42% of marriages end in divorce in the United Kingdom. This is, admittedly, a concerning statistic. Grown adults who gave vows, and promises, to each other and committed to emotionally love only their significant other find that they cannot bear such a relationship. The childhood dream that they would ‘live happily ever after with one true soulmate’ proves to be just that: a dream. A common factor of these marriages is that they were centered around a socially monogamous relationship, something that should raise more concern than what society attributes. A concern that fairly highlights the issues of socially monogamous relationships and raises a taboo alternative, polygamy.
Of those marriages, adultery can be attributed as the reason of divorce to more than halfof the cases. The truth is, for many of these couples, their relationship is too restrictive. They involve a number of assumptions regarding the nature of their relationship. Any partner in the relationship would spend their lives testing the idea of the ‘significant other’. This includes engaging in intimate relationships, having different sexual partners, and going on dates and flirting. What happens then, in the beginning of a relationship, is that each party has to give away its old lifestyle and focus solely on its one, and only, partner in a manner potentially described as egoistic. Suddenly, humans have to suppress their sexual and emotional animal instincts, and feelings, for a number of different people and devote them entirely, for life, to one and only person; one that is portrayed as the perfect and true soulmate.
Were human romantic relationships always monogamous? In short, no. As a matter of fact, we know that early modern men used to have intimate relationships with multiple women; that is, they practiced polygyny . We know this because of sexual dimorphism: the body characteristics that differentiate males and females that can determine mating behaviour. In monogamous societies, there is no competition between access to mates and as a result no one of the two sexes grow to be morphologically different than the other. However, it has been argued that this was not the case with early modern humans. What is more, the testes size also plays a role. Because of sperm competition, males who have bigger testes can produce more sperm and have an advantage in impregnating females. Supported by this theory, studies have shown that humans are biologically semi-promiscuous.
Before, humans would only come together to mate as family was not a socially developed concept yet. So, what caused this major shift from polygamy to monogamy as we know it today? Anthropologists and archaeologists do not agree on the beginning of this shift but we can certainly say that the agricultural revolution greatly boosted it. As the concept of property arose, and also the realization of land as a finite resource, humans, rather than migrating from place to place they remained in one place for a long time, in some cases for their whole life, for the first time in history. In this way, social bonds between society members started to emerge, amongst them marriage and family. Of course, it is much easier to control properties and resources in a socially monogamous environment.
In Ancient Greece, monogamy acquired a more solid structure in society. It was where it began getting its form as we know it today. Along with some other concepts emerging in Greece at that time, monogamy developed with justice, democracy, and citizenship. Under these concepts, monogamy allowed social cohesion and, in contrast to polygamy, it was viable and enabled the emerging institutions to work. However, where monogamy was really cemented into society was during the Roman Empire. Monogamy got a legal status under the Romans and was eventually not only part of the justice system, but of divine law as well. The rise of Christianity and its adoption by the Roman Empire greatly affected the way Roman citizens saw monogamy. In fact, in the Old Testament, the 7th of the 10 Commandments says “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. In the New Testament, in Mark’s Gospel, it’s mentioned that God considers this commandment the most important of all, even above “Thou shalt not kill”, stressing that it’s better to die than live an unethical life. Life under Christianity also raised the family’s status as a social institution which needed to be protected under serial monogamy, essentially leaving zero space for polygamy. Much later, during the Industrial Revolution, what dramatically changed is the number of children each person chose to have. A great drop in birth rates, which followed the decreasing mortality rates, meant polygamy was not essential to maintain a small number of children and as a result fewer people practiced it.
With the above into consideration, in today’s era a particular kind of monogamy prevails: social monogamy. That is, being monogamous because it is the socially acceptable thing to do and because society functions better this way, and not because humans are innately sexually monogamous species. Actually, 90% of bird species are socially monogamous. Birds in those species stay together as long as it is required to raise a clutch of eggs, but then will mate with other birds. Sexual monogamy is non-existent as birds have multiple partners during the breeding season. There’s also arguably a lot of effort to practice monogamy and exceed all sexual and emotional impulses and it should come to no surprise that humans came to practice it more as they developed culturally and cognitively.
Nowadays, when we talk about the concept of monogamy we refer to a relationship in which someone has only one sexual and emotional partner. A concept so strongly embedded in our society that each relationship is taken to be monogamous without ever the two partners having to agree or discuss about the very nature of their relationship. It is pervasive, tacit, societal knowledge. Knowledge influencing behaviour. Meaning that relationships are almost never monogamous, consensually.
Although we commit to being monogamous, this commitment is often broken. To let the statistics speak for themselves, about 1 out of every 2.7 couples in the UK are affected by extra-relationship affairs. So what, one might ask, drives these people into breaking their vows and promises to engage into the socially condemned act of ‘cheating’? The answer lies in the pressure imposed by monogamous relationships, especially the non-consensual ones.
Non-consensual monogamous relationships (NCMRs) involve unnecessary control of one party from the other, essentially ensuring that each remains loyal to the relationship and doesn’t ‘cheat’. Sometimes, this leads to excessive measures being taken only to ensure that the other person is not involved in any other romantic or sexual relationships. Two points need to be raised here: First, a barrier is being built on the parties’ relationship opportunities. Because of the relationship’s strict rules they no longer seem to engage in acts that involve emotional or sexual attachment, such as flirting. Individuality and independence are not respected as much as before and each party is in a sense restricted from forming relationships, to avoid getting romantically or sexually attracted to another person. Second, this shows the danger of the ‘one-and-only’ selfishness that is present in NCMRs. Having high expectations is what creates the problem. As if there is a certain kind of duty in these relationships, one considers themselves to be worth of excessive respect, unconditional love – which must only be directed towards them – and great attachment. These three terms then – respect, love, and attachment – do not involve any intrinsic value that restricts them from being shared. That’s where polyamory kicks in.
Polyamory refers to having or desiring multiple intimate relationships with the consent of all partners involved. The very nature of polyamory determines that it is consensual. No hidden rules apply, no assumptions and, of course, no person-specific love. Love, emotional, romantic and sexual attraction are treated in the same way as feelings from other relationships are. That is, they are feelings to be shared. In this way, it lifts the pressure from all the parties involved as they no longer have to direct these feelings to one and only person. Sometimes for life. There is no reason as to why love in intimate relationships needs to be person-specific as there is nothing that intrinsically differentiates romantic or sexual relationships from other kinds of relationships, which are not person-specific like friendships or relationships with family or coworkers. Polyamorous relationships also involve a great amount of trust, which means that a great amount of burden is released from all parties. Trust manages to survive as a big problem in NCMR. That is, high expectations are no longer present. There are no high, illogical, or excessive expectations on what regards relationships within polyamorous partners. There are no expectations to be loyal, to act beyond one’s capabilities, to sacrifice oneself. One of the rules that is present in NCMRs, but mostly absent from polyamorous relationships, is the ‘no-hurt’ rule which puts excessive power to each party over the other in something that should belong to each one’s ultimate control. In polyamorous relationships, happiness, or the ability to embrace it, is not located anywhere else but within each party.
Apart from honesty, openness and communication are two very basic traits of polyamorous relationships that are often absent from NCMRs. Because of this, jealousy almost disappears in polyamorous relationships. Jealousy in NCMRs is fed from the “one-and-only”ness where each partner remains skeptical throughout the relationship about the others’ contacts and whereabouts. In polyamorous relationships, in contrast, the impulsion to meet new people, flirt, and engage in activities which satisfy emotional and sexual needs, are not repressed but accepted, respected and celebrated.
Polyamory today is seen as immoral and polygamy, being married to more than one person at the same time, is in most countries illegal, including the UK where one can be found guilty of the crime of bigamy if practicing it. Monogamy is considered the norm and polygamy just a thing of the past. In fact, the latter is indeed right, polygamy was a thing in the past and that’s why it’s worth taking a look into its historical background.
Having these in mind, the fact that there is a lack of socially acceptable alternative to monogamy is a problem. When it comes to romantic relationships, love transforms into something that can only be given to one person at a time. At the same time, in all non-romantic relationships, including friendships and family relationships, love is given to multiple persons at the same time and in a way that it’s not shared but multiplied. One should be able to mix these relationships in a way that sex, romance, and friendship are not exclusive but open. In any form of relationship, the most important aspect is that there should be consent to that form of relationship and mutually pre-agreed basic rules. Polyamorous people are unfairly stigmatized for engaging in a relationship that involves the aspects of consent and mutually pre-agreed basic rules. The stigma needs to be severed as the fact that monogamy as practiced today is more social than biological. There is nothing wrong when some people consensually come together to live under one certain lifestyle, without affecting anyone else. This reason is enough for polyamory to be embraced. Some have argued that it even needs to.
Undoubtedly, not all of the world’s traits are attributed to one person, but those are rather dispersed to multiple ones. Being allowed to only admire one person is too restrictive and involves great commitment, a commitment not only to one’s self, but to others as well. A commitment that they will not change and that they will always be the one whom their partner loved. Thus, it’s also a barrier to change. Cheating remains an issue as the never-agreed terms of a monogamous relationship are broken and as long as each is considered “one-and-only’ for the other.
Polyamory seems to be unfairly criticised for something that may be part of our very own nature. In any case, the terms of a relationship must be agreed beforehand and not presuppose anything. As polyamory is often described as consensual non-monogamy, a new term has the chance to be born for the most usual form of relationship: consensual monogamy.
Angelos is a Philosophy (MA) student at the University of Durham, UK. He writes on philosophy, religion, politics, and science.