Is monogamy dying? And did it ever really live?

Most of my friends are, publicly or not, in open relationships.

Most didn’t start out that way. Most started with the whole girlfriend-boyfriend dating thing, and moved on to marriage or permanent de facto status. Many even vowed to “forsake all others”, and probably meant it when they made those vows.

But times change, and when you’re in your twenties, or whatever, you don’t really comprehend, at a visceral level, what “forsaking all others” really means.


I couldn’t have imagined the person I am now, when I was in my twenties. I couldn’t have imagined everything I would go through, and suffer through, to get to this point in my life.

I had no idea of the changes that would happen in me, and in my partner. To say I was naive when I got married is an understatement.

My experiences weren’t typical – I had a harder lot than most – but everyone goes through some hard stuff in their life. And everyone’s relationships change, some for the better, some for the worse.

But now, talking privately with close friends the other night, it came out that not one of us was in the closed, monogamous relationship we’d envisaged when we’d made our vows and promises as our younger selves.

Some of my friends are cheating on their partners. Other have divorced, or are separating. Many are in open marriages, with regular partners on the side for one or other of them.

Some have had affairs. Others separated and got back together and separated again. And some are still with their partner, but just don’t have sex and are plain old miserable.

I’ve friends who have been so lonely in their marriages that they cried themselves to sleep at night while their partner snored on unknowingly beside them. Others who might as well be celibate, for all the sex they’re having. And others who have taken on same-sex lovers, after realising that the reason their marriage didn’t work is because they’re gay.

My friends aren’t unusual. They’re a pretty typical mix of 30 and 40-something middle class New Zealanders. Some better off, some worse off. Most in professional jobs, some in blue collar work. Some are stay at home mums.

But all of this got me thinking,

– Is monogamy dead? Is it something that only ever existed in name only, on a church register, while in reality it never actually worked for anyone outside of a Disney fairytale?

– Are we the first generation to experience this? Or did previous generations do the same? Are they doing the same?

– Why is society clinging to the idea of monogamy if it isn’t working for most of us, maybe for any of us? Is it time for a change? And, if so, what do we replace it with?

We’re no different to previous generations

I honestly think, looking at the evidence, that we’re no different to previous generations. With one major difference: women can leave miserable situations, whereas in the past they often couldn’t.

I look at my mother, who was the “love child” of an affair her mother had, in between two marriages.

I look at my paternal grandmother, who had (I think) five, maybe six, marriages in her life. Serial monogamy, maybe, but not exactly Disney. And one of the guys she married was a bigamist – there was scandal attached at the time!

I look at my distant family tree in the past, with relative after relative whose paternity was “under question”. My family was no different from any other. The world is full of bastard children and “young aunts” who were actually unwed mothers.

Looking at all of this, it seems monogamy was always something that people aimed for, rather than the standard everyone typically achieved.

And it shows me that we are no different to the generations that went before. Yes, single mothers get a lot of criticism – but there were always single mothers, and lots of them. It’s just that in the past their ‘sins” were hushed up and the children taken away.

I think the Disney fairytale, the “happily ever after” we’re led to believe in, is cruel and hurtful.
And it’s a fairytale – not true, nor likely to be true.

Why does society cling to monogamy, if it clearly doesn’t work?

I really don’t know the answer to this one. Maybe you do. The best I can do is wonder what would happen if monogamy didn’t exist.

Would people reform into tribes, or poly groups, rather than “nuclear” family units? Would the shape of housing change? Would children be better off with potentially more adults caring for them?

Or would women be left with the burden of supporting any children they gave birth to alone, as men moved from one partner to another without legal responsibility?

I don’t know.

In name only

What I do know is that monogamy doesn’t exist among my friends. It’s probably pretty rare everywhere, once marriages hit five years old or so.

I wonder at what point this will all become open and honest and people will start to discuss what’s actually going on in society?

Food for thought.

What do you think?


6 thoughts on “Is monogamy dying? And did it ever really live?

  1. Wow…I was seriously just thinking/starting to blog about this. I know people in exactly that situation. Loveless or sexless marriages, cheating, divorced or in process of divorce. Yet, I also know a few hapoily married too. Same age groul, though for the happily married it is their second go at it, not the first. Or the second for one partner and first for the other.
    I do not know where monogamy is going. Those polyamorous couples I did know did not work out at all either. It was like some kind of last ditch make it work deal that still did not solve for incompatiblility.
    There does not seem to be a set answer, but I am a fans of every relationship is unique. What works for one may not work for the other.
    Yet, given that we do not have to stay in an incompatible relationship, the saddest thing to m e is seeing someone stay in one…miserable but too afraid to leave for whatever the reason (fear of being alone, failure, or just does not have the finances to do so). So they stay miserable, sometimes cheat or just tell their signficant other they love them when they are not feeling it…at all. Just leading a half life, a dishonest one when they do not really have to and in the process they hurt their spouses by staying even worse than if they woyld leave. All that from fear ir guilt. And I wonder why? We have come so far, know so much, why do people do this to one another, this lie?
    I wish I understood more sometimes. But I am hopeful that in time we will progress beyond even this. I think we have made some noteworthy progress in this so far, legal divorces etc. Progress can be slow though.

    1. I find it such an interesting issue.

      The thing that perhaps interests me most is how many people feel the need to hide the status of their relationships from various friends and relatives.

      In one case, two of my good friends (who have been married with kids for a long time) are in an open marriage and it is working well for them, but there is no way they feel they could tell her elderly parents – they want to keep the illusion that everything is still monogamous. And they’re hiding the open nature of the relaitonship from the kids, who are not-quite-teenage. So although they’re happy with the way things are, they’re not willing to be honest with others about how their relationship has changed, for fear of criticism maybe?

      Another couple I know, who are both bisexual, play with others and have a very open relationship, but also hide their playing and the open nature of their relationship from their kids. The kids see a loving, closed couple, when the reality is quite different.

      I’m seeing the same pattern over and over – one face presented to the world, and especially to immediate family and kids, when the reality is quite different. It makes me think there are some really social pressures to conform to a particular type of relationship structure in our society. Especially for women – men who sleep with other partners aren’t anywhere near as stigmatised as women who do. This was a group of female friends talking, so we could be quite honest with one another, but there was definitely a strong sentiment of “oh, there’s no way I could be public about the way things really are” coming across.

      Why people stay in unhappy relationships? Well, sometimes it isn’t as easy as you’d think to get out. People *do* stay because of the kids, and because of the stigma of being divorced and of having ‘failed” at marriage. They stay because getting a loan for a home is next to impossible on one income. And because sometimes being with the wrong partner does seem better than being alone.

      I think in many ways monogamy is a curse. I remember being a teenager and having friends whose sole goal was to get married and have a big wedding. Interestingly, those women for whom it was most important are those whose marriages seemed to collapse first – maybe because they had unrealistic expectations of what it would be like?

      All of this is so interesting, and it’s been really eye opening to talk with my friends. I knew about some of their relationships – what was really happening on the inside – but not as many as are starting to come out, and it’s been a real surprise to find that absolutely NOBODY has managed a 100% success rate at monogamy – all have had slip ups and cheats and failures along the way, even in those marriages which seemed to me, as an outsider, to be rock solid.

      Food for thought, absolutely.

  2. I may be able to provide you some ideas. Not all societies practice monogamy and historically there were societies where it didn’t even exist. I really wish I had kept my Anthropology book from college now so I can reference them to you.
    Personally, being a 23 year old, in love, and in a serious relationship I’ve thought about it and talked about it. Honestly I don’t view marriage as something that I have to attain or I have to acquire at some point in my life. It’s almost, if you want to view it that way, like a formal club. By being married you’ve joined the club and are awarded status in some measure.
    You also have to understand that marriage and divorce go hand in hand within the financial sector. There is a lot of money to be made in weddings and divorces. Again, with status you are more then likely to find wealth. By being married you gain status and wealth which many people view as this equation. Wealth + Status = Happiness. (Who else thinks that’s a bad idea?)

    1. Marriage certainly *used* to provide status – you only have to read Jane Austen to see that! Does it still? Good question. It’s certainly the basis of some HUGE industries – I’ve a friend whose family business is weddings, and it is BIG bucks that people spend on getting married.

      I compare the way my mother got married (rented dress, local village hall, everyone brought something to eat, local vicar, honeymoon in the local town for a few days) to how people seem to be getting married these days (hundreds of guests, gowns costing thousands of dollars, honeymoons for weeks overseas, tens of thousands of dollars of debt) and it’s clear that the trend is getting BIGGER rather than smaller. I think it’s crazy, but hey, I’m not the one getting married!

      Divorce in New Zealand *can* be a simple affair – the paperwork costs a couple of hundred dollars, if nobody fights and everything is settled sensibly. Of course, that often doesn’t happen, and everyone gets poorer – except the lawyers! As a friend of mine said, “if you want to fight over it, be aware that every dollar the lawyers get is fifty cents that you don’t!” But not everyone is so sensible, and one family friend’s divorce over in Australia is up well over the 50K mark and counting 😦

      However, socially there is huge pressure to get married. I remember not wanting to ever get married, and all my parents generation saying “you’ll change your mind!” (wink wink). When I did get married in the end, everything sort of spiralled – I had initial wishes of just a picnic in the park for the reception, but my parents wouldn’t have a bar of it, and I’m not sure I really wanted to get married – my parents just pushed for me to become “respectable”, as I’d been living with my boyfriend for a couple of years and it was ‘about time I settled down”. In hindsight, and with the benefit of maturity, I’d have ignored them, and just gone on living together – the wedding cost a lot of money, and served no purpose at all really.

      Does marriage still create status? I don’t know. Probably. People who are married are seen as more “settled” and reliable in society. But in a world where there is no loyalty from employers and no responsibility from government, you have to ask yourself – is it just an outdated custom after all?

      Thanks for your comments 🙂

  3. Thanks for the link. An interesting article. Very true, about the fact that people never used to live as long as we generally do, and that marriage just wasn’t a 60 or 70 year deal like it is now.

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