Do you love only either your mom or dad? Without enough love in reserve to feel strongly for both of them? Do you only love one of your siblings, and not the others? Simply by means of having no love left over after in loving one. Do you only feel deep affection, caring, and/or love for just one friend? Turning away all other friends for potential deep connections because there isn't enough love, caring, and connection to go around? Or because loving one friend means by default that its impossible for you to love another?
The answer to all of these questions is of course, no.
We can, and do, love many people in our lives with similar strength and depth. Usually experiencing poignant connections with several. Never assuming that the light of love we experience with one will somehow take away from the light of another.
We love both our parents (unless of course, there is an extenuating circumstance). We tend to love all of our siblings. We can love more than one household pet with equal affection. We feel deep caring and love for several friends in our lives. We can adore many, many different foods. Feel impassioned by a handful of hobbies. So why then is it that our culture so touts and strongholds us into the mindset and belief that with romantic love, we can only love one? That to love more than one is not only impossible, its also wrong, "less than," deceitful, even bad.
Why is monogamy taken to be the one right means, the default way of having a relationship? Why is it considered the only "right," correct, real, or true way of being in a relationship? And that all other relationship models are inferior, demonized, wrong, less good, not genuine or true. Seems pretty narrow, brow beating, as well as impossibly absurd to me.
No one way is ever the right way, the only good or true one.
Monogamy came into play back during the agricultural age, when ownership of land and property became part of the picture. With the ownership of goods, we felt a need to also stake a sort of ownership of our partners. In a way, to protect the passing down of these goods and "keep them in the family."
Yes, to a strong degree, humans do pair bond. We come to love someone, and then tend to want to keep that person close, to continue deepening the relationship, to remain connected with this person (assuming the relationship remains a healthy and good one). The more we invest emotionally with each close relationship in our life, the more attached to it we tend to become. This is all legit and normal. Its even good. Though this falls more into an emotional vein regarding love/attachment/closeness than necessarily a sexually one. Though we tend to assume the two must be one in the same, while they certainly can be and often are, they are not automatically synonymous. Though in many Westernized modern relationships, we have come to assume and demand this be so (and readily rejecting any ideas of anything otherwise).
There have also been numerous tribes, as well as other cultures and groups, who do not practice sexual monogamy as the default. Many of the tribes who practice such a different way of interpersonal relations share most if not all of their resources, such as land, food, shelter, and yes, sex. They tend to live in small groups. There is little to no competition among them. Little to no fear of loss or intense jealousy. (As jealousy stems from perceived fear of loss). Instead, everything is shared. They see each other as a team, as companions, as having of each others backs. Not as though taking things from one another, not as though "this is mine" and "that is yours." Instead, there is a strong sense of commodore and kinship among them. And yes, even caring and love.
Among several primates, which are one of the most closely related other species to ourselves, there are several powerful points of evidence that we as humans are not naturally monogamous. Specifically a species of primate called the Bonobo, these are our closest genetic relatives in the animal kingdom. The noises females make during sex, to draw other males closer and alert them of her sexual activity and prowess (human females do this too). The size of certain genitalia and body parts. Even particulars with regards to how they engage in sexual activity and relate to one another. For more on this (the evolution of human sexuality), check out "Sex at Dawn" by Christopher Ryan.
And finally, lets examine monogamy itself. For some people, it works. Over a lifetime, there is a small subset of couples who remain both sexually and emotionally faithful (though to me, this is one of those ambiguous and much layered, relative terms. What does emotionally faithful mean exactly? That you must never desire anyone else? Because that's impossible, unless you are dead. Does it mean never having romantic feelings for anyone else? Never spending time with anyone of the opposite gender?) to one another, and for both of them, it truly works and feels right, good, and is the way that best suits them for having a relationship.
For a greater sweeping of people though, this is not necessarily what best suits them. Though we have been told that monogamy is the default, the only right way, the script for any and all relationships, many people shoehorn themselves into this arrangement because they don't think anything otherwise is even possible. They fear outer judgement, and the navigation of inner strife with regards to figuring it out. They also fear losing their partner if they were to bring such a thing up in the first place. So they sit with the default, even though it may be an ill-fitting puzzle piece.
Lets consider for a moment:
Roughly half of all marriages end in divorce.
The number of people who remain married must consider those who remain together, though are just moving along based on routine, familiarity, and daily steam. I am referring to people who are not especially happy nor flourishing in their current relationship/marriage. The relationship is workable and fine. Not much more, not necessarily less. Many of these people will end up having affairs. Many of them will end up complacent and gritting through a fair degree of it. So lets assume that on top of the 50% of marriages that end, another decent percentage of marriages aren't especially happy. (Aka, "being married" in and of itself is not necessarily any kind of success or badge of honor. Instead, the key question: is the marriage a good one?)
And finally, the number of people who remain married but are downright unhappy. A flat out mismatch. An unhealthy union. Those who have come to what should be a divergence in their paths and yet, they stay (out of some combination of laziness, fear, and comfort- because its easier).
Lastly, consider all the people who cheat, married or not. The number that's reported varies widely, depending on whom you ask. Combine that figure with all the people who cheat and didn't admit to doing so on some kind of survey. Its not a small number.
That is a lot of relationship endings, conclusions, mismatches, and misery. (Important note: just because something ends doesn't automatically mean it was wrong all along. It can mean that, though just as often, it doesn't mean that at all).
Maybe the root cause of all this isn't with this insane percentage of people who seem to be either unhappy in their current union, ending things with a long time partner, or cheating. Maybe instead, the fault is with the system. If you had a watch that only worked half the time, you would consider it a failure as a product. Monogamy is a product that works some of the time, for some people. It also doesn't work much of the time and/or over long periods of time, for a lot of people.
Our marriages today are tall orders indeed. As a spouse (or even romantic partner, married or not), we are supposed to check all of the following boxes for our partner:
-sole sexual partner
-co parent (if you have children)
-permanent +1 (expected to attend most to all events together, going to visit one another's families with the other frequently, etc)
No one person can possibly fulfill all of these roles at any given time, or even most of the time. When you put that much weight and expectation on any one person and one relationship? Its only a matter of time before the house of cards collapses. Its an impossible order.
Might it be that our expectations of one single relationship (aka our romantic one) set us up for brutal disappointment and disillusionment? For being feeling left wanting often? For frequently leaving something to be desired?
Maybe it isn't that we have chosen the wrong person. That something in our partner is lacking. Again, maybe its the system that is in error. The fact that we "must" be with only one person, and then if that person doesn't fulfill us in all ways, we are then left with two options. We have to either deal with it, or dump them. To me, this seems like a setup for a cycling through people. Its a setup for perpetual disappointment, yearning, and resentment. Its also harshly black and white.
What if instead, as we do with friendships, we realized that different connections with varying people fulfill different needs in each of us? That relevant, poignant lessons can be learned from different relationships and different people? That no one person can possibly fulfill and meet all our needs? That placing so much weight on one relationship and person is, quite often, the reason it collapses? That its likely there are many people who are awesome matches, though whose relationships bite the dust in the midst of all this expectation which no one person can possibly meet? And that maybe, relieving some of that weight would result in less disappointment, less unrealistic expectations. and less feeling of things to be desired.
I've heard the lame retort and defense of "well, people who are interested in polyamory or open relationships just want freedom to have sex with other people." Not necesarrily. And really, if that is someone's main incentive, don't be in any sort of relationship configuration. Just go out and have sex with people. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you do so honestly and respectfully with all involved.
So sure, sex will often be part of having more than one romantic relationship at a time. Just as often though, it tends to be about having freedom to create and pursue deep, meaningful connections with more than just one person. Sometimes these relationships are hardly sexual at all and are more emotional. To contextualize my point though, imagine if you were told, "you can only have just one close friend at a time, ever. Never more."
Some people would be ok with this. Many would not.
Its true that a romantic relationship takes a signifigant amount of time, focus, investment, and energy. Sustaining more than one would not necesarrily be an easy task. That's not to say though that it wouldn't be a worthwhile one that might offer more benefits and joys than potentially anticipated. Some people might have no interest in that anyway, which is fair enough, all well, and totally good. Some people may though, and its of course, absolutely possible.
Another important point is with regards to jealousy. Its important to remember that if a relationship is monogamous, jealousy still arises, as well as in non-monogamy. Both entail fear of loss, moments of insecurity, as well as jealousy. One is just as likely to be left at some point in a relationship in monogamy as with another arrangement. In fact, some studies and psychological points suggest it might even be more likely in monogomy. As in, anything that feels stifled, trapped, contained, may eventually decide on wanting to venture beyond those narrow confines.
In fact, imagine this concept: your partner, or maybe even you, meet someone else whom they like (or, you meet someone that you like). You feel attracted to this person, want to get to know them and form a connection with them. You have a choice. Either forgo this new, potentially fruitful connection with another human being, or, dump your partner in order to pursue it. As we are told is the "only right" way, you cannot possibly have both.
Imagine though, if you could. Imagine if you could maintain the loving, close connection you have with your partner, while enjoying a different, though equally as fulfilling connection with another person too. You didn't have to choose one or the other. You could experience them both. To me, that largely diminishes much of the fear of loss. As with our cultures alignment in the freedom to have multiple close friends and thus, never feel a need to dump one if suddenly meeting a new friend who strikes our fancy (we can just add them into our life, not needing to rid our life of anyone else in the meantime).
My aim in this article isn't to toot the horn of, nor advertise non-monogomy. (Personally, I am currently in a monogamous relationship, and this feels great/fits well for me at the moment). Instead, its to suggest that there are positives to this relational approach, as well as validity and truth, to other relational models aside from monogamy.
Regardless of and apart from what our society tells us in the narrow script they so heavily push on us as being the "only" correct or real one.
My goal is to draw attention, and even openness, to other ideas and potential ways of engaging in our own relationships. That generally, one sweater in the same size is not going to fit all. In fact, it wont even fit most. Even if we are commanded and demanded that it should and we had damn well better make it fit. (Evidence of this: a 2016 study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that 1 in 5 people in the US engage in some form of consensual non-monogamy throughout their lives).
People also change, grow, and shift. Sometimes, one relational model or approach will work well for an individual for a time, and then they may decide it no longer feels good, or that it leaves them feeling left wanting, or that something about it doesn't feel quite right. They might experiment with another one and find that it doesn't work out well in the way they though it would, so they fine tune that a bit more. Adjustments can continually be made. Just like bodies change as we age, passions and hobbies can evolve and shift, careers often evolve and even frequently alter entirely to something totally different in a persons mid life, relationship needs and styles can also change.
With regards to jealousy once more though, this emotion stems from fear of loss. Being afraid of losing something, a perceived fear of having something taken from you. Imagine you are friends with "Jane" and "Mike." You befriend someone new, "Susan." Are Jane or Mike terrified of your becoming friends with Susan? As if this might result in their losing you as a friend? What if you like Susan a lot? Would you promptly dump Jane and/or Mike as a result? As though you cannot possibly have close emotional connections with all three of them?
So lets assume you add Susan to your mix of friends. Then, what if months later, you befriend another person? Lets call this person Mark. In becoming buddies with Mark, are Susan, Jane, or Mike freaking out because you connected with another person and thus, may dump one or all of them? Because you cannot have multiple friends, it just isnt possible. You can only have one for whom you care. If you have any more, you must get rid of the others. Or, its simply impossible to have deep feelings for more than just the one. Apparently, this is a human anomaly.
Sounds absurd, right? Yet, thats exactly how we treat and consider romantic relationships.
Another point aside, our default relationship has one model: work it out, make it so that both people are getting all their needs met, or, break up. Thats it. So black and white. To me, this is often akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If a relationship is really good, yet there are a few key needs that relationship doesn't meet, why must you either stay and suffer to a degree, be left wanting, or end the relationship entirely? Cant there be other possibilities in there? Of course there are. They just totally freak us out, so we sweep any consideration or exploration of such aside. And, because our culture so strongly drills into our heads "monogamy, monogamy, its the only real, right, and good way."
Within this article, Ive tried to lay out multiple thoughts from different vantage points. Most, professing positive and potential advantages to other relational models, while still giving voice and consideration to challenges that can arise.
The point though is this: all relationship types and models have challenges, and all relationship models have great aspects. No one is better than the other. The point is about which one is best for you. Not what our culture and society rams down our throats which, as you can see in looking around, doesn't work for a lot of people over the long term.
There are numerous positives for having a non-monogamous relationship, and there are numerous positives for monogamous ones. There are also challenges/negatives that can and will arise in both, monogamous and non-monogamous relationships. Some of these challenges are different, with the varying relationship types. Other challenges though are the same.
The major underlying point here though is this: monogamy is not the best way. Its not the only right, good, true, or valid way to love. Non monogamous relationships are not bad, fake, or necessarily worse than monogamous ones. Plenty of people in monogamous relationships are miserable. What makes a relationship good is: are the two people in it a generally good match, are they happy and healthy together, do they treat one another with love and respect. None of this is connected to monogamy.
We can love both our parents equally. Loving all of our siblings the same. We can and do feel deep affection, love, and care for several close friends. We can love multiple pets with similar strength. Its absurd and nonsensical that this is somehow impossible in romantic relations. That is merely what our culture tells us, which does not make it true. Love: why does it have to be just one? It doesn't.