[A condensed version was originally published in Unity Magazine Jan/Feb 2023 issue]
Thanks to Valentine’s Day, love is everywhere during February. Modern Western culture glorifies coupledom and marriage. Matrimania, the over-hyping of marriages, relationships, and weddings, drives a 57 billion dollar industry. Unfortunately, homophobia, singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatization, and discrimination against people who are not married) and polyphobia (ranging from unease about the idea of Ethical/Consensual Non-Monogamy [ENM] – any relationship in which all participants explicitly agree to have multiple concurrent relationships – to outright hatred of polyamory) leads to discriminating against those who don’t fit the just-the-two-of-us heterosexual mold.
How did we even get here? We’re not sure exactly. In a 2011 paper, researcher Kit Opie of University College London showed that early humans, or hominids, began shifting towards monogamy about 3.5 million years ago. He surmised that monogamy in early primates meant that males were able to protect and nurture their children, which led to higher rates of survival and increased nourishment—which had an impact on human brain development further down the line.
Our modern idea of socially imposed monogamy may have been first established in ancient Greece and Rome. One theory holds it was for a military advantage: monogamy meant that fewer men would leave a group to search for wives elsewhere and would be available to fight. As Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire in the first centuries AD, it embraced and took monogamy a step further: marriage was between a man and woman, their bodies and desires reserved for each other and God. So technically a threesome?
The industrial revolution gave birth to the solitary effects of the modern workplace and weakened community bonds. The pressure monogamy put on a couple increased. As psychotherapist Esther Perel writes in Mating in Captivity, “today, we have to give one person what an entire village used to provide – financial and emotional support, companionship, entertainment, friendship, familiarity, mystery, love, sex, the works…”
Physicians and sexologists who were also eugenicists wrote many of the early 20th-century books about courtship and marriage, thereby introducing pseudoscience based on common racist and xenophobic attitudes to the relationship lexicon. Some of their central tenets – incompatibility and deference to men – persist in modern relationship and marriage advice. Best-selling books like John Gray’s “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” perpetuate the message that men and women are fundamentally at odds, and learning to accept and accommodate their innate gender differences (tropes, really) is the relationship secret sauce.
These are but a few of the factors that led to heterosexual monogamy being the established norm. And the thing about norms? Those who exist outside of them are often rejected. Both conscious and unconscious discriminations and resentments develop (ranging from micro aggressions to outright hostilities), some of which become enshrined into organizational policies, and state or federal laws.
Members of ENM and LGBTQ+ communities share the stigma and fear of coming out, retaliation for coming out, marital/adoption/custody/parental issues, family rejection, difficulty accessing supportive mental health care, housing discrimination, workplace discrimination, and more. As someone who doesn’t hesitate to say what others might prefer to remain unsaid, I was genuinely surprised at my own reticence during my early months of practicing ENM to let others know. Yes, I’m Polyamorous and proud of it.
Polyamory, by the way, is only one expression of ENM. There’s also swinging, open marriage/relationship, triads or throuples, and more. Click here for a primer. For an even more profound unmaking of relationship norms, consider Relationship Anarchy – the practice of rejecting relational hierarchies and creating more equality (time, value, commitment) across relationships.
True Justice (love in action) and Liberation (removal of obstacles to a lived experience of equanimity and wholeness) begins with our own decolonization. Take a moment, right now, to pause and notice what you are feeling. If there is any discomfort, consider exploring deeper: How do I really feel about non-monogamy? Is it wrong? Am I curious? How do I feel about being married or being in a relationship, or about others who are? How do I feel about being single, or about those who are? What are the beliefs beneath these feelings? Did I unconsciously adopt them? Can I truly celebrate love in all its forms regardless of my own orientation and relationship preference?
Be gentle with yourself as you investigate. Forgive and make amends if you must. Lean in, love, and find your liberation.
[NOTE: The post pic is the newly adopted (2022) Polyamory Pride flag. A white chevron flows outward to depict the growth and possibility of the non-monogamous community. It sits asymmetrically on the flag to reflect the non-traditional style of polyamorous relationships. The heart reminds us that love in all forms is the core of non-monogamy. Red stands for love and attraction. Blue stands for openness and honesty. Gold represents the energy and perseverance of those in the non-monogamous community. Purple to represent a united non-monogamous community.]