One ring to rule them

3 Jul

When statistics claim that people who are married tend to be more happy, healthy and live longer than single people, I can’t help but feel that this is misleading. Marriage itself or even being monogamous don’t necessarily create happiness (although, the resources of support that are more accessible when in a relationship help) but it’s the way we think of happiness and how it’s defined that, in my opinion, result in these numbers.

What I’m trying to argue is not that marriage and/or monogamy are wrong or can not make people happy, but that our definitions of happiness are defined by our culture values and reaffirmed by our norms. Media regularly express love and monogamy as magical, intangible; a phenomenon that somehow epitomizes the human experience. When a culture regularly tells you that you need to find your “other half” we start to think in terms of love and a relationship as fulfilling us to the fullest extent. But is this always necessarily so? Does everyone human have an inherent query left to be answered by another person? Are we all walking around as half people till we find the one person to complete us? If so, how do we explain the prevalence of polygamy or multi-way relationships in so many of the worlds cultures? How do we explain the joy and satisfaction expressed by people within those circumstances?

Love, like anything else, is historically volatile. It’s subject to the cultures, history and politics that express and represent it.

My most common proof of this is when a friend and I will be discussing “non-traditional” relationships. People I’ve encountered so regularly question the functionality, the emotional security and/or support of a non-monogamous relationship. But is this not a reflection of our own cultural mindset? That having never experienced those situations and living in a society that vastly demonizes them we refuse to believe that they could actually work? And why are we so trusting and loyal to the idea of the monogamous relationship when there is a vast library of experiences telling us that monogamy is rife with it’s own issues like any other form of relationships?

To some extent, sometimes people have a point: Our society is largely set up to support the monogamous relationship, especially marriage. We have financial support, legal support and a system of cultural behaviors to make monogamy that much more manageable. We see it as the norm and so we build up ways to maintain it. There are tax breaks, legal rights and social behaviors to reward and protect monogamy. Our media is full of lessons to not only support this but to teach that any alternative just doesn’t work. This is why every romantic comedy ends with two people (often straight and still pretty regularly white) either together or broken up. For a moment I tried to think of an example of an American, popular movie that represents polyamory in a positive light and could not think of one (I welcome suggestions).

People often argue that this is the “natural” or “instinctual” way. For me these historical biology debates are always problematic. Humanity as it is today does not operate in the same way as it may have with “our primitive ancestors”. Yes, for mating humans historically paired up but we assume this pairing was dominant in all parts of human life (the way being a couple is now). Not only do we pair for sex but now we pair for eating, leisure, shelter and even operate as a partnership within larger social groups. You go out to eat with your monogamous partner. You relax with them. You live with them and you go out to events together.

Historically, humans were much more socially promiscuous. The people we conceptualize as “primitive humans” typically lived in groups in which social interaction was not based on dual partnerships but a serious of group interactions and relations. All support (labor, emotional, sexual) could be provided by any other member of the group regardless of their gender and or copulation (for reproduction) mate.

So when we say that people historically paired sexually, this is to some extent true, for reproduction purposes. But historically, there was much more social exchange of emotional and social resources.

This is not to argue for that as the dominant model but to question and criticize the language used to defend the current dominant model (of monogamy) as the only way.

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