I have spent much of my adult life going against conformity. Trying to stay clear of the conventions around exclusive relationships has been especially stressful and a constant fight. Thus far I have won battles but they have been costly and perhaps I have ultimately lost the war. I’ve increasingly had to forsake valued things like intimacy, romance and the kind of connection and companionship that makes for a fulfilled existence.
I’ve particularly resisted the sort of monogamy upheld by conformists. I am unsuited to much of what they demand. It took a long while to get over the suspicion that there had to be something wrong with me. I imagine I’m not alone and that there are many people coupled who probably shouldn’t be, at least not in the customary way. Yet I’ve often wondered why, among the thousands of people I’ve known throughout a varied social life with many attachments, I’ve met hardly anyone who shares a similar outlook when it comes to relationships. All the women, with no exceptions, sought exclusive commitment along conventional lines, either explicitly or furtively.
It’s also true that I’ve come across almost no literature which looks at possibilities for living outside of partnership norms. Reading Tracey Clark-Flory’s excellent articles on monogamy in The Salon changed that, in particular her interview with sociologist Judith Stacey about the need for alternatives to the standard models for intimacy.
It’s uplifting to find an author who helps make sense of your thoughts and experience. Stacey’s book about love, marriage and family values did just that for me. She is not advocating full scale re-evaluation of the moral codes around relationships. She is saying there is a need for other ways and the lack of alternatives is actually damaging for many people and to society as a whole. Bravo!
The book is titled Unhitched. Rather than attempt to summarise it, here are some quotes that resonated with me:
• Monogamy is not natural or even possible for everyone.
• The normal family is not normal. Family diversity has always been normal.
• Domesticity is rarely an aphrodisiac.
• Throughout much of human history, and still throughout much of the world, romantic love has occupied a realm outside of marriage. Most family systems try to manage the conflict between desire and domesticity by sacrificing the yearnings of the former to the demands of the latter.
• A family system that insists on hitching eros to domesticity through monogamous marriage is a recipe not for stability but for higher rates of adultery and divorce.
• The sooner and better our society comes to terms with the inescapable variety of intimacy and kinship in the modern world, the fewer unhappy families it will generate.
• Whether or not we want more sex in our lives, we and our societies could certainly benefit from more forthrightness and less shame or hypocrisy about our sexual yearning.
• We might redefine fidelity to signify faithfulness to the particular sexual, emotional and social commitments that intimates mutually arrive at through honest negotiation and renegotiation. Sexual integrity should trump exclusivity.
• The normal family ideology fosters bad faith, bad behaviour and bad public policy. A singular focus on monogamous heterosexual marriage justifies discrimination and disrespect for everyone who lives outside the charmed family circle, whether by design or by destiny. It generates infidelity, deception, desertion, high divorce rates and family instability.
• The state should be trying to assure that citizens can freely enter supportive relationships and freely exit abusive ones. It should value the quality and substance of relationships over their form.
written 2011 after reading Judith Stacey's
book about relationships