The Role Non-Monogamy Will Play in the Future of Marriage


Contrary to its "sanctity," marriage has changed over time in both perception and practice. Even the Bible was once suspicious of marriage -- it was seen as more holy to be celibate, and, in many cultures throughout time, polygamy is the preferred relationship model. Women have also been sold from father to husband. But perhaps most shockingly, monogamy hasn't always been central to American marriages as Pamela Haag, author of the book Marriage Confidential, explains in this interview about the institution's future -- and the role non-monogamy is already playing.

What are the "secretly transgressive" marriages you describe in your book?

If you're at a cocktail party with 20 married couples, chances are, one or two are in openly non-monogamous marriages. They're the marriage next door. They pay the bills, go to Little League games, recycle -- and maybe on the weekend go on swinging holidays.

Have the rules of monogamy in marriage always been so strict?

The 1950s -- a so-called golden era of "family values" -- was more tolerant of covert affairs than the 1980s. This was more true for husbands than for wives, but not entirely. Kinsey found in his research that a fair percentage of wives had affairs too.

In the 1950s there was a fair amount of "wink, wink" tolerance for a gap between the monogamy ideal and reality. The conservative 1980s were more about regulating behavior; religious social conservatives not only wanted us to act as if we were monogamous, they wanted us to be monogamous. Monogamy became a stricter social ethic.

But the reality is that a fair number of spouses cheat, and we forbid cheating. So, we end up with what I call the "shocking banality" of infidelity: It happens all the time and we're shocked by it all the time.

When did we begin to see an opening up of non-monogamy in marriage?

My argument is that in the 1970s free love and non-monogamy had a certain chic to them, but they didn't have solid foundations in demography, economy, or technology.

Today, the idea of openly non-monogamous marriages has no political chic to it, but it does have a more solid foundation in demography (we live longer and are healthier than ever), economy (women earn their own paycheck, and don't rely on the sexual contract in marriage for their meal ticket), and technology (we're connected to people more than ever).

So marital monogamy is under greater stress today. And I think it's being deliberately rethought and re-evaluated by a post-romantic generation that sees the main function of marriage as friendship, an establishment of a home base -- not sexual passion and fidelity, per se.

In the past, people married for money, order, family, and having babies. Today we seem more apt to say we marry for love. Yet statistics show we marry in our own social class and race. What are we really marrying for?

Today we are more inclined to marry partners than lovers. The majority of unmarried Americans say they want to marry a soul mate, according to Gallup research. It's an interesting goal, because it's not specifically a romantic love that we're envisioning. "Soul mate" can apply to any number of relationships, from friend to colleague to spouse. Maybe we want marriages that are intimate, but not romantic.

From what I understand, more people are marrying their best friend, but this does not bode well for marriages. That best friend/spouse is expected to be all things for us.

Men and women have the same opportunities and life experiences more than ever before; we're more similar and comradely toward each other. All of those things are victories, and upsides of feminism. The bad news is that a marriage today can slide too much into a partnership or a co-parenting arrangement, and lose the intimacy that comes from a sense of mystery or difference.

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Rachel R. White is a freelance journalist and blogger who writes about sex and gender. Find more of her work at Rachel Rabbit White.

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