Monogamy's long been held as the staple hold of a healthy relationship, but in this ever-changing world, Victoria Stokes asks, is it realistic to have all our needs met by just one person?
“He never tried to hide his dalliances from me, and as a European I understood it was unrealistic to expect total fidelity.” Those are the words of Anne Douglas, 98, and to give her comments some context, she’s speaking of her 63-year-long marriage to Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas, 100, in their new book Kirk and Anne: Letters Of Love, Laughter And A Lifetime In Hollywood.
As Anne suggests, Kirk wasn’t entirely faithful throughout their marriage. In fact, he had a number of high profile affairs, and yet with over six decades of wedded life under their belts, their marriage has stood the test of time.
It begs the question then: When it comes to matters of the heart, just how important is it to stay monogamous? Is it realistic or indeed even necessary to commit to one person and one person only or can a relationship be successful when seeing other people is on the cards?
One person who’s very much on the fence is Trish Murphy, psychotherapist and author of the book #Love: 21st Century Relationships. “Many relationships can survive without monogamy,” she notes. “In fact, many same sex relationships negotiate consensual non-monogamy very well, but for the most part, relationships require devout loyalty and the belief that you are the number one person in your partner’s life. Monogamy can be seen as evidence of this loyalty.”
If we look at our biological make-up, we can assume monogamy is a very human thing. We don’t see much evidence of it in the animal kingdom (contrary to belief, lobsters are not among the some three percent of species who choose a mate for life. Sorry, Phoebe Buffay…) so there’s an argument to suggest that we’re not genetically hard-wired to be with just one person, making it a concept that sets us up to fail.
The stats on cheating may seem to back up the idea that we’re genetically motivated to seek out other partners too. One study from the Journal Of Couple & Relationship Therapy suggests some 60 percent of men and 45 percent of women cheat at some point in their marriage.
And yet, despite the bad rap that monogamy is unnatural, outdated and impossible, we can’t seem to move away from the idea of it, with the only alternatives being to abstain from romantic endeavors completely (um, no thanks) or to delve into the murky, unknown world of an open relationship.
The benefits of the latter are clear cut. With the permission of your partner and with the boundaries made clear, you can seek out sexual and/or emotional fulfilment from outside your relationship or marriage, while at the same time keeping your conscience clear.
One person who experimented with this very scenario is Grace, 27, from Carlow. “We were together for almost two years and we ended up in an open relationship because the college courses we got into were in different counties,” she says of a relationship she got into in her late teens. “I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but we had an unspoken agreement that we’d be getting with other people and I didn’t feel guilty about it initially.
Is it realistic or even necessary to commit to one person, and one person only?
“As time went by though and feelings grew, I began to feel increasingly bad about being with other people and uncomfortable with the thoughts of him hooking up with other girls,” Grace recalls. “In the end, I finished things because I knew I needed a proper relationship. I was devastated but I felt it just couldn’t work when we were both seeing other people.”
Grace is now in a committed relationship and isn’t tempted to go back into the world of consensual non-monogamy. “I love my boyfriend so much, the thought of him or myself getting with anyone else makes me feel physically sick,” she explains.
Still, there are couples out there that can and do make non-monogamy work, with one such example being Will Smith and his wife Jada. While Jada is reluctant to call her marriage an open one, she does have an unconventional take on fidelity.
“You’ve got to trust who you’re with. And at the end of the day, I’m not here to be anybody’s watcher,” she told Howard Stern in 2015. “I’m not [Will’s] watcher. He’s a grown man. Here’s what I trust — I trust that the man that Will is, is the man of integrity. So, he’s got all the freedom in the world. As long as Will can look himself in the mirror and be okay, I’m good.”
While Jada and Will have made this particular set up work for them, Trish warns that negotiating this kind of relationship requires “two very evolved participants to make it work in the long-term. There is a need to develop self confidence, self reliance and excellent communication in order to make an open relationship successful,” she asserts.
What’s more, this kind of relationship isn’t for everyone, and despite all of monogamy’s pitfalls and difficulties, the fact remains that there’s something undeniably romantic in forsaking all others and committing to just one person. It takes sacrifice and it takes persistence, and perhaps it’s this dedication that makes people in successful monogamous relationships feel so valued and connected to each other.
Maybe Goldie Hawn has it right in a recent interview where she says we shouldn’t shun our biological instinct to stray, but instead figure out how best to deal with it. “I have known relationships that have gone through rocky periods and have had extra-whatever relationships, marital relationships, and came back together and did very well. So it’s not that we don’t have these hurdles, it’s how we deal with them,” she told People.
Whatever kind of relationship you’re in though, whether it’s an open one or one that’s strictly monogamous, Trish asserts that it’s important to remember that one person will never fulfill all of your needs. “We are responsible for ourselves and it is wonderful to share our lives with someone special to us, but it is our duty to meet and address our own needs,” she makes clear.
The most important thing then is to look inward at the person going into the relationship first. Only then you can decide if monogamy is an essential ingredient in being happily coupled or an outdated idea you’d rather negotiate on your own terms.
This article first appeared in STELLAR’s July issue. Our August issue is on shelves now!
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