In most if not all modern Western societies, monogamy is the dominant form of romantic relationship.
What is it like to be in love with more than one person at a time? Is monogamy natural, as authors like Helen Fisher have argued, or an outmoded cultural artifact, as claimed by authors like Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá? On this week's philosophy talk, we discuss polyamory with writer and philosophy professor Carrie Jenkins.
Trying to pin down whether something is due to nature or culture strikes me as a fool's errand; surely any human endeavor as complicated as building a romantic relationship will have both natural and cultural components. A better way into understanding polyamory is to turn a critical eye on the default assumption of monogamy.
Although lifelong fidelity to a single partner remains a cultural ideal, few people live up to it; for example, one in five Americans surveyed in a 2015 YouGov poll admit to having cheated on a partner. Even setting aside illicit affairs, the only way some people get away with calling themselves monogamous is by having a whole series of partners, one after the other.
Furthermore, there is widespread disagreement about what the rules of monogamy require. Is it cheating to send flirty text messages to someone other than your partner? What about kissing, going to a strip club, or reaching out to an ex on Facebook? And what about deep emotional connections that don't include physical sexual activity?
Author Amy Gahran sees monogamy as part of a larger set of unspoken expectations that she calls the Relationship Escalator: after an early courtship phase, you and your partner define yourselves as a couple, become sexually and romantically exclusive, commit to being each other's number-one priority, merge your households and finances, marry, have children, and remain together until death do you part. While relationships that fit this model can be wonderful, failing to examine its fundamental assumptions can also lead to a lot of unnecessary suffering. What happens if you decide you'd be happiest with two romantic partners, or none at all? You'll need guidance that the escalator can't provide.
Polyamory is not a panacea. Having multiple partners is not enough to destroy sexism and heteronormativity, as even a cursory glance polygynous cult leaders will show. Intimate partner abuse happens in polyamorous relationships, as well as monogamous ones, and polyamorists can easily recapitulate existing social hierarchies. Some pathologies are specific to polyamory, such as the tendency of some unicorn hunters, or couples who seek out a third party to join in their sexual adventures, to treat their additional partner as disposable.
Luckily, the internet is full useful information and guidance. More Than Two offers advice on topics like communication, jealousy, and time management, as well as a relationship bill of rights. Poly Role Models provides a diverse compendium of useful case studies, updated weekly. The YouTube series Compersion is mostly a what-not-to-do manual, but it lets you learn from others' mistakes, and makes for entertaining TV. Podcasts like Polyamory Weekly discuss real-world problems from a polyamorous perspective.
Relationships are tricky, and monogamy and polyamory both present distinctive challenges. With any style of relationship, communication and critical reflection are key; the unexamined love life is not worth love-living! I'm looking forward to more critical conversations with Carrie and Ken, and hopefully with you, this week when we discuss polyamory.