Why Have One Loaf of Bread When You Can Have the Whole Bakery?
Why Have One Loaf of Bread When You Can Have the Whole Bakery?
This is the question posed to me by my Great Aunty Dot. I was in my early twenties and had just begun my career and my quest to find love. Some weekends I took the train up the coast to enjoy her wicked wisdom and gorge myself on her vast collection of Mills and Boons books. During one visit, I told her about my latest infatuation when she looked me in the eye and asked me this. She did so with a sly smile yet an incredibly serious undertone that made me stop and pay attention. I loved Aunty Dot. She was never afraid to be bold, confront the status quo, and continually challenge my naive and idealistic assumptions.
Back then, though, I dismissed the notion of non-monogamy as interesting but against everything I had been taught was moral and righteous. It was also contrary to all my relationship role models. Coupledom, followed by marriage and then children, was not only the convention but covertly touted as the evidence of a successful life. The Disney Princesses assured me this was also the way to everlasting happiness and provided hope that it could be possible for me too. Aunty Dot’s own Mills and Boons novels only convinced me further that there was passion and pleasure to be found in the arms of a soul mate.
However, this question has never left me. It has been sitting in my head and heart for over thirty years. It has reverberated through every single relationship I have had since — marriage, short-term stopgaps and the serenity of singlehood. Through these experiences, I have seen this question as one of the greatest gifts Aunty Dot could have ever given. It calls me to understand my motivations, fears, desires and dreams for the future. It is asking me to articulate, acknowledge, accept my truth, and live in line with it. It is pushing me to expose my shadows and vulnerabilities and learn to love myself and others fully. I now believe that finding my answer to this question is the only way to repay such kindness. And finding my answer is the purpose of this book.
So, why would I choose to have one loaf of bread? Why would I choose to settle down and commit to having a sexually exclusive relationship?
The instinctive response to this question is that I should choose monogamy because it is right and just and that non-monogamy is indecent and amoral. My gut tells me that committing myself to one other for life is honourable. The discipline, loyalty and love monogamy displays are evidence of our exalted humanity and set us above our animal cousins. But where does this intuition come from? My research suggests this instinct is not based on rational logic but on past judgements made by those in power, which have become entrenched in our societal norms. Paternalistic powers throughout history have defined morality based on their own beliefs and self-interests. And these have become so ingrained in my psyche that they seem natural and unquestionable.
But it is obvious that monogamy is not working for society or for a large number of individuals within it. Statistics show that most people within monogamous relationships would cheat if they knew they would avoid punishment. They may be wedded to another with words and yet are not honestly committed to remaining sexually exclusive to them. If in reality, the concept is floundering, why is it still upheld as the epitome of relationship arrangements? Why are people still suffering through a senseless sacrament? Why is it that despite our society bringing equality and compassion into so many other areas of life, we still see cheaters as the most morally corrupt creatures on the planet?
Like many other people, I was in a monogamous relationship for almost twenty years, with fifteen of those spent in marriage. Looking back now, though, my reasons for entering this arrangement are hazy at best. When I ask others why they got married, I am constantly surprised how many of them reply that they did it to feel normal or because it was just the done thing. I get the sense that this was the same for me. I was raised in a family with strong catholic and protestant influences and in a culture where you did what you were told, or at least what everyone else was doing. Fitting in and conforming was essential, and maintaining convention, stability and decency were the priorities.
Yet today, the church has much less influence over our beliefs, allowing much more analysis and questioning about what is ‘normal’ versus what is ‘natural’ for humans. All western societies have supported gays and lesbians in their relationship choices. Marriage and even the existence of an intimate relationship are no longer needed to procreate. We have test tubes for this now. Women don’t need men for financial support or to put out the bins — they are increasingly financially and physically independent. So what is the role of monogamy in today’s society, and, given today’s limitless freedoms, why would you choose this form of binding relationship?
While this question has always been present for me, it has become a burning issue now that I am single. For as much as I am revelling in my independence, I am conscious of an unrelenting pressure pushing me into returning to a traditional monogamous relationship. While the relationships I have now are open, honest, stimulating, respectful and supportive, I still feel pressure to settle down and have, at least publicly, a single loaf of bread, that is, a committed man/woman relationship.
There is a huge tension in my heart and head around this. Part of me feels driven to find another ‘mate’, settle down and slip into the delusions of security, predictability, routines and roles. Everything I watch and read suggests that this path is right and righteous, and if I don’t, I will end up a poor and very lonely old spinster.
At the same time, though, I want to avoid ending up like most people who remarry after divorce, with 65% getting divorced again. Having a second marriage disintegrate must be additionally confronting. But these statistics show that, in general, most people don’t appear to learn any lessons from the first marriage breakup. Did we enter the next relationship with the same set of faulty beliefs or expectations that led us down the aisle the first time?
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. This adage holds true for relationships just as much as it does for scientific experiments. However, the difference with science is that there is a rigorous method of reviewing results and reassessing our hypotheses after each experiment. How much do we, as intelligent human beings, take the time to review the success of our relationships and analyse the ideas and assumptions we brought into them? And how open are we to having ourselves challenged and potentially changed during the relationship?
I would suggest a complete lack of curiosity and questioning around our intimate relationships is the norm. Despite over 50% of children coming from broken families, the vast majority (86% of singles) still seek a committed life partner and believe it is possible to find a soul mate. An astounding 89% of singles also believe you can stay married to the same person forever. These statistics show that those about to enter their first serious relationship truly believe that monogamy is not only possible but the goal of any good relationship. Today’s youth appear arrogant enough to believe that their parents were doing monogamy wrong. They clearly have new ways and secret methods to ensure the marital success that their mothers and fathers could not secure.
The divorce statistics and the traumatic trail of bitter, broken hearts are a testament to our ignorance of the realities of monogamy and our lack of courage to address the conflicts inherent within such a relationship arrangement. As Esther Perel succinctly points out, “we would rather kill a relationship than question its structure.”
This is why Aunty Dot’s question is so pertinent and profound. Before I choose to enter a monogamous relationship, I need to be clear about the benefits of such a structure and the cons of such a commitment. As Wayne Dyer says:
“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.”
Before deciding to accept or reject monogamy, I must first understand it. This book, then, is a guide to help me be less ignorant and more informed about the role of monogamy, how it fits with our human potential and my personal flourishing. To do this, I immersed myself in several separate yet interconnected enquiries. This book provides the answers I have found to the following questions:
- What is monogamy?
- Is monogamy natural for humans?
- How did monogamy become normal?
- What are the dilemmas inherent in monogamy?
- What has love got to do with entering and sustaining monogamy?
- What has sex got to do with monogamy?
- Is there a connection between monogamy and maturity?
- What assumptions do we bring into monogamy from our childhood role models?
- How do religion and law influence our notions of what is acceptable in intimate relationships?
- Are we truly free to choose monogamy?
One theme that will repeatedly arise in this book is the difference between natural and normal. As you will see, monogamy is not natural. However, it is normal and is still upheld as the gold standard of morality. You only have to watch YouTube long enough to see how popular it is to set traps for cheaters and make them pay publicly for their transgressions. Cheater-catching has become a very lucrative profession for some social media stars. Unfortunately, they don’t appear compelled to enlighten their audience by questioning why cheating continues to be both so common and controversial.
Because when something is not natural but is normal, then there will be inherent physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual tensions that create inner and outer conflict. Once you read the science behind our sexuality, you will understand that the presence of these conflicts should cause no surprise. And yet, despite our great intellect, we have not yet been able to find a compassionate and workable path through them. We give up on our commitments rather than confront the structures that challenge them.
The discussion about whether we are free to choose monogamy is another critical one to be had. As Simone de Beauvoir suggests, if cultural conditioning and peer pressure mean that we are not free to choose this arrangement, then we are living under oppression. If this is the case, only bitterness, suppression and perhaps rebellion will result. However, if we are at liberty to select a monogamous relationship but choose to commit to it without declaring concerns or conflicts, then we have also acted immorally. In this latter situation, our partners did not have all the information they needed to make a thorough decision in proceeding with the arrangement. We have withheld vital data from the people we are vowing to love for life and misled them into a very vulnerable and tenuous partnership.
Simone de Beauvoir further suggests that a lifetime commitment to another is inherently disastrous as it removes our freedom to be evolutionary beings. It seeks to freeze us in consistency and stunts our ability to grow and find relationships that support the achievement of our full potential. However, she also acknowledges that no commitments are also problematic. As we will see in the discussion around non-monogamy, not making commitments is a convenient method to avoid the reality of interdependence and the risks of vulnerability.
For these reasons, in his precise and potent work Monogamy, Adam Phillips suggests it is wise to be wary of someone writing about the subject. He proposes that the author is likely approaching the subject with either bitterness or fear.
I can contest Mr Phillips’ assertion that I am resentful about my experiences with monogamy. Every single tied relationship I have had has helped me learn more about myself, who I am, and who I am not. I will admit to being initially very disappointed, but only until I realised the source of this disappointment was my own exorbitant expectations.
Hence the reason for this book — to bring to light the reality of monogamy and lessen the proliferation of unrealistic hopes. In this way, I am not bringing a closed and spiteful heart to this subject. I enter it with an overwhelming curiosity and conscious care for all it may touch.
Mr Phillips is correct, though, to suggest that there is something that I dread. I desperately fear making the same mistakes I have made in the past, hurting more people and initiating more cycles of trauma. I was one of the lucky ones. The initial turbulence of the separation eased over time to allow a landing (albeit roughly) on the tarmac of friendship and amicable interactions. For many others, the turmoil of separation is prolonged and painful. People get lost in endless erratic holding patterns and injured in fiery landings, too scared to ever travel again.
Children also suffer deeply from their parents’ separation, partly because their sense of safety is inextricably bound to the connection between their carers. It may also be that their memories of the Disney Princess movies, which shape our visions of the perfect adult relationship, are much fresher and more influential. I don’t want to put my kids through the trauma of another stable relationship breakup. So it behoves me to understand further to prevent inter-generational ignorance.
The only antidote to fear is understanding, which is what I hope to bring to this subject and to each of my future relationships, no matter what form they take. I am honoured to write this book and share this understanding with you.
If you hope to find an answer here that you can copy for your own life path, well, there is provided for you to ponder. In this book’s closing chapter, you will see the possibility of creating a new monogamy model based both on the earthly reality and our divine potential — a model that will work through the dilemmas with compassion and courage. There is the ability to transform the archaic assumptions and institutions that proliferate pain into connections that nurture confidence, comfort and growth. There is the opportunity to create couples that can help humans evolve just as much emotionally and spiritually as we have intellectually and technologically.
But every ending is only another beginning, and every answer only creates another question. In this case, the next question I must resolve is whether my envisioned model of monogamy is even possible. However, you only know once you try, and of course, like the best scientific method, review, reassess and revise with each experiment.
This book is about you.
And it is about me.
It is about the society we live in now and hope to create for our children.
It is about our hopes for romance, pleasure, love and acceptance and the realities of deception, cruelty, conflict and pain.
It is about scientific facts and spiritual faiths, conscious desires and covert conditioning.
It wrestles with simple ideas, complex realities, common challenges, and individual potentials.
Like our relationships, this book exposes who we are and how we live.
And just like the question that has started it all, it will challenge you to know your truth.
It is said that love revels in the truth. I hope this book helps you find your truth and creates a pathway to deeper love and care for yourself. For it is only love that will conquer the plague of soul-sucking fear that has contaminated our western intimate relationships. There is a better way, a kinder way, and my wish is that this book provides the foundation of understanding that will help you find yours.
So, today and every day, may you move away from fear and towards love. For you truly deserve love.
Originally published at https://moraldilemmaofmonogamy.substack.com on December 29, 2022.