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Part 1: Have We Failed Monogamy or Has Monogamy Failed Us?

Why is it that we marry? It might seem like a simple question. Yet the answer to that question may be more complex and varied today than at any other point in the history of marriage. When I ask my couple clients why they married, the response I most often receive is, “ ... because I love my partner!” When I inquire beyond that, some tell me they married because they sought security (financial or familial), or comfort, or children, or because they were afraid to grow older alone (interestingly, sex is rarely listed as a primary reason). Yet attraction and falling in love with a person seem to be a pre-requisite for marriage. If you don’t deeply love the person you choose to marry, why marry at all? Historically, when marriage was rarely about love (and tending more toward economic and social realities), that question might not even be a realistic consideration. But today’s analysis is colored not only by such traditional concerns but by our modern view of love and romance generally. What happens when LOVE carries the weight of the marriage over all else?

First, let’s briefly look at how marriage evolved over time. During the pre-industrial revolution, marrying for love was not the norm, perhaps even opposed. Marriage was an enterprise, first and foremost serving as an institution to allow us to pro-create, survive, and manage through life as a family. Men and women worked together, built and maintained their farms, and each pitched in and did what was necessary to get by. With industrialization and the resulting urbanization men had to leave their families more to travel for work in cities, while the women stayed home with the children. The roles of “man as the breadwinner," and “woman as the caretaker” were well established both in these times as throughout our early history. Children were raised at home and in schools based on these traits: boys learned to be strong, competitive and goal oriented. Girls were taught to be nurturing, emotional, and cooperative. This arrangement (for better or for worse) held up for a long time, well into the 1960’s and in many societies to this day. Divorce was low, and if there was marital dissatisfaction it was mostly kept quietly behind closed doors.

Beginning in the 1970’s and into contemporary times, women have gained increasing economic freedom, and have entered into the workforce at an accelerating pace. The women’s movement was born, and women gained independence and strength. This change resulted in political power and sexual liberation for women. How did that change marriage? If women felt repressed and submissive under the old regime, the new liberated woman is assertive and forthcoming. She requires emotional intimacy in marriage. For most men, this has meant finding a new path of relatedness they were not accustomed to. Until that point, if a husband was a decent provider, and gave a steady hand at home, and didn’t drink or beat his wife, he was considered a good man. A wife at that time would be less likely to voice that her husband “dismisses her feelings”, or “is shut down and shows no emotions”. Most likely women would have been (often by their own mothers and grandmothers) silenced and told to let go of those kinds of expectations. (Real, 2016).

The traditional practice of marriage meant husband and wife working alongside each other (each in their respective roles) while remaining good companions. There was no expectation of passion in the marriage (in fact, coitus was a duty ... not exactly the stuff of flowers and candles ...), or deep emotional conversations and connections. Romance and love simply wasn’t expected in the marriage as it is today. If it was anticipated, romance and sexual chemistry was something for the start of a relationship, or found in affairs outside the marriage. As Esther Perel says, “adultery was the space for love ... marriage was too mercantile of an institution to seek love in it ... so you went outside to find love. But now that we brought love into marriage, adultery destroys it” (2016).

Fast forward to the 21st century, those rules don’t hold up anymore. The expectations of monogamy have shifted and the configuration of family life has changed to a system of multiplicity. There are, to name a few: single families, blended families, remarried families, and same sex marriages. Marriage today is about creating and building a stable life together (as marriage was generations ago) but with the expectation of a life long romantic affair with your spouse that includes deep emotional talks, great sex and fun exciting times together! When the bar for marriage is set so fantastically high as it is today, does that make us give up more easily? Fail? Feel trapped? Cheat?

Now that love and romance represent the heart of marriage combined with some of the traditional values of a monogamous relationship, where do these changing dynamics leave couples today? When your partner is supposed to fulfill a variety of roles in one relationship (spouse, friend, lover, parent, manager, etc.) how does that impact the quality of the relationship? ... and the sustainability of these roles? The demands and expectations of monogamy have limited our thinking to an explicit and linear view, when in fact relationships are ambiguous, dynamic, circuitous and filled with many nuances.

The idea of monogamy and the way we talk about it today sets us up to believe that we can only love one person, without having feelings or desire for someone else. When in fact, you can love one person and still want to have sex with someone else. As Dan Savage eloquently said: “You don’t have to be good at monogamy to be in a monogamous relationship. You can fall off a bike and still win the tour de France!” Monogamy becomes a trap when we think about it in an idealistic and uniformed way. It is with no surprise that in our culture monogamy used to be one person for life. Now it is simply one person at a time.

In Part 2 of this blog series I continue to take a closer look into how this notion has shaped how couples perceive each other in a monogamous relationship. When you love in a relationship, what are the unspoken expectations, rules and assumptions about the other and the relationship? Further, how do you offer stability and familiarity to someone AND remain exciting, novel and perhaps even mysterious?

*Marriage and monogamy are used interchangeably and represent a committed and exclusive relationship to another.

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Dr. Olivia Schläpfer Colmer offers individual, couples and family therapy in Miami, FL. Her office is located at 4770 Biscayne Boulevard, Suite 1440, Miami FL 33137.

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