Monogamy is dead: long live monogamy!

15 May

Rosie Wilby on monogamy or not,or what’s best for life today.

Yes readers, I have been transfixed by Netflix’s The Crown and ITV’s Victoria. Gloriana!

Aside from the fact that thinking of royalty provides a pleasing titular pun, the latter marriage at least was one utterly unsullied by rumours of liaison dangereuse. Theirs was a monogamous relationship that remained so until the end, with Albert’s untimely early death. They managed twenty-one years and there’s no evidence to suggest that anything would have changed had Albert not shuffled off this mortal coil when he did.

Which brings me to the thrust – if you’ll pardon the expression – of Rosie Wilby’s set at the Spring Festival around her book Is Monogamy dead? I use the term set because Rosie’s entertaining appearance was, in part, a talk and, in part, a stand-up gig. A TIG perhaps?

Rosie Wilby, photo © Fernando Bagué

Is Monogamy dead?, asked its audience to consider whether monogamy is natural. In subscribing to the notion that our relationships – whether heterosexual or gay – should be monogamous in form, even if serially so, are we simply doing what comes naturally? Or are we succumbing to generations of social conditioning?  Ummm. It’s a big question which prompts a whole heap of further questions. Questions like: ‘What defines a relationship?’, ‘What constitutes infidelity?’, ‘What constitutes monogamy?’ and more.

Rosie showed us some questions she’d used in a survey and asked the audience to answer with a show of hands. Swindon swings it seems. I loved that one of Rosie’s survey respondents thought ‘it’ wasn’t an infidelity if it happened in a car. You gotta admire their creativity there.

There’s no arguing that we’ve had structures imposed on us. From the earliest societies, humans developed systems to handle property rights and protect bloodlines: a need that the institution of marriage met very nicely thank you. This was a business deal unconcerned with notions of romance and monogamy. We’ve the twelfth century troubadours to thank for introducing the idea of courtly, romantic love. Thanks guys!

I mention marriage, because ‘monogamy’ is wrapped up, has its beginnings in (??) religious marriage – ‘Forsaking all others for as long as you both shall live’. An easy gig when ‘so long as you both shall live’ wasn’t long at all. What with dying in childbirth, dreadful diseases and lousy nutrition.

Marriage then was initially a contract with no worries about monogamy. Indeed, aristocratic marriages were built on the tacit understanding of a business arrangement. Love and sex you discreetly found elsewhere by leaving your boots outside your bedroom door at house parties.  Subtler than keys in a goldfish bowl eh?

So, Rosie is right to posit that monogamy isn’t as natural a state as all that and that we’ve merely been made to think it is. But yet. For every tail to a coin there’s a head. And that’s this: for women at least (as was discussed in the subsequent event with Catherine Gray) there’s an in-built hardwiring to form attachments once we’ve been intimate.

Female orgasm releases the hormone oxytocin, which, in simple terms, makes us feel a bond with our lover. Thus, we might enter into a fling without that intent in our minds for sure, but our hormones get the better of us. This is why we (women, straight women I think the article I read refers to) feel so lousy when a short-term relationship ends. It’s also why I’m unconvinced by Rosie’s suggestion (not assertion) that polyamory might be a more natural state.

It’s surely not for nothing that there are few polyandric (women with more than one husband) societies? What’s more, in any documentary I’ve ever seen featuring polygamous/polyamorous set ups, the women involved have not struck me as fully embracing the situation. Not that that makes for irrefutable proof one way or the other. But I’m inclined to the belief that polyamory and polygamy, in a sexual context, is (on the whole) more suited to men than to women. But hey – what do I know?

Indeed, in her book, Rosie owns that, for her, sex feels empty and meaningless without a connection with her lover. Without that connection it could and would never, she says, compare to music, poetry or walking along the shore at sunset. I’m sure that’s true for most of us. She goes on to suggest that most of us hold up sex as the gateway to true emotional intimacy and explain how she yearns for that level of intellectual closeness without the sex part.

She’s onto something there I feel. It’s a mistake to think that one person can be all things to us. And perhaps the centuries of conditioning that they can and should be is why we struggle with the construct.  One that can – and often does – bring great benefits.

To quote from the end of Rosie’s book:

‘For many of us, simply changing our thinking and language, without huge behavioural shifts, might be enough to promote wellbeing. If we feel we can choose some form of monogamy, it feels like a more appealing option than one about which we never had any choice at all … ‘

NB: I’ve thus far only dipped into Rosie’s book but I will be finishing it. Like her TIG it challenges your beliefs and ideas while being VERY entertaining and easy to read. Like Queen Victoria: we are most amused.

Rosie Wilby ‘performed’ at Swindon Arts Centre, on 13th May 2019, as part of Swindon Spring Festival.

Words by Angela Atkinson. Photos © Fernando Bagué.

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