On my aunt’s golden wedding anniversary, I asked her what it was like to spend half a century with one man. ‘It’s been wonderful, and, you know, I would have another 50 years,’ she replied. How beautiful I thought, to spend a lifetime with the person you love, weathering the worries of the world side-by-side.
We rightly celebrate these achievements of human love and kinship. But what if we also gave equal importance to other forms of relationships?
The reason so many of us don’t do this, perhaps, stems from the way we’ve been deeply socialized to believe that lifelong monogamy is the gold standard. Modern culture tells us to shape our lives around one partner: our other half, our one true love, our soulmate. This is reinforced by incentives to couple up: married partners enjoy legal and financial benefits not available to those living outside the norm.
Meanwhile the nuclear family is still widely considered optimal. But this belief ignores the fact that the two-parent dynamic is not a stable fixture in many children’s lives. After all, how often have we heard that famous statistic that half of marriages end in divorce?
The unquestionable dominance of monogamy leaves little wriggle room for other ways to live and love, despite the fact that subscribing to lifelong coupledom does not work for everyone.
And nor should it. Alternative relationships have existed in human societies for millennia, and still do.
So what would the world look like if society broke out of the monogamy straight-jacket?
Consensual non-monogamy is the umbrella term used to describe relationships where people mutually consent to having multiple romantic and/or sexual partners, covering everything from swingers to polyamory – literally meaning multiple loves. This is not to be confused with cheating.
Today, interest in these alternatives is on the rise, but they are far from being universally accepted and are often stigmatized and misunderstood. Fear of being labelled immoral, promiscuous, or noncommittal prevents curious people stepping outside the status quo, while those in non-traditional relationships often keep it quiet.
Reaching a point where relationships outside the monogamy norm are considered as equally valid would first require the dismantling of this stigma. We can start doing this by looking at some of the benefits of these relationships.
One study from 2017 found non-monogamous partners scored lower on jealousy and higher on trust than their monogamous counterparts. Navigating the choppy waters of multiple partners requires people to communicate their fears, desires, insecurities, vulnerabilities and boundaries in ways that many monogamous couples are unlikely to have experienced. Through this process people, especially in polyamorous relationships, speak of developing greater emotional self-awareness and experiencing feelings of liberation. These are lessons monogamous couples could also benefit from to build healthier relationships through better communication.
In this way could the acceptance of non-traditional relationships lead to a more empathetic society where people maintain a greater sense of independence? In a 2005 study involving polyamorous women, participants reported experiencing a shift from living for other people to living for themselves. Lifting the intense pressure to couple up would also free single people from stigmatization.
Others suggest stepping outside the norm could help challenge feelings of possessiveness and ownership in relationships. Kim TallBear is a professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Native Studies, and author of the Critical Polyamorist blog. ‘I will not own my lovers, I refuse,’ she tells the All My Relations podcast. ‘It is not my business who they look at and who they like and who they desire.’
Her journey to polyamory was driven by the need to undermine what she describes as the ‘structure of settler marriage’. Modern monogamy culture emerged, at least in part, for economic purposes, to control female reproduction and appease male fears of paternity. It was later spread across the Western world by Christians, who imposed monogamy on Indigenous communities, rooting out native practices.
Looking at the roots of monogamy is not a reason to oppose it, but it can help us to recognize and deconstruct some of the harmful elements of coupledom that persist today.
If we are to embrace human diversity in all its forms we must also accept that there is not one set way to live and love.