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    Thursday, May 18, 2006

    Not-Quite-Pathological (But Still Sad) Monogamy

    In today's Prudence:

    Dear Prudence,
    I am 21 years old and graduating from college in one month. I am also getting married in two months. The problem is, I don't think I really want to get married. I am marrying my high-school sweetheart and have never even dated anyone else. I think I have the urge to "sow wild oats," but at this point there really isn't any possibility of seeing other people. If I were to tell my fiance I wanted to do that, there would be no going back and I would lose my best friend. Also, my family loves him. I am becoming quite panicked, even more so as gifts arrive and things are paid for. I love my fiance, so I don't know why I feel this way. I worry that if I just marry him we will end up divorced, I will end up cheating on him, or both. I know I should have addressed this earlier; I've been feeling this way for at least a year. I thought it would go away, but it's just gotten worse and worse. Is it too late to change my mind?

    —Feeling Trapped

    Dear Trapped,
    When you say "change your mind," do you mean is it too late to be persuaded that you really do want to get married? Because right now, it's clear your mind wants out. You're correct that you can't head toward your wedding day while trying to sneak in a few illicit dates—it would be awkward to miss your rehearsal dinner because you're out with a great new guy. These are not last-minute jitters: Your desire to see what's there in the world for you is stronger than your desire to set up a joint checking account. Perfectly reasonable feelings for a 21-year-old to have. I think this is about more than dating—it's about wanting to see who you are on your own. So, yes, when you break off the engagement, you may lose your fiance forever. That's the painful part of making this decision, but you can't cryogenically freeze him in case you conclude you want to go back. Be ready to stand firm if your family insists you are making a mistake. Then return the gifts, settle up with the caterer, and have some wonderful, terrible, amazing experiences.


    I have been told by sooooo many people over the years that they wished they were still with their high school sweetheart (or college lover, sometimes, or childhood neighbor). It is possible that they are simply nostalgic for the sort of love one can have at that stage in life, but it is also possible that that person is someone they should have kept in their lives. Unlike Feeling Trapped, many young (often middle-class) folks are encouraged not to get serious about one person and reminded that "there are many fish in the sea".

    I truly believe that "feeling trapped" is common among people who choose to marry or partner long-term with someone they meet early in life (and people who choose to do so later many times, as well) and I believe one reason for this is the gravity of assumed monogamy.

    I don't mean to suggest that everyone should be with their first loves forever, simply that, if Feeling Trapped and her fiance are actually ideal partners, they will never know. If they go through with it, the first couple of years (if not longer) might likely be mired in resentment, jealousy, fear, and pain. If they don't, they may regret it and miss one another's companionship for the rest of their lives. Feeling Trapped is right to "worry that if I just marry him we will end up divorced, I will end up cheating on him, or both." And this is not a failing on her part, nor is it, as common knowledge indicates, a failing of the relationship itself. It is a failing of the institution of marriage and this failing has been, sadly, one of elements adopted by "relationship culture", at least in the mainstream of the US, with which I am familiar.

    What makes me sadder about this letter is that, when Feeling Trapped wrote for advice, she was told what she wants: "out". Not that what she wanted was a relationship that would allow her (and her partner) to explore desires outside of the couple, but that she didn't want a serious relationship. Also, that her feelings were "about more than dating," which I think is one the great fallacies of monogamy-speak. The simple fact that you are interested in exploring hook-ups or more with other people = something more. This "something more" can mean some sort of independence, as Prudie indicates. Often, it is said to mean there is a problem in the primary relationship, which means that relationship should end or they should try to counsel out all extra-marital desire*. I think that always translating extra-marital desire as "something else" actually contributes to people's engaging in adultery. It does so because these feelings are kept underground, for fear of their being mislabeled. After all, if you tell your partner that you want to have sex with other people, that means you don't love your partner - if you do indeed love that person, you don't want to hurt them like that. So you quietly pursue dalliances which, in fact, enable you to maintain the relationship and the love you feel for your partner with less duress.

    Overreading extra-marital desire also keeps there from being any real mainstream cultural dialogue about non-monogamous relationships. Persons in "open relationships" are reluctant to tell friends, family, and colleagues, for fear that they will be assumed on their way to divorce*, that it will be assumed their relationship is some kind of sham, that they don't love each other, in short that one or both of them "have issues." For this reason, everyone thinks all the couples they know are monogamous.

    There is even an assumption that non-monogamous relationships are always somehow "unjust". One always assumes that one partner is just martyring themselves to the other's unwieldy desires. Look at the Clintons. It seems quite obvious to me that the couple have some sort of "arrangement", formal or not. I seems obvious simply because he's had that many extra-marital sexual episodes of which we are aware. Whether or not Hillary has had her own, we don't know. But the assumption is that, even though she was made aware of her husband's extra-marital sex time and again, she is the "wronged party". What if, and I know this is hard for most people to swallow, but what if she doesn't see that sex as threatening to her marriage? What if Bill and Hillary Clinton are solid partners, deeply in love, and don't assume monogamy?

    Now, I am not the first person to suggest that, for Bill and Hillary Clinton, there was some sort of "arrangement". Which interests me. There is an utter horror at acknowledging that possibility unless there is simply no other way of explaining a phenomenon that is right before our eyes. And the term, an "arrangement," is weighed down with negativity. "Open relationship," "polyamory," "swingers" are also loaded with bad connotations, for many who have heard of them, that is.

    I am tempted to believe that part of this is a jealousy of people who are involved in non-monogamous relationships by the monogamous that leads the latter to paint the former as sleazy and undesirable. Portrayals of "official" non-monogamy (as opposed to "cheating") in literature, television, and film (the first less so than the other two) are most often skeezy- sweaty, unattractive people in gigantic nude groups with really bad music on and too much to drink (truly you can almost smell the people and
    their health food store deodorant onscreen). Only adultery gets a bit of glamour.

    Which makes me think: do the middle-class mainstream hold tight to the ideal of compulsory monogamy as a way of including an eroticized danger in our otherwise rather safe sex lives? Is that perhaps why monogamy is not so compulsory in gay men's sex lives (yes, it depends on the community, there are plenty of monogamous gay men, I'm just sayin') - an element of danger is already understood as accompanying the man-man sex act?

    In the tradition of Peggy Mcintosh, Dark Daughta wrote Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of Sexual Conservatism awhile back. One bit:

    An S.C. can be casual, indifferent or completely unwilling about whether or not to listen to another person's voice in a group in which she or he is the only S.C. present and not have this defined as a deviant trait, a not nice way of being or something that he or she should suffer for.

    I would add this-

    A "naturally monogamous" person (I don't presume to know whether or not such people exist or in what numbers or percentages) never has to question their disinterest in having extra-marital relations. A person who has extra-marital desires but still wants a monogamous relationship can go through their lives never asking themselves why they think monogamy is superior or even simply assumed. A person who wants to be in a non-monogamous relationship or believes in non-monogamy as a viable option for some people has to ask themselves these questions all the time:

    1. Do I believe in this because I am messed up sexually and it gives me a chance to indulge guilt-free?
    2. Does the fact that I want to have sex with people other than my partner/I don't want to kill myself when I think of my partner having sex with other people mean that I don't love them enough? Does the fact that I've never wanted to be exclusively with one person mean that I am incapable of real love?
    3. Am I "using" people? Do I want to?
    4. Am I engaged in some sort of self-sabotage? Sadism? Narcissism?
    5. Does this belief system really just justify immaturity?
    6. Is this because ______ happened to me as a child?
    7. Am I just weaker than everyone else?
    Etc, etc, etc.

    I'd really love it if all people who believe in monogamy (meaning, not just anyone who practices it in their own relationship with some degree of thought, but someone who actually believes in it as being superior), just for me, spent five minutes questioning what it is that underlies their belief in monogamy. Just for fairness's sake. I don't mean this as some sort of "Question Your Privilege: A Challenge!" I really don't. I think many people probably have very legitimate reasons for practicing and believing in monogamy. But I do think this issue is one that needs to be taken on and investigated with vigor, to keep us from situations where we are Feeling Trapped.

    * "extra-marital desire" is used here to denote desire outside of a long-term monogamous relationship. "divorce" is meant to indicate the break-up of a long-term relationship. I'm not "married" myself, nor do I assume all people of all sexual orientations are or should be. I just think that, given the roots of some of these conceptions, the language of marriage applies quite aptly.


    Anonymous Luke said...

    "So you quietly pursue dalliances which, in fact, enable you to maintain the relationship and the love you feel for your partner with less duress."

    "...do the middle-class mainstream hold tight to the ideal of compulsory monogamy as a way of including an eroticized danger in our otherwise rather safe sex lives?"

    Wow, the beginning letter was really hard to read for personal reasons..but a great post in response to it and the Prudence response. I couldn't stop thinking of Dan Savage while I was reading this because he gets so so many letters that are very similar to this one (as well as those who adopt other non-monogamous avenues and then have good/bad outcomes). But I think you raise some important questions in terms of the monogamy-normative culture...to respond to your comments near the top of the post, one really misleading aspect is the whole narrative that says "there's ONE person out there for you!" and the idea that if all that soulmate stuff is true, then uncompromising happiness soon follows uninterrupted. and then in terms of the cultural critique stuff, i agree i think part of this has to do with the mixed signals society projects in that monogamous sex as the all encompassing love ideal...yet at the same time its "just sex" with hookup and raunch culture being so mainstream nowadays coupled with the Sam Jones nomadic sex and the city effect. well, no, the nomadic sex thing is more for pre-marriage with the expectation that one totally gives up those sexual tendencies after entering the relationship. whatever works for people, i guess is what i'm saying. and they should probably consider the alternatives.

    6:08 AM  

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