Can We Imagine A World Where Marriage Doesn’t Have To Mean Monogamy?

Design by Meg O'Donnell
Marriage, for me, had always been synonymous with monogamy. Not that I had made the choice between this and polyamory, or openness, but because it’s what I ingested as a child, a teenager and all the way into young adulthood. Having a partner who wasn’t the one you had chosen to wed was always seen as deeply shameful: whether it was Lauren’s mum running off with a woman from the gym, or the most famous (fictional) couple in the world questioning whether they were on a break or not, monogamy was (and is) largely the only "right" option presented to us.
My 20s were something different however. I moved to London, fell in with a fabulous (and I don’t use that word lightly) queer crowd and made lovers of friends, friends of lovers, and found myself in dark rooms with boyfriends engaging in what popular gay podcaster Dan Savage might call ‘monogamish’ behaviour. And it felt largely right. Naturally some boundaries were breached but, each time that happened, what came wasn’t a breakup but a mature conversation about whether the recently breached boundary should be one we meet and accept or never breach again.
But, alas, I turn 30 in three months. And like clockwork, most of the friends I grew up with are either married or planning their wedding, and many of the ones I met in London are doing the same. It feels like we’re dropping like flies into the pit of convention, and it’s scary.
In researching my latest book I became obsessed with the things we have equated with marriage culturally. Love. Friendship. Forever. Monogamy.
When I did some digging I realized that it’s easier to reject marriage ideologically than to do so in reality. We can look at the torrid, exclusionary history of the institution, or the way that it’s abused by governments and individuals worldwide and come to the conclusion that marriage is trash. But we can also look at it from a different perspective: one which apportions rights and promises support in a society, and under a state, that is largely disinterested in your welfare. And so I started looking for ways to do marriage differently, to subvert it from within. For my book I spoke with divorcees, people who’d married themselves, people who married objects, and people who were — perhaps most poignantly here — in open marriages.
Now, data on open marriages is very skewable. If you fly over to the Bay Area in San Francisco, statistics say that over half of gay married couples are in open relationships. If you fly back to Brexit Island, there are basically no statistics about open and poly marriages because it’s far too left-wing a concept for a right-wing government to collect data on. But one thing we do know is that they happen. We have all seen it, from the uncle and auntie who have an ‘arrangement’ to that one article you read in a cool culture magazine about a couple going open and it being the best thing that ever happened to them. We also know it because we have all felt it: even my best mate from home who is a dedicated monogamist told me in an interview for the book that she had thought about it, about sleeping with other people. But she wouldn’t act on it. When I asked why, she said: "Because I’m married!"
It was then I realized that marriage has been used as a mechanism for us to cleave off our imaginations of the possibilities of what could be. One of my biggest fears is not of marriage itself and the good things it represents — trying, togetherness, celebration — but of slowly whittling down my desires until I’m cleaning the skirting boards every day and ordering a Magimix. Why? Because I’m married!
As research, I spent a fair amount of time speaking with people in poly and open marriages. People who got married for similar reasons to why most get married, really: a nice day, stability in a world that’s unstable, love. In fact, some of the most inspirational stories I heard were ones where poly married people had found that opening up their marriage had in fact strengthened the primary partnership. Because it gave them space elsewhere to discuss the problems in their marriage. Because they didn’t feel that dreadful feeling of being tied down. Because they didn’t have to declare to the world that since they are now married they are no longer desirable. Because they had more sex. And because they felt what is known as compersion — a sort of good jealousy, one that makes you feel happy for your partner and makes you desire them more because someone else desires them too.
In truth, I still find the two – marriage and non-monogamy – somewhat at odds. A big part of me wonders why even get married if you’re going to do something perceived as so radical once inside it. Another large part of me wonders if I do want the Magimix and the monogamy? But perhaps a growing part of me can imagine a world in which there can be both. A world in which marriage means marriage, and does not mean things it is not: Love. Friendship. Forever. Monogamy.

More from Relationships