Exploring changing social attitudes and the rise of polyamory.
By Nicole Dickinson
Monogamous, heterosexual romance is perhaps one of the most powerful cultural ideals. It is the driving force behind much popular culture: movies, perfume adverts, even children’s fairy tales. Monogamy, and its romantic associations, is constructed as one of life’s ultimate goals, but so often it is the root of individual unhappiness and emotional anguish. As the Netflix series Explained outlines, humans are characteristically bad at it, and its lack of success in practice keeps shows of Jeremy Kyle’s ilk alive. Many people, disillusioned about the promises of heterosexual monogamy,
have begun to prioritise other life achievements. Heteropessimism is on the rise, a term coined as “performative disaffiliations with heterosexuality, usually expressed in the form of regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about straight experience” (Seresin). As people – women especially– begin increasingly seeking fulfilment outside traditional life paths (marriage, house, kids), what does this mean for romance? The increasing cultural buzz around polyamory (known for short as poly) redefines traditional notions of love and relationships, and asks the question: do we need to redefine our conversations around temptation and romance to live fulfilling lives?
Explained highlights the key difference between love and monogamy. Love is a feeling;
monogamy is a set of rules, often converted into a legal contract: marriage. What happens so often in popular culture, something that I have previously been guilty of, is the equation of love with monogamy. This is an approximation which reduces love to something that is bound by the rules and regulations of traditional monogamy. However, since reaching adulthood, my attitude towards love and relationships has begun to morph, something increasingly common for many other young people today. Living with friends, and the consequent conversations I have had with them, has shown me that the majority of love I have experienced in my life has been neither romantic nor monogamous; the idea of a soulmate is transforming from something singular, fixed, and rigid, to something that populates the arenas of the everyday, the impermanent, and the platonic.
The legal extension of monogamy – marriage – is also beginning to be questioned by the
younger generation. This expensive and archaic ceremony is slipping down the list in terms of life goals for young adults emerging into today’s world. As Florence Given states in her 2020 book Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, “Marriage is deeply entrenched in archaic patriarchal tradition and has its roots in an abusive, oppressive history – the ownership of women” (179). It’s good to know that I’m not the only woman who shudders compulsively at the idea of my dad “giving me away” to another man. Given instructs us to ask ourselves if marriage is something “you’ve ‘always wanted to do’. Or if it’s something you’ve always been told you wanted to do” (183). She represents a contemporary questioning of life’s constructed narratives, and an increased awakening to the fact that many of the things we are told to aspire to in life are narratives constructed at a particular time, for a particular purpose, to serve a particular group of people. For marriage, as Explained so helpfully summarises, this began when humans made the move to agricultural society, where marriage became a means to acquire in-laws, and in doing so, property. As time went on, marriage became monopolised by male scientists to argue for the inherent inferiority of women. From this, the “two halves of a whole” belief came about; the married woman – passive, docile – existed to balance out and provide for the man, who was ambitious and aggressive.
Learning about marriage’s history raises another point that I have always been fond of
putting forward in discussions of monogamy: it was invented by people who, largely, died before they reached 50. Strict adherence to the idea of the eternal “soulmate” requires two individuals to be bound to each other throughout time, and can stunt individual growth and personal development. Heartbreak stems from failed attempts at finding “the one”. Yet, I would argue, many people come into our lives, adding memories, enriching our experience, and teaching us things about ourselves, before often fading away as priorities change and individuals grow. This is normal. If we redefine our attitudes towards the temporalities of romantic love, can we help ourselves to ease the pain of monogamy?
(Art from @yourewelcomeclub)
Interviewees on Louis Theroux’s documentary: “Altered States: Love Without Limits”
redefine the traditional notion of infidelity in relationships, stressing that falling in love with
someone else does not equal falling out of love with their current partner. Watching this show
challenged everything I thought I knew about relationships; these people break through the
traditional belief that love can or should be limited and kept for one person, and promote the idea of what they call a “chosen family”, where love is shared freely between all partners. I was struck by the presence of children in these families, wondering what they really thought about their parents’ “free love” attitudes. However, upon reflection, I remembered that the valuing of heterosexual monogamy is something taught, not inherent, and that so many other children are damaged by having to witness their parents stay in unhappy marriages to “protect” them. So, what matters more at the end of the day: demonstrating an adherence to the rules of monogamy, or prioritising happiness and the freedom to pursue one’s own desires in a consensual and loving relationship? At the documentary’s close, Theroux himself states that “people are taking more responsibility for their own happiness and exploring pleasure without guilt.” Polyamory certainly isn’t for everyone, but its increasing popularity marks that the rules and boundaries of normalised monogamy are beginning to be questioned.
It is, however, important to add: polyamory and other open relationships are all about
consent. Monogamy is still the norm, having multiple partners is an active choice, and engaging in relationships with other partners without consent from all involved is infidelity, and is going to hurt others. My musings on non-monogamy have clarified for me even more starkly the importance of communication and consent in any kind of relationship; if you withhold information about your own attitudes towards relationships from someone, you are denying them the ability to decide about their part within your life.
There are many ways to disrupt the conventions of monogamy, from questioning the value of marriage, to engaging in polyamory, open relationships, and sexual positivity. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and monogamous attitudes are deeply ingrained within the western world’s psyche,
I feel hopeful that an increasing number of people are connecting with their own joy and pleasure, and exploring consensual relationships outside the mainstream.
Explained. “Monogamy.” Netflix, 2018.
Given, Florence. “You Don’t Have to Get Married (No, Really).” Women Don’t Owe You Pretty.
Seresin, Indiana. “On Heteropessimism: Heterosexuality is nobody’s personal problem.” The New
Inquiry, October 2019, thenewinquiry.com/on-heteropessimism/. Accessed 8 th September 2020.
Theroux, Louis. “Altered States: Love Without Limits.” Dir. Arron Fellows, BBC, 2019.