Sam Holstein

America is Monogamous By Default

But should we be?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Lately I’ve been very suspicious of our cultural expectation of monogamy.

Monogamy itself I have no problem with. I think monogamous commitments are beautiful. The idea that two people are so in love with each other that no other would draw their eye is amazing. The fact that these two people would commit to each other even after that feeling of infatuation fades is even more amazing. Being part of that kind of commitment would be an honor.

But in America, monogamous commitments are expected very early in a relationship. Within three months, from what I can tell.

And that, well, that’s kind of weird.

It’s weird because there really is no such thing as casual monogamy. The moment you’ve made a monogamous commitment, confirmation bias comes into play. Your brain reorganizes to reinforce the decision you’ve made.

That’s serious business, no matter how ‘casual’ the relationship. So why do we act like it’s a basic expectation?

You might say, “people hook up and friends with benefits all the time.” People are more free than ever to go sleep with whoever they want to on any given night. Go to a bar (or to Tinder), find an amenable stranger, and get your rocks off for the night.

But if you spend more than a few nights with someone, pressure closes in. People start asking questions. “What are you guys?” You might start asking questions yourself. “Is this going somewhere?”

You could decide you’re friends with benefits. I admit, I have no personal experience with this arrangement. But from what I understand, the reality is that if you have sex regularly with someone, you’re going to develop feelings for them more often than not. Even if you don’t, you have to keep your friend with benefits a secret in case it scares someone with potential away. And from what I’ve heard, sometimes even friends with benefits want exclusivity as well. All the commitment, with none of the payoff.

If you do have a real connection with someone, they usually expect something more. They expect you to become boyfriend and girlfriend. And in Western society, boyfriend and girlfriend is usually a monogamous commitment. And that’s a serious ask.

Those are your options. Sleep around, “no feelings involved,” or make a commitment to them and only them. No in between. If you try to do anything else, people assume you’re either using them or they’re using you.

But why?

Monogamy isn’t right for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. Some people aren’t emotionally ready to make that sort of commitment to someone. Perhaps someone hurt them too badly. Perhaps their life is too unstable right now. In our current society, these people are expected to live without intimacy until they are. Sure, they can have sex, but they can’t form even short-term commitments with monogamy as a requirement.

Other people make monogamous commitments too soon. Their confirmation bias kicks in, and they get sucked into relationships that aren’t right for them. Monogamy blinds them to their other options, so they choose to stay.

Some people have a philosophical objection to monogamy, believing that humanity isn’t meant to be monogamous. These people often choose to be monogamous anyway, because it’s a cultural expectation, but they chafe under it’s restraints.

Monogamy can also be a challenge for people who love casual sex. America is working on learning not to slut-shame people — part and parcel of that is accepting that casual sex is a fun and meaningful hobby for some people. But monogamy asks people to give up that hobby for the sake of a relationship.

Some people can’t make monogamous commitments because their lifestyle literally doesn’t allow for it, such as for people who travel long-term. Imagine a soldier about to deploy. But three weeks before he does, he meets a wonderful woman he doesn’t want to lose. Imagine they make an ill-advised monogamous commitment, two weeks before he is about to deploy for a year. They are in love, and determined to make it work. It’s a romantic sentiment, for sure. But they don’t have to ‘make it work’ at all. If we lived in a society where non-monogamous commitments were considered legitimate, they could enjoy their time together and wouldn’t have to suffer the pressure of monogamy across an ocean. They could seek any intimacy they want with people who are available, and still enjoy their relationship as it is in the meantime.

This isn’t to say monogamy is wrong. Some people hold that “monogamy is unnatural,” “humans are meant to have many partners,” or something to that effect. That’s definitely not what I’m trying to say. I said it at the beginning and I’ll say it again: I think monogamy is beautiful.

What I am trying to say is this:

Monogamy is serious business. It restricts your options for your life in a major way. It closes your mind to new opportunities and experiences. Monogamy is not desirable for many people, and is something they reluctantly accept as the cost of a relationship. Monogamy is not even doable for many people.

You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.
Thích Nhất Hạnh

I don’t think a lot of people consider this when they decide to be monogamous. I think they just are, because everyone else is, and it’s not something they actively make a decision about. If the thought of an open relationship crosses their mind, it’s dismissed the way visiting the moon is dismissed — ‘sure, some people might, but certainly never me.’

Don’t make a major life decision like monogamy by default. Intimacy and sexuality is a keystone part of the human experience, and making the decision to be monogamous is a huge decision with respect to that part of your life. It’s as important as the decision to get married.

And yes, most people are monogamous, and most people get married — but that doesn’t mean you have to be.