RelationshipsIs monogamy making us miserable?
Marriage can be tough. But one expert believes it doesn’t have to be – that our ‘one mate for life’ rule is unrealistic, unnecessary, even unnatural. We dare to ask if, perhaps, he has a point.
By John Preston 7:15PM BST
10 Sep 2011
Earlier this year, an Algerian pork butcher called Lies Hebbadj was revealed to have been dividing his time between his wife and three mistresses. This prompted the French Interior Minister to declare that he should be stripped of his French citizenship. Greatly affronted, the all-too-aptly-named Lies hit back saying that keeping mistresses was a French tradition, and if he was stripped of his citizenship then millions of other Frenchmen should hang up their passports too.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the married New York Congressman, Anthony Weiner, was busy emailing photos of his groin to a bemused stranger in Seattle. In between the politician and the pork-butcher came a lengthy procession of men — it is, I fear, almost always men — who have found the chains of monogamy all too easy to break.
Tiger Woods, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, various actors and footballers hunkered down behind their super injunctions… Each year brings forth its rich harvest of adulterers who have vaulted out of the marriage bed and scooted off – leaving heartbreak and lawyers’ bills in their wake. Across age, race and class, it’s the same story. And each year people scratch their heads in puzzlement and wonder where it all went wrong.
Only this year something different happened. Maybe, suggested America’s leading relationships columnist, Dan Savage, it’s time we looked more closely at monogamy and asked if we’re really cut out for it as a species.
After all, Roget’s Thesaurus defines monogamy as “a kind of marriage”. In other words, there are other kinds, and perhaps one of these might suit us a little better.
Savage’s suggestion was a novel one. Heterosexuals, he reckoned, should learn to behave more like homosexuals — and gay males in particular. What this means, in essence, is that they should re-examine their ideas about fidelity. Savage, who’s gay himself, insists he’s faithful to his partner, and vice versa. That said, his definition of fidelity is one that any thesaurus would struggle to accommodate.
“My partner’s fidelity to me is as important as anyone who’s in a monogamous relationship with someone else; we just don’t define sexual exclusivity as the be-all and end-all of commitment. In other words, we’re faithful to each other, but sometimes we have sex with other people.
“However, that in no way violates our commitment to each other.”
Savage insists he wasn’t trying to ignite a huge moral blaze – yet that’s exactly what happened. “I couldn’t believe how worked up people got,” he tells me. “It was like they were this bunch of children and I’d just told them that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
“What made the greatest impression on me was just how vulnerable the idea of monogamy must be. Otherwise, why would anyone who just clears their throat and points out that monogamy might not be for everyone, be accused of ruining it for everyone else?”
If, as Savage suggests, we’re not cut out for monogamy as a species, we’re not alone here. Quite the reverse. Scarcely a month goes by without some creature, once thought to be a heart-warming example of lifelong fidelity, being exposed as a serial philanderer.
We now know that swans do not – as once thought – repine in a pitiful, floppy-necked way after the death of their partner. Rather they swallow their grief, plump out their feathers and find another one. Similarly gibbons, far from being models of constancy, get up to all kinds of untrousered mischief whenever they’re off on business trips, or the like.
And then of course there’s the red-tailed blackbird, long-believed to mate for life. In a recent effort to reduce population numbers, a large number of male blackbirds were sterilised, which, in theory, should have knocked the birth-rate on the head. However, to the surprise of biologists conducting the project, the females continued to lay eggs which hatched. The conclusion was inescapable: when those female blackbirds couldn’t get what they wanted at home, they simply went elsewhere.
But we are not red-tailed blackbirds, you cry indignantly. We are humans and what’s natural for them isn’t necessarily natural for us.
Ah yes, but what exactly is natural? As the humorist Ogden Nash once observed, “Smallpox is natural – vaccine ain’t.” Monogamy may be no more natural for us than it is for anyone – or anything – else.
Recent research at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden suggests that the way in which men bond to their partners may, in part, be dictated by a specific gene variant — immediately christened the “divorce gene”. The more of it you have in your genetic make-up, the more likely you are to stray. If you’re a man, that is.
If biology isn’t on the side of monogamy, then nor is history. The idea that romantic love should play any part in marriage is a comparatively recent one. Before the 18th century, it would have been considered the height of folly — mainly because it gave women the right not to enter a loveless marriage, and paved the way to their getting divorced if they did. Marriage and sex simply didn’t go together – at least not as far as men were concerned. Women, it hardly needs adding, were expected to remain models of constancy and fidelity.
Then along came romanticism, bringing ballads, soppy sentiments and a host of unfulfillable expectations with it. A very bad move, reckons Savage. All at once the “monogamous expectation” was imposed on men. “Prior to that, they were never expected to be monogamous. They had access to concubines, mistresses, prostitutes and all the rest of it.”
Skip forward to the feminist revolution of the Sixties. In theory, this ought to have evened up the balance. It did, Savage reckons, but in completely the wrong way. “Rather than extending to women the same latitude that men always enjoyed, we extended to men the confines women have always endured. And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”
So what should we do? Savage has coined a handy acronym for how he thinks couples should behave — “GGG”, which stands for good, giving and game. If couples can’t fulfil one another’s desires, then maybe the best thing is to venture outside the marriage for a while – if that’s what it takes to make the relationship survive.
“I’m absolutely not saying that people should be free to sleep with whoever they want. I’m just saying that if you’re married to someone for 50 years and you cheat on them once or twice, that doesn’t mean you’re bad at monogamy.
“In fact, I’d say you were pretty good at it. All I’m arguing for is a little latitude, a little forgiveness, a little realism.”
Forgiveness… Here we come to perhaps the trickiest question of all to do with infidelity. If you do happen to stray, however briefly, from the marital path, should you tell your husband or wife what you have done?
Traditional wisdom holds that honesty is always the best policy. But once again, are we not setting the bar unfeasibly high? Might it not be more practical to argue for something better suited to our human frailties?
Here I tap the blackboard in an authoritative manner and refer to a flagrantly unscientific survey of some male friends of mine which I conducted for the purposes of this article.
Honesty, say my friends nodding sagely, is for losers. There’s nothing to be gained from telling your partner about a fling. Far from being an act of admirable honesty, it’s actually one of supreme selfishness. This is what we might call the Great Paradox of Extra-Marital Affairs: not telling the truth is both the kinder and more honourable thing to do.
After all, they ask, who benefits from such reckless candour? Not you for sure – not in terms of domestic tranquillity anyway. And certainly not the partner who was happily in the dark before. Far better to keep schtum and carry on. This may be hypocritical, but is that so terrible? Conventional wisdom says it is.
There are, it’s worth noting, plenty of cultures which take a more relaxed attitude to fidelity than we do. Inuit men, for example, have long had “temporary wives” which they take with them on otherwise lonely treks across the tundra, leaving their more permanent wives at home. Closer to home, countries like France and Italy have practically enshrined infidelity in their national identity.
But it may be that we too are becoming more relaxed about infidelity. A recent survey of family lawyers commissioned by financial advisers, Grant Thornton, found that it’s no longer the main reason given by people seeking a divorce in the UK – for the first time in the survey’s history, infidelity has been overtaken by couples saying simply that they have “grown apart”.
So is it time to draw down the curtain on monogamy, to acknowledge that it simply doesn’t work for us? Perhaps – but before we do, let us pause for a moment and refer back to my panel of friends. All have succumbed to temptation. All cling feverishly to the idea that they’ve done nothing that bad; they’ve simply followed their instincts. Yet there’s something else they have in common: all are divorced and all are steeped in record levels of confusion, misery and self-pity.
Surely this alone should give one pause for thought. To be unfaithful can never be a minor infraction. It is a betrayal – there’s no way around this.
Nor is infidelity a shallow pool into which you can dip your toe every so often. Rather it’s a whirlpool that will suck you in and draw you down. Not only that; however careful you are, the overwhelming likelihood is that you will be caught out. When that happens you will be heaping humiliation upon the person that – in theory at least – you care most about.
And whatever this or that survey may say, once broken, the bond of trust between two people frequently proves impossible to repair. You look at your partner with new eyes and wonder if you ever really knew them in the first place – if whatever you shared wasn’t just a sham.
Andrew Marshall, author of How Can I Ever Trust You Again? From Infidelity to Recovery in Seven Steps, believes there are strong practical and moral arguments in favour of monogamy. For a start, he says, he’s never met a heterosexual couple who have made licensed infidelity work.
“The only couple I’ve counselled who tried to do that fell at the first hurdle. They tried to be honest with one another, but the amount of jealousy and upset was extraordinary.
“And if people aren’t being honest then I suspect it’s even worse. You may think you’re having uncomplicated sex, only there’s no such thing because sex binds people together.
“You’re playing with fire and you’ll almost certainly get burned.” And, of course, it’s not just you and your partner who’ll end up burned – any children you may have are almost certain to suffer too.
Here’s yet another reason why, Dan Savage’s many critics have lost no time in pointing out, it’s absurd to suggest that heterosexual couples should behave more like homosexuals.
In Marshall’s experience, infidelity doesn’t necessarily work for gay couples either. “What tends to happen is that they have a don’t ask/don’t tell policy, but someone invariably ends up getting jealous. Or else they have sex with everyone apart from each other and drift into a sibling relationship.”
Humans, Marshall believes, “are always at our best when we aim to be as good as we possibly can. I think we have to aim high. But I also think we should try to be a little more charitable and try to solve the underlying causes that lie behind infidelity. If people put the same energy they expend on an affair into their marriage or relationship, it’s quite possible they could solve their problems.”
In the late Sixties, at the height of the sexual revolution, the American novelist John Updike wrote a novel called Couples, closely based on his own experience, in which a group of married couples in New England gaily swap beds, heedless of the consequences.
Not long after writing the book, Updike’s first marriage fell apart. Years later, he was asked if he regretted his behaviour. Did he think he should have stuck with his wife, even though it felt more natural to separate?
“Yes,” Updike replied. “I’ve been married twice, and breaking up the first marriage was the worst thing I’ve ever done, in terms of suffering. I wouldn’t,” he added with evident feeling, “want to go through that again.”http://www.telegraph.co.uk/relationship ... rable.html