Are we over with monogamy?
Back in the Before Times, when a strange new plague was sweeping the planet and, almost overnight, hugs were replaced with clumsy elbow bumps, New York’s health advisory put out a comprehensive guide to safe sex during COVID-19. The conclusion: your safest sexual partner is yourself.
It’s possible that many of us have taken that advice literally. Because, if you believe what you read, the western world is in the throes of a divorce boom, thanks to a toxic combination of financial stress, lax hygiene, home schooling, wall-to-wall sweatpants, and couples generally discovering that too much of a good thing really is … well … too much.
Figures quoted in the press include the Co-Op Legal Services reporting a 42% increase in divorce enquires. Another law firm beat that, with a 122% increase. Poundland leapt into action, launching its first range of divorce party products (straws, balloons, banners etc) to help the newly single celebrate their freedom.
But, while enquiries aren’t the same as actual divorces, and more recent reports indicate that the rate is slowing again, anecdotally, we all know at least one couple who won’t be sending out joint Christmas cards this year.
Alison and Andrew are splitting up after three children, several affairs, and 30 years of marriage. He says he was blindsided when she asked for a divorce, but she says their differences had been bubbling for a long time – possibly years.
Jamal and Emma bought a flat together at the beginning of 2020, after five years of dating. Emma had traveled to Lagos to meet his family, and they’d started to discuss the possibility of marriage. But in September, they made the joint decision to separate.
Devin and Shaun surprised friends in November when they announced their three-year relationship was over. Everyone thought they were so good together. What went wrong?
None of these couples blames the pandemic for the break-up. But is it possible that the reality of surviving a global crisis put their relationships into sharp focus, revealing the cracks and compromises that otherwise might have been so easily ignored or glossed over?
“We know that disasters and crises often function like relationship accelerators,” sex therapist, author, and podcaster Esther Perel has said.
The same thing happened after the American Civil War, the Second World War, and Hurricane Hugo.
“A disaster heightens our sense of mortality, of precariousness, of ‘life is short’,” she explained. “And when life is short, you may say suddenly, ‘Let’s move in together, let’s have a child, let’s get married.’ Like, ‘What am I waiting for?’” But you might also say: ‘If life is short, I’m not doing this for another 20 years.’”
That sense of “if not now, when?” goes for other major life decisions too. In the last 18 months, Pasha and Amy have adopted sibling toddlers after years of trying for a family. Laura is in the process of legally adopting a 12-year-old orphan from Columbia. Nancy left her safe job of nine years to work in social justice. Bobby left his career as a hairdresser to train as a life coach. Ben and Rob moved to the country.
Meanwhile, as their parents are divorcing, Gen Z and their predecessor, the Millennial, are re-examining what a loving relationship even looks like. Can one human really fulfill all our needs and desires? Can we expect our best friend to also be financially, physically, and emotionally supportive, a fabulous parent, wise confidante, and a sexually compatible, creative genius between the sheets? AND give us the space to grow and evolve as an individual? That’s a lot of pressure, but some say it doesn’t have to be that way.
Mia is in a loving, non-monogamous relationship with her boyfriend Darren. They are 100% committed to each other but both date other people, with full consent from their prime partner. Jai and Diana have an open marriage. Their one rule for extra-marital encounters? Don’t fall in love.
Ethical non-monogamy has existed since the beginning of time. Anthropologists believe some ancient tribes shared sex as commonly as food – even between those of the same gender. And the paternity of children wasn’t an issue because no one had any property to inherit; rather, children were raised by the whole tribe.
But, as a lifestyle choice, it has been gaining mainstream acceptance more recently. In 2019 it was described as “the biggest sexual revolution since the 1960s”. In March 2020, futurists were already predicting a surge in its post-pandemic popularity. And earlier this year, nearly five million people watched an edition of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk in which Willow Smith discussed her polyamorous lifestyle.
What we’re witnessing here, then, is a relationship revolution, as couples rewrite the rules on what they want from a partner or partners.
Various relationship “types” fall under the ENM umbrella. These include:
Polyamory: This could mean multiple people in a relationship together, or two individuals in a couple who are each committed to additional partners of their own. The terminology can also include “triads” or “throuples”, “quads,” or “polyamorous pods” and “polycules” One person might be poly and have numerous partners, but one or more of those partners might not have, or want, other partners themselves.
Open relationships: In this case, two people may explore sexual and sometimes emotional connections outwith the central relationship, but those tend to be temporary and non-committal.
Monogamish: A term coined by relationship and sex writer Dan Savage, this describes couples who are mainly monogamous but occasionally take part in outside sexual relationships. They may go long periods of time between outside flings.
Polygamy: Illegal in most countries, including the US and UK, this is when one person – either a man or woman – has multiple spouses.
In a 2020 poll of more than 1,300 US adults, 32% said their ideal relationship was non-monogamous. That number was even larger among millennials (43%). A more recent study in Britain found that 10% of adults would be open to a polyamorous relationship. That increased to 16% for those aged 18-24.*
And, in contrast to stereotypical gender roles – where women are the child-bearers and homemakers, and men have a wandering eye – Esther Perel argues that women are not biologically conditioned for monogamy.
“Men throughout history practically had a license to cheat,” she said in a recent TikTok interview. “And they had all kinds of theories that came to justify that they are natural roamers. So we have all these evolutionary theories and biological theories to explain why men by nature are not monogamous, whereas women are, by nature, these domesticated creatures. We don’t know what women would do if they were given the permission to do the same, without the consequences they face, which are very different to the one of men.
“What we know is that men and women lie. Men lie by exaggerating, by boasting, and by inflating, and women lie by denying and minimizing, because that is what is expected of them culturally worldwide.”
Cue rapturous applause.
Her ideas are not new. In his 1929 book Marriage and Morals, the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: "Marriage is for woman the commonest mode of livelihood, and the total amount of undesired sex endured by women is probably greater in marriage than in prostitution.”
"I think the most important thing about marriage and the situation today,” Perel has said, “is to know that there is no one-size-fits-all. It’s not that this model is a better model than that model. It’s that we need a proliferation of models.”
She points to ways the traditionally family has evolved, from single parent families, to gay families, blended families, commuter families. Yet the concept of the couple has remained the same. “If it doesn’t fit that old mould, you can divorce – that’s about the only option you have.”
But consensual non-monogamy isn't for everyone, and it’s certainly not a fix for deeper issues. Trust and clear communication are key.
"One criterion that is important for people who want to live in a more plural model of love, or model of sexuality is there needs to be internally a sense of secure attachment. There needs to be a sense that, ‘If you go to someone else, that doesn't mean you don't want to be with me, and therefore I get anxious, and I get frantic, and I shutdown and avoid’.”
The last word goes to Will Smith, who confirmed in September, after years of gossip, that he and Jada had had an open marriage. “We have given each other trust and freedom, with the belief that everybody has to find their own way,” he told GQ. “And marriage for us can't be a prison. I don’t suggest this road for anybody. But the experiences that the freedoms we’ve given one another … and the unconditional support, to me, is the highest definition of love.”
This article appeared in the February issue of Hood magazine (before the Oscars resulted in a global call for a new poster boy for open relationships).
*Both polls carried out by YouGov
**The names of some individuals have been changed to protect their privacy