Marriage and Compulsory Monogamy – Are We Making Informed Choices?

Seth and I at our Partnership Ceremony

Seth and I at our Partnership Ceremony

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What’s the best way to predict if a couple will get married?  Find out how many of their friends have!  In many social groups, once one or two friends marry the rest will drop like flies.  So is marriage merely a form of peer pressure?  Do we all want to avoid being the last single person left standing?   If so, are we really getting married for the right reasons?

Between the ages of 28 and 32, I felt like I was attending one wedding per weekend.  As someone who had always viewed marriage with skepticism, it was only when I found a truly egalitarian partner that I considered getting married for the first time.  Seth and I viewed our “un-wedding” partnership ceremony as a form of resistance to peer pressure.  But despite our insistence on expressing our feminist values, honoring those who did not share the privilege of legal marriage, and refusing to engage with the wedding industrial complex, we were still thinking relatively inside the box.  We were still making a heterosexual, legally-sanctioned, long-term partnership with an assumption of monogamy.

One of my best friends is getting hitched next month.   Almost five years after my wedding, as I support her through her journey to marriage, I’m seriously wondering if my own is going to make it.  After a stressful infertility experience and fifteen months raising twins together, my relationship is in its toughest period yet.  I’ve never had a “that won’t happen to me” attitude about divorce.  Being a therapist, I understand how tough the dynamics of couples’ relationships can be to navigate.  I always felt that even trying as hard as I knew I would, it could, indeed, be me.  What I didn’t know was what it would feel like to try that hard and have to face the possibility that it might not be enough.  I didn’t understand that I could still be so in love with my husband, still see him as an amazing partner, and yet wonder if it’s possible for us both to get our needs met while raising children, managing careers, and constantly evolving as individuals.

I’ve realized that most of Seth’s and my exposure back then was to the beginning of a marriage.  For our parents, the reasons for marrying, the life-stage they were in when it happened, and the ways in which they negotiated their relationships were so foreign, it was easy to write-off those marriages as having nothing to do with ours.   We really didn’t have much interaction with people who’d been married longer, were divorced, were single by choice, or who were in non-marital relationship structures, either monogamous or polyamorous.  We understood that our gay and lesbian friends weren’t focused on marriage, but our response was outrage that they could not marry, rather than questioning whether matrimony was or should be everyone’s ideal.  I can only imagine how alienating that time period was for many of my queer friends.

That lack of exposure led our social circle to a kind of groupthink about marriage – an assumption that even though it would be hard, it would be worth it.  I even found myself about a year ago proclaiming the benefits of marriage to a friend who was thinking more critically about whether to marry.  My argument included the ways in which the cultural meaning of marriage and the social support marriage engendered had deepened and strengthened my relationship.  But cultural acceptance makes a lot of other paths—paths that I have rejected—easier, too.  What about encouraging more social support for other relationship structures?  Were the positive feelings I attributed to marriage merely evidence that I, who once saw marriage an oppressive, patriarchal institution, had caved to the peer pressure?  Was I basking in the glow of doing the popular thing, rather than in the glow of marriage itself?

Even if those around us don’t actively pressure us to follow their paths, a lack of other models creates a tendency to default to what others have done.  I have seen that kind of “default” at play as, on an almost daily basis, ultrasound pictures appear on Facebook.  Can they all really making a fully conscious choice to raise families, I ask myself?   At the same time, I’ve watched the rare friends who have chosen not to have children feel alienated and misunderstood.   Resisting peer pressure can be painful, but not resisting it can be as well.  This year Seth and I felt like our own family was being torn apart as our “couple best friends” divorced.  Just like marriage, divorce can spread through social groups as unhappy couples see others finding a way out and exploring new lives outside their relationships.  Other challenges to traditional notions of marriage can also spread through social groups such as exploring queer identity, kink lifestyles, and/or polyamory.  Unfortunately, many of us don’t come to the place where we are ready to consider all of our options until we have the big, socially sanctioned life choices like marriage and children under our belts.

If I could talk to myself back then, before the marriage juggernaut came barreling towards us, I wouldn’t necessarily tell myself not to get married.  I would, however, ask myself whether when I decided I could be a married feminist, I was still defaulting to a hetero-normative, monogamous lifestyle, rather than making a more conscious, more intentional choice.   I would want Seth and me to at least consider a long-term, non-married partnership.  I would want us to talk about whether two adults in a marriage really is the best approach to both relationship and family structure.  There are times when it feels like both my marriage and child-rearing would be more manageable with more adults involved.  I wish someone had warned me that when the terror of spending life alone is not drowning them out, our desires to explore our own sexuality can become louder.  We can suddenly feel unhappy with our level of sexual experience, find out we are a lot queerer than we thought, or that we are not sexually compatible with our partner.  In all marriages, we inevitably realize there are things our partners can’t provide us, and have to reconcile either getting those needs met elsewhere or going without.

Can we ever really fully understand our vows when we make them?

Many couples discuss whether they will have children, what religion they will practice, and how they will handle finances before marrying.  But, few discuss how they will keep their sex lives exciting, how they would handle it if their marriage became mixed orientation, or whether polyamory or an open relationship might be an option.  Seth and I thought we were thinking outside the box, but we didn’t realize that there were other boxes.  Ironically, marriage often provides the stability and safety for us to explore ourselves more fully.  For some, this can deepen the marital relationship, but for others it can lead to the realization that the partner they are with is no longer the right one.  These are the things they don’t tell you in the bridal magazines, or talk about at all those wedding showers.  How many romantic comedies end with the female lead realizing that, while her husband is really good in bed and a great father, he’s not emotionally available enough?

The peer pressure to marry doesn’t necessarily suggest a problem with marriage itself, but a lack of other cultural models.  This results in a lot of people choosing marital and family structures by default rather than by intention – a kind of compulsory monogamy.  If I were advising young adults today, I would tell them to seek out people who have set up their relationships and lives in a variety of ways, including traditional monogamous marriage.  I would tell them to pursue diverse sexual experiences and explore their sexual orientations before committing to monogamy, or consider relationship structures in which continued exploration could be on the table.  I would tell them that marriage is hard–incredibly hard.  But, I would have to add that the best things in life inevitably are.  I don’t regret getting married, but as I make the decision each day to remain married, I believe I’m doing it with greater and greater intention as I glance down more of the roads not taken and realize what it is I’ve actually chosen, and what I’ve given up.

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17 thoughts on “Marriage and Compulsory Monogamy – Are We Making Informed Choices?

  1. Something my husband and I have always said is that any decision we make together–like to get married, have kids–is okay as long as it’s examined and intentional. It’s so difficult to determine how much free will we’re exerting when we choose an option that happens to be the dominant, mainstream one. Are we caving to societal pressures? The only way to know is to see how things shake out, if marriage and kids make us both happy. So many people seem to make life decisions by rote or to fit in, and my dude and I *really* don’t want to be those people.

    Lately we’ve been discussing if monogamy is critical to our relationship’s success. It may not be, but then again, we’re reluctant to potentially fuck up a good thing. I’m willing to make a sacrifice for my family, but what if it’s not necessary and eventually makes me miserable? Like you said, the absence of visible alternative models makes it tough to weigh the options fairly.

    • Kate the Great! Thanks so much for this reassuring post. It is so helpful to know that other couples are thinking through the monogamy thing and whether it’s really the best course. I’m hoping when our kids are older having these conversations before marriage and thinking these things through earlier will be more common. Perhaps we’ll even be further along as a society. Someone was just reminded me this weekend that it’s only very recently in human history that people are even getting married as a personal choice, rather than out of economic necessity (especially women). I think we still need to explore as a culture whether monogamy is the best way to approach that personal choice, or whether there are better ways to set up relationships. Of course different people will feel differently about it. I was just saying to my husband last night that I’m up in the air about whether opening up our relationship sexually would be more helpful or more harmful, but I am absolutely certain that having more adults working together at child-rearing and maintaining a household seems like a no-brainer to me. I think he was a bit skeptical :)

      • I think one component of people’s reluctance (or mine, anyway) is that nonmonogamy is so darn complicated. It’s hard enough to find one person you’re compatible enough with to want to live together and make a life with. If there are even more choices and factors to consider, and more people involved, negotiations could get exhausting. But then again, if two (or more) individuals manage to clear all those hurdles, then maybe the result would be healthier, more open, more satisfying relationships.

        Now the misanthrope in me wants to have the final word: Many people seem to prefer easy, binary, comfortable misery to complicated, hard-won satisfaction.

        • Yes, I agree. And that’s what I’ve always thought. If it’s this hard to get along with my husband, adding other people into the mix can’t be a good idea! Plus, I work a lot with couples in therapy, and it’s so complicated – the thought of trying to work it out with three or more people is daunting. But lately, I’ve been wondering if I’m missing the ways in which monogamy is really hard and unrealistic. For example, most of those couples are in therapy in the first place (uh, myself included), because they are having such a hard time accepting, in one way or another, the things their partner can’t do for them. I see so many couples come to a point where they have to choose between not getting those needs met, or breaking up their relationship (probably to get into yet another relationship where many needs will be met, but some other important ones won’t). I am also finding the simple workload of being a couple with kids puts such a strain on a relationship. Maybe this is just my coping mechanism right now, but I can’t help thinking it would be easier to feel satisfied in my relationship and my life if there was someone(s) else to carry some of the emotional and logistical burden. But if you caught me tomorrow, I might be making the opposite argument :)

          As for your last sentence there, I think you summed up my professional work quite succinctly and beautifully, so thanks for that. I may need to use that one with my patients when they want to know why I’m torturing them. Was it Thoreau who said “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” I’d like to think it doesn’t apply to we women, but I fear it typically does. I actually have the opposite problem though, which is complicating things unnecessarily. That probably explains my interest in questioning monogamy right now, among other things…

          Thanks for the stimulating conversation!

      • I’m with a man that I love, a lot. We’ve only been together for a few monhts but we got serious pretty quickly. I am 18 and he is 37. Yeah, big gap. Anyways, I met him when I finally decided that I was going to explore sexually and meet some men. He was the first one I met and the last. Things are mostly good, but I feel like I’m losing what I really wanted to do. I wanted so badly to explore sexually and I don’t feel that I did. The urge is so great that I’ve considered cheating but can’t. I want to talk to him about maybe opening up the relationship of only for a while to allow me to explore. I don’t want to look back on my life and wish that I would’ve experienced what I initially wanted to do. I’m afraid of hurting him and although I want to meet other men, I don’t want to lose him. What should I do?

  2. Thank you for this article. It is always nice to hear about other people who thought critically about marriage before doing it because I do think many don’t think it out and just follow what social pressure says they should do.

    It interesting to recognize that sexuality doesn’t tend to make those lists of “things you should discuss before you get married”. It should. My husband and I discussed it before determining that we were straight and that monogamy was what we wanted – but we’re the kind of weirdos who analyze and talk out everything.

    I wonder if part of the reason people don’t get into that discussion though isn’t just the pressure to get married and be monogamous but also the general taboo that still exists around discussing sex and contemplating sexuality. There are still a lot of articles that refer to money as a taboo subject and then urge people to discuss it anyway. Sex talk should be encouraged as well.

    I suppose the assumption is that if you’re discussing marriage, you have figured out that monogamous marriage is what you want. That assumption is like many other assumptions though.

    Thanks for being someone who models alternate options. I know that if my mostly traditional relationship yields children, I will want them to see a whole range of possibilities before determining what fits them best.

    • Hi Sarah, thanks so much for your comment. I COMPLETELY agree that the taboos around discussions of sexual orientation, sexual preferences (other than orientation), and sexual needs absolutely factor into people not having these discussions. I think the truth is most of us don’t have these “discussions” with ourselves, let along our partners. For me, I feel like it took me into my thirties to really explore many aspects of my sexuality, and I was someone who was always comfortable with homosexuality. What I learned is if you are cut off from your sexual needs and who you are sexually, it doesn’t matter how open you are to being gay, you can’t fully explore it. But I think many people are less exposed to queer lifestyles, and tend not to discuss sex with friends, partners, or anyone. Especially for women, good sex is not seen as a major life goal in our culture. I think because of that we may focus our attention in other (more socially sanctioned?) areas and then realize later – hey, good sex is also important! Props to you and your husband – I think analyzing and talking everything out is a great way to go – but then I’m a shrink so I would :) Thanks SO much for your interest in the blog.

  3. Interesting post. I don’t have so much trouble with monogamy because I discovered by trial and error that more than one lover is too complicated. What I wonder about is this: why do we still get married? I know I did, at least in part, because my mother was very verbal about “hoping I wouldn’t choose to have a child without the benefit of marriage.” But there are laws on the books about paternity and holding men responsible for the children they help create. I think all the awful restrictions on women getting credit, being able to own property and all that stuff is gone too. So how else are we benefiting from marriage? Our LGBT friends have shown us that important things like “next of kin” in cases of illness and accident and being able to file tax returns jointly are critical. But we could change those laws (and I hope we do in the near future). Once that is done, what is the point? The other reason I got married was because it is proof that you really, really do love your partner and want to make a lifetime commitment. But wanting to make that commitment and actually living through it are two different things, aren’t they?

    • I think you make some very compelling points Kathy, I’m not sure I can make a decent argument. I think the fact is married people in our society get a lot of benefits; financial and emotional. I think we do more to support and bolster marriage relationships. But that doesn’t mean marriage is necessary. Perhaps we need to rethink the weight we put on marriage and be more supportive of non-married relationships.

  4. One last thing: men not being available enough emotionally is a BIG issue. That’s why I still rely on close female friends. But I am wondering, how do we teach our son’s to be more emotionally available than their Dad’s are?

    • I think we have to do better with our sons, I think many men are struggling because they are asked to be more emotionally available in this day and age, but may not have the skills or have had a model of how to do so. My husband is totally capable of being emotionally available (one of the reasons I married him). I think for him, he struggles with priorities – he spends a lot of time working, and for various reasons is ambivalent sometimes about whether he wants to be emotionally available. I think J will learn enough from him though that he will be comfortable with emotions. I think the most important thing we can do is counter the societal pressure for boys to denounce their emotional selves at an early age. I think many parents, whether purposefully or not, enforce stereotypes by having emotional exchanges with girls and not boys, etc. I’m sure I will do this at some points without realizing, but I’m going to try to be as aware of it as I can. As of now, my little J is a sensitive guy, and I want to keep it that way!

  5. Very thought provoking post, and comments. So pleased to have found your blog.

    I’ll be upfront and admit that I’ve been married for 12 years (and together 5 years before that) with very little in the way of difficult times. So I haven’t really needed to question my monogamy. We are also both the kind to talk through and analyse everything, and did a lot of talking before we got married about the what and whys of it, and we’ve always agreed that trying to get all your emotional/spiritual/needs met by one person was a little crazy.

    On the other hand, we’ve barely questioned sexual needs in that context. Actually, that’s not completely true, we have talked about it, but I guess we’ve always felt it was best not to mess with a good thing. Also, my parents tried a bit of openness and ended up divorced (fairly quickly), so I guess I have that program in my head, although rationally I know ending up divorced was a) inevitable for them and b) probably the best thing that could happen for either one of them.

    On the other hand, that is the one area in which we do have some issues. Mostly because of different levels of sex drive, not helped by the fact that I am always tired (being pregnant or breastfeeding for ten years will do that to you!), so I get my needs met, but…

    Neither one of us had “experimented” much before we got together (we were quite young – I was only 22 and convinced I was just embarking on a fling between o/s trips, LOL – and both late starters), and while in some ways I wonder if that doesn’t help us (we don’t know what we’re missing – plus we’re both willing to experiment a fair bit with each other), I also know my husband – well, I don’t know that wants to, or even would be open to, more experimentation would be true (because he’s fairly convinced by monogamy), but certainly thinks about and is interested in. Did that sentence make sense?

    Anyway, thanks for another thought provoking post. I admit it’s an area of fear for me, but good to re-examine from time to time.

    • Hi Kirsten, I definitely relate to issues with different levels of sex drive, and feeling less sexually experienced. I was really anxious about sex back in the day – I think I thought it was “Safer” to find a stable partner and not try out different ones. My views on that have changed quite a bit… inconvenient because now I’m married. Also inconvenient that my desire to experiment with women was basically non-existent and has gotten stronger since I’ve been married. I think that’s great that you and your husband are comfortable experimenting with each other, that can help a lot. I feel we do that too, which helps, my husband just does not have the same interest in sex that I do, and that’s gotten harder more recently. I seem to be one of those people who got hornier as a result of childbirth… not sure what’s going on with that. Thanks for your posts. It’s nice to hear someone has had a smooth relationship for that long – you are a good role model… what’s your secret?

  6. Eight days ago we stood there making those very promises to one another. They overwhelm me still sometimes but I don’t regret it. I haven’t always wanted to get married. It took awhile. I have a six year old, from a previous relationship, but I never really felt an overwhelming desire to marry him. Sure, it would have been easier. And more than likely made some family members happy. It took some years, a lot of thought, the right relationship, a bunch of gender studies classes(The opposite of the usual effect! Maybe it’s because I went into them older than if I was fresh out of high school and with different life experiences than the rest of my class.), and even more thought until I truly decided that, yes, I do want to marry. I know it won’t be perfect. And I’m terrified of the potential effects that my marriage may suffer if baby #2 (for me, 1 for him) is not so easy as the accidental conception of my past. I’m older than before, reproductive issues run in my family, life isn’t perfect. But we can get through it.
    Thank you for this post. I am happy that I stumbled upon it. I wish you the best.

    • Hi Kim, glad you liked the post. That’s fascinating that your gender studies class made you more open to marriage. I can see it though. I think for me knowing I had thought everything through, studies gender studies, knew exactly what kind of relationship and did and didn’t want, made it easier to be sure marriage was “ok” (and as different as possible from my parents’ marriage!). I wish you the best of luck! You will see more fertility posts on here if you check back – I have a lot to say about that issue as well!

  7. I have an unusual social circle so for me marriage has never held the automatic expectation of monogamy. I think it is extremely helpful that my friends tend to talk about this stuff beforehand.

    People always mention the fact that more than one partner is more complicated but I look at how few couples manage both people staying faithful for a lifetime and think how nice it is if you can just tell the truth and discuss with your partner what needs aren’t being met. Needing and having a lover don’t have to be a deal breaker for a marriage to someone you still love and in some cases are raising kids with. Not for everyone but I think that since so few people seem to be happy being truly monogamous it would be good for that to be a standard cultural option. All sorts of arrangements can work if you lay out the ground rules with your spouse.

    • I think those are great points. Most people think they are monogamous, but most are only monogamous for periods of time. Cheating and divorce are so common, I wonder if just being more open and honest and “allowing” more than one partner at once makes more sense.

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