In the last couple of posts, we’ve covered some key arguments for why monogamy exists and why it is so hard to sustain. In this last of a trilogy, I want to take on the moral cases for and against monogamy.
Let’s dive straight in…
1. Evolution is not a useful moral guide
There are a lot of claims made about how human behaviour can be explained by evolutionary psychology. There are just as many counterclaims, and the field does have a bit of a reputation for peddling “just-so” stories. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a good case that social monogamy plus covert infidelity is the best reproductive strategy for both men and women.
Evolution, though, is all about competition, and the drives that promote reproductive success are independent of morality. Lots of reproductive strategies can work, and the competition for mates takes place in a dynamic and unpredictable environment. There are some behaviours that improve reproductive success (at least in the short term) that most people would unequivocally consider immoral – rape, cuckoldry, coercive control, mate poaching.
This helps illustrate the fact that morality is, in large part, the ability to constrain impulsive urges, in order to succeed within a complex social environment. Understanding our evolution is useful for understanding where intrinsic drives come from, but it’s very little help for understanding how best to manage sexual relations in any society more orderly than simple winner-takes-all anarchy.
Through all the pressures that have shaped our evolutionary past, the most profound advantage that humans have is that we are adaptable. We can use ingenuity to live in almost any environment, and we can use culture and language to change people’s beliefs and behaviour. That flexibility explains our success as a species, but it also explains why there is so much difficulty in settling questions of sexual morality.
We can adapt to almost any social model.
2. Utopia is an illusion
That flexibility allows us to dream, and devise ways of living that balance our personal freedoms with the need for social harmony. Most people want a middle ground between unfettered carnal indulgence and monastic abstinence – a social structure that is humane, fair, and which minimises oppression of the heterodox.
Unfortunately, it is a lot easier to imagine solutions than to find ones that actually work in practice. This is the trap of Utopia – a theoretical ideal that works perfectly as long as everyone behaves just how you think they should. In practice, people act as they will, and spoil even the best laid plans.
A conservative utopia emphasises monogamy, and expects people to sacrifice personal desire for the good of family. Duty is more important than sexual gratification. Nobility comes through integrity and faithfulness. This message is often buttressed by religious and moral edicts. People resist temptation and become better.
A liberal utopia emphasises freedom from sexual shame, acceptance of non-traditional relationships, and openness to sexual adventure. Consent is at the heart of morality, and recreational sex outside of long term love is beneficial. Constraining desire leads to unnecessary suffering based on outdated beliefs. Ethical polyamory fits this ideal better.
Unfortunately – as well as being incompatible – these utopian dreams crash against the rocks of human imperfection. Regretted marriage, regretted sex, jealousy, unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, heartbreak, abusive spouses, frustrated desire, manipulation, rejection, insecurity, and, of course, limerence for someone else.
3. A case study in clashing ideals
A case study could be useful to illustrate this gulf between theory and practice. Bertrand Russell was a famous mathematician and philosopher, an aristocrat, and a public intellectual. In 1929 he published a book titled “Marriage and Morals,” which was a blistering attack on Victorian attitudes to monogamous sex and marriage. In 1921 he married Dora Black (his second wife), a writer and philosopher who also advocated free love and was reluctant to marry Russell, but was persuaded once she became pregnant with their son. There seems to be no reason to doubt the sincerity of their beliefs, or their determination to try and live by their principles.
Things started to unravel for the Russells when Dora became pregnant by her live-in lover, an American journalist Griffin Barry. With Barry, she had two children, Harriet and Roderick. Bertrand initially tried to accept the situation and even registered Harriet as his child, but ultimately, he abandoned them all for another woman who became his third wife (with whom he had another child). He divorced and married for a fourth time, and continued to have extramarital affairs throughout these later marriages.
It is hard to find much information about Harriet and Roderick (or of their father Griffin Barry) in accounts of Bertrand and Dora Russell’s lives and work. Harriet published a memoir about her father entitled “A Man of Small Importance”. Barry had wanted to establish a family with Dora and their two children, but she only ever saw him as a lover, not a partner, and he eventually returned to America. I’ve not been able to source a copy of the book, but reviews describe the Russell-Barry household as a “complex, difficult, extended family”. According to his daughter, Barry died “a poor, lonely and disappointed man”.
Liberation from monogamous oppression gave Bertrand and Dora Russell the freedom to love as they wanted, but the emotional impact of their choices on five children and numerous other adults, who often wanted the stability of more conventional family lives, was an inescapable consequence.
4. Individual desire versus social accountability
Social life depends on compromise. Most people accept that constraints on behaviour are a cost of living in a free but stable society.
Some choices are easy – no respectable person thinks that rape or death by stoning for adultery are acceptable – but people disagree on how much responsibility you have to your community, versus how much liberty you should have to make individual choices.
This seems to be one of the moral fault lines that divide us. Some believe that social conventions are a form of coercive control that protect the interests of the powerful, others that they are hard-won wisdom that are needed to curb our destructive impulses and civilise us.
Institutionalised monogamy is the current convention, but the most powerful argument against it (in my view) is that it is unrealistic to expect a single partner to meet all your emotional needs. It’s impractical to seek comfortable companionship and sexual excitement from the same person. They are incompatible urges. The simple solution would seem to be social acceptance for separating recreational sex from long-term partnership.
But life is rarely simple.
The choice to open relationships leads to numerous thorny questions. Where are these willing “outside partners” coming from? How can you be sure they are fully onboard with the sex being commitment free? What if you become limerent for your “side piece” or them for you? What if one partner in a long-term relationship has no success finding a sexual outlet and grows so demoralised and resentful that the companionship is destroyed? What if they become consumed by jealousy? What if your companion wants to spend your personal time together talking about their outside sexual adventures? What if you need support one night when life has given you one of the shit sandwiches it specialises in, and they are off galivanting?
What if you pick up a disease? What if your partner starts spending your family assets on a younger sex partner who you can see is only in it for a quick buck? Isn’t casual sex always a bit transactional? Where would prostitution fit in to this moral framework? What if you discover that frequent recreational sex makes you feel hollow and spiritually diminished, like a sex addict? What if, instead of liberating you, it ends up estranging you from your partner?
Every choice has unforeseen consequences. Every model requires sacrifice.
5. The art of compromise
How do we resolve this tension between different worldviews? What social tools are available to accommodate conflicting opinions?
I’d argue the only way through this is tolerance. The critical factor is to credit people with moral agency of their own, and accept that disagreement is not evidence of moral failing. One person’s choice of polyamory is not a moral judgement on another person’s choice of monogamy. Both lifestyles can be ethical – but done properly, both take practice and effort and good communication and compromise, and have to accommodate imbalances in libido.
However, that individual moral principle doesn’t necessarily mean that both lifestyles are equally harmonious for society. Tolerance is one thing, endorsement is another. Looked at from a pragmatic, utilitarian position, social sanctioning of monogamy results in less reproductive inequality, less sexual violence, and better outcomes for children than seen in polygamous societies – as outlined previously. Social interests are served by encouragement of monogamy.
Polyamory suits attractive, affluent people, as they have many options and resources available to pick sexual partners, juggle complex lives, and manage unforeseen consequences. It is an elite pursuit. But just like wealth inequality, it can have corrosive effects on society when “uncompetitive” people start to build up resentment at their exclusion.
It seems ironic to me that people who are laissez-faire about wealth inequality are often sexually conservative, while people who are enraged by the gulf between rich and poor are often disdainful of “incels” and consider them entirely responsible for their own predicament.
Lying, as I do, in the far-centre, politically, I’d argue the best system would be a compromise: a liberal attitude to sex and love based on freedom and consent, but where civil society incentivises people to adopt the most social-stabilising family model. From this perspective, institutionalised monogamy could be viewed like progressive taxation – a check on the excesses at the top.
Happily, that does seem to be the direction that we are taking in Western social democracies – increased acceptance of heterodox lifestyles, but with legal approval and cultural orthodoxy for monogamy.
Heck, maybe we’ve inherited a pretty good system after all!
Wow! This series of three articles on monogamy has just been fascinating to read, and the accompanying comments too. I did not know, for example, that modern marriage, along with so many other social and legal and political customs and ideas, probably comes to us from ancient Greece and Rome rather than other ancient cultures, including the cultures featured most heavily in the Bible. (Christians always want to claim credit for traditional marriage, but it seems to be a secular institution that later took on religious trappings). Such a fabulously intricate topic, but so interesting as well. Thank you for writing the pieces, Dr.L!
Thanks, Sammy. It is a bit of a departure from the usual topic, but they’ve been fun to write. I also find it fascinating 🙂
Vicarious Limerent says
I sometimes wonder if serial monogamy is the way to go. I have read a couple of times that marriage worked well when people lived 40 or 50 years, but is it realistic to expect that you will commit to the same person and continue to be compatible after 50 or 60 years together? Maybe being together with someone for four or five years should be the norm (with anyone wanting to commit for longer or for life being free to do so)? I don’t know. Breakups and divorces can be heartbreaking, but I also believe the hopelessness of staying in a dead marriage is equally heartbreaking and soul destroying. I wish we could understand as a society that some relationships weren’t meant to last forever and still remain friends even after the romantic part of a relationship is over. I know some people can do it, but those people are few and far between. Exes are exes for a reason, but does that person have to be your enemy (especially if children are involved)?
Another interesting trend I see with monogamy is polarization. At the same time we are seeing increased acceptance of non-traditional lifestyles and sexualities, I am seeing other people returning to something resembling Victorian values when it comes to anything even resembling infidelity. No doubt some of this is driven by religion, but I also see attitudes among some people hardening with respect to concepts like “micro-cheating” and the idea that even noticing or interacting with an attractive person is a form of infidelity (see https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/micro-cheating-what-it-is-and-why-its-an-unhelpful-concept.html for why this is such a dangerous concept). There is a whole lot of content on this type of thing online and, for example, in women’s magazines. I think it is causing far too many people to be way too jealous and people becoming incredibly rigid and controlling of their partners’ behaviour.
Allie 1 says
Love your post VL – so well put, agree wholeheartedly with all of this. A flexible and tolerant attitude is always best, which is opposite of institutionalising any one particular way of life.
“micro-cheating” – agree! Possessiveness is damaging to relationships yet seems to be considered normal by many. Jealousy is such a deeply unpleasant emotion but it is fleeting (as all emotions are) and perfectly manageable so long as we learn how to react skilfully instead of projecting it onto others.
Long term monogamous commitments can be wonderful (mine certainly is) and definitely a great thing to aim for but the secure expectation that your spouse is “yours” for life creates so many problems of its own. There is no perfect solution but I like your idea that we should be more realistic about relationship longevity and be better prepared for the possibility that it won’t last forever, and as a society, learn how to manage endings really well. Things do change over time, people change, what they want & need changes, how they feel about each other changes. A social convention that shames >50% of couples for not being able to make the impossible work, sometimes making them stay in unhappy situations seems wrong to me.
I have said this before but I think that many in long term monogamous commitments eventually stop trying with each other. A bit of jealousy can be a good thing to motivate you to be your better self – focus more on our personal appeal, be nicer to each other, try a bit harder to please each other sexually. It seems relationships need to hit a rock bottom near-divorce before couples realise that in reality, they are not completely secure and still need to “attract” their spouse (in the broadest sense).
Vicarious Limerent says
I totally agree Allie! We also cannot get all of our needs met from one person, even if we have no intentions of cheating or ending our long-term relationships. A little jealousy shows you care, but too much of it is dangerous, controlling and unhealthy and it helps no one. Ironically, for the longest time I wanted my wife to be a bit more jealous because it almost felt like she didn’t care. I guess it’s a case of being careful what you wish for because you just might get it. She sure is jealous now!
Depends on what you define as cheating. Just because you haven’t physically crossed the line doesn’t mean you haven’t cheated. IMO. Talking to someone as a general rule, no. But what are you talking about? Graphic sexual conversations about what you have done or would like to do to each other … to me that is crossing the line. Heavy sexual innuendo. Leaning all over each other, repeatedly touching each other, etc.
Vicarious Limerent says
@Marcia, no those examples are pretty much cheating in my view. Having platonic friends of the opposite sex, finding other people attractive, very mild and innocent flirting, enjoying compliments from others, etc. I don’t think are cheating, and trying to treat them as such is pathologizing normal human behaviour in my view. There is a line, and I don’t think the line is purely just sexual intercourse, but it isn’t turning your head as an attractive person walks by either.
“Having platonic friends of the opposite sex”
Could be a slippery slope. I had one married male friend with whom I would go to an after-work colleague get together, but we would go together, in the same car. He started to text me. He started to tell me personal things about his spouse, an earlier girlfriend he’d been in love with (he was not in love with his wife). Eventually, he came on to me. I was very naïve not to see that coming a mile away. Probably best not to be hanging out one-one-one, texting, revealing really personal stuff. And how do you feel about these friends? Enjoying their company? Fine. Are attracted to them? Probably not an issue, but could be. Could lead to infatuation and limerence, which is another really gray zone.
“very mild and innocent flirting, ”
Depends on what you mean by mild. As a general rule, no, but is the SO right there? My friend’s husband would flirt with the waitresses at restaurants. My friend was sitting right next to him. Do that stuff when you’re out with your buddies or by yourself.
” but it isn’t turning your head as an attractive person walks by either.”
Are you doing it in front of the SO? Seems really rude and disrespectful. A grown person should be able to cruise so that SO doesn’t even know. 🙂
Allie 1 says
Interesting question… I think these boundaries are individual to the couple. For example, I would be highly entertained if my SO flirted in front of me, and very curious to see how the woman reacts… a positive response would build his value more than anything else. But some women would find that threatening, painful or disrespectful. When you care about your partner, you generally try to balance your own needs with theirs, so long as theirs are not too unreasonable.
The grey area for me is when you have an over-sensitive insecure partner – do you admit natural and normal light attraction or flirting and cause them pain, or do you lie and deny it? Or do you force yourself to behave in a way that conforms to their (unreasonable) needs but makes your life worse?
“For example, I would be highly entertained if my SO flirted in front of me, and very curious to see how the woman reacts… a positive response would build his value more than anything else. ”
That’s interesting. When guys I have dated in the past who have done that, I’ve read it as desperate, like he’s trying to get a reaction out of me. It turns me off. What’s that line in the Carly Simon song? “You don’t have to prove to me you’re beautiful to strangers. I’ve got lovin’ eyes of my own.” Also, I’ll notice the way other women respond to him when we walk into a room. He doesn’t need to tell me or show me. If I think he’s hot stuff, I’ll assume some other women do, too.
“The grey area for me is when you have an over-sensitive insecure partner – do you admit natural and normal light attraction or flirting and cause them pain, or do you lie and deny it? Or do you force yourself to behave in a way that conforms to their (unreasonable) needs but makes your life worse?”
Well, if me not wanting to hear about an SO’s other attractions or witness flirtation makes me insecure, so be it, if that’s how you want to define me. I’m going to assume he finds other people appealing. I don’t need to know every little detail of what he does or who he talks to when he’s out in the world. I don’t see that as withholding information or lying. I don’t really need to know unless he develops feelings for someone else. And if he sees those demands as unreasonable — that he not do some of that stuff right in front of me — then we probably shouldn’t be dating.
So I have to ask … because you have argued so passionately against monogamy … and I don’t’ have a dog in this fight, per say … I think people should do want they want … it was my understanding (unless I’m wrong) … that you are in fact monogamous.
Allie 1 says
I wasn’t referring to you Marcia, the oversensitive person I had in mind was an ex.
Allie 1 says
Yes I am monogamous. My marriage is happy but sexless. Nothing wrong with my libido though! SO is not prepared to open marriage up due to fears about what other people would think and the risk that I might replace him. It is an impossible conundrum to solve.
On the plus side, I am allowed an emotional relationship (!?) and can have sex once only, even with my LO. (a.k.a hall pass – a mutual 50th birthday gift).
“I wasn’t referring to you Marcia, the oversensitive person I had in mind was an ex.”
I didn’t necessarily think you were. I wasn’t sure who your post was to. I was just responding to it. I just kind of adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with the things you wrote about. But that’s me.
“On the plus side, I am allowed an emotional relationship (!?) and can have sex once only, even with my LO. (a.k.a hall pass – a mutual 50th birthday gift).”
Oh … well that opens up all kinds of possibilities. 🙂 I am a nosy person and like to hear details of a good “someone just turned me out” stories … so I’ll be waiting …. although I know Dr. L doesn’t like too much description. 🙂
Allie 1 says
I very much look forward to that too 🙂
Limerent Emeritus says
Just out of curiosity, whose idea was the mutual sleep with someone else idea?
But, why wait? Seriously, what’s the point? If your SO is concerned about reputation, how are you going to ensure it stays a secret? This idea brings two other people you have no control over into the picture. This story makes a great story to tell at the office Xmas party after a few drinks. Ooops…
“Don’t put off what you can do today because if you enjoy it today you can do it again tomorrow.” ― James A. Michener, “The Drifters”
It will be interesting to see what the unintended consequences of this idea are.
“This story makes a great story to tell at the office Xmas party after a few drinks. Ooops…”
Why does it have to be somebody at the office? And if it does end up being her LO, who from what I remember is also married, it’s highly unlikely he would tell other people at the office.
“It will be interesting to see what the unintended consequences of this idea are.”
Don’t rain on the parade.
If you read my inbox, you’d conclude that many of these parades end up as terrible car crashes.
Maybe a cold shower might be better.
Allie 1 says
LE – yes choosing a man as capable of discretion as I am would be important! And as Marcia says, it is highly unlikely to be my LO.
Further, given my taste in men and my demi-sexual tendencies, it is 50/50 that I will ever find an opportunity to use my hall pass. But you never know, and life feels so much more interesting when you have that as a real possibility 😉
Allie 1 says
I offered my husband an escort, a hall pass or a three-some as a 50th birthday gift. I was looking for ways to get our sex life going again.
He chose the hall pass and extended that offer to me.
Limerent Emeritus says
Has he used his hall pass, yet?
Did you ask him why he chose the hall pass?
If he hasn’t used it, of the 3 options, the hall pass is the best choice to defer actually taking action.
It very well could be your LO. LE raised the point of drunk storytelling/bragging at an office party. I meant that it’s highly unlikely that a married manager is going to be discussing a sexual tryst with another co-worker, let alone his subordinate (I think you said he was your boss). That’s just suicide. Not something to worry about. I may worry that would might develop stronger feelings for your LO if you do hookup, but that is a separate issue.
Allie 1 says
LE – I think SO was a teensy bit scared of the other two options and you are probably right, he preferred to defer taking action. Shame, I was quite intrigued by the threesome idea.
LO never goes out for coffee or lunch at work, leaves evening socials early, has one drink only and avoids parties.
What can I say? I find shy, sensible men hot!
Limerent Emeritus says
You have to respect your LO’s intelligence, integrity, or [fill in blank], but you can’t rely on it.
People go off script and do stupid things all the time.
You assume the risk and roll the dice. If it works, great.
If it doesn’t, oh well …
Limerent Emeritus says
Clip of the Day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFjqlgupAe0 – “Friends” montage
Substitute “We were on a break” with “We had a Hall Pass!” and you’re there.
Sometimes, life does imitate art.
Well, everybody on this site has gone off script. They are limerents. The likelihood that someone is going to risk their livelihood, professional reputation and headache with HR (because somebody who overhears the story could go to HR — people LOVE to run to HR) just for bragging rights is very, very low. It’s not helpful to bring up negative consequences that have a low probability of happening.
Now, there are potential consequences for hooking up or coming on to a co-worker. I could discuss some. I’ve done it. I don’t get the feeling you have. To be honest, there’s only one scenario/co-worker situation I regret. I can’t speak to the potential consequences for the marriage. I am not married. That would your purview. 🙂
Great article in NYT about it. Very well reported.
Limerent Emeritus says
You are correct. I have never dated a coworker, let alone hooked up with one.
My father, who married one secretary and after that divorce appeared to be involved in an affair with another married secretary (supposedly with her husband’s knowledge and consent), drilled that lesson into me early on. It was definitely “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.”
It made sense to me. What I do is nobody’s business but mine and the person I’m doing it with.
And, in today’s environment, I wouldn’t go anywhere near a coworker. Not worth the risk. Just isn’t.
“And, in today’s environment, I wouldn’t go anywhere near a coworker. Not worth the risk. Just isn’t.”
Which is exactly why people want to do it. 🙂 But in Allie’s case, she knows this guy, has developed a friendship with him. Worst case scenario … she comes to on to him and he politely declines, and it’s a bit awkward afterward. I’m looking at this from the vantage point of a being exactly Allie’s age — 50. How many more LEs is one going to get? How many more people are you gong to feel that strongly for? Time is ticking away. And she thinks this guy has feelings for her. Right there, she’s already beaten the tremendous odds. But of course she would know more about the particular details of the situation.
Limerent Emeritus says
‘“And, in today’s environment, I wouldn’t go anywhere near a coworker. Not worth the risk. Just isn’t.”
Which is exactly why people want to do it. ‘
I disagree with that one. Sorry, but I can’t see any rational person thinking, “I’m going to put my career, reputation, and face potential legal action for a moment of frisson [I like that word] with a coworker.” But, people do a lot of dubious things simply for the thrill of it.
But, that’s me. It’s Allie 1’s life and your life to live as you choose. Life is all about risk management and, if you’re willing to assume the risk, go for it.
Just be willing to accept that the people affected by your actions may not see them the same way and they’re entitled to respond as they see fit, whether you think their response is justified or not. And, all the eloquent arguments in the world don’t obligate them to buy into anything. Sorry, but they don’t. They get to feel how they feel just as much as you get to feel how you feel.
“I’m looking at this from the vantage point of a being exactly Allie’s age — 50. How many more LEs is one going to get?”
Do you have a quota? Are LEs your goal? I’m trying to get my head around what a man dating you with that in mind would think. If all your looking for is notches in your gun, go for it. It’s an interesting legacy.
As for raining on the parade, Allie’s SO offering her a reciprocal hall pass doesn’t mean he endorses it. It got her off his back temporarily. If she cashes in, he could still see it as rejection and betrayal. She had a reason for proposing it. Time will tell if it achieves her intended goal.
But, we’re speculating on other peoples’ lives. The only way to know is for one of them to pull the trigger and see what happens.
“Do you have a quota? ”
No, but the universe definitely does. How often is one wildly attracted to/infatuated/fascinated by someone and that person feels at least partially the same? There is a finite number of opportunities we are given like that in life.
“Are LEs your goal?”
Not necessarily LEs but intensity of experience.
” I’m trying to get my head around what a man dating you with that in mind would think.”
Well, when you discover that intensity with someone, sometimes you have to work around the limitations of the situation. In Allie’s case, if it does happen with her LO, it will be one nighter. Sometimes it ends up being an FWB or really casual. You don’t always get to dictate what the other person wants from you or is capable of providing. It isn’t always a traditional “I’m dating you to have a relationship” situation.
Limerent Emeritus says
Totally hijacking this thread but keeping in the spirit.
If I’m wrong about this, I’ll apologize in advance.
Didn’t you say you had a fearful-avoidant attachment style? Is that your assessment or a pros? That’s not one of the styles that bodes well for long-term relationship outcomes but fits really well with your intensity of experience comments.
“For Dutton and colleagues, fearful and preoccupied attachment, as assessed by the RQ and RSQ in abusive men, were predictive for borderline personality, but fearful attachment was so strong a predictor that the authors concluded that having borderline personality was the prototype for this particular attachment style.” – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1857277/
I have two professional opinions LO #2 was a borderline and that she had a fearful-avoidant attachment style. I’d put money on that she saw a pro but she never admitted that to me. I’m pretty sure I tangled with at least one or two more in my time. I never met a happy one. If nothing else, borderlines love drama. They thrive on it. It’s downright maddening to be in love with one.
What’s going to make you happy and keep you happy?
Quick reminder that the private community forum exists for this kind of personal analysis. Not wanting to curtail the discussion, but once we are in the territory of individual life reviews it’s probably better to take it there.
I ‘ll say one more thing and then I’ll shut up. We’re not talking about long term. This is a site for limerents. Limerence (or intensity of experience, however you want to define it) doesn’t translate into long term. By its very nature, it can’t. If this was a dating site for people looking for long-term relationships or marriage, then you’d filter for entirely different things. Capability, character, consistency, etc.
Limerent Emeritus says
Allie 1 says
“And, in today’s environment, I wouldn’t go anywhere near a co-worker. Not worth the risk. Just isn’t.”
Co-workers dating is not uncommon where I work. I have had long relationships with two previous co-workers, one of whom is my SO.
Thanks for the concern but I am absolutely sure SO and I will be fine regardless of what happens with our hall passes. I guess it is hard for others to comprehend a mindset so different to their own.
” I guess it is hard for others to comprehend a mindset so different to their own.”
Whenever someone has talked to me about alternative sexual choices and my reaction has been negative, I always wondered if it was my fear talking. Would I like to try that? Maybe I don’t have the backbone. Maybe I’m envious that other people do. 🙂
You know, I think that is an important enough question to warrant a blog post, Marcia…
Just be sure to credit me. This is an intellectual blog. One has to fight for recognition. 🙂
Allie 1 says
“Whenever someone has talked to me about alternative sexual choices and my reaction has been negative, I always wondered if it was my fear talking. Would I like to try that? Maybe I don’t have the backbone. Maybe I’m envious that other people do.”
Makes complete sense, although I would call it pragmatism rather than lack of backbone. Why? The alternatives may be more risky; Fear of the unknown – we have no role models for these types of relationships so have no idea how they work in practice; They don’t fit into the Hollywood or classic literature version of romance that we are all brainwashed with to varying degrees from childhood; Most importantly of all, they won’t suit everyone but it is hard to predict if that will be the case for you.
Well, I wasn’t just talking about polyamory. Opportunities I had that I turned down that I maybe should have taken. My gut was telling me they weren’t my thing, but now I wish I hadn’t said no. (I can’t be too specific. Dr. L is watching. :)) These things kind of fall into your lap when you are young. You are out and about more, the people around you are your age and also available. It is much different when you get older.
Allie 1 says
Ah am getting you now. I have to admit that in my youth, I tried a lot of different “things” mostly because I liked the idea of them. But in reality, they were often rather disappointing, and ended up being bucket list cross-offs rather than “things” I would want to do regularly.
Sorry to say but no experience has ever compared to falling in-love and limerent consummation.
Have never tried heroin mind you.
(and never will!)
I suspect that’s what most of this stuff will be: bucket-list items. One and done. I would say I’m a medium-risk person, with a few high-risk moments thrown in. I need more high-risk moments. I abhor wussification. 🙂
[Inappropriate content edited by Dr L]
Reminder again that this is a public site directed to helping people cope with limerence. Please take off topic personal discussions to forum – Thanks, Dr L
Allie 1 says
I wonder how much relationship jealousy can be attributed to the often incorrect, but seemingly ubiquitous belief that if your partner is attracted to someone else, there must be something wrong with you and/or your relationship?
A lot, I’d say. I also think this is one of the reasons why many people struggle with limerence – the cognitive dissonance of still being in love with your spouse, but overcome with infatuation for someone else.
“I sometimes wonder if serial monogamy is the way to go.”
Well, people are living longer than ever before. So this means a “lifelong commitment” would by necessity last much longer now than in the past.
“Exes are exes for a reason, but does that person have to be your enemy.”
It would be nice if people could take the acrimony out of break-ups. What causes all the bitterness in break-ups, do you think? Is it limerence or something else? Do people feel offended they weren’t their partner’s one and only, after all?
“I think it is causing far too many people to be way too jealous and people becoming incredibly rigid and controlling of their partners’ behaviour.”
I think people being hyper-focused on their relationship, and their partner’s behaviour, might be as destructive to intimacy as people completely neglecting their relationship. A good relationship, I think, needs both closeness and space.
Allie 1 says
“What causes all the bitterness in break-ups, do you think?”
I can think of so many reasons…
Breakups can be utterly heart-breaking, akin to the death of someone close to you. People often resent the cause of their pain, especially if the ex seemingly walks away unscathed;
A bad relationship leading up to the break-up. E.g. where both spouses are stuck in an escalating cycle of defensive attack;
Bitching to shared friends or kids about each other;
Ego – some people really struggle with rejection;
Feeling betrayed that they were promised a lifelong commitment “no matter what” and that is not what they ended up with;
Greedy attitudes to sharing the spoils of the relationship;
They may have sacrificed a lucrative career to care for spouse, kids, home and life admin. They can never get back the lost career progression (and salary rises) yet probably don’t get an equal share of ex’s income (depending on where you live);
Resent having to share so much of their savings and income with an ex;
Forced to give up their home;
I could go on.
Vicarious Limerent says
I think at their heart, breakups are a form of rejection. In some way, the person wasn’t good enough. That causes, anger, resentment and animosity. No one likes to feel rejected, but I think some people can be mature and reasonable about breakups, separation and divorce, and realize that the relationship has outlived its natural lifespan. I just wish more people could understand and accept this. The person you married 20 or 30 years ago isn’t the same person today, and it’s often the case that you grow apart in completely different directions.
For an open marriage to work there needs to be complete honesty between all concerned. I’ve been happily married for 20 years. We have a child, but my partner is 20 years older than me. There is also a complicated mismatch sexually. We have sex, but he is not able to be romantic and he does not like kissing. Therefore, I have not been kissed in 20 years. Some would say I shouldn’t have married him, but all his other attributes were a great draw and the sex is good. But, he is not going to change. I find the lack of romance and kissing hard and it saddens me. I love my partner, but I don’t want to live a unfulfilled life. And, as he gets older the mismatch in age will become more apparent and perhaps stark. He has been an exceptional father to our child and I would want to repay that attention by caring for him into his old age, but not at my expense. We are at very different life stages. He sees that and has agreed that I can pursue extra-marital relationships. Not all extra-marital, intimate relationships have to be about sex. But, who that relationship would be with would have to be very carefully chosen for all the downsides listed — jealousy etc. But, British culture does seem to be very disapproving of the open marriage idea. In France and Germany, it is alot more common. I blame poor communication skills of the British LOL! But, seriously, I’m not really talking about lots of relationships on top of a marriage. I think that is complicated. Recently, I became attached to someone who could have theoretically filled the romance gap and potentially just been my kissing partner, as he was never going to be able to have penetrative sex and was also a very busy person. I thought it an ideal choice! However, my proposal was not taken up. It turned out that he was socially conservative. He instead became my limerence LO. I think he was attracted to me (in his own unusual way), but he could not entertain the idea of an open marriage. Hardly surprising, but his reaction was extremely complicated and it opened my eyes to the fact that most people (in Britain) find the idea unfathomable and dangerous. In the end, he showed his own moral panic by writing to my partner to in effect ‘dob me in’. The LO thought I’d lied to him about the open marriage idea and that I was trying to have an affair behind my partner’s back. He then took it upon himself to tell my partner. The whole thing unravelled and became extremely messy due to his inability to communicate openly and honestly. I could go on … but mostly, I still believe it’s a possible lifestyle, but not for the faint hearted.
I wouldn’t trust your LO. It’s one thing to turn down your proposal (which is his choice) — to be grossed out by it, afraid of it, disgusted by it, want to distance himself from you because of it, however he responds. But to got your husband? He’s what I describe as a “sh** disturber.”
“In the end, he showed his own moral panic by writing to my partner to in effect ‘dob me in’. The LO thought I’d lied to him about the open marriage idea and that I was trying to have an affair behind my partner’s back. He then took it upon himself to tell my partner.”
If you only knew how many people SAY, “we have an open marriage” or “we have ‘an understanding'” but are lying through their caps then you might understand why he would inform your spouse.
After all, cheaters lie and even people in “open marriages” can lie and cheat.
So next time, tell your prospect to speak to your spouse directly to be reassured that you are on the up-and-up.
This guy turned her down. There was no reason to go to the spouse.
I think we need to accept that there is a lot more infidelity going on than we realize or that people admit to in surveys. A male relative of mine told me that every one of his married male friends has cheated at least once, even the ones who seem to be in happy marriages with attractive wives. I wasn’t all that surprised given how many times I’ve heard from other men that almost all of them would cheat if given the chance. I’m not sure where that leaves us women. I’ve never had a female friend admit to me that she’d been unfaithful to her husband.
Limerent Emeritus says
Just because they don’t admit it doesn’t mean they don’t cheat.
LO #1 cheated on her BF with me. She didn’t tell me, her roommate did.
The neighbor of my HS buddy cheated on her husband and got pregnant. She filed a false rape claim with the police.
My buddy in training said his ex-wife cheated on him, got pregnant and had abortion.
Ok, so two stories are anecdotal but the first one is fact.
Absolutely true – just because they don’t admit doesn’t mean they don’t cheat. That goes back to my original point that there is way more infidelity going on than surveys show, since people don’t admit to it or conveniently forget by the time they fill out a survey.
Allie 1 says
Interesting. I wonder how they all rationalise it internally?
I have a female friend that was in a happy LTR for 20+ years and cheated. Yet she is by nature a good and ethical person.
I do think infidelity is a rational choice in some circumstances, the “least worst” option, but at the same time dishonesty to your partner is wrong. That is what I dislike about our current convention – it results in good people being unusually dishonest.
carried away says
I think women are viewed differently often more adversely than men when it comes to infidelity. Maybe that is why they choose not to disclose.
Allie 1 says
“The simple solution would seem to be social acceptance for separating recreational sex from long-term partnership.”
I don’t think this is the solution either, and it is certainly not one for me, although I see no problem with casual sex between consenting adults if it does it for them.
You don’t have to remove love, warmth, connection and/or commitment from sex in order to have sex with a second person. Especially 1-2 decades into your relationship when your key parenting obligations have been fulfilled.
I am all for living life purposefully and getting the most from it, while treating others well. I am all for protecting the family while you have young children. But warm physical & emotional connection, new love and forming relationships are some of the best and most meaningful experiences life has to offer. It seems such a huge waste to deny ourselves these for up to 60 years of our lives when we don’t have to.
This is not a utopian ideal, it is a possible reality, one where you have to negotiate the downsides just as you do with all relationship models. It is mostly our institutionalised beliefs that make this challenging currently… it is hard to comprehend this through the lens of monogamy.
Allie 1 says
One of the themes I have seen in this series of monogamy blog posts, and in some of the comments are assertions around wealth, power, attractiveness and how these will inevitably degrade reproductive equality making monogamy necessary. The latest research disagrees…. the truth is that nice guys get more sex.
Another closely related underlying implication has been the misconception that in natural selection, “survival of the fittest” equates to survival of the strongest or most brutal. Again, science disagrees. In reality, modern research shows “survival of the fittest” for humans equates to “survival of the kindest”. It is our mutual cooperation and support that kept us alive and allowed us to thrive.
I mainly mention this as it deeply pains me to see so much cynicism about the nature of humans (men in particular) and I want people to understand that our innate nature is to be kind and generous, but sometimes over-protective of our “tribe”. This applies equally to both (all) genders. That is how we evolved and how we survived. Unfortunately, we now live in a culture that appears to reward the opposite. It is hardly surprising we are so cynical.
“I mainly mention this as it deeply pains me to see so much cynicism about the nature of humans (men in particular) and I want people to understand that our innate nature is to be kind and generous, but sometimes over-protective of our “tribe”.”
Thank you for saying that. Or, at least, for suggesting that the male of the species shouldn’t be regarded with total cynicism by all. We need a little bit of idealism to balance out all the cynicism sometimes.
To be honest, I am a biological male (last time I checked anyway) and have often felt incredibly cynical about the behaviour of my fellow males. I feel this cynicism comes from the apparent inability of males, either gay or straight, ever to become limerent for me in response to my limerence for them!! But, obviously, judging someone’s character on whether or not they fall in love with me specifically is a terribly flawed way to judge people!! I mean, it’s completely egocentric. 😛
I have walked away from my interactions with men feeling that all human males are emotionally unavailable. I don’t know if women are emotionally unavailable. I haven’t been paying enough attention to the behaviour of women, and haven’t been trying to convince a woman to be in a relationship with me. Perhaps if I were chasing a woman, and she was a bit distant at times, I’d feel all women are emotionally unavailable too and should be written off in the same way as men…
I wonder if my judgements about sex/gender are all distorted by my own desire, in other words. I think desire distorts my view of the world and other people sometimes. Bitterness creeps in when a person can’t obtain what they desire…
I’ve reached the conclusion, after many years of observation, that my father is on the spectrum, which means he can’t give certain emotional responses to people. (Or notice from facial expressions/tone of voice when someone is upset or distressed. He needs to be explicitly told that someone is upset/distressed). This has probably coloured my view of men, too – having a father who was very loving and generous in some ways, but who couldn’t respond to my emotional needs, or even recognise that I (and my two sisters, to be fair) even have emotional needs.
I don’t know how you have picked up that theme, Allie. The whole point I was trying to make is that pair bonding is the core strategy, with covert infidelity on the side being an evolutionary bonus. I’d say that pair bonding is a manifestation of our innate kindness and generosity.
Powerful men have historically accumulated resources. And wives. On those occasions where women were economically dominant, the imbalance was reversed. That doesn’t mean that the people at the top of the social hierarchy weren’t generous and loving. But, power does corrupt… and you end up with polygamy.
And obviously I don’t think that “fittest” means most brutal. But it also doesn’t mean most moral. It means most successful at reproduction. The whole point is that multiple strategies work – and cooperative and caring is a better long term strategy than ruthlessly competitive in a social species like homo sapiens.
I think we can fairly conclude that we disagree on this issue. I genuinely have appreciated your comments, but I remain unconvinced that your vision of a bucolic polyamorous past ruined by misogynistic imposition of monogamy is supported by the evidence.
Allie 1 says
“unconvinced that your vision of a bucolic polyamorous past ruined by misogynistic imposition of monogamy is supported by the evidence.” that is a very exaggerated version of what I think Dr L!
I am quite sure you have not had time to read the referenced evidence I have put forward at your request, and I don’t expect you too. Convincing you is not my aim here. You admit yourself that your view is biased – is my providing some balance with an alternative viewpoint a bad thing?
Definitely not a bad thing.
But when the drumbeat becomes insistent, and the claims too definitive, I’m gonna push back 🙂
Allie 1 says
“The whole point I was trying to make is that pair bonding is the core strategy, with covert infidelity on the side being an evolutionary bonus.”
I’m going to challenge that covert aspect and its benefit in a couple ways.
First, is anything in a long term marriage ever truly covert? Admittedly, this is my first post and I have come to your site in an attempt to learn how one can succumb to limerence. Personally, I have dealt with limerence more times than I can count on one hand in my 15 year marriage. This is simply how I have been from a fairly young age. The first time within marriage was the hardest, but ultimately, logically, I concluded that risking the respect, love and devotion of my family, custody of my children all while willfully hurting my wife far outweighed the potential experience. Every subsequent time it happened simply required reminding of that fact and each time it was easier to deal with. (Anybody reading some of the other comments on here stating how all men would cheat given the chance, take note – decent, moral men
of conscience wouldn’t) However, my wife is 7 years younger and didn’t possess my foresight or emotional intelligence when she had an affair over 8 years ago now. I’ve known for almost 2 years and know she was fully dealing with limerence. While it was covert at the time, in my experience the truth always comes out. She also failed to see the habitual adulterer and sexual predator in her LO such was her limerence. I’ve dealt with long term depression before and am no stranger to emotional pain, but in this there is no comparison. I struggle frequently how she didn’t come to the same conclusion in risk as I did, despite those shortcomings. She is a compassionate, intelligent and largely selfless woman. She sees it now with the affair fog long removed, but cannot explain her stupidity. She acknowledges she was weak, in a bad place emotionally and mentally and not communicating that nearly well enough, despite me knowing and being empathetic. She also acknowledges our marriage was happy at the time – far from perfect as seen with that communication disconnect (now rectified), but all of that simply further serves for confusion on how she gave in to something I’ve come to see as the natural ebb and flow of life – something to be witnessed and aware of, even appreciated, but not requiring action upon.
Secondly, how is such a dishonest, destructive act in any way a bonus? I also saw what having an affair, myself, would do to me. The regret, guilt, duplicity and betrayal would erode my soul more than I’d be willing to bear. You’ve mentioned consent being a cornerstone, and while I’m very open and, had I known maybe would have given consent, I would also agree with what you’ve said you’ve seen from your inbox in that the parade of open relationships often turns into a car crash. There are too many uncontrolled variables to account for. Obviously in the face of such betrayal and the pain I’m now in, my view on an open relationship has significantly shifted and such consent will likely now never be given. It’s also even further steeled me against any limerence leading to an affair myself. I’m sorry but I see no benefits to breaking the vow I made to the mother of my children and wife I’ve largely been happy with. Were I in an unhappy, boring, lifeless or sexless marriage, the situation would be a little different, but my conclusion the same. We are both intelligent people overall happy with the other and obviously willing to put in the work for a successful marriage considering we’re still together. The effect the affair has had on us and our household notwithstanding.
Regardless, I’ve appreciated your blog and some of the insight it gives and will likely continue reading in search of answers and some peace.
I’m curious about the terms ethical and moral. Are they synonyms? For instance, would “the morality of polyamory” and the “ethics of polyamory” yield the same discussion?
I mostly used them interchangeably, T. I think formally the difference is that “moral” means your personal sense of natural justice, and “ethical” means following a set of guidelines or rules (ethics).
Allie 1 says
Interesting point! I think they are synonyms to a degree yet quite distinct.
Ethical is about straightforward right or wrong… does an action directly cause real harm or not.
Morality is more about what the majority or the most influential within society think.
So while polyamory is perfectly ethical, one might call it immoral if the most popular view is that having two concurrent sexual relationships is wrong.
Similarly, in USA during the period after slavery was abolished, a white person marrying a black person was considered immoral but this is of course perfectly ethical.
A very interesting way to frame this. I didn’t understand this sentence, however, and wondered if you could explain it?
“But just like wealth inequality, it can have corrosive effects on society when “uncompetitive” people start to build up resentment at their exclusion.”
Who are the “uncompetitive”? Does this mean that people in monogamous relationships will resent being excluded from a polyamorous culture?
Allie 1 says
Yes I did not understand that either Alyn1.
I get the impression that Dr L is confusing polygyny and polyamory… this confusion occurs in other places in this series of articles too. This sentence makes sense to me when talking about how low value men are uncompetitive in a polygynous culture and resent being excluded from relationships due to lack of available women. In polyamory, since both men and women can choose (or not) to have multiple committed relationships, mate competition is the same as in a monogamous culture.
Dr L says
I was looking at this from the perspective that inequality in general is a destabilising force in society. Most people are OK with a bit of inequality, as long as they believe they have a “fair shot”, as it were.
In unfettered capitalism, wealth inequality accelerates at the top, because capital can make money faster than labour (see Thomas Piketty et al). In unfettered coupling, a minority of men attract a majority of women (Dating apps are proving this by running a natural experiment for us).
Allie1 is right that I am talking about polygyny, but that’s because it’s the form that polygamy almost always seems to take, historically – certainly since the dawn of civilisations larger than small nomadic tribes.
In both cases, without social pressures and legal structures to constrain the multiplier effects at the top (wealth leads to more income, attractiveness leads to more mates) those left behind feel that society is unfair and so burn it down.
So, in this analogy “the uncompetitive” are the people who cannot attract a mate in a system where the “select few” can take many partners. Unfortunately, it seems that people don’t distribute themselves into evenly balanced polyamorous groups – there is a mating elite just as surely as there is a financial elite.
Not sure if that clarifies 😉 but fingers crossed!