Is monogamy simply a social and emotional construct?

While having children is undoubtedly a person choice, anthropologically speaking, procreation is a perceived (and archaically assumed) feature of most relationships between the opposite sex. For those who seek to have children, and those that don’t, a monogamous relationship is usually deemed the most ideal unit from within which to procreate or simply to coexist with a partner. It represents stability, support and, bizarrely, social success of being in a relationship.

However, if we critique this approach, does monogamy really provide the aforementioned or have we been conditioned to believe it does to reinforce the very arguments that are made in its support? Furthermore, as emotional beings, is there an emotional attraction to monogamy that we crave in seeking an exclusive and reciprocated belonging, acceptance and love from a partner who is considered unique in fulfilling said role?

Firstly, I need to make a disclaimer that this isn’t about me expressing a desire or endorsement for polygamy or a proclamation that I am polyamorous (which would go against my own monogamous relationship). Had it been, I would likely have chosen a more personal forum to announce this to my partner. It’s also not something I’m seeking to explore, not to mention a practice I can’t envisage my wife embracing.

Nevertheless, the practice of monogamy has largely remained unquestioned in contemporary society. For even those of us that are more liberal-leaning, monogamy is still broadly considered sacrosanct. Polyamory is becoming more visible and accepted (Laurie Penny wrote an article on her own experience as a polyamorous woman) but there is still a stigma around it. For the conservative brigade, it’s probably just a synonym for liberal promiscuity that we blindly criticise. Why? Because it threatens the status quo of monogamy as the standard for relationships.

Our physical attraction to a partner is typically underpinned by a sexual attraction. And in anthropological terms (for a hetrosexual couple), an underlying desire to procreate. Although, society’s expectations when having children, and the pragmatism surrounding it, downgrades that underlying desire to sex for couples of all sexual orientation. Subsequently, that attraction forms the basis of compatibility for a relationship with personalities and shared values of course typically being granted similar status.

When it comes to a physical attraction, that initial spark is more primitive that we would care to admit. And it calls monogamy into question given its features are secondary, albeit valid, considerations for any relationship.

The stability of a monogamous relationship; having someone to confide in and receive reciprocated comfort, support and affection, makes perfect sense. And attributing that to one person perhaps makes it extra special. Throw in the mix exclusive intimacy and growing emotional attachment and you’ve just placed each other on a status of importance that places your partner above all others. Yet much of this is projected from the relationships of others in setting the standard that we’re told we should seek.

Most weddings feature speeches where the ‘special’ and ‘perfect’ love between the couple is waxed lyrical upon while guests are subject to regaling of how the couple are ‘made for each other’. Well, I’ve been to enough weddings (including those where I’ve known the feelings between the couple are far from mutual) to know that such rehearsed sentiments mean someone’s lying. Rather, they’re soundbites that we’re expected to attain in relationships and if we don’t project them in our own relationships, we risk the stigma-driven judgement of not attaining the social success of relationships.

If we want children, we are erroneously conditioned to feel that a two-parent, cohabiting relationship is better than one where parents may live separately (again, judgement raises its ugly head, particularly in relation to single mothers). Similarly, having two incomes is better than one and provides increased financial stability. And particularly as we age, existing in a unit where we can look after each other makes sense. But are these reasons suffice to drive the social conditioning of monogamy as the ‘right’ standard for relationships? Thinking objectively, and breaking away from my own social conditioning, perhaps not.

Conversely, wouldn’t more than one partner present all of the above but in abundance? Increased financial stability via further incomes, increased support in raising children and further companionship (assuming all of the relationships were able to coexist harmoniously alongside each other) all make a case for those of us sticking with monogamy missing a trick.

There are also the emotional ties that probably provide the strongest anchor to monogamy. As humans, we can be insecure creatures. The notion of sharing a partner, no matter how much of an understanding there might be, would be difficult for many. It’s why infidelity is deemed such a transgression — not just because one has gone against a promise to be monogamous but because their actions represent their willingness to share themselves with another and therefore serve as a trigger of insecurity.

Nonetheless, while not championing infidelity within a monogamous relationship, it comes back to the primal physical attraction that we experience. The attraction isn’t what causes a transgression (though those who experience much more insecurity in their relationship might argue otherwise), instead it’s acting upon it. That default opposition to doing so is based on the social conditioning we’ve been subject to. We’re wired to know that it represents wrongdoing but also empathy of how a partner would feel should that ever-present insecurity be provoked.

If I’m driving a Maybach and I see the Batmobile, I’m going to want to stop and look at it. And I’m probably going to want to drive it too. Nonetheless, getting out and risking not being able to drive my Maybach because I’ve forsaken it for the Batmobile (no matter how temporarily or meaninglessly) is an inherent temptation that is mitigated by the social conditioning that it would be wrong. Similarly to relationships, this makes us human but resistance to acting on an attraction is neutered by our perception and acceptance of monogamy. If we returned to experiencing and accepting those primal instincts, few people would bat an eyelid at getting in both cars.

“I like my Maybach… but it’s the Batmobile…”

Monogamy represents stability and within contemporary society, a pragmatic approach to relationships that demonstrates how special a partner is. While I might not seek to adopt a different path, those that do are merely tapping into more primal sentiments that the rest of us have moved away from. Monogamy provides the safety and relationship goals that society has told us we desire and wards off the stigma that we’ve come to fear in not achieving the expectations placed upon us. It’s a social and emotional construct but one that most of us have seemingly brought into in making it the status quo.

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