Imagine that two partners are in a relationship much like a typical monogamous relationship, with one exception: instead of restricting one another from having additional partners, they restrict one another from having additional friends. If either partner becomes friends with someone else, the other partner will refuse to support it—indeed, will go so far as to end the relationship.
Most of us, I think, would find such an arrangement morally troubling. But just what’s troubling about it? Here’s what seems to me, at least, to be wrong with such an arrangement: it goes against the spirit of love. Friendship, after all, is an important human good, and when we’re in a romantic relationship with someone, we should want him or her to be free to pursue such goods as they see fit. And part of letting our partner have such freedom is to refrain from imposing costs on them when they do so—costs like withdrawing our affection and ending the relationship. Indeed, not only should we refrain from imposing costs on our partner when they find a new friend, we should be happy for them. That is what love calls for.
And yet, if all this is right, we come to a puzzle. For friendship is not the only important human good in town; sexual and romantic relationships are likewise an important human good. Whether through sexual pleasure, mutual learning, or a special kind of emotional support, such relationships enrich our lives in a number of ways. Why, then, should we seek to restrict our partner from having more of these relationships? Were our partner to find an additional partner, should we not instead simply be happy for them, much as we would if they found an additional friend? Might it be that love calls for us to abandon our all too common restrictions here—that is, to abandon monogamy?
Might it be that love calls for us to abandon our all too common restrictions here—that is, to abandon monogamy?
In the face of this suggestion, many will immediately say that the two cases are not analogous. Whereas there’s simply no good reason for partners to restrict one another from having additional friends, surely there are several good reasons for partners to restrict one another from having additional partners. And if that’s right, then monogamous restrictions would not be so inconsonant with love after all. But just what are these proposed reasons in favour of monogamy?
Here’s one candidate: perhaps monogamy is justified as a way of keeping a relationship special. It’s special to choose, and to be chosen by, one person. Notice, though, that we don’t think this way about other kinds of relationships. If a parent has a second child, no one says that the relationship with the first child thereby becomes less special; likewise for a friend who makes an additional friend. It’s not clear, then, why it would make a romantic relationship any less special if one found an additional partner.
Another defense of monogamy appeals to the demands that romantic relationships make on people’s time and energy. Even having one partner, the thought goes, takes a great deal of work, and having multiple partners at once would only multiply the burden. Given that our time, energy, and emotional resources are limited, surely it’s reasonable to keep ourselves to one partner at a time, and to expect our partner to do the same for us.
Insofar as relationships tend to demand a great deal of time and energy, this may well be largely because of the dominance of monogamy.
Although it might initially seem plausible, this reasoning runs into a few problems. One problem is that, insofar as relationships tend to demand a great deal of time and energy, this may well be largely because of the dominance of monogamy. For monogamy fosters an expectation that we must meet all of our partner’s intimate or personal needs. (In a monogamous relationship, after all—barring cheating—it’s not as if our partner has anyone else to go to for such needs.) And this is a demanding standard to have to live up to. Were we to abandon monogamy, however, we would no longer be under the burden of this expectation, since any needs unmet by one partner could, at least in principle, be met by another. There’s a certain circularity, then, in appealing to the practical demands of relationships as a reason for monogamy, given that monogamy itself appears to be the source of many of those practical demands.
It’s true, of course, that our time and energy are not infinite. But that doesn’t justify setting the limit at one partner at a time—no more than it justifies, say, setting the limit at one friend at a time. The point becomes all the more pressing once we reflect that many relationships—especially those of the more casual variety, such as relationships that are almost entirely sexual—do not usually take a great deal of time or energy. For that matter, even more emotionally intimate relationships need not be such a burden on our time or energy, either—not if it’s with someone who’s reasonably independent and with whom we get along well.
More broadly, unless your partner is there for everything you do, some of your time and energy is going to be spent away from your partner—for instance, while working on hobbies. And if that’s acceptable, why would it matter, purely from a standpoint of time and energy management, if some of the time and energy you spend away from your partner happens to involve other partners?
So far I haven’t touched on what seems to be the most popular alleged reason for monogamy: our inclination to jealousy. When we see our partner take interest in another, we’re all too apt to feel anxious, humiliated, betrayed, enraged. How are we to avoid these feelings that together fall under the label of “jealousy,” unless we embrace monogamy?
Monogamy is counterproductive as a response to jealousy.
There’s no doubt that jealousy is awful, and that it can all too easily arise for many or most of us. And monogamy can certainly seem like one way, if not the only way, of preventing it—after all, no additional partners, nothing to be jealous about, right? On closer inspection, however, things aren’t so simple.
There’s reason to believe that monogamy is counterproductive as a response to jealousy. Consider that jealousy of any kind thrives most in an environment of competition, of refusing to share. Yet that is precisely the environment sustained by monogamy when it comes to romantic partners. Under monogamy, relationships are a zero-sum game; barring cheating, if I have someone for a partner, that means blocking others from having them, and if another has someone else for a partner, that means blocking me from having them. Naturally enough, then, it is monogamy itself that breathes so much life into the fear so central to jealousy: the fear of losing our partner to someone else. Would we feel so much of this fear if we hadn’t forced our partner to choose between us and another in the first place?
What’s more, as pointed out above, monogamy fosters an expectation that you must meet all of your partner’s personal needs—a relatively high standard to have to live up to. Such a standard makes it all too easy to worry whether you’re “enough” for your partner. To the extent that your partner perceives (rightly or wrongly) that you’re failing to meet this standard, and that a certain other person would do a better job of meeting it, your partner will have a reason to leave you for that other person. The result, of course, is a pressure to be ever on guard that your partner doesn’t become too well acquainted with others who might start to seem like a better fit. In this way, rather than serving as a guarantee against jealousy, monogamy in fact undergirds it.
What these thoughts suggest is that monogamy is not the solution to jealousy, but a mere capitulation to it. It is an attempt to avoid behaviours that trigger jealousy, but at the cost of perpetuating the factors that underlie it.
If we applied the attitudes we have towards friendships to our other relationships, we would be free of a belief that’s been used to legitimize so much of the jealousy we feel.
How, then, should we deal with jealousy, if not through monogamy? The answer is to confront the underlying factors. If a friend makes a new friend, we don’t take that to be an indication of our own deficiency as a friend. Why should we do so when it comes to romantic relationships? We make additional friendships simply because we value friendships. Why should we not think about equally valuable romantic and sexual relationships in the same way? If we applied the attitudes we have towards friendships to our other relationships, we would be free of a belief that’s been used to legitimize so much of the jealousy we feel.
There are of course further ways of addressing the factors that underlie jealousy—ways like improving our self-esteem, openly communicating our feelings to our partner, and replacing the fear of being abandoned with a sense of trust in our partner—though I lack the space for an extended discussion of them here. To be sure, none of these ways guarantee that jealousy will never arise at all. But to the extent that it does arise, partners will be able to work through it constructively—much like other challenges that come up in relationships. Romantic jealousy need not be seen as some unstoppable force that must be prevented from arising at any cost; instead, our attitude toward it should be the same as our attitude toward other irrational or unproductive feelings, such as insecurity, excessive anger, or jealousy in the workplace. Such feelings are not to be capitulated to, but to be confronted head-on, in a way that addresses their underlying factors.
If all this is right, then none of these standard justifications of monogamy—those which appeal to specialness, practicality, and jealousy—succeeds. In turn, it becomes increasingly difficult to escape the sense that monogamous restrictions are in fact morally analogous to the friendship restrictions described earlier—that is, that just as it’s immoral to restrict our partner from having additional friends, so, too, is it immoral to restrict them from having additional partners.
To some, this suggestion might seem like a non-starter. How could non-monogamy be morally required? Are we really going to say that people are morally obligated to be in a relationship with multiple partners at a time? Surely if two partners are in a relationship only with one another, they’re not thereby doing something immoral. It’s important, however, to avoid a misunderstanding here. Abandoning monogamy doesn’t necessarily mean being with multiple partners at a time. Instead, it simply means abandoning the restriction to one partner at a time, both for yourself and any partner(s) you might have. Two partners could be in a relationship only with one another, and their relationship could be perfectly non-monogamous. What would make it non-monogamous would simply be the understanding that if either partner did come to want to be with an additional partner, the existing partner would not in principle be opposed to it.
I do not, of course, take what I’ve said here to be a comprehensive case against monogamy. There remain many points one could raise—some of which are further points against monogamy, others of which are points in monogamy’s defense. But I think that the points raised here are enough to open the question for discussion, at least—and, perhaps, to show that we shouldn’t take monogamy for granted as a “moral default.” Rather than assuming that monogamy is automatically morally permissible and that it is deviations from monogamy that need to be justified, we should, if anything, assume the reverse. Given monogamy’s restrictions, and their apparent tension with love for one’s partner, it is monogamy that faces the burden of justification here.
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