The M Word: Thoughts on Monogamy
|It's impossible to watch The L Word these days without thinking about the M word: monogamy. Bette's been a self-absorbed, insensitive partner to Tina since the dawn of the show, but it was cheating that caused Tina to give her the boot. And cheating seems to be the last straw for manyeven mostpeople. When Mel and I decided to be partners, we asked each other, "What's the one thing I could do that would cause you to leave me?" Mel said (as I imagine many would) "Cheat on me." I'm afraid I said, "Not give me enough time to read."
I've been thinking about monogamy for a long time. It was a huge topic at my left-wing college, discussed over many a bong or Boca burger. A girl named Katie and I had big-time hots for each other, but she initially refused to date me because I'd said I was pro-monogamy. I don't remember why or what my argument was then, but it couldn't have been too noble: I was rarely attracted to more than one girl at a time, so monogamy was a cinch. Katie'sand half the campus'snoble theory went: "If you love someone, why would you want to limit her experience? Deny her any pleasure?" My weak response was, "Well, wouldn't you want to deny her heroin?" Katie's strong response was, "Having protected sex with someone else isn't exactly harmful to your health."
Well, no. At least not your physical health. Katie and I eventually got together anyway andah, silly Fates!she decided she wanted us to be monogamous. Of course I said no.
The nonmonogamists' argument affected and made sense to me, though, even as I saw that it worked much better in theory than in practice (the nonmonogamists at my college devoted much energy to trying not to be consumed by their jealousies). I know that open, committed relationships work well for some, particularly when guidelines are set down:
I'm friends with a gay male couple, together fifteen years, who are "allowed" to bring another man home in tandem, just not separately. And, while I've said that I'm usually only attracted to one girl at a time, getting partnered for life means considering the possibility that monogamy may not always be as easy for me in the future as it has in the past. Will I really only be attracted to one girl for the rest of my life? Will she?
When Bette cheated on Tina, her excuse was "I couldn't help myself." It sounds flimsy, but I worry that it's possible. I tend to think of infidelity not as some utterly conscious, controlled transgression but as a tornado that might blow into town. It arrives; it whirls off, leaving things broken. That a relationship is much harder to repair than a house means that I worry a lot more about this kind of tornadoand worry as much that it will come for me as that it will come for my partner.
Cheating"not being able to help one's self"seems to me to be about more than sex. Psychoanalytic writer Adam Phillips theorizes that, to some extent, it's about possibility and identity. When you choose to spend your life with one person (or one career), you're also choosing a "self" for yourself. Who you are with that person will differ somewhat from who you might have been with another. The idea of BEING someone else for a whileexploring who we might have beenmay be what compels us to cheat far more than the notion of being WITH someone else.
Or not. It occurs to me that when we make a vow of monogamy, we don't always see it for the awesome, weighty thing it is: no less extreme, in its way, than a vow of chastity. Both are about giving something up; both are about sublimating urges should they arise. Neither way of life comes entirely naturally. When we pair up in twos, we're not doing it for the same reason they did on the ark. If there ever was, there no longer seems to be a biological advantage to forming twosomes even for straight, reproducing folklet alone gay couples. Social advantages? As of this writing, they're mostly negligible for queer couples.
Why do we form pairs? Why do we get jealous or upset if we sense that our partners want to sleep with someone else? I know that if my partner were to cheat I would be less upset about the physical fact of her sleeping with someone else than about the possibility that she might fall in love with that other personthat I might no longer be her emotional priority. And maybe that's what pairing's about: wanting to care for someone, and wanting someone to care for you more than she does for anyone else. Is it philosophically "fair" or "loving" to ask that your partner sleep only with you, to deprive her of other sexual opportunities? Probably not, in that it's more in your best interest that she not do so than it is in hers. Like the Boca burger-chomping nonmonogamists at my college, I agree that it's selfish. It's something worth questioning and examining. At best, though, as it is with Mel and I, it's a consensual, reciprocal selfishnessand as long as it's consensual, I think any two adults should be free to do whatever they want...even be monogamous.
Emily Lloyd is a regular columnist for Letters and can be reached via her blog, poesygalore.blogspot.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 3 April 8, 2005