I told a friend I would write this ages ago, along with posting her a book. Apologies are owed, I did neither. The truth is that when I came to write this monolith of a blog, it suddenly seemed much, much bigger and I procrastinated, first with thoughts of submitting it to somewhere and then with thoughts of not writing it at all. The question that it stems from is one that appears to rest of the lips of a lot people at the moment. In a world that favours personal growth over responsibility and commitment, we have come to question what was once one of the great pillars of our society: Monogamy. We are asking, is monogamy natural?
In a word: no. Of course it isn’t. We’re bipedal apes with big brains. Life long monogamy does not come naturally to us, not at all. But not being natural doesn’t necessarily make it bad, just difficult, maybe even unlikely. Definitely not bad though. We have this crazy misapprehension that somehow that which is natural is beautiful and comfortable, almost magical in its overarching rightness. Nature is nothing of the kind, nature is cruel and brutal. Nature makes you fight every day for your survival and cares not a jot about beauty.
To work out what comes naturally to human beings we need to start out by looking at them for what they are: animals, compelled by biological imperatives. Obviously there’s more too us than that. We’ve create philosophy, art and culture, imagined whole worlds and created and destroyed them too. But we have to start with the base line if we want to talk about what is ‘natural’ because all of our higher notions are the bits which are unnatural, right? We are animals. Like many species in the animal kingdom, human males are larger than human females. Where males are larger than females they generally use their mass and strength to fight for access to those females. The bigger and stronger the male, sometimes the more able he is to gain support from the wider community he is, the more females he is able to gain access to. This is absolutely regardless of whether these females want to be accessed by him in any way, shape or form. Because human males also must contend with something we call paternity uncertainty, the fidelity of their mates is rather important to them. In the modern world, we call that building a relationship based on trust but we’re looking at the animal world right now, and what that means in animal terms is dominance and potentially homicidal jealousy.
So this is what a natural scenario might look like for the animalistic side of human beings. Large male dominates a variety of females, many of them much younger than him. Not all of these females will like him. They’re probably more interested in the younger, prettier ones. Human beings aren’t good at containing their feelings, particularly not the libidinous ones. So they sneak around. Some scientists hypothesize that the bell end is literally designed to act like a scoop to remove the spunk of rival males, vile isn’t it? So the young lovers disappear off into the woods where they believe they will not be discovered and maybe, for a while, they aren’t. But, of course, love’s young dream can never last. They get caught, she gets beaten into submission and he is brutally disemboweled.
I think we can all agree that female choice and monogamy are preferable to beatings and disemboweling?
The truth is though that the larger part of relationships comes from somewhere else. We yearn for so much more than just an opportunity to procreate. Our brains are too big, we are bursting the banks of what we evolved to understand. Relationships are messy and complicated because human beings are messy and complicated. A return to nature, even if it was beautiful, won’t fix that.
I know that there are those that argue that our comprehension of romantic love is entirely compelled by our cultural upbringing. We are conditioned by unrealistic expectations. If our cultural comprehension was different so would our relationships be. I’ve even heard it said that our notions of monogamy and romantic love are entirely a modern invention. Maybe they should be telling that to Shakespeare, Guinevere and Lancelot, Robin Hood and Maid Marion and all those other romantic stories dating back through the ages. Romantic love is nothing new, the heady feelings we experience are nothing new and, while we do interpret them through the lens of culture, we have little choice but to manage our feelings in the best way we know how.
Modern society is isolating. Long before covid came along, we were living in bubbles. The wider community has dissolved and we are left desperately seeking meaning and connection in any way that we can. Romantic love is often the way in which we seek to fill that void. Friendship is not enough, we push for something truer, deeper, more fulfilling. We are like Plato’s lonely Androgyne, brutally split in two and condemned forever to search for the other half that will make us whole.
The philosopher Alain Badiou argues that romantic love is the single most transformative experience that any of us go through. By choosing to share our lives with another, we change our viewpoint entirely. No longer seeing the world through one set of eyes but through two. Expanding our consciousness and comprehension to include the experiences and perspectives of another.
But while modern life pushes us to seek these deeper connections to overcome the loneliness of our individualistic notions of fulfilment, it simultaneously pushes us apart for the same reason and puts unnatural pressure on the dyad to heal all wounds. It’s the most natural thing in the world to wish for but there is no one out there who can kiss it all better. The best that you can hope for is to be held and understood while you work on fixing yourself. And there’s the other fallacy, that we need to be whole to find love at all. We are all broken, some more than others, granted, but love can still be found in the wreckage. After all, no one ever loved a perfect thing.
I feel that much of our animosity towards monogamy and our questioning of it’s validity comes from fear. To give yourself completely to another, to share on that kind of profound level is the ultimate risk because no love lasts forever. No love can last forever because no one lives forever and even the most complete love will ultimately leave behind devastation. Life is no cake walk. We all change and evolve and, when we embark on a shared journey, we have no idea of the ultimate destination. Will you grow together or will you grow apart? Will you be left for another or be the one doing the leaving? Will you die with your lover’s hand in yours or be the one left behind? Surely, however, that is part of the beauty of love. Like life itself, to enjoy it fully, you have to embrace it fully and, more than that, you have to accept the risk.
In the end, we don’t choose monogamous relationships because they are easy and we don’t choose them because they are natural. We don’t choose them because society expects us to, though that may, sometimes, be why we stay in them. We don’t even choose them as a means of mitigating the damage we may do to one another with our unruly hearts. We choose them, because in those moments, we elevate that person above all others and we want them above all others whatever that means. The question we must all ask ourselves, as individuals, is not whether monogamy is natural but whether the pleasure is worth the pain.