilst a large portions of cultures practice some kind of monogamy (often in the form of marriages), it’s definitely not unheard of for both sexes to take multiple parters, or to go parter to partner, or to have one primary relationship whilst also sleeping with another semi-exclusively in a kind of dual monogamy.
Plus, to make things even more muddy, if we look back historically most cultures have permitted polyamorous behaviours… but even in these societies most still ended up favouring a single, closed relationship over many. This is backed by anthropological studies that pretty much show that on the spectrum from polygamous chimps to monogamous gibbons, humans are smack bam in the middle. We are neither determined to be one way or the other. We are evolutionarily perplexed.
Dan Savage has a theory relating to our convoluted mating rituals that he dubbed ‘monogam-ish’.
According to Savage, monogamish relationships are those that do not rigidly conform to the construct of monogamy. And it’s now quite commonly used as a term for people who are in relationships that are primarily monogamous but have some kind of agreement or arrangement should one stray.
“Monogamish” meaning that the couple is in a committed partnership that is socially pair-bonded but has an… https://t.co/wHEzMEYUla
— Angela Lewis (@AngeLewisWriter) March 13, 2016
Savage also points out that much of the success of such a relationship is the communication, honesty, flexibility and understanding.
For instance, being in a relationship doesn’t stop you from fancying other people. It might put blinkers on but you will still appreciate other good looking humans. Especially if you’ve been together for a long time. Acknowledging this about yourself and your partner is quite liberating – it means you can appreciate without also worrying ‘oh god, thinking this stranger is hot must mean I don’t actually find my partner attractive’. It removes the guilt that leads to one possible strand of relationship anxiety and in a monogamish relationship, this might well be something to discuss.
At the Woman’s Hour talk, one of the girl’s also on the panel, Frankie, discussed how her relationship recently began exploring the terrain of ‘monogamishness’. She and her boyfriend led busy lives and they’d agreed to the possibility of a more open, less rigid arrangement. Like Savage, she advocated conversation, emphasised that honesty between them was integral.
Neither Frankie, nor Savage, argue that everyone should be monogamish.
It might help to have a ‘marriage, with infidelities’ in some instances but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll work for us all (likewise with polyamory, polygamy, open relationships etc). But what they do highlight is two things essential to success:
- Constant communication – without this, trust and understanding cannot exist. You cannot tell if you’re hurting one another without a dialogue. You cannot address any arising issues that if you’re not honest.
- Long-termism – monogamish arrangements are not, in the eyes of these two pundits, something to hurry into. Neither relationship was ‘open’ until the couple had been together for some serious time. Again, this seems to work because you have trust and security in the relationship. You also have deeper social and emotional bonds. So whilst the sexual aspect might alter over time, those two other pillars remain steadfast.
But what does this all mean?
At present there seems to be a society wide interest in alternatives to traditional monogamy.
Many more of my friends question whether a traditional, closed relationship is for them. Likewise, far fewer people I know seem to care about how many people their peers have slept with or are shy about sharing the intimate details of their sex-lives. Whether it’s none or ninety-two, there’s a certain surface ambivalence to the subject that only cracks when sexual politics comes into play (usually in the form of insults or “lad” banter).
What seems to be more relevant than ‘magic numbers’ is the quality of our relationships. No one cares about a quickie in the bathroom but they do care about whether their partner has baggage in the form of an ex or two or five or ten.
Does this tie into the monogamish behaviours Savage described? I suspect it might. We increasingly seem to value the quality and depth of relationships over quantity yet someone who says they’ve always been ‘monogamous’ despite having several serious relationships hasn’t quite grasped the meaning of the word. At the same time, there’s also a sense that perhaps it is only through practice, through experiencing these multiple relationships and growing individually, that we even become capable of being monogamish. The reason we aspire to it is because it’s not entirely normal but it is somehow special.
Choosing what is right for you in terms of the openness of your relationship is entirely between you and the other(s) involved. There’s no right or wrong kind between consenting adults. If you’re honest about what you want and need, give and receive, then various forms of monogamishness may apply and appeal. However, sympathy needs to be had for everyone involved. Just because you are happy with a situation, doesn’t mean someone else is. Insecurities, fears, anxieties, desires, boundaries all need to be accounted for and discussed. Trust needs to exist and understanding that ‘monogamish’ is not license to cheat needs to underpin any relationship.
And that’s where I leave this, with a final thought:
Monogamy may be no more natural than polygamy – but perhaps it is easier.
Easier because society accepts it. Easier because the boundaries are obvious. Easier because there are defined lines that should not be crossed. Easier because it enshrines the development of two people in a way that protects their relationship.
Accepting that we are monogamish therefore might be the harder route even though it seems more ‘natural’ on the surface. It may help some. It may hurt others.
What type of relationship is healthier or better is entirely dependent on personal choice. Open or closed, all kinds of relationships are natural.