Til Death Do Us Part…Really?

They meet and fall in love. Or they bicker and argue until that magical moment when the Universe flips and they realize that this person is indeed their beloved. They face zombie killers, engage in high-speed car chases or have to deal with warring families. There is misunderstanding and one flees to the lake house where the other one finds them and apologizes, usually while standing in some sort of inclement weather. Or they reunite at the altar just as one of them is about to marry someone else. But somehow, it all works out in the end and they are finally together.

And they lived happily ever after…

“And they lived happily ever after” is one of the biggest lies in our culture, right up there with “the check’s in the mail” and “of course I’ll respect you in the morning”. I can’t even tell you where the idea of marriage, one spouse, the white house and picket fence (and the inevitable 2.58 children) starts. Is it the first time a toddler plays “mommy and daddy”? Is it before that, something genetic, a special code in our DNA that programs us for a life with one mate?

“And they lived happily ever after” is NOT the end of the story. It’s the beginning—and what follows is something that Hollywood seldom addresses. When they do, it’s usually so far skewed from most people’s reality that it’s not a good example of a loving, committed and monogamous relationship. So what does this happily ever after look like? Maybe not quite like you would think.

Let’s talk about marriage and monogamy.

The actual word “monogamy” is from the Greek, meaning “one marriage”. And marriage means “the state of being united to a person (of the opposite sex as husband or wife) in a consensual and contractual relationship (recognized by law)”. Does it really mean, as the religious right and conservatives would have us believe, just one man and one woman? I would suggest, NO.

When I say marriage, I mean ANY committed relationship between consenting adults who love each other and intend for this commitment to increase each person’s self-actualization (read Maslow’s work if you’re not familiar with this concept). Read that last sentence again and note what is missing. There is no mention of gender—or how many people we are talking about. So obviously no real concern with whether this commitment has legal sanction or not. It’s not the law that says whether you are married or not, it’s your heart.

And for the purposes of this discussion, when I talk about monogamy, I am referring to SEXUAL monogamy. If you are married/committed to your love(s), emotional monogamy is a given. You cannot be married/committed/in a relationship and yet “love” someone outside of that commitment. Meeting each other’s emotional needs is almost the sole basis for the relationship. Right? Otherwise, why choose to commit other things like time, finances and housing?

Even if we limit marriage to two people of the opposite sex with legal rights because of that union, is sexual monogamy a natural part of the relationship? Is it just a logical conclusion to the “I do”? I don’t think so. I think that monogamy is a social imperative, not a physical one. Trust me when I tell you, there’s a lot of scientific studies both ongoing and completed that indicate that Nature is a slut.

The fancy name for it is “Extra-Pair Copulation” (EPC) which is a really nice way of saying you sleep with anything that comes along—and you don’t even care if there are children from that copulating. Within the 4000 types of mammals, only a handful was ever described as monogamous. We had to turn to the avian species, with birds being cited as examples of loving fidelity for something like 92 percent of their 9700 species…turns out they aren’t so faithful, either. The other animal kingdoms share a similar dismal trend for EPC, if they even pair up.

So why should we be monogamous? Well, at first I would have said that it’s necessary to ensure that the father can be certain that his resources are going towards his genetic offspring and that the mother ensures a constant source of those resources for what is a long term project, at least for humans. First it’s nine months of (excuse me) hard labor to actually bear a child. Then it’s going to be about 18 years before you are no longer responsible for it.

But wait a minute. Elephants are pregnant twice as long as humans. (I’m SO sorry!) The offspring aren’t considered “adult”, that is able to be on their own, for about 15 years, which is very similar to our lives. And yet…they are NOT monogamous. The bull males are little more than sperm donors who are used and then tossed back out to the bachelor groups to hang out until the next time a cow decides it’s time to make another Dumbo Jr. And elephants haven’t died out, so this way of life is not a losing battle or the road to perdition.

Historically, monogamy was not always required. I would suggest as Western civilization grew, marriage (and its mate, monogamy) became the way that women who otherwise had limited or no legal rights gained some measure of power, if only through the reflected glory of their spouse.  Fidelity became another item on the table when the deals were struck. Again, this kept a man’s resources (money, land, title) going to his genetic heirs—and not to the result of some other man’s EPC. A stranglehold control had to be kept on the female’s fidelity particularly because as the phrase goes, it’s the mother’s baby and the father’s maybe. Even the Jews use this idea when determining who is Jewish—if your mother was a Jew, you are a Jew. If your father was a Jew…well, maybe he’s not your daddy.

Ok, so that’s all well and good for a historical discussion. What about today? How does monogamy fit into our modern world, with the aftermath of the sexual revolution, birth control pills and a divorce rate that gives marriage a less than an even chance for success? Based on popular culture, movies and books…monogamy is not all that it used to be.

So if EPC is acceptable, what constitutes adultery? If it’s okay to have sexual activity with someone other than your legal (or chosen) life partner, does that mean that we can throw out the concept of affairs, adultery and “cheating”? Not so fast.

Adultery is not about sexual activity. Let me say that again: being a cheater, engaging in adulterous behavior, does not mean that you are participating in coitus. You might be, but for me that’s not the defining characteristic of unfaithfulness. Adultery is about the loss of intimacy, the giving to someone else the things you should be giving to your chosen mate, to meet their needs before sharing these things, tangible or intangible, with people outside of the committed relationship. You can be the world’s largest adulterer and NEVER have extramarital sex. Some people would say that means you haven’t cheated. Bullshit.

You chose each other out of all the world, promised either explicitly or implicitly that you would form an alliance with them. You got married, in other words. Even if we’re talking about a same sex couple who may not be able to wed legally, the commitment was made to be with this person for an extended period of time—you might have even said, “until death do us part”. You promised to combine resources: home, finances, belongings, time. Children may or may not be a part of this—and if they are, that is both a clear sign of the commitment as well as a huge obligation to meet that commitment from both partners.

I suppose at this point it sounds like I am advocating sexual monogamy. Actually, I think it’s vastly overrated. I also am not particularly monogamous, but believe that if I had one person who was meeting most of my emotional (and sexual) needs, I would not seek relief elsewhere. Let’s take a look at that phrase: “had ONE person who was meeting (most of) my needs”. Wow, that’s a lot to ask of one human being. Meet my needs. They are so varied, so changeable how can I expect one person to meet all of my needs for all of my life?

We have a mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, friend, spouse, coworker…all the relationship names for the people we know—and we are not so silly as to expect one human being to wear all those names for us at one time. There can, and usually is, some amount of overlap—Mom can be a friend AND a coworker as well. I know, I wore those hats with my daughter. But I couldn’t be father and brother and lover as well. So it seems to me a bit naïve to feel that one person, one frail and fallible human, could meet our entire myriad spectrum of needs and wants…all the time, for the rest of our lives. Whew, I don’t want that job.

Marriage is about a commitment to each other and not a commitment to the house, the children (although they are a part of that commitment, they are NOT the commitment itself)…not to a certain way of life or status within the community, not to a job, not even to the mind-blowing monkey jungle sex you always have together. It’s a promise to be together through your lives, which you have now chosen to walk side by side on the same path, towards a reasonably common goal (even something as mundane as get old and grey together).

And the rules for that commitment are as varied as the people who make them. As in finding your spiritual path, finding the common path for a long term relationship means that what works for you is what works. Nobody’s business but yours and your sweetie’s. Sexual monogamy may be a part of that game plan…or not.

Like any other behavior, your sexual preferences and proclivities may not exactly match your beloved’s. There may be things you adore that he or she finds abhorrent…so common thinking would suggest that you have to give it up for the relationship. Well, not really. If your beloved is willing for you to find some other sick mother fucker to do that nasty, nasty thing with…then you won’t keep asking them to try it. No, seriously…there are many reasons why they may not want to participate: physical inability to do it, cultural resistance, even something as simple as it doesn’t get them off and they don’t understand why it does for you.

Even if they are willing to do it occasionally, the effort of getting them to agree and follow through, knowing the entire time that they are only doing for love of you…well, a girl can only be grateful just so much. (Guys, too.) Imagine the relief of knowing that you can do “that thing” somewhere else, with someone who enjoys it as much as you and your mate will be happy not to have to put on a smile and do it again.

Let’s compare this to another human activity, sports. Would you insist that your beloved play full contact football with you if you knew that they hated football, were horrified at the thought of shoulder pads and only played because they knew you liked it? How much would you enjoy that round of golf if you were constantly aware that your partner was not having the same feelings about the game as you were? Was not, in fact, enjoying the game? No matter the remonstrations of, “No, this is fun! (pause) Really!”, always said in a slightly strident voice.

What pleasure is there in consistently engaging in an activity that at least half of the participants involved don’t find pleasurable in, but are only being polite? It has been pointed out that very few creatures copulate for fun. Humans, some of the apes and dolphins…everything else procreates for offspring, to spread their genetic information and perpetuate their species. But us humans, we do it for the hell of it. And the heaven of it.

So there’s no real point in being monogamous when we’re not really wired for it. There isn’t a chromosome for fidelity, no genetic markers for only having sex with one person forever and ever. Oh and let’s get that clear: there is a HUGE difference between making love, having sex, screwing, fucking, playing, sleeping with, boinking, and all those other words that scientists sum up with the term “copulation”.

It’s very easy to make the corollary to eating: we eat, we dine, we gulp, we nibble our food. Sex isn’t any different. It’s just one more thing that we do which has a rainbow spectrum of behaviors, from asexual (not interested in either sex, or sex at all, really) to polyandrous (the more the merrier, doesn’t really matter which sex). Heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual…or as the joke goes, trisexual: I’ll try anything sexual. Fetishes, missionary, BDSM, role play, orgies, public sex, anal, vaginal, oral…all shadings of copulation and none of them right or wrong in and of themselves.

Feeding a sexual appetite is a lot like feeding your food appetite. Do you only eat your meals at home? Do you only eat the same thing, for each meal? Of course not. But you also discuss which restaurant you’d like to try, and you certainly don’t force each other to eat a food that is hated or causes allergic reactions.

So where does it go wrong? When is it cheating? First and foremost, when both partners have not agreed to EPCs. Secondly, when the needs within the commitment are not being met at home first—and not just sexual needs, but emotional, social or mental needs. To give to someone outside of the relationship the very thing that your partner craves and wants from you…is wrong.  You can be complete swingers in the sexual sense and still have a monogamous relationship with your partner because your valued needs are being met by each other.

What does that mean, valued needs? It means the things that are important to you, the things you want and expect from the relationship. It may or may not be sexual exclusivity. If being sexually faithful is important to one partner but not the other, there’s going to be problems. But there will be problems anyways if there is a disparity in any other need that could be defined: religious traditions and beliefs, financial needs, family needs (do we have children or not, how many, how far apart, how do we raise them)…any aspect of our lives counts as a valued need when we are trusting in our committed partner to facilitate the fulfillment of those needs.

You did notice that I said “facilitate the fulfillment”? Not only charming alliteration, but the clear statement that no one else is responsible for our happiness. I’ll say it again: NO ONE ELSE CAN MAKE ME HAPPY. I can feel happier when I am with a particular person; we can work together to find a common happiness; but ultimately, I am responsible for my own happiness.

So we go with the working hypothesis that we are with this person because we chose to be, because we love each other (we feel happier when we are with them) which leads to the obvious conclusion that ANYTHING that does not enhance the choice, does not feed into the loop of happy happy joy joy we’re creating, destroys our monogamy.

But let’s say that everyone has been consulted, the rules have been established and now you have what is euphemistically referred to as an “open marriage”. Guess what? Your clothing is the least of what should be open. Your channels of verbal intimacy had better be not only open, but as wide open as you can make—and keep—them. Talk, talk, talk. Yup, you’ve got to actually have some discussion. I know us girls have a bit of a reputation about talking but until they figure out how to give everyone telepathy, it’s the only way we can communicate. Grunting and scratching your crotch does not count.

Your mind also has to be open—beyond personal limitations, habitual barriers of thought and opinions. Open to exploring what really does work for you and your partner. Open to granting the trust that says, you can do (whatever) with someone else because OUR union is not based on any particular sexual activity but on a loving and enduring commitment to letting each other grow and find fulfillment. And that’s because if you can find your own fulfillment, whatever it may be (sex, painting, learning how to play the piano…), you become a better person, someone who has MORE to offer the union, not less.

That’s probably the defining factor of a healthy (and lasting) marriage: does the behavior of the people involved (whatever you all are doing within AND without the relationship)…increase or diminish the relationship? Anything that erodes the united commitment is cheating, adultery, unfaithfulness. The state of your union is only as good as the highest perception of it, regardless of which partner holds that view. And by the way, it’s the other person who defines the changes in the status of the marriage caused by your behavior, not you. (Just like you define the marriage based on their behavior, so it’s a mutual responsibility.)

So. Monogamy…if you want it. Define it carefully, share your thoughts, feelings and your lives with the one you’ve chosen…and clearly identify what things can be done with other people who are not a part of this union. This may only be weekly poker games with the boys, or going shopping with the girls—or it may mean getting naked and having incredible orgasms that you can tell your love about later.

And you just might find that your marriage does last until Death do us part…

Copyright © 2009 Kathleen S Granville

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