"Is monogamy realistic?"
Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D.
Someone once asked me, "Is monogamy realistic?" I thought that was a very interesting and important question. It got me thinking and helped to shed some light for me on what the underlying issues are in the question itself.
If we mean realistic for the species of humans, then the answer clearly is yes. In various cultures around the world people are able to engage in lifelong monogamous relationships.
There are cultures, even here in the United States, that allow for non-monogamous relationships, and people in those cultures can live quite happily in those contexts. Some of them are religiously based, and in others, like in Kenya, Tanzania, and elsewhere, polygamy is a function of wealth, even in today's modern world.
Here in the United States, though, which is what the person was really asking, about three are people who just operate from alternative ideas about love and relationships. Frequently those relationships are termed polyamorous, which means concurrent emotional relationships with more than one other person. Sometimes they involve sex, and sometimes they don't.
FIDELITY & EXCLUSIVITY
The question appears to center not so much on monogamy but rather on issues of sexual fidelity and exclusivity. And yet, the question also relates to issues of emotional fidelity, separate and apart from sexual exclusivity. Many marriages have been broken apart by emotional and/or romantic, non-sexual intimacies and affairs. Most recently we have seen these kinds of relationships develop on the Internet, in chat rooms, where people find someone with whom they share their deepest secrets and reveal themselves more fully than they do in any other part of their lives. These online relationships may develop into love affairs, across thousands of miles, without sex, without even cybersex, and at the expense of the person's marriage or committed relationship. Alternatively, the close friendships that may emerge at work sometimes develop into very intimate relationships, even when they stay non-sexual, and these can be very disruptive and even destructive to a marriage or a romantic partnership.
IS IT REALISTIC TO EXPECT THAT PEOPLE CAN BE FAITHFUL TO EACH OTHER?
The simple answer is yes. However, the operative word is can. They can be faithful, but whether they are or not is another matter. It is a function of the individuals in the relationship and the nature of the relationship between them.
There are many questions concerning the actual individuals involved. Can Bob be faithful to Mary? Does Mary want Bob to be faithful to her? Does Bob love Mary? Does Bob know that Mary wants him to be faithful? Does Bob know what it means to her if he is or is not faithful? Does Bob know how much it would hurt her if he is not faithful? Does he care enough about her that he would be willing to place her hurt above his desire to have sex with someone else? Does sex with someone else have a specific meaning for Bob – such as power, control, strength, independence, desirability, youth, freedom, excitement, or relief from feelings of aloneness, emptiness, sadness, hurt, weakness, insecurity, helplessness, or anger – that gives it an importance that would override his recognition of the hurt it would cause Mary? Is he sufficiently able to differentiate between desire and action that he can recognize his desire and not have to act on it? Is he sufficiently able to tolerate his desires and have enough ability to control his impulses so that he is able to be turned on by another woman and not have to fulfill the desire? Is he able to tolerate the longing and absence created by unfulfilled desires, or does he have to act on his urges because he can't stand to feel lacking and wanting?
Certainly, the same questions apply for Mary about Bob. These, and many others are the crucial questions involved.
GETTING YOUR NEEDS MET
The issues really depend on who the two people are in the relationship. What do they want and need from each other, and what do those wants and needs provide for them on a deep level. Then the question rests on whether you are willing to provide those wants and needs, especially when your needs may interfere with your partner's getting their own needs met. The same is true in reverse, of course. Your partner may or may not be willing to meet your needs, especially when they feel the price of doing so would be too psychologically or emotionally costly for them.
It may require that one person be willing to make a significant sacrifice in order to meet the needs of the other. In some instances, that sacrifice may be tolerable, and other times it may feel too self-destructive and therefore intolerable. This may take a lot of work to figure out, and it may require some intensive therapy to sort it out.
I have been seeing a couple, I'll call them Jimmy and Mona, who came to couples therapy trying to work out just these kinds of issues. He was wanting an "open" relationship, because he admittedly was trying to work out some issues in his own personal development. She was willing to have an "open" relationship, and yet there were still problems. They were needing to figure out together exactly what that meant for each of them, what the boundaries were, and what was "off limits." The more each was able to be clear with themselves and with each other about what their needs and limits were, the more their conflicts decreased. They were then able to feel good about the results, because they recognized their own needs and limitations, owned them rather than blaming their partner, and each felt stronger and more empowered in the process. They may or may not ultimately stay together, and they're both ok with that, because each is working to grow as individuals and to have that be their primary goal in the therapy.
I should add that this is not a male/female thing, especially because it happens in same sex relationships as well as in heterosexual relationships. Rather, it's an issue about who the particular people are and how they relate to their feelings, their emotions, their sexuality, and each other. It's really a very personal and individual choice between two people about how they want and can allow their relationship to be, what works for them, and what doesn't.
There's no one-size-fits-all about relationships. This is why therapy is and can be so helpful, because it enables the particular people involved to figure it out together, on their own terms, without someone else telling them what to do or how to do it. When they can each find what works for them and can find a partner who is willing and able to do that with them, then the relationship works, even though other people who are looking at it from the outside may strongly disagree or may criticize it as "unhealthy" in some way. For some people that means monogamy. For others it means some kind of polyamory. It's your relationship. You and your partner get to decide.
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