Monogamy is rare, no matter what we might tell ourselves. We need a new currency of commitment.
Back in April, Helen Croydon’s New Statesman article entitled “Screw The Fairytale” sparked quite some heated debate from vociferous defenders of the ideal exclusive lifelong partnership. I too have faced occasionally challenging and often fascinating questions as I have toured my comedy show posing the question: Is Monogamy Dead? Yet I’ve come to realise that so many of us define fidelity along emotional rather than sexual lines, it becomes almost impossible to say with authority that anybody at all is monogamous... unless we can read minds.
I conducted an anonymous online survey as research for my show asking what behaviours would be considered infidelity. 73 out of 100 respondents thought that falling in love with someone else with no sexual contact still counted, 31 per cent selected staying up all night talking to someone else, while a scary 7 per cent decided that merely thinking about someone else was unacceptable. How you would police this I don’t know.
Perhaps the only way to remain truly faithful would be to lock yourselves into a sealed box and both stay there without interacting with any other human beings. Yet this would be torture. Human connections are the lifeblood and oxygen that aid our emotional survival. Even the most fleeting kindnesses and flirtations with strangers enhance our wellbeing. These brief moments of love feed our key relationships. Three and a half years in, my girlfriend and I might not always find it easy to generate huge sexual energy in a vacuum on our own. But if we go off into the world and connect, communicate, flirt with and enjoy other people, become energised by them and then come back together, our passion can still burn strongly. Other people act as our kindling. Love breeds love. It isn’t a finite resource that we need to hide away in the attic.
I asked my ex, now good friend, if she would ever have an open relationship and she said, “no, I don’t think I could do that” then after a pause and a smile, “but what about love affair friendships?” She went on to describe an impenetrable fortress of female friendship, her own group of best mates who’d known each other since school and had supported and loved each other through almost all of their lifetimes. They sounded far more bonded to, and in love with one another, than their respective husbands. It struck me that we don’t have the language to reflect the diversity and breadth of connections we experience. Why is sex the thing we tend to define a relationship by, when in fact it can be simple casual fun without a deep emotional transaction? Why do we say “just friends” when, for some of us, a friendship goes deeper? Can we define a new currency of commitment that celebrates and values this? Instead of having multiple confusing interpretations of the same word, could we have different words? What if we viewed our relationships as a pyramid structure with our primary partner at the top and a host of lovers, friends, spiritual soul mates, colleagues and acquaintances beneath that?
This isn’t a million miles away from the central ideas of polyamory – consensual multiple loving connections, some sexual, some not, in a myriad of combinations and hierarchies. It was a new word and world to me, yet when I interviewed a few polyamorous women (meetings had to be scheduled months ahead due to their ridiculously hectic romantic and social diaries) it struck me that they weren’t behaving so differently to anyone else I knew. Yet instead of shrouding some of their most intimate connections in secrecy as many of my “monogamous” friends have to, boundaries and priorities were honestly negotiated and declared.
Perhaps holding our hands up and owning the fact that we are all indeed a bit poly would be a solution to the growing problem of serial monogamy. Fuelled by a tech revolution where new phones and gadgets replace old every year, our thirst for novelty has never been more capacious. We need the new thing now. And what’s more – we can get it now. This impatience spills over into our romantic lives via dating apps, instant messaging and social media. Finding a new lover to replace the one we’ve become a bit too familiar with becomes as simple as ordering a pizza. Among my own lesbian peer group, rapid serial monogamy is endemic and it is typical to “upgrade” your partner every few years. Just take a look at the civil partnership dissolution rates which are twice as high for female couples as they are for gay men, who more typically negotiate a sexually open relationship yet stay emotionally faithful for longer. But breaking up with such regularity is a disruptive lifestyle bearing huge costs, both financial and emotional, as one or both partners lose their home, extended family, children, friend networks and beloved pets, not to mention the relationship. I’ve been through it and witnessed all of my dearest friends go through it. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone of any gender or sexuality. This unstable system is far more potentially damaging to any children involved than a setup including several happy, fulfilled adults in control of their own destinies. I’m not saying that we have to lose sight of traditional structures and units but maybe celebrate that friends can be family too. Or as the writer Armistead Maupin puts it, “logical” families instead of strictly biological ones.
So what if instead of serial relationships one after the other we had parallel ones running alongside one another? Would this improve the odds of some of our key partnerships lasting? The mathematics of probability would say “yes”. As a child I was warned against placing all of my eggs in one basket. Yet as a grown up, I’m being told to do exactly that. Yet the real conundrum here is that none of us are really doing that anyway. So why pretend that we are?