Wait, Why Does Monogamy Need Defending Again?

Maybe the monogamy model could use a good kicking around.
Publish date:
January 11, 2013
marriage, monogamy

I’m about as monogamous as you can get. Next month will mark fifteen years since my husband and I first started dating, and this summer will see our tenth wedding anniversary. I like having a partner; I even like being legally married, although I was lukewarm on the concept for a very long time, not least because of its unequal application to all couples, and because by participating in it I felt as though I was supporting an institution rooted in oppression, both historically within the married relationship, and more contemporarily by barring certain couples from being recognized in it.

But as access grew and I came to develop my own opinion of marriage as it applied to me -- while resisting the ideologies I’d grown up with -- I started to like it, even though that was the last thing I expected.

I never online dated, if only because my internet use predated the evolution of online dating as a thing. Sure, as a teen I dated one or two guys I met on MST3K fandom bulletin boards, but once I reached my twenties I met the people I dated in college classrooms, through other friends, or at They Might Be Giants concerts. Computer nerd that I was, online dating still never much appealed to me, as there was always something critical about meeting in person (and even by age 18 I’d more than once experienced the crushing disappointment of meeting someone on whom I’d had an online flirtation only to discover I was completely Not Into Them in real life).

In those early dating years I was also powerfully resistant to the prospect of marriage prior to 30. This was mostly an issue of me resisting the normative life plan (date-marry-reproduce) that most of us grow up expecting to follow. I don’t know what was magic about 30 to me -- it seemed distant enough that I wouldn’t have to think about it for a while, I suppose. I was pretty happy, just being on my own and dating when I felt like it, until my husband came along and SPOILED EVERYTHING.

My point being, I am not a person who is deeply invested in the value of online dating or in the idea that monogamy should be abolished.

And yet, I’m sort of annoyed by the recent conversation -- inspired by a piece in the Atlantic this month -- that monogamy as a social convention is currently under threat. By what? By online dating, of all things. The argument posed by author Dan Slater assumes that the relative ease of meeting and wide selection brought to the dating world by online options means daters are less likely to be content with their current significant others, and therefore less likely to make long-term commitments out of fear of missing out on something better.

The positive aspects of online dating are clear: the Internet makes it easier for single people to meet other single people with whom they might be compatible, raising the bar for what they consider a good relationship. But what if online dating makes it too easy to meet someone new? What if it raises the bar for a good relationship too high? What if the prospect of finding an ever-more-compatible mate with the click of a mouse means a future of relationship instability, in which we keep chasing the elusive rabbit around the dating track?

To illustrate this possibly-not-real phenomenon, we hear the cautionary tale of Jacob, an adult man who once met a nice girl via online dating that he lived with for a while, but who eventually dumped his ass. Jacob’s not mad though:

...“I feel like I underwent a fairly radical change thanks to online dating,” Jacob says. “I went from being someone who thought of finding someone as this monumental challenge, to being much more relaxed and confident about it. Rachel was young and beautiful, and I’d found her after signing up on a couple dating sites and dating just a few people.” Having met Rachel so easily online, he felt confident that, if he became single again, he could always meet someone else.

“I’m about 95 percent certain,” he says, “that if I’d met Rachel offline, and if I’d never done online dating, I would’ve married her. At that point in my life, I would’ve overlooked everything else and done whatever it took to make things work. Did online dating change my perception of permanence? No doubt. When I sensed the breakup coming, I was okay with it. It didn’t seem like there was going to be much of a mourning period, where you stare at your wall thinking you’re destined to be alone and all that. I was eager to see what else was out there.”

The reactions have not been kind, and many of them have zeroed in on Jacob, and not OkCupid, as the problem:

[Jacob is] an overgrown manchild jackass who can't figure out what it takes to have a real relationship. The problem, however, is not him, and his desire for a "low-maintenance" woman who is hot, young, interested in him, and doesn't mind that he is callow and doesn't care very much about her. No, the problem is online dating, which has shown Jacob that he can have a steady stream of mediocre dates, some of whom will have sex with him.

It seems clear that there is little actual evidence, other than anecdotal stories from people like Jacob, that online dating has had any kind of measurable effect on people’s ability to commit. As has been the case since time immemorial, some people are cool with making long-term commitments, and some are not. Jacob, who finds himself awkwardly juggling texts from multiple online dating girlfriends while on dates with new prospects, probably fits into the latter.

But this manufactured worry over an abundance of choices is itself telling -- what we’re really talking about here is settling, and that at some point in our lives, this is what we’re expected to do if we hope to get that coveted Marriage Badge to add to our Successful Adult trophy case. The original piece’s argument is, essentially, that greater choice and efficiency of meeting people means people are less likely to settle for someone who is less perfectly matched than they might have hoped -- an idea which, in fairness, any profit-based dating site is likely deeply invested in perpetuating.

What interests me about the resulting conversation, however -- aside from it being pretty stunningly straight and male-focused -- is how it has both illustrated our massive set of assumptions and social expectations of monogamy and marriage (or any long-term committed relationship, legally enforced or not) while failing to interrogate these ideas at all. It is taken for granted that men like Jacob are terrible children who need to grow up, and that monogamous marriage ought to be the intended outcome -- at some point -- as a central part of any normal, healthy, adult life.

But my question is: why are we so invested in protecting monogamy, anyway?

Whether sexual and social monogamy has biological underpinnings is a question better left to science, but on a cultural level, this perceived necessity evolved out of a need for a stable family unit to raise and support offspring. For much of history, women were married primarily because they could not own property of their own or otherwise support themselves -- either they gained the keeping of a husband or they remained a burden on their families for the duration of their lives. Their purpose and usefulness began and ended at their ability to maintain a household and produce children who could then carry on the family line. Marriage was mostly a matter of survival, if not sheer economics. The concept of romantic love only really evolved in the medieval era, and the assumption that one ought to marry for love as a primary motivation is markedly younger than that.

These days, most of us grow up expecting to marry for love -- and maybe also for economic or other reasons as a secondary point. After a lengthy engagement, my own marriage was finally precipitated by my needing to get on my husband’s health insurance, and while that was not the main reason I wanted to get married, it was a pretty compelling motivation for doing it when we did. But in general, marriage is not the necessity it once was, and many people have discovered they are just as happy in long-term relationships without it, or not in any monogamous long-term relationships at all.

So why do we bother defending it? Possibly the most troubling implication of the Atlantic’s online dating indictment and the pursuant discussion is the apparent notion that people remain in relationships not out of a sense of commitment to the partnership, but because of a fear that they will not be able to find another person to be with should the union collapse.

Why is this way of thinking so utterly precious as to need protection? Is this REALLY what we want modern social marriage to be about -- a perpetual warding off against the terror of solitude? The fear of being alone is indeed a real one, navigated by many unhappy individuals, but on a macro level it is also a socially manufactured idea.

Perpetually single people live under a constant social imposition that they are missing some critical piece of the human experience -- that there must be something unspeakably wrong with them that is causing them to fail to meet and connect with a singular individual in a permanent way. Culture -- from movies to magazines to even just the way we talk to each other -- underscores this everywhere we turn, by valuing long-term monogamous partnerships over any other lifestyle. We’re told that single people are tragic, lonely and deserving of sympathy from their happily partnered (and therefore WINNING AT LIFE) friends. It’s little wonder that some would internalize this thinking and grow ever more miserable as a result.

The narratives around Jacob make a lot of troubling assumptions on this account: he is a “manchild,” commitment-phobic, incapable of a “real” relationship, although what qualifies as a “real” relationship remains chronically undefined (Does it require co-habitation? Intermingling laundry? The joint purchase of a large household appliance?). There is also the unspoken suggestion that any life that doesn’t culminate in a union with a singular long-term partner must be devoid of meaning or happiness until this need is satisfied.

Monogamy and marriage are great for some people, maybe even the majority of people. I myself like being married and monogamous. However, I am uncomfortable with the continued pressure that this must be the default state for any respectable adult, and that a life is somehow incomplete without it. Marriage, or any long-term monogamous relationship, is not the end of a quest -- it is, ironically, the start of one, one that is occasionally far more difficult and frustrating than my prior life of quiet solitude ever was.

So maybe we should let the Jacobs be Jacobs, and the people in nontraditional romantic arrangements be in their nontraditional romantic arrangements, and the aromantic and asexual people be aromantic and asexual, and the happily married people be happily married, and make no assumptions about the emotional or social maturity of any of these groups. Maybe it’s time we stop assuming that there is one universal formula for lifelong happiness that works for everyone, and that a nice socially acceptable monogamous marriage is a necessary part of it.