The mating and social behavior of animals is of particular interest to humans. In our effort to understand the animal kingdom, we classify and document behaviors and traits, labeling a species as either “this” or “that”. Leaving aside a Western or religious understanding of monogamy as lifelong and exclusive pair bonding, there are animals that tend toward monogamy (3-5% of the animal population) and animals that do not.
At best, these classifications give us approximations. Not every species fits nicely into categories, and individual members of a given species may behave differently than the norm. These qualifications aside, we’re comfortable taking a 30,000 foot view of animal behavior and classifying them accordingly.
We tend to wear blinders, however, when looking at ourselves, the human animal. It is, perhaps, simply bias that prevents us from studying ourselves in the same way we do birds and bees.
Are Humans Monogamous?
When we pull back from the micro view of our lives and take a macro view of humanity, there are certain things that become clear. The first is that few humans practice the ideal of monogamy as defined by Western culture. Ours is more often serial monogamy, wherein we pair off for periods of time and then move on to new partners. Lifelong pair bonding among humans is more rare than we often recognize.
Second, a macro view of humanity would confirm the idea that as a species, we do tend toward monogamy. Many believe that our notions of monogamy are socially constructed, not biologically based. Again, leaving aside our bias to not take the macro view, an overwhelming number of humans either practice long-term pair bonding or express the desire to.
If we don’t allow people to recognize labels that differ from monogamy, we are simply forcing them to choose monogamy.
It seems evident that were an alien race to categorize the inhabitants of earth, humans would be classified with other monogamous species. The expression of the trait of monogamy is strong.
Exceptions Prove The Rule
Humanity is in the process of a radical transformation in our understanding of gendered sexual attraction. Many of us now realize that while humans tend toward opposite-sex pairings, some percentage of the population is oriented toward same-sex pairing. The recognition of heterosexuality as a dominant human trait doesn’t mean that homosexuality is nonexistent.
It used to be common to hear statements such as “I don’t believe in homosexuality.” Or, “I don’t believe in the homosexual lifestyle.” However, as our understanding of it has increased, we no longer speak about homosexuality in terms of belief, but rather, as biological fact. Belief is simply the wrong metric to apply to the phenomenon.
“I Believe In Monogamy”
The practice or state of being married to
or having a sexual relationship with one person at a time.
The practice or state of partipation in multiple
and simultaneous loving or sexual relationships.
Peruse the personal ads of popular dating site OK Cupid and you’ll see questions of human pair-bonding play out in dynamic ways. In a sense, the entirety of the enterprise of online dating tells us that within the human species, we are each defined by our variations from norms; we feel tremendous attachment to our individual traits. We desire partners that fit, complement and/or enhance these traits. We understand that a “match” is unique and specially tailored. Our traits are not simply passing fancies, but inherent to who we are and definitive of who we hope to attract and spend our lives with.
Whether we’re ready to recognize it as a distinction, monogamy is one such characteristic. It is not uncommon to see statements either in support of or against monogamy in dating profiles, either “I believe in monogamy” or “I don’t believe in monogamy.”
The expression of monogamy or polyamory in a population is likely a biologically driven phenomenon, just as we classify it in the rest of the animal kingdom. “Belief” has little to do with it, as we now understand regarding homosexual pair bonding. We don’t classify birds (largely socially monogamous) or Bonobos (largely sexually non-monogamous) according to the “beliefs” of the species. We understand that animals are expressing innate qualities in their actions, even when those actions are different from the norm of the species.
Relational Orientation Spectrum
Gendered sexual orientation exists along a spectrum. We understand there are humans who are exclusively heterosexual and humans who are exclusively homosexual. There are humans who are equally heterosexual & homosexual which we classify as bisexual. And there are humans at every given point along the spectrum.
Similarly, a spectrum exists for our relational orientation. There are humans who are strictly monogamous and humans who are strictly polyamorous. Most humans fall somewhere in between.
Dan Savage and “Monogamish.”
The practice of being mostly monogamous,
with allowance for the reality of desire for others
and a variety of experiences and adventure and possibility.
The practice of being mostly polyamorous,
with allowance for monogamous-like relationships
with one or more partners.
Well-known sex advice columnist Dan Savage recently set off a small firestorm in the polyamory community by claiming that polyamory “is not a thing you are, it is a thing you do.” He claimed that polyamory is not a noun, but an adjective. A choice that is made.
Yet, he also famously coined the term “monogamish” to identify relationships in which the partners are “mostly monogamous, but there’s a little allowance for the reality of desire for others and a variety of experiences and adventure and possibility.”
This effort to define humans as something other than strictly monogamous seems to contradict his view that our relational orientation is not a fixed characteristic. If we aren’t monogamous, then we must be something else. For Dan, that is “monogamish,” which in his usage seems to be a noun. It would be inconsistent to conclude that a deviation from that noun would not also be considered a noun; a thing that a person is.
Monogamish is a dot along the spectrum of relational orientation. A person who identifies with the term “monogamish” is saying that their preference is monogamy, with some openness to experiences with other partners.
It follows then that a person could identify as “poly-ish.” They would be expressing a desire to structure their relationships following a mostly polyamorous orientation, with a lesser tendency toward long-term single partner pairing.
Born This Way?
We now scoff at the idea that a homosexual chose their “lifestyle.” In my experience, my gay friends and family members often express deep knowledge of their gendered sexual orientation from an early age. They recognize this characteristic as definitive to who they are; a noun.
Likewise, many people in the polyamory community express a similar understanding of themselves. They often feel like polyamory is core to their understanding of self, and that attempts at monogamy feel foreign, leading to difficulty, heartbreak and disruption.
The existence of bi-sexual beings who can freely choose the gender of their sexual partners served to confuse our earlier understanding of homosexuality. Given the extreme pressure in our culture during the 1980’s, coinciding with the rise of AIDS, organizations emerged to “help” homosexuals “repair” this trait, to become “straight.” In the literature of reparative therapy, it is now recognized that those individuals who were able to “change” their orientation are likely bi-sexual, and therefore able to choose to express their sexuality with opposite-sex partners. The existence of bi-sexual individuals, however, does not negate the existence of homosexual individuals for whom gendered sexual attraction is not a choice.
Likewise, it is common for people presented with the concept of polyamory to claim “everybody is attracted to other people.” I’d suggest that many people are “bi-relational” and can therefore choose to express their relational orientation in either monogamy or polyamory, or, as is most often the case, serial monogamy. But the existence of bi-relational individuals does not negate the existence of polyamorous people any more than the existence of bi-sexual people negated the existence of homosexuals.
Do Labels Matter? Wrestling with Angels
The polyamory community, as an organized entity, is relatively young and small. To date, there’s been little in the way of a movement to help define terms and to create legal space for the expression of relationships outside the norm of monogamy. Many in the poly community eschew labels, and want no part of being put into boxes. While this may work for some individuals who identify as polyamorous, it is misguided as a general approach to our understanding of relational orientation.
The ability of individuals to identify with the label of “gay” had benefits not only for those who claimed it, but also for those who didn’t. Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America” chronicled the common occurrence of a gay man marrying a straight woman and the resultant pain and disruption to lives. Joe and Hannah Pitt were young Mormons when they were married, and in the 1980’s, there was no allowance for Joe Pitt to claim the title of “gay.” At that time, he was made to believe being “straight” was a choice he could make; if he were steadfast in his religious belief and practice, he could be a good husband to Hannah.
The failure of that model had long-term implications for Joe Pitt, but also for Hannah, whose life was dramatically affected by marriage to a gay man. Had Joe been allowed to understand and claim “gay” as a label, they could have avoided that pain and disruption.
As stated above, this is beginning to happen in the online dating world. Individual men and women are beginning to express relational orientation as a defining characteristic. Those who do seem to understand that they desire to have partners in their lives who share their relational orientation. If you desire monogamy, you want a partner who desires monogamy as well. Inherent in this is an understanding that some individuals do not desire monogamy.
To fully know whether you desire monogamy, you have to be free to choose a different label. If we don’t allow people to recognize labels that differ from monogamy, we are simply forcing them to choose monogamy. This serves neither the monogamy oriented partners or the polyamory oriented partners. Like Joe and Hannah in Angels in America, the results are broken families and disrupted lives.
If a person is aware of their tendency toward polyamory, it is unethical of them to partner with a monogamy-oriented person without disclosure. Accepting the label of polyamory is not only beneficial for those who claim it, but also for those who seek monogamous partners.
The Axis of Orientation
We must trust people to choose the partnership model that work best for them. Culturally, we are in a period similar to the 1980’s and the question of homosexuality; we do not yet allow people to choose polyamory as a defining characteristic. Because of this, we force people to choose monogamy. A quick glance at statistics of divorce and infidelity should be enough to convince us that our current models are serving us and our families poorly.
It is time for a shift in our understanding. Time to recognize that in addition to sexual orientation, there are likely other orientations as well. One of these is Relational orientation. It is time to recognize polyamory as a legitimate expression of an innate trait in some percentage of the human population.