Exclusive relationships: socially reinforced, not morally mandated

The jealousy-based politics that surround romance trample on individual emotional needs


Written by: Umer Altaf, Peak Associate

During the crucial first few dates held with a former lover of mine, she uttered an unusually forward thought. “I struggle with monogamy,” she told me plainly and honestly.

At the time, I thought little about the remark, other than in the context of admiration. She knew herself well, and she was willing to acknowledge an often demonized trait, in order to build a stable foundation for our romance. It was only after months had passed that I realized something quite amusing about her remark; it was all but a tautology. Of course she struggles with monogamy. Of course I struggle with monogamy. Almost all of us do.

We are simply trained to forget this fact during polite conversation, because we consider the standard expression of the struggle with monogamy to be infidelity. The person who cheats is just the person who lost — the person who gave in.

What an utterly bizarre outlook on life. As if a sober person cannot struggle with alcohol, or an accomplished person with hard work. The truth is that “struggling” with monogamy isn’t about whether or not you stay monogamous. It’s about whether or not you’re happy.

If you have a single romantic partner, but still feel a desire or need to be with another person, one that you do not act on, you still struggle with that want. The fact that you have not acted on your desire simply demonstrates that there is something that you want that you are not willing to claim, not that you don’t want it in the first place. You still struggle with monogamy.

      Of course, as animals, our minds are littered with desires and needs that we do not act on. A more meaningful question might be ethicality. Is monogamy not morally superior to polygamy? We could argue ad nauseum about this topic, but a better use of time would be to show how we might re-conceptualize monogamy in general.

Imagine that your friend comes to you one day depressed and alone. Their inability to navigate the emotional waters of their rocky relationship with their family has left them hollow and numb. This friend asks you for your counsel. Being their friend, you provide it to them.

To your great surprise, this friend comes back to you days later, stating that whilst their appreciation for your counsel is out of question, the request has cost them their marriage. Their partner was the only person that could play that role for them. How dare someone from outside their home come and satisfy an unmet emotional need? This is a rather bizarre scenario, isn’t it? But structurally and principally, monogamy is no different.

Seeking a friend’s emotional counsel does not mean that you don’t want it from your partner, that your partner can’t give it to you, or that they are unloved or unneeded. There are simply times where, due to the circumstances, it might be easier or more effective to seek a different person’s guidance. You can, of course, not act on this desire and simply make a commitment to only be taken care of by your partner. But why should that have to happen?

From deep heart-to-hearts to sexuality, this principle applies to most aspects of ‘exclusive’ relationships. The actions we generally claim you should only be taking with your partner are exclusive by social convention and by choice, not because there’s something inherently wrong with doing them with other people.

The person you choose to spend the rest of your life with is likely to be a wonderful person — at least, I hope that you think as such, since you chose them. But no matter how remarkable they may be, they will never be able to be your everything. You will still want to have ties with family, friends, and even acquaintances.

If you choose to structure your relationship such that a core desire you have can be only satisfied by them, you must ask yourself two questions. Why ought they be the sole person to take care of me in that way? Why must that be the only way I can be taken care of exclusively?

The other people in your life can make you laugh and smile. They can make you feel relevant and give you a sense of meaning and purpose. A hundred different people can care for you in a hundred different ways. We need to stop thinking about love and sex purely along the lines of jealousy and ownership. Rather, we must remember that our lovers are complex beings with all of sorts of needs that need to be fulfilled. Must their fulfillment really be a struggle?