Monogamy

To talk about monogamy is to talk about most of the things that matter to us: honesty, kindness, excitement, betrayal, sex, the family. So, what are we talking about when we talk about monogamy? The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, one of the most original and provocative of current writers on emotional and psychological questions, offers 20 thoughts on the matter
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All the recent controversies about marriage and the soaring divorce rate are really discussions about monogamy: about what keeps people together and why they should stay together. The question is, why do most people believe in monogamy, if only serial monogamy, as though it were a kind of secular religion, even if they find it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain? Of course, in a puritanical society like ours we are likely to value something because it is difficult. And yet everyone knows that most people, however much they may love their partner, are capable of loving and desiring more than one person at a time. It may be reassuring, but it is in fact very demanding, and often cruel, of us to assume that only one other person can give us what we want.

Monogamy may be hard, a liberal argument suggests, but the alternatives to it must be worse - indeed, unthinkable, given the agonies of sexual jealousy and how naturally possessive we are of the people we love. At least in sexual matters, sharing seems to go deeply against the grain. Monogamy is so much taken for granted as the foundation of the family, and of family values, at least in most Western countries, that, as with anything that seems essential, we are wary of being critical of it. It is very difficult to think about. (Everyone is interested in sex, but few interesting things are ever said about it.) So it may be worth wondering why the faithful couple has such a hold on our imaginations, and how it has come to be an ideal or at least a standard. What is it that monogamy solves for us, or cures us of? Since we have agreed to it, it may be quite important for us to find a way of talking about it. Then, at least, we may be able to find out what we have agreed to.

Clearly, everyone is born into a society that tells them what kinds of relationship are possible. We inherit the ways we can be together. But whatever society we grow up in, everyone begins their life in a couple: whether or not both parents are present, we are all conceived by a couple. This doesn't programme us for monogamy but it makes the whole idea of the couple very powerful. Monogamy is where we start from. Sharing, as every parent knows, does not come easily.

As small children we can't help but be faithful to our parents. We organise our lives around them. And yet growing up can involve challenging them, betraying them, letting them down. If our survival, at the beginning, involves something like monogamy, our development soon involves something like infidelity. We may need a background of safety, but we only discover anything new by taking risks. In other words, our stories about childhood prepare us for our stories about adulthood. There is only one mother and father in the world - one Mr or Miss Right - but there are a lot of men and women. It is possible that when we think about monogamy we usually think about it as though we were still children, not adults. As though monogamy were just the opposite of promiscuity, rather than one way, among others, that we may choose to live.

The comfort of strangers

Familiarity may increase our affection, our respect, even our time for other people, but it rarely increases our desire for them. Monogamy reassures us, but it also unsexes us, which may be part of its appeal. Strangeness is exciting, but it threatens to derange us; routine is comforting, but it threatens to put us to sleep. Nothing convinces us of our capacity to make choices - nothing sustains our illusion of freedom - more than continuity. And nothing is more destructive of our interest and our pleasure in what we do.

If it is the predictable that stupefies us, and the unpredictable that terrifies us, what should we do? If we are always caught between risk and resignation, between confidence and catastrophe, how can we decide what to do next?

Worse and worse

The opposite of monogamy is not just promiscuity, but the absence or the impossibility of coupledom itself. Indeed, one reason why monogamy is so important to us is that we are terrified by the alternatives, or by what we imagine the alternatives to be. The person we fear most is the one who does not believe in the universal sacredness of the (usually heterosexual) couple. As homophobia and xenophobia imply, if we don't choose monogamy our fate will be loneliness, or a chaos of impersonal relationships. A threat, that is to say, not a promise. Abandonment and exclusion, or getting too mixed up with, and by, other people. In unguarded circulation, or stranded. In other words, we do not know whether we want monogamy, but we do know that we fear an excess of solitude and an excess of company.

Of a piece

You can be occasionally unfaithful, but you can't be occasionally monogamous. You can't be monogamous and unfaithful at the same time; you do have to be one or the other. But by choosing one, you choose the possibility of the other. That's real commitment.

Staying on

We only really value a relationship when it survives our best attempts to destroy it. As every sadomasochist knows, nothing is more seductive than resistance. It is the only aphrodisiac that works: the more you take, the better it gets. So the only way we can discover the value of infidelity is through monogamy. A lot of confusion is created by our belief that it only works the other way around.

All yours

One way of loving someone is to acknowledge that they have desires that exclude us, that it is possible for them to love and desire more than one person at the same time. We all know that this is true, and yet we don't want the people we love to start believing it about themselves.

We reserve our most generous, our most ennobling love for ourselves. After all, other people may abuse it. I am free to neglect the people I love, but they must never neglect me unless I allow them to. I have a right to be unfaithful; they have an obligation not to be. I love whoever I happen to love, but no one I love is allowed to do that.

Unfortunately, I am so busy keeping an eye on the people I love that I have no time to be free. That is, I believe in my freedom but I don't seem to want it.

Commitments

Choosing monogamy is not, of course, choosing not to desire anyone other than one's partner; it is choosing not to do anything that violates one's idea of monogamy. Everyone flirts with their (mostly unconscious) standards of fidelity. But we are only ever really faithful to fidelity itself.

For some people it is a betrayal to dance with someone else; for other people only sexual intercourse counts, and you can do everything else with impunity. If we didn't recognise our own rules, how would we know we were being unfaithful? To love our partners we have to be addicted to the rules. Without rules we wouldn't know how to live our sexual lives.

Other people

There is no such thing as sexual competition, there is only a gradual coming to terms with the fact that one can never be someone other than oneself to one's partner. Our rivals are in the same trap. They are helpless, like us, because they only have one real advantage over us, and it is always decisive: they will never be us.

Double agent

Coupledom is a sustained resistance to the intrusion of third parties. But the couple needs to encourage the third parties in order to go on resisting them, to have something to resist. The faithful keep an eye on the enemy, eye them up. After all, what would they do together if no one else were there? How would they know what to do?

Two's company, but three's a couple.

Preferences

The compulsive monogamist is like the compulsive libertine. For both of them there is a catastrophe to be averted. The monogamist is terrorised by his promiscuous wishes, the libertine by his dependence. It is all a question of which catastrophe one prefers.

Work shyness

In our sexual life, "work" doesn't work. This is a relief and a terror. It is no more possible to "work" at a relationship than it is to will an erection, or arrange to have a dream. In fact, if you are working at it you know that it has gone wrong, that something is already missing. Sexual relationships are only for the workshy, because they cannot be made to work. They just give us more or less pleasure, more or less hope.

The possessed

Jealousy and passion may be inextricable - each a sure sign of the other - and yet jealousy can outlast desire. Our appetites may be fickle but our sense of entitlement over the people we desire persists. This is the legacy of childhood: having your cake just in case you want to eat it.

The having comes first. Without certain possession there is only tantalisation and all its more or less hopeless solutions: self-sufficiency, abolition of desire, fear of passion, hatred of sex, resentment, a life of hints and accusations. And yet, of course, there never was any certain possession; desire has never come with a guarantee. We have always been dependent on others for our wellbeing, although our wellbeing was never, could never be, their priority.

The wish to own someone - or the belief that one does - contains within it an acknowledgment of its impossibility; all sex crimes are a refusal of this fundamental recognition, a picture of how unbearable not owning the person one desires might be. Objects are more reassuring than people because they allow us to own them in ways that people don't.

But if jealousy is the way I notice that the other person is not my sole possession - not my thing - then I need to be betrayed to break out of the magic circle of myself. If betrayal makes us too real to each other, its impossibility makes us invisible.

Lovers and rivals

The fact that jealousy sustains desire (or at least kindles it), suggests how precarious desire is. Not only do we need to find a partner, we also need to find a rival. And not only do we have to tell them apart, we also have to keep them apart. We need our rivals to tell us who our partners are. We need our partners to help us find rivals.

We need so many people to make desire work, to make it desirable. No wonder we are always trying to keep the numbers down.

Success story

More has been written about how relationships fail than about how they work. We have virtually no language, other than banality, to describe the couple who have been happy together for a long time. Happy couples make us feel redundant. We would like them to have a secret; we would like them to have something they could give us, an explanation of how to do it, perhaps. We would like to be able to give them something, other than our suspicion and resentment.

There is nothing more terrifying than the possibility that nothing is hidden, that they have no secret. There's nothing more scandalous than a happy marriage.

In the balance

The most difficult task for every couple is to achieve the right amount of misunderstanding. Too little, and you assume you know each other. Too much, and you begin to believe there must be someone else, somewhere, who does understand you.

We have affairs when our proportions are wrong.

With and without

Not everyone believes in monogamy, but everyone lives as though they do. We are all aware that truth and lies matter when it comes to the people we are involved with. Everyone thinks of themselves as sometimes betraying or betrayed. Everyone feels jealous or guilty, and suffers the anguish of their preferences. And the happy few who apparently never experience sexual jealousy are always either puzzled about this, or boast about it.

No one is excluded from feeling left out. And everyone is obsessed by what they are excluded from. Believing in monogamy, in other words, is not unlike believing in God.

Foreign bodies

Why is anthropology, at least for most people who have heard of it, essentially the study of different sexual customs? Because we want to be reassured that it is only possible to do it differently abroad.

Starting out

In the beginning, every child is an only child. And the child is not possessive of the mother because he already possesses her (in fantasy, at least, he behaves as if he is entitled). Our first inklings, that is to say, are monogamous ones: of privilege and privacy, or mastery and belonging, the stuff monogamy will be made of. But because everyone begins their life belonging to someone else - physically and emotionally inextricable from someone else - being separate and having to share comes as a shock. If you start life as part of someone else's body, your independence is a dismemberment. As everyone who is in love (or in mourning) knows, what is politely referred to as separation feels like mutilation. Growing up involves becoming a phantom limb; falling in love means acquiring one.

Monogamy is where we start from; we experience infidelity very early on. The mother can, temporarily, be everything to the child, but the child cannot be everything for the mother (for example he can't feed her, or satisfy her sexually).

From the child's dawning point of view the mother is, as the father will soon be, a model of promiscuity. She has other commitments. She has a thousand things to do. Small children are the most devoted of partners. Their parents, however, libertine if only in their responsibilities, have other interests. Small children understand monogamy. Adults often find it slightly beyond them.

In charge

Our children are the people we have, metaphorically, monogamous affairs with. We treat them as both lovers and partners, the forbidden and the familiar - as the people who will have to leave us, the people we will never leave. The people whom we desire, and to whom we must be for ever unfaithful. The people we can only love well by frustrating.

It is not that children spoil their parents' relationship, but that they confuse it. They blur the categories, which is why parents are so bossy. What else can the adults do when the children keep showing them the rules by breaking them, and exposing our prejudices by making us spell them out?

The end never justifies the means

The point about trust is that it is impossible to establish. The question is not, Do you trust your partner? but, Do you know what they think trust is? And, how would you go about finding out? And, what would make you trust their answer? And, why would you trust your belief in their answer?

Communication

It is impossible not to communicate. You cannot be for it or against it, you can only do it more or less well - by your own standards or by other people's. You can't not do it.

In this sense, monogamy is like communication. It is as absurd to be against it as it is to be committed to it. Because we are always being faithful to somebody, every preference is a betrayal.

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