Herbert and I got married because we didn’t believe in marriage.
We didn’t believe it was the moral or ethical thing to do. We didn’t believe it would validate or sanctify our relationship in any way. We didn’t believe it would stick us together for longer.
We got married because our parents couldn’t make it work. We got married because we grew up thinking that marriage was an absurd, oppressive institution that inevitably went nuclear. We got married because we thought the very idea of marriage hinged on a skewed notion of the nature of men and women.
Not everyone will understand this, but in the face of these beliefs, getting married was the most wildly romantic gesture we could think of, an act of blind faith in the two of us and our ability to make it work. We didn’t think that the institution could bind us together; we thought that we could. I took Herbert’s name for the same reason (although he offered to take mine): I had chosen my own family unit, and I was proud of it.
It is fashionable to say that monogamy can’t possibly work. The good old adulterer’s excuse that men can’t help but sow their seed has now been enshrined in the new evolutionary discourse of which we are all suddenly so fond. On the other side of the fence, we find the religious right curiously agreeing, arguing that men require the structure and discipline of God to keep them on the straight and narrow path.
And who would want tired old monogamy anyway, when there are so many more juicy options out there?
Well, I do, but not because I think it’s any better than any other choice. Quite the contrary: particularly before the seductions started, I would often feel a stab of envy at the polyamorous exploits of single friends.
I’ve recently been devouring the literature on keeping long-term relationships alive, and so many of them open with a variation on the line, ‘Monogamy is best.’ I find this attitude infuriating and small-minded. There is no best way, even for any one individual. We must all make our own compact with our partner, if we want to have a partner at all. So long as both parties agree, anything goes. It’s, frankly, none of my business.
And in all choices there are benefits and drawbacks. The compact of monogamy requires a huge effort on both sides to keep it alive and well, especially over the scale of an adult lifetime. Everyone interprets it differently, but for us it has always meant a commitment to staying above reproach, and not even indulging in minor flirtations that might give others cause to suspect our fidelity. Clearly, it also means missing out on pursuing the attractions that arise from time to time; monogamy doesn’t make you immune from them. We old marrieds still yearn for the head-rush of risk and romance, the thrill of the chase, and to some extent we have to accept that we’ve done with all that.
And the benefits? Well, there’s the growing sense of trust and certainty, and the privilege of having someone all to yourself. But most of all, there’s a kind of freedom in having made that choice. Perhaps this is the freedom of submission; but perhaps it is also the freedom of choosing not to continually wonder if your partner is good enough, if you are good enough. So long as you’ve picked someone pretty good in the first place, you can keep working towards that elusive state of perfection.
My point is that monogamy isn’t just one, dead choice. It is a daily, hourly choice, that should be made in full acceptance of the other choices available. It should be a conscious choice made by two people, rather than a bland acceptance of ‘the done thing’. If we fall into monogamy by default and never question it again, it will die. The compact can be broken by secret infidelities, but it can equally be broken by withdrawing love and affection. Monogamy is a practice, an ongoing pursuit; monogamists could learn a great deal from BDSM practitioners about taking responsibility for each other’s safety and emotional wellbeing.
Taken in this way, monogamy is a radical choice among many rather than a bland following of convention. It is not for everyone, and no-one should imply otherwise. But for me, it’s just right.