I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about monogamy and its various alternatives. In my attempts to explain why monogamy doesn’t make sense for me, I’ve come across something that struck me about our culture’s treatment of intimacy.
But before we get into that, as usual, we’re going to take a quick detour through philosophy.
In his seminal Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault explores some of the origins of our complex, modern justice systems. The tl;dr of the relevant bit is this: it used to be that all crime was punishable by death, but guilty people were often acquitted because the arbiter of justice didn’t feel they deserved to die for relatively minor infractions, so the system shifted to accommodate lesser punishments and make it more likely that everyone who was guilty of something got punished somehow. That is, the choice between extreme consequences and no consequences is often made in favor of the latter.
Now, let’s talk about intimacy. You can build all sorts of taxonomies of intimacy — romantic, sexual, platonic, spiritual, whatever — but let’s take it for granted that some form of intimacy is a baseline human need. (One of the reasons that monogamy doesn’t make much sense for me personally is that I have a hard time differentiating between, or establishing hierarchies among, forms of intimacy; there’s nothing about interacting with a person’s genitals that feels more intimate to me than interacting with their fears and hopes and ideas, and monogamous models generally prohibit the former but not the latter in ways I can’t understand or anticipate.)
Okay, so we’ve agreed that each of us as individuals has a need for intimacy. But intimacy isn’t a thing we can do on our own — by its nature, intimacy requires other people. And, of course, not every person we encounter is going to be a good fit for any, let alone all, of the flavors of intimacy that we need.
Lines of worst fit
All other things being equal, if we were to plot a graph with degree of intimacy (from “casual friend” on the left end to “life partner” on the right) on the x-axis and the proportion of the people in your life who provide that degree of intimacy on the y-axis, we’d expect to see roughly a normal distribution.
That is, you’d have a relatively small number of very casual relationships, and a relatively small number of very intimate ones (romantic partners, family members, very close friends), and most of the people in your life would fall somewhere in the middle.
And as long as we’re looking purely at “platonic” relationships, that’s more or less what we see. But when it comes to other kinds of intimacy, or intimacy more broadly, our culture of monogamy shifts the distribution casualnesswards. Let’s say you and I are in a monogamous relationship in which monogamy means “no sexual contact with anyone but each other.” Assuming we’re perfectly successful at following this rule, this pushes our peak somewhat to the left — the people who might’ve been sources of sexual intimacy are now “rounded down” to a more acceptable level of intimacy — and introduces a dip between that acceptableness threshold and the profound intimates we have on the far right. That looks like this:
Not too big a deal, right? But it’s worth remembering that our monogamy culture rarely lets us stop at this definition — we’ve all seen fights break out over sensual-but-not-sexual contact (e.g., dancing, martial arts), over emotional contact (e.g., friendship, workplace camaraderie), over social contact (e.g., “why is he texting you?”, “what were you doing alone with her?”). As more types and degrees of intimacy get ruled out, that threshold, that cut-off point, moves further to the left, further shifting the peak and widening that dip.
All of this is assuming that you and I, in our monogamous relationship, have perfect agreement about where that threshold lies, about what “counts” and what doesn’t; if we don’t, the degree and character of our disagreement is a minefield of potential dangers, especially if we haven’t sat down to talk it out and have each just assumed that “what it means to me is what it means to you.” It’s assuming, in other words, that for whatever value of “monogamy” we’ve landed at, we are perfect in its execution.
(It’s also assuming that everyone who gets “rounded down” is cool with that and sticks around, which is pretty definitely not how the world actually works.)
Let’s compare the first graph to the last.
The area shaded in red is, in our extremely precise and scientific model, a measure of the intimacy that we miss out on by rounding down every intimate relationship above our acceptableness threshold; the area shaded in green is the intimacy that we gain thereby. The areas look like they’re of a similar size, but it’s important to bear in mind that they should be weighted by the relevant degree of intimacy — this rounding down trades fewer more-intimate connections for more less-intimate ones.
Now, I’m not saying that monogamy is wrong or bad, or that nonmonogamous people are somehow “more enlightened,” or that there’s some one true or right way to have relationships. Not every intimate relationship is a good one, and there are absolutely good reasons to impose limits on the kinds of relationships we have. Of the many, many nonmonogamous people I know, very few have or want total carte blanche.
What I am saying is that even in a fulfilling and successful relationship, those restrictions — both the deciding what they should be and the abiding by them — have costs, and that we should know what those costs are, why we’re paying them, and what we’re getting in exchange.
Maybe I have a deep insecurity that I’ve opened up to you about and, being a kind and considerate person, you’ve decided to limit the kinds of relationships you’ll have for my benefit. Maybe we have safety concerns, or one of us is immunocompromised, so we’re taking extra precautions. Maybe there’s a deadline on our relationship — I’m terminally ill, or you’re moving away and we don’t want to do the long-distance thing, or whatever — and we’re choosing to focus all of our relationship energy on each other. Maybe our relationship is good and comfortable, and seeking out and establishing new ones is stressful or just not worth our time. Maybe we feel that our relationship is more intimate and fulfilling when we limit the kinds of relationships we have with others. (In other words, maybe our pushing that threshold to the left also pushes our most intimate relationships further to the right.)
There are lots of perfectly good reasons to impose restrictions on, for want of a better term, our intimacy diets. But “this is how we’ve always done it” isn’t one (and is also not true, as a historical matter; monogamy is a pretty recent invention). “This is what love looks like in fairy tales and Disney movies and romcoms” isn’t one. And if you are a truly and deeply monogamous person, shouldn’t the exclusivity of that commitment mean more to you if it’s opted into, if it’s not just the default narrative?
I don’t have any problem with monogamy. I do have a problem with a culture of presumed monogamy, because it effectively imposes that intimacy deficit on people without their consent (or often even their knowledge), and then imposes social costs on those people who are unwilling or unable to live with that deficit.
So I invite you to take stock of the relationships that exist in your life now and have existed in it in the past. Have you been pushing people out to avoid letting them in? To circle back to Foucault: have you been acquitting people because the only outcomes you could imagine were “nothing” and “execution”?
If so, have you been doing it on purpose? Has this increased the breadth and the depth of joy and love and comfort in your life?
That’s not a trick question. It’s very possible that what you’ve been doing is exactly the right thing for you. The saying goes: Take what you want, and then pay for it. As long as you’re getting what you’re paying for and you want what you’re getting, I’m fully on board with you living your bliss, man. As for me, there are lots of people in my life I want neither to release nor to execute; I’m quite happy, on occasion, to merely impose a stiff fine. Or, if the mood is right, some corporal punishment.
The corollary to that saying is this: don’t pay for what you don’t want, and don’t overpay for what you do want. Make a budget. Make a shopping list. Comparison shop. It can be unsexy and it can be uncomfortable, but there’s a nonzero chance you’ll improve the quality of life for yourself and the people around you.