Never assume was the motto of a woman I worked with for over 20 years. But we do, and possibly one of the areas where we assume with great gusto and little reflection is in the practice of marriage, specifically monogamy. Where couple relationships are concerned our history has sort of been
- Boy meets girl
- Boy and girl suss each other out, checking out their mutual prospects both biological and social, working out if there is a chance their respective needs will get met
- Boy and girl couple, both have a family and defend against a third who could possibly be a homewrecker
That’s it, in a nutshell.
There’s a very obvious heterosexual bias here, but what other bias might exist that we can’t even see? What have we assumed?
We’ve assumed that not only monogamic relationships are the norm, but also that they are the best, the one type of relationship that provides the best chances for emotional security, financial stability, child rearing and a place to get all our needs met. Is this valid? Could it be that the monogamous relationship and hence the nuclear family is more an adaptation to cultural mores, an expression of societies conditioning rather than a true yearning of human sexual and relational evolution?
Long before the agricultural revolution, human beings fashioned their lives in small village sized groups where the concept of sharing-shelter, food, expertise, parenting, comfort and sex-was practised wholeheartedly throughout these ancient human settlements. This was not some hippy love out; life was hard and left little time for romance but plenty of time for cooperation. The time spread here is approx. 200,000BC to 8,000BC, or 90% of the history of human society.
Then along came the agricultural revolution, and with it both surplus and control of food in terms of storage and distribution. From agriculture to industry this small percentage of human history is then privileged, with the human family organised around smaller units living in towns and cities. Cue Kings and patriarchy, the disempowerment of womankind, social control, the burning of witches, dominator hierarchical religions and the New Norm: monogamy and the nuclear family prompted and promoted by economists, politicians, the media and therapists in what could be seen as an unconscious need to control, marshal and direct human relationships, and therefore humankind.
The agricultural revolution, then, could be seen as the point at which human beings stopped existing in a dynamic and cooperative relationship with each other and the Earth, and effectively became indentured and willing-and possibly collusive-slaves to grain and wheat. And so it goes through the industrial revolution. The financial structure of power required to retain this dominant discourse expresses itself in overt and covert elements of subjugation such as sexual mores, monogamy and the nuclear family, and we assume it’s normal. The filmmaker Adam Curtis calls this a state of hypernormality, where we are spun a series of lies that we know are lies, and governments know we know are lies, but we all collude in.
Monogamy, therefore is a social construction. This must be so, since it amounts to such a small percentage of human relational history. In fact, when we take this perspective, monogamy could be seen as both deviant and construed as pathological. Perhaps deep within our genetic structure, way past our cultural conditioning, we’re really not monogamous people at all.
We don’t have to defend our surplus any more, supermarkets do this for us. Our work has changed; indeed, futurists are suggesting that in a few generations there might be no work, added to which our expectations around human relationships have increased exponentially as has our sense of entitlement: the old ways do not fit.
Breakdown or breakthrough?
Perhaps now things are changing, rapidly. The concept of the nuclear and family and monogamy is being challenged by the very folk who know the system best: the people who live in it:
- 15% of children live in one parent families
- 24% of children live in a step-family
- 42% of marriages end in divorce (ibid)
- 67% of second marriages fail
- 20% of couples are close to breakup
- The average relationship lasts less than ever before
It’s clear that if we were offered the chance to buy a kettle and told it would only have a 58% chance of working we’d probably not buy it, yet we do this with marriage and monogamy to the point where we even “buy” a second marriage with its 33% success rate!
Adding to this, our seemingly rapacious need for sex. The pornography industry is one of the biggest industries in the world, reported to earn a hundred billion dollars annually. According to a recent Sunday Times Magazine report (28/08/17) 23% of millennials who visit Pornhub are female and 60% of the sites overall visitors are between 18 to 34. This new generation finds little on the site that shocks them, and unsurprisingly teenagers are finding it difficult to separate the online sexual experience with its thrusting angry male sex gods and submissive women from reality. The result? Reality changes to fit the pornsites depiction of sex.
Porn is now accessible and free via the internet and not just distributed via financially driven porn sites, but by private (not so private!) folk videoing themselves on their phones and posting to social media: a private individuals twitter account can serve now as an open porn site. It’s clear there has been a second sexual revolution without the need to burn bras, write a polemic or a publish a pamphlet: you just upload a video.
Till death us do part?
Divorce rates are going up to around 50% in America (falling in U.K. which might be due to less couples getting married and more living together) and affairs are rising to 45% (it was thought that affairs were a purely male driven activity, yet who is it men were having affairs with?). The website Ashely Madison was incredibly successful at generating an arena for just this kind of activity. “Till death us do part” works well if your marriage lives to 50 years of age, but babies born today might have an extended life of 120 years or more, requiring two of three marriages.
When we explore these figures-and we actually don’t really know how accurate these figures are, given that many folks who are having an affair will deny they are, then it suggests something quite powerful.
If upwards of half the population are having affairs, breaking up, if 30% or more of children are living in non-traditional families, if huge numbers of people are surfing the net looking at pornography and great numbers are posting videos of themselves naked, masturbating or having sex then these numbers either suggest that half of the population are dysfunctional or something else entirely.
The future’s not what is used to be
This number could simply be too large to be labelled as deviant or pathological: it could well be that, given the freedom, technology and communication we have now, that human relationships are ready to express themselves in ways not conditioned or confined by 10,000 years of cultural habituation. It could be that the desire and yearning, the relational need to have more than one partner might actually not only be the evolutionally norm suppressed for thousands of years, but also could, with 21st century insight, data and technology, be a higher form of relating.
It is possible that the next generation will view monogamy and the nuclear family, sexual fidelity and current two parent child rearing with the same disdain that baby boomers view the Bakelite phone, a mere relic of the past.
Couple relationships have been organised around monogamy for thousands of years, yet as a couple therapist I am acutely aware that few of us know, beyond a surface level of understanding, exactly why we are in the relationship we are in, and why we were in the relationships we used to be in. This unprocessing or not-knowing can powerfully traumatise couples more when their relationships undergo difficulty or potential breakdown. If we want to enjoy freer and more nourishing relationships that meet 21st Century needs, it seems clear this will have to change.
Octavio Paz called relationships the double flame of love and desire, and when love and relationships break the bonds of their conditioning, when desire is not only understood but more deeply freed, perhaps when affairs are seen as not as the culturally conditioned end, but a messy renegotiation of a new version of the relationship, when coupledom is also accelerated by digital hyperstimulation, the very structures of society will change.
It’s clear, of course, that our elected representatives in this context will not only be the last to know, but the slowest to react and the most resistant. Even in 2017, when same sex parents come to record their new baby the birth registration form asks for father and mother. Governments react so long after the starting pistol is fired that the smoke from the barrel is but a memory. When governments do respond to a new stage it simply means the next stage is emerging. People are the present and the future: by comparison government is past and dead (there can be no better example of this than Prime Minister Mays hopelessly out of sync and politically paralysed response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy).
Make no mistake, the conventions and stuffy rules of the old will be no match for this. Why? Because, in just a few years’ time the number of people who are not hooked up to the digital village will be insignificant, no one of any consequence will operate outside this matrix and billions and billions of pornographic, digitally driven dollars are behind this. Governments will not stand a chance, because by the time they react it will be a done deal and they will look quaint and feeble in their response. Prime minster May’s response will be to look awkward, jut out her jaw and spew out vacuous soundbites. Think Trump is actually in charge? No: the chaotic and constipated administration that is the White House show us all directly that this is not where power lies. Power now lies in small groups who can quickly and with deft skill reach out to, relate and connect meaningfully and then adapt with millions on their phone via social media and digital enterprise. These are the folk who are watching the people who watch the people, and they are light years ahead of the politicians and big corporations.
These are the folk who will create and sustain new forms of relationships, a kind of Silicon Valley model or adaptation. The new revolution in relationships and sex will not be one where governments and old rules are fought, it will be one where they are irrelevant.
During a 1 ½ hour flight from Italy to Amsterdam a short while ago I talked to the guy next to me. He was 32, Lebanese and spoke in a kind of soft Californian accent. He spent most of his time working whilst travelling. His base used to be in the U.S. but he did not approve of the Trump administration. So, he shrugged his shoulders, and left. For him this was America’s loss, and it was clear that his connections and portfolio transcended geopolitical lines and hence old models of operating. I asked him politely about his relationships. He smiled good naturedly, and reminded me that no place on earth is far away now, and hinted at his capacity for multiple loving relationships with all involved on board.
The double flame is the starting point, since love and desire have been the two ways in which the mass (that’s us) have been conditioned and crafted into docile bodies. When we (re)configure our relationships, and shape them into the way we want them to be, when we refuse to allow our relational and sexual lives to be dictated to by old and redundant systems that serve to subjugate us into a shame based discourse then this might herald the death of monogamy and the getting of real love.
On the other hand…
The death of monogamy? Well, no, not quite. It is said by some that the 21st Century will experience a global shift previously unseen in world history, partly as a result of the multiple megacrisis’s facing humanity. Cultural conditions can change in a fast and loose way, but often this kind of superficial adjustment does not produce lasting change. As such, monogamy is probably going to be around for a long time, though it could be that the change that results from (e.g.) global disasters, creates more one parent families and stepfamilies, then also weakens the weight of cultural expectation on monogamy and its form changes.
Here are (briefly) 4 possible ways we might create relationships to fit the demands of the 21st Century:
- Unconscious monogamy: our couple bonds are a mixture of what we know about each other and what we do not know, the unconscious bond between us; our need to get our unmet needs met by our partners being the most pervasive yet often changeable dynamic. Unconscious monogamy will resemble many traditional forms of relationships, forged in the white-hot heat of passion yet rarely explored in depth. This form of relating has both great emotional bonding to it, yet its weakness is in it not understanding in any depth the covert deal in the relationship and hence it will see issues such as infidelity as a deal breaker and the fault of the cheater, full stop. At its best, it will be a durable, loving and mutually respectful partnership lasting decades; at worst a kind of tense, resentful and bitter kind of zombie monogamy, half lived and living
- Conscious monogamy: another way of describing this might be mindful monogamy, where the couple relationship is regularly explored in a sustained way to refit its sexual, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual needs and expectations over time. Issues such as an affair will not be seen as the death of the relationship but a signal that the couple container-the relationship itself-requires healing. The trauma that occurs after an affair will be lessened since the buy-in to societal shame and the requirement to blame will be less. This is a more profound understating of love and desire.
- Monogamish relationships: a phrase coined by Dan Savage where committed couples have an understanding that over a (say) 40-year relationship it is unreasonable to be sexually exclusive; the involvement of other sexual partners helps to invigorate the primary relationship
- Multiamory relationships: multi or polyamory relationships are too complex to cover here; the sustained, wise and skilful use of open communication to negotiate the various requirements in a relationship that-sexual or not-contains many persons agreeing and conflicting demands, yet potentially providing a loving community for parents and children to be nurtured and grow. Polyamory relationships may be a higher, more satisfying form of human bonding, addressing the multiple and complex 21st Century needs in a way that monogamous relationships cannot. 
- Solo-amory relationships: one parent families may not be in a position, or want to form couple relationships, yet they may have a primary other, a lover or a sexual buddy who transcends a mere hookup. This would require, perhaps, a more conscious way of approaching the relationship, again with a skilful use of negotiating skills.
Relationships are slippery, so there really is not, nor should there be, a conclusion to this: except to recognise that the tried, tested and often failed ways of being in a relationship may not fit the digitally driven, autonomously charged and sexually freer climate of the 21st Century. This leaves us all with a simple choice in our loving relationships: we either understand them more and live more compassionate, respectful, creative, nourishing and loving relationships free of age old and often redundant complexes and conditioning, or our relationships are half lived simulacrums of what they could be.
 Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens
 Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha Sex at Dawn
 Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens
 Esther Perel Mating in Captivity
 Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish
 Edmund Bourne Global Shift
 Henry Dicks Marital Tensions
 See http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-march-26-2015-1.3010107/monogamy-can-be-damaging-dan-savage-prefers-being-monogamish-1.3010140 and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shameless-woman/201107/the-monogamish-marriage-what-if-its-not-cheating-cheat
 See Kathy Labriola Love in Abundance and Deborah Anapol Polyamory in the 21st Century