To Be or Not to Be? (Monogamous, that is…)

Photo by Seth Sawyers licensed under CC BY 2.0

Photo by Seth Sawyers licensed under CC BY 2.0

Monogamy is often held up as the ideal way for humans to relate to one another as far as intimate relationships go. But I’ve been mulling over the thought that perhaps being monogamous is not unquestionably the clear frontrunner when it comes to relationship forms.

According to the CDC, mutual monogamy means that you’ve agreed to be sexually active with just one person, and that person has agreed to be sexually active only with you. But sexually speaking, there’s a whole range of options to consider that includes asexuality, polyamory, polygamy, and consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships.

Social Psychologist Bella DePaulo, writing for Psychology Today, states that “If the criterion is, do people think monogamous relationships are better, then the answer is an overwhelming yes.” Just like the idea that we should get married, this is what we think we are supposed to do and therefore we can easily generate reasons for why it is better to do so than to be non-monogamous and/or stay single.

This point of view is so taken for granted that there are not many studies investigating the matter. DePaulo believes that our society ought to stop insisting that there is one right way to carry on a sexual relationship and contends that if this is the case then we need to find the data that proves it. (There’s a crazy thought!)

Conventional wisdom says that monogamy provides “a life full of safe and excellent sex” and that those practicing monogamy experience less jealousy than other forms of relationships. However, research has shown that both sexual frequency and sexual desire can decrease in the course of a long-term relationship and that levels of jealousy can actually be lower in CNM relationships versus a monogamous sample.

David Woods says that Oregon State University researchers found that when a sampling of married and unmarried heterosexual partners were asked separately whether there was an agreement to be monogamous in their relationship, 40% of the couples gave conflicting answers. And of those who had agreed about the choice of monogamy, 30% reported that at least one of the partners had not kept the agreement.

The data also showed that the married couples were no more likely to have an explicit monogamy agreement than the unmarried couples, although the monogamy clause is usually taken to be implicit in a marriage.

It appears that what many would consider “normal” may not be the case. The jury is definitely out as far as the scientific proof for monogamy as the ideal.

In a series of dialogues written by Daniel Fincke, a fictitious twosome discuss their ideas concerning monogamy, cheating, jealousy, and what they believe would result in the most happiness for all involved parties.

“Kelly” sums up his/her position by saying “Will you realize that adulterers are often not brave new ‘first adopters’ of the improved moralities of the future, but selfish people who weigh the actual pain they will cause others against their own, lesser pleasures and knowingly choose the course that will lead to more hurt and pain for others and not as much increase pleasure to themselves?”

“Jaime” replies by saying “I will admit that if you will admit that many faithful people suffer emotionally and sexually depleted lives for the sake of not hurting others, and that they are as much victims as those who are cheated upon and that a more pleasure-and-autonomy-embracing ethics would be the path to everyone’s greater happiness”.

In the course of the conversation between the two, many interesting albeit controversial (according to most cultural norms) ideas are talked over.

Jaime espouses the position that making monogamy an ideal is a mistake, saying “I believe in permanent promiscuity.” Kelly raises a myriad of objections, including the idea that people will get jealous and be hurt if their sexual partners have other partners, and considers Jaime’s notions concerning relationships unfair, unhealthy, and not in line with human nature.

Reading these dialogues caused me to ponder my own thoughts on all topics related to monogamy. Because of my experiences, there is great emotion attached to some of my feelings and beliefs. I’ve cheated and been cheated on. I was married for 20 years to one man, and for 39 years that man was my one and only sexual partner.

Since the demise of our marriage and his death by suicide, I’ve experienced plenty of sexual situations running the gamut from one night stands to committed (non-married) relationships. My life seems to be a study in attempting to form my own picture of what an ideal relationship looks like. And most days I feel like I’m no closer to figuring that out than my getting-married-at-19-year-old self was.

WARNING: Armchair philosophy ahead —>

It’s interesting to read Jean-Paul Sartre‘s thoughts in light of the fact that his well-publicized open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir was not exactly without problems. In his “Existentialism is a Humanism”, Sartre asserts that everyone can do what he likes, and will be incapable, from such a point of view, of condemning either the point of view or the action of anyone else.

In defending his view, he says that what alarms people is that it confronts man with a possibility of choice. The existentialist believes that existence comes before essence. This means that we first exist, and then the choices we make in our life define who we become. “Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is.”

Sartre puts forth some principles of existentialism. The first is that we are nothing but what we make of ourselves. This places the responsibility for what we become solely on us. He then says that this “becoming” is a responsibility toward all men because “of all the actions that a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be”.

In other words, when we choose, we do so because we think it to be the best choice, and if this is the best choice for us then it should follow that it’s the best choice for all. He cautions us that choosing is a great responsibility as it concerns the whole of mankind.

He actually uses monogamy as an example in this essay. He says that if one decides to marry and have children (even if the choice is made due to passion or desire), then that would be committing the whole of humanity to the ideal of monogamy because in making this choice it shows how men ought to be.

Sartre then explains some terms that existentialists use. First, they believe man is in anguish. When we realize that our choices affect the whole of humanity, we feel a heavy sense of responsibility. He asserts that we always ought to ask ourselves what would happen if everyone made the same choice we are making. We must remember that by choosing, we place a high value on our choice.

He then describes the concept of abandonment. This is in reference to the atheistic existentialist belief that God does not exist and therefore there is no a priori truth to count on. We are alone, without excuse, and solely responsible for our choices. He says that “if values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.”

And then he talks about despair. He simply says that this means “we limit ourselves to a reliance upon that which is within our wills, or within the sum of probabilities which render our action feasible” which is to say that we think and make our choices within the real possibilities available to us at any given time. We cannot rely on a God to bend the world to our will.

Although Sartre does not believe in a universal human nature, he believes we share a human condition that is not given, but continually being made. When we make choices, we are creating this universality.

To sum up, he says that “what is at the very heart and center of existentialism is the absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man realizes himself in realizing a type of humanity- a commitment always understandable, to no matter whom in no matter what epoch- and its bearing upon the relativity of the cultural pattern which may result from such absolute commitment.”

So then according to existentialism, when we confront choices, we must make them realizing that these choices affect the direction of the whole of humanity.

Based on Sartre’s explanation of existentialism, the question of whether or not monogamy is the ideal form a human relationship should take is not easily answered. It is a matter of each individual making his own choice, without condemning the thoughts or actions of others.

However, it is clear that the choice ought not to be made lightly as it has ramifications for the whole of society.

As a person who has spent a great deal of my life letting others do the thinking for me, this is not the kind of answer I’d prefer. It places the responsibility and consequences of my decision squarely on my own shoulders with no one else to blame.

Immanuel Kant describes my former way of life very succinctly in this paragraph:

“Thus it has become very difficult for the individual to work himself out of the nonage which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to like it, and is at first really incapable of using his own understanding because he has never been permitted to try it. Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use – or rather abuse – of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage. The man who casts them off would make an uncertain leap over the narrowest ditch, because he is not used to such free movement. That is why there are only a few men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own minds”.

I am still not quite used to free movement, and often it feels exactly as though I’m uncertainly leaping over narrow ditches.

Reading Kant, a completely different view concerning monogamy emerges. In her article “Feminist Perspectives on Objectification”, Evangelia Papadaki discusses Kant’s views on sexuality and objectification. Kant believed that the characteristic feature of humanity is an individual’s capacity for rationally setting and pursuing her own ends and that humans must never be treated merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

Kant was concerned that sexual activity outside of monogamous marriage was an example of using another person merely as a means of sexual satisfaction. For Kant, prostitution, concubinage, polyamory, and polygamy would all be examples of treating a person as merely a tool to serve a purpose, to make that person into an interchangeable object.

Kant asserted that “the only relationship in which two people can exercise their sexuality without the fear of reducing themselves to objects is monogamous marriage. Monogamy is required to ensure that there is quality and reciprocity in the surrender and ownership of the two spouses’ persons. The spouses exclusively surrender their persons to one another, so neither of them is in danger of losing his or her person and becoming an object.”

So not only did he see monogamy as the only acceptable relationship choice, he also insisted that it be within the confines of marriage. Kant wanted a legal obligation in place to enforce the lifelong commitment between two people. He felt that without the legal obligation, a committed partner may stay as long as they felt like it but there was always a risk of one leaving the other. He felt marriage allowed each person to safely surrender their whole selves to the other.

Interestingly, Kant also asserted that spouses are not only allowed but required to use each other sexually because he considered that a marriage without sex constituted a simulated contract and therefore did not constitute a marriage. Papadaki also mentions the idea that there is no financial gain involved in marriage, unlike in prostitution.

While I agree with Kant’s idea that we should not treat people as mere objects for our purposes, I would disagree with him on other counts. In this day of easily and often dissolved marriages, I fail to see any real guarantees that one person will not leave the other.

I also find the notion of sex as a requirement of marriage ridiculous. As someone who was married for 20 years, I know well the ebbs and flows of the sexual relationship within a marriage. Just because a couple may go through a period of very little sexual activity does not mean that the marriage is no longer valid.

Also, although marriage and prostitution are generally considered unrelated, I do believe that there is often financial gain involved in marriage. “Marrying for money” is a phrase we all know very well.

Rather than agree with Kant’s overall view concerning monogamous marriage as the ideal, I’d be more likely to agree with Martha Nusbaum, who shares much of Kant’s optimism that it is indeed possible for men and women to exercise their sexuality in ways that are consistent with respect for their own humanity.

According to Papadaki, if people are sexually active in a way that is characterized by equality and mutuality then the partners can be considered safe from harm. What she has in mind is a sort of equal and reciprocal surrender of the two partners’ feelings, and equal and reciprocal sharing of their lives and happiness.

Taking into consideration the writings of both Sartre and Kant, I don’t arrive at any definitive answer concerning whether or not monogamy should be held up as the ideal. Rather, I’m impressed with the crucial importance of thinking for myself versus relying on dogmas and formulas.

I indeed struggle with the issues of anguish, abandonment, and despair, along with the existentialist as I strive to make decisions that not only please me, but would be beneficial to the whole of mankind if we all were to make the same choices.

In the meantime, I’ll keep freely leaping over those narrow ditches in the hopes that a bit more certainty reveals itself.