Is monogamy past its sell-by date?
For centuries, we’ve been hooked on the happy-ever-after ideal. But marriages do unravel. Isn’t it time for an alternative? Karen Krizanovich investigates ‘multigamy’
By Karen Krizanovich
7:00AM GMT 02 Dec 2013
Everyone loves to talk about monogamy. There’s George Bernard Shaw (he was against it), Sienna Miller (against), Milan Kundera (against), Sting (conditional), kd lang (conditional), Claire Danes (for), and Warren Beatty (for, surprisingly).
Now Emma Thompson has stepped up to say more choices are needed than just for and against. In a recent webchat for Mumsnet, the actress said that she felt monogamy was “an odd state… for women”. She wondered about “alternatives, and about whether our fury and rage and disbelief and horror about infidelity is quite realistic”. She also said in a newspaper interview that it’s easy to dwell on the “happy-ever-after ideal”.
“I understand the feelings very well, but as I get older and think about long-term relationships, I do see that they can change.” Her suggestion? That we have “three relationships over the three stages of your life… your young life, your middle life, and your late life”.
It’s hard to overstate how controversial these comments are, coming from one so enmeshed in mainstream culture. Marriage remains the molten core, especially among women, despite all protestations of equality and liberation from the tyranny of the male.
I too was swept along by it. When I got married the first time (I’ve since won Divorcee of the Year on two occasions), I sighed with relief: “Off the shelf at last!” Marriage is a stamp of approval. Even if we agree that it’s optional, the unspoken truth is that if you haven’t been married by a certain age, the old guard will think you smell funny. Any alternative to marriage must have the universal approval of groovy and fuddy-duddy alike. So far, only marriage has that.
In our society, relationship success equals one marriage over a lifetime – divorce is for losers. “Marriage remains the highest expression of commitment most people can imagine,” says Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. It’s the way it’s always been, the way we’ve always felt, right?
Well, actually, wrong. According to Elizabeth Abbott, the author of A History of Marriage, “The idea of romantic life as a foundation for marriage is rooted in late 18th- and 19th-century literature and predicated on lifespans less than half of our modern ones. In marriage, longevity is a game-changer.”
Emma Thompson with Greg Wise (REX)
As Thompson herself put it, “We all live so long now!” And because we do, we have time to change. We meet more people. Marriage wasn’t designed for so many long years, despite the “death us do part” bit. People change. Priorities alter. Health, income and preferences mutate. Marriages that began as perfect often become untenable. People get trapped. Hence, the proliferation of – and my participation in – serial monogamy.
It’s increasingly the norm now, even if most people don’t – yet – aspire to it. We need to salvage it, to save its reputation, rebrand it. “Multigamy”, maybe.
So, hopeless romantics, and anyone in their teens and twenties, look away now: you have been brainwashed to believe that if you don’t find your soul mate and marry and stay that way, your life will be an empty husk. It won’t be. I am living proof, after marrying and divorcing two soul mates and having relationships with others, that there are more soul mates in heaven and earth than were ever dreamt of in our philosophy. Now I am dating a man who is separated from his wife. And while it would be nice to wear a ring, have a huge party and get that big dress I can only wear once, I doubt it will occur.
My first marriage happened when I was a postgraduate. He was handsome, smart and adorable. It was very traditional, I thought. Marrying at 24 or so (I really don’t remember) was appropriate and old-fashioned. It ended because I spent too much time on work and not enough on the marriage. My second husband – I was 41, he 40 – was a genius and made me laugh. We each met someone else and, actually, were never really friends.
The reality is that the relationship you want in your twenties will not be the same one you want in your forties. Monogamy is a hindrance when you’re young and surrounded by fertile excitement. In middle life, you may want monogamy and excitement. By old age, you may want companionship and peace. It is rare that two people can remain happily united throughout this long journey.
Maybe this is one of the reasons why, according to government figures, the divorce rate for men over 60 doubled in the 20 years to 2011. The divorce rates for women were similar: 1.2 divorces per 1,000 married women aged 60 and up rose to 1.6 in 2011. The loosening of morals has had a knock-on effect, giving older people the freedom to choose the way they want to live. They’ve done their bit already, and, increasingly, they feel they can do what they want – without marriage, and without stigma.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not disillusioned with the concept of marriage itself, and nor am I the child of a broken home, as with so many people who share my feeling that we need an alternative to the lifelong monogamy archetype. What I did have was an example that was realistic, that showed me that the fairytale is pure fiction.
My parents were married for 68 years and never downplayed the difficulty of living with someone else. They forged an imperfect, extraordinary union: each half of an invincible duo, ready to get through anything – the death of my brother, economic hardship or other ructions. They had fun and they argued. My mother said it was good for me to see this because “this is what life is really like”. In their marriage, I observed, you ceased to be one person: you became a team, two fused into one. They joked about wanting a divorce right up to my father’s very recent death.
While multigamy might just be marketable, the question of whether those serial relationships may overlap is more controversial. Growing up, I heard stories about infidelity among people my parents knew, but I was taught not to judge: cheaters weren’t bad people. If people appeared perfect, they’d merely hidden their mistakes better than others. My mother thought it unsurprising that people, especially men, strayed because “we’re all alike at the bottom” and “it is the nature of the beast”. (These homely phrases were said with a laugh.)
Of course, infidelity hurts everyone – the unfaithful one, the injured party and even the person in the middle. But it can give the person who strays an immense sense of power – yes, you are still attractive. You can still pull. It can be an addictive feeling. After all, the romance in marriage only lasts so long – six months to two years, depending on what study you read, and we’ve all been there – before it changes into something else. How long do you hang on to that rising hot-air balloon before you let go?
I think it is only natural to try to recreate the feeling of being in love – well, lust – when it has vanished, but really one only does it out of desperation: I don’t believe anybody cheats lightly. I genuinely loved both of my husbands. I wish I could have had the mystical, iron-clad union my parents worked hard to maintain, but I didn’t. I strayed in my second marriage, mainly because my husband and I fell out of love to the point where we’d only watch television together. Today I jest that I could order theatre tickets by saying, “One adult and one adulteress.”
You can, of course, chalk up the need for new relationship templates to societal freedoms eroding our morality – as my aunt would say, “Standards are slipping.” You could say that, since women stopped wearing gloves, went to work and took birth control, our society has been doomed.
Or you could realise that alternative relationships, infidelities and other messy states of play cannot be jettisoned from the human condition – because they have always been part of it. Married couples have always abandoned each other, run off and divorced, even when the stigma was high. This is because marriage seems like a great idea when you don’t really understand what it is – a love partnership that is really an economic plan that joins you to a whole new tribe.
Beyond multigamy lies the open relationship. A friend who is in one says he will have sex only three times with a new partner. After that they become a non-sexual friend and, if the temptation remains, he doesn’t see them again. But new romance is a danger as well as an enormous draw on time and attention – energy you could be applying to the main relationship.
It is wonderful to have a person who belongs just to you, someone you can trust and cuddle, which is perhaps why, according to what scant statistics we have, open marriages don’t fare well. Studies suggest a 75 to 92 per cent failure rate. Something is going on when even dating sites have a “married” option, keeping in mind that a true open marriage, where both partners play away, is rare. We’re not talking about the chap at the party who says, “My wife and I have an understanding.”
That said, I agree with Emma Thompson: I don’t think sex with someone outside marriage needs to be a deal-breaker. There are practical elements, obviously: if you fool around, you can bring home something nasty, or you could fall in love and endanger your primary relationship. Unlike most people, I don’t equate sex with love, but, although it’s not commonly admitted, I’m not that unusual.
“Women can have casual, emotion-free sex, ‘zipless f—s’ in the same way that men do,” says Kate Figes, the author of Our Cheating Hearts. “When it’s just sex with someone you barely know but find chemically irresistible it can be deeply erotic. It’s often an entirely different experience to the sex you enjoy with someone you love, for both men and women, but that doesn’t necessarily make sex outside marriage more worthwhile.”
The news has been filled with tales about the new generation of women choosing to have casual sex rather than the relationship or marriage that impedes their education and career. I’m not surprised at the trend, but they may have a price to pay: perhaps they’ll have trouble finding mates, perhaps they’ll not have children and regret that. The notion that women want romance while men want sex is an out-and-out cliché. If anything, in my experience, I’ve found men to be much more emotional about it, more romantic and surprisingly more cuddly. Romance is fabulous, of course, but I think sex should be more athletic than profound, more fun than fervent.
The ultimate alternative is having no relationship. This is where many older people go, more by default than choice. They may seek love, sex and companionship in unorthodox ways. To have a satisfying life no matter what, we all need to be aware of unhelpful clichés – the dirty old man, the bitter old woman, the neurotic creative, the saggy mum.
Years ago a well-known writer told me that he hired prostitutes. They came to his house, he would pay them and they’d depart. I was appalled and withdrew my friendship. When he died, I thought, “Good riddance. What a horrible man.” Upon reflection, I’m appalled at how I treated him. I did not understand the loneliness of the elderly whose relationships had vanished through death or circumstance. That man was paying for company: he was not a kerb-crawling nincompoop.
Right now, my situation is awkward, but I refuse to hit the “it’s complicated” button on Facebook. It’s not. I chose this relationship, and choose to stay in it. My ideal life, in a broader sense? Sexually terrific, economically sound, emotionally stable, energetic and exciting with a bit of time together and a lot of time apart. Work may come first, the relationship second, but you must never let me down. That’s all I ask. As for shopping, cooking, cleaning, housework, tending to the sick? Everyone needs a wife. Including me.