I am a huge fan of the hit television series Elementary. It stars Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes in modern day New York City of the 21st century. His partner, Joan Wattson, is played by the elegant and sexy Lucy Liu. The show is quite brilliant, and I prefer it to Steven Moffatt’s gimmicky Sherlock, even though I love Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.
At any rate, there is a great speech made by Johnny Lee Miller’s Holmes in the second season where he rants about the cultural tradition of marriage. He completely dismantles how artificial it is, how culturally contrived, and how it is analogous more to a prison sentence than any kind of genuine expression of love. At the end of his speech I literally jump up out of my seat and cheered.
Not that I don’t like a good wedding. Weddings are fun. I like the festivities of it all. I, unlike Sherlock Holmes, like the unabashed expressions of love. But that doesn’t change the fact that monogamous marriage practices, traditionally speaking, are designed to restrict the lover’s rights with respect to the types of relationships they may partake in and do little in the way to recognize any expression of love beyond the pomp and circumstance of the wedding. There are so many cultural restrictions to traditional monogamous marriage that it seems far too limited (or too limiting) to be a good representation of the most excellent forms of marriage possible.
Feel free to disagree if you like, but please hear me out first.
Being raised a Christian, I was taught that things like virtue and chastity went hand in hand. One true love was supposed to be the ideal notion of romantic love, one man and one woman, and there was no room for cheating or any such betrayals, and the act of infidelity was akin to some kind of unforgivable crime.
I even thought this way for a time after my own marriage. But gradually, over the eight years I’ve been married and the ten years I’ve been with my wife, I began to see that marriage was wholly predicated on outmoded practices such as on ownership rights, dowries, and the patriarchal tradition of a man accepting the wife as chattel. In fact, the modern notion that marriage should be about love rather than ownership and family inheritance rights is actually a fairly recent concept.
Over time, the idea of one man belonging to one woman, and vise versa, has been interpreted as one heart belonging to another. But I find this likely to be little more than a reformulation of the same monetary values placed on the ownership of another which has simply been updated to fit with our modern sensibilities, since we know ownership of another is technically a bad thing. So why should we uphold such a notion as the ideal sort of romantic love? Pop music is laden with lovers saying I belong to you and you belong to me, and quite frankly, it makes me sick. Not because it’s overly sentimental, but because it’s morbidly archaic.
In my mind, our hearts shouldn’t be limited to one, or even that restricted to a sense of ownership over the object of our affection, but we should be open and free to practice an unlimited and unrestricted kind of love. But I’ll come back to my reasons why I feel this way now in a moment.
The idea that marriage should be between one man and one woman largely stems from the teachings of the Christian Bible, which in turn influenced much of Western culture’s marriage practices, but it’s not the only marriage practice out there. Even though Muslims believe in the God of Abraham, many Muslims practice polygamy. So did American Mormons for a time. Most of northern Africa practices polygamy today. Certain areas, like the nomadic tribes in Nepal still practice polyandry (where the woman takes on many husbands). Then there is polyamory, or group marriage, which is frequently practiced among the tribes people of Australia, including the Kurnandaburi, the Wakelbura, and the Kurnai.
Needless to say, however, because many countries were founded by Christian settlers, along with the widespread influence of Christianity, many of the customs and laws reflect the Christian mindset regarding marriage practices.
It’s why polygamy is illegal in the U.S. (Edmunds Act of 1882), for example, even though there is no logical reason for such a law in the 21st century. More recently the constitutional scholar Richard A. Vazquez has argued
that the anti-polygamy laws in the U.S. are unconstitutional because the infringe on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Vazquez concludes that
“The judiciary has historically done an unsatisfactory job in building up a record based on public policy interests in order to sustain criminal bigamy laws against Free Exercise challenges. Instead, the courts have relied on a “public morality” rhetoric to justify the criminalization of polygamy.”
Although the Free Exercies Clause does seem to be infringed on the religious practice of polygamy, for example, none of the charges brought against the practice seem to definitively demonstrate that, as a alternative to monogamy, it does any harm. The harm comes from other aspects of the religions which have traditionally practiced polygamy, like not educating their women or confining them to specific religious dress codes and taking away their rights. But as a alternative form of marriage, there is nothing that had shown polygamy or polyandry bad, or inferior, marriage models. It is only because of the Christian mind-set of “one man, one woman” that Christians oppose alternative marriage models on “moral” grounds–which is to say anything that doesn’t conform to the Christian standard of morals is automatically regarded as bad.
Over the past three or four years I have come to see that open marriage models are perhaps better for married couples. Allow me to explain.
The entire notion that you want only one person for all time, likely a byproduct of the “love” chemicals clouding your brain, fails to take into consideration that sometimes people change, and that sometimes people fall out of love. Love is only forever in the fairy tale stories, but in real life genuine love undergoes constant change, and maintaining it proves a lot more difficult than people anticipate when they are in the throes of twitterpation
As Kayt Sukel observes in her book Dirty Minds, “The chemistry [brain] changes as you move from being in the first throes of passionate love to a committed relationship.”
Yes, our brains literally change. And sometimes they change back. Call it chemical ebb and flow, if you will.
Traditional, monogamous marriage doesn’t prepare you for the shock of infidelity, since under the model of “belonging” to each other infidelity is the senseless notion that love is everlasting doesn’t prepare you for that time when love stops being about passion and romance and the person goes off and finds that love elsewhere, in a new relationship, and therefore is viewed as an act of betrayal, because you’re not supposed to “belong” to anyone else, after all.
That nobody belongs to anybody else should somehow be a shocking revelation is beyond me, but in the realm of love and war, well, it seems this myth of “one man, one woman” belonging to one another is artificially buttressed by archaic marriage practices which stress an unyielding monogamy.
But not everyone is naturally monogamous. There are promiscuous types too. And all kinds in-between.
In Kayt Sukel’s investigation into the subject, she found that human monogamy was much less strict than people think it is, and that overall humans tend to be much more promiscuous. Without cultural restraints, it is assumed that human societies would be more promiscuous than not. In fact, this is represented quite well in chapter six where Sukel shows that our brains our fine-tuned for porn (and that we–both men and women–literally desire the act of sex with others, even if we merely fantasize about it, regardless of how monogamous we may think we are).
Additionally, a recent study from New York University and Cornell University has shown that promiscuous types enjoy casual sex more readily, and that casual sex actually has far more positive benefits than people commonly think–so much so that the positive outweighs the negative–making it highly likely that engaging in casual sex is good for you as it impacts your life in positive ways.
An open marriage model would allow for these positive benefits from enjoying casual sex whereas stricter monogamous marriages would not.
Further problems with classic monogamous marriage models, other than the unhealthy notion that people can actually belong to each other, is the fact that monogamy actually creates and environment where jealousy can thrive and flourish.
When you are under the notion that your lover “belongs” to you, or should remain committed to you, their promiscuity, flirtation, and perhaps even cheating will send many into an irrational rage.
Under the paradigm of monogamous relationships, someone who breaks their vows has broken a ‘sacred’ contract, and this sets up the married couple for a world of emotional stress and heartache. Needless suffering, I might add–all because of the artificial restrictions of cultural monogamy. Because under the open marriage model, and honest couple, who allow for a certain agreed upon promiscuity, flirtation, and perhaps even flings wouldn’t necessarily have anything to be jealous about.
Another problem with monogamous marriage relationships is that they put expectations on the other person, and yourself, expecting you never to have a moment of weakness. You must be true to your vows, no matter what! But if you get caught cheating even once, well, you are seen as a scumbag by the other person, their friends, your peers, and you can risk being ostricized. Moreover, you may risk severe depression by feeling that you have let yourself, and your loved ones, down.
Here’s the thing though, if you have an open marriage, cheating isn’t necessarily cheating. If the partners agree to and allow for additional relationships, within whatever that agreed upon context may be, so long as you continue to honor your basic obligations in the domestic areas of your marriage then there is no such thing as infidelity–at least not in the sense we are familiar with.
This open marriage model allows for both parties to have extra-marital relationships, therefore neither one would be in danger of succumbing to the pure pressure placed on them by society, by their friends and family, and by anyone who expects them to, stay true to only your significant other. You are free to have many significant others, and this, I feel, ought to be viewed as a good thing.
Another thing that gets under my skin about traditional marriage is that it makes it seem as though your human, biological instincts are a aberrations. Lusting after others isn’t viewed as your sex drive alerting you to the fact that you’re still alive, but rather, is viewed as something of a perversion.
Such devaluing of our basic human nature is unnecessary, and even absent, in open marriage models which celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of our biological sex drives.
Monogamous marriages also seem to boo-poo the idea that humans are, in general, more or less promiscuous. It seems to want us to go against our natures, and then, if we can’t abide by impossible standards, it convinces us we are weak for not having met those impossible standards.
Now, not everybody is promiscuous, mind you, and there are certainly those who are more promiscuous than others, but acting like everyone should exhibit the exact level of promiscuity is nonsensical. Everyone is different. Different needs have different requirements.
The problem arises when you try to hold promiscuous people with extremely high sex drives to this standard model of monogamy. The two simply aren’t compatible. If monogamy works for you, then great, but it’s not for everybody. And I have come to the conclusion it is certainly not for me.
I know what you’re all thinking. Well, what does my wife think about all this? Well, we’ve talked on the subject, and as it turns out she is much more monogamous than I am. But this doesn’t mean we aren’t compatible or that we can’t allow for each others unique quirks.
The trick is learning to communicate well with your partner. If you put it on the line, and come out as a promiscuous type, then you can discuss what the next step will be.
There is always a chance that your partner will leave you because they cannot accept you for you, and well, that would be wise because if they cannot accept you then they could never fully, truly love you.
But there is also a chance that they haven’t gone mad from envy and actually have an open mind. They may even let you, within reason, have your additional relationships, knowing that’s what you need. Then again, they might not, and that could lead to unwanted tension.
Another misconception about open marriages is that the spouse is relegated to something akin to a used up old rag. But just because you are free to have consensual adult relationships with others doesn’t mean you stop loving your primary partner
Some people think that if you have an open marriage you are this sex-crazed person who will go around catching STDs all over the place. That’s simply not true. Being a promiscuous type doesn’t automatically also make you into a moron.
But those in open marriages who may have more than one sexual partner do have to stay extra safe and be smart about their choices, especially since there is more than just yourself who will be impacted by your choices.
It goes without saying that open marriage models aren’t without their faults either.
One problem which arises with an open marriage model is when one of your ancillary relationships becomes quite serious, and the person you may have been having a casual relationship with suddenly wants to become a more integral part of your life. Due to certain laws (usually based on models of monogamy), however, they aren’t allowed to (at least not in the U.S.–sort of depends on your geographic location).
This inevitably leads us to a conversation about polyamory
, and having multiple intimate relationships with people who may also form multiple intimate relationships. People think of polyamorous relationship models as one giant orgy, but this is completely the wrong way to think about them.
Polyamorous relationships are more like relationship networks than they are a free-for all love fest. After all, this is about adult relationships, intimacy, and close bonds we are talking about here–not just sex. Although, to be fair, most mature adult relationships also incorporate sex as an integral aspect to the intimacy quotient.
Like any other social network polyamorous relationships, or group relationships, allow for highly intricate exchanges and numerous types of personalities and relationships. The only problem I find is if someone disrupts the network, then they can cause problems for everyone.
Usually these people will get shunned or booted out of the group, and the person who was in the relationship with that person will have to make the hard choice to either go along with them or else let them go and maintain the structure of the relationship network.
Again, like open marriage models, polyamorous relationship models aren’t perfect either. Polyamory undergoes more change, where structural relationships shift, bonds of closeness form and are reformed on a person to person basis, and lends itself to a more organic style of relationship types. If you’ve ever had a best friend in grade school, and a few years later your best friend changed to someone else, only to have this happen again in high school or college is slightly more representative of how polyamorous relationships may shift within the group.
Of course, this type of relationship model isn’t for everyone either, as some people need a more structured, more simplistic systems to form meaningful relationships in. Needless to say, polyamory is a much more complex and involved relationship model.
Which brings me back to the open marriage model. Even though it’s not quite as open or fluid as polyamory, even though it’s not ideally suited for the same level of intimacy in forming close knit bonds, it’s still much more flexible than monogamy.
In my opinion, monogamous relationships actually compound negative emotions, like jealousy, one’s sense of ownership over others, the notion that being cheated on is a disgrace instead of a common occurrence, and the idea that you’re a no good failure should you get caught cheating, and so on and so forth.
Under the open marriage model or group marriage model, there is relatively little to none of this negative cultural feedback.
I once had a conversation with my brilliant friend Kaede Matsushima, who was a leading AV Idol in Japan for a considerable time, regarding the subject of marriage and her thoughts toward it. I asked her what she thought about open marriages and she informed me that she wouldn’t even agree to marry any partner who didn’t agree upfront to have an open marriage with her.
Wow! I thought this showed a lot of foresight and open mindedness on her behalf. She still wants to marry someone she loves, but she also happens to realize she is the promiscuous type. And instead of breaking some fool’s heart, she is prepared to be up front and honest about her relationship needs, expectations, and requirements.
At any rate, this isn’t a definitive case for open marriage or polyamory, rather I have just listed some considerations that I have had during my reflection on the cultural restrictions of traditional monogamous marriage models which, ultimately, lead me to change my mind and lead me to reconsider the validity of alternative relationship and marriage models.
There are of course many more reasons why I think open marriage and polyamorous relationships make more sense logically, but perhaps this will be a discussion for another time. Until then, what are your thoughts about alternative relationship styles and marriage models? Should they be illegal? Or should they just be allowed as alternative practices, as seen in the SyFy channels Battlestar Galactica spin-off series Caprica–where polyamory was heavily featured? Let me know in the comments section down below.