It's Time To Rethink Monogamy

Photo: Meg O'Donnell
“It feels very much like falling in love at the beginning. A bit like dating. You make an effort to see that person very regularly.”
Rosie Wilby, comedian and author of Is Monogamy Dead? is describing love-affair friendships – platonic relationships that come with the heady beginnings of a new romance and then weather the dips and peaks that you experience in a long-term, romantic relationship. It's just one of the fresh definitions of relationships Wilby explores in her book.
The word 'monogamy' comes from Greek, a combination of the words ‘alone’ and ‘marriage’; it can also mean one true love. As Wilby points out, in modern relationships we’ve adapted our understanding of the word to mean having one romantic partner at a time – rather than for life – with many of us practising serial monogamy.
Monogamy’s opposite (at least in Greek times) was polygamy – having more than one spouse at a time. But, Wilby says, a more relevant term today might be polyamory (apparently coined by a neo-pagan community leader in the 1990s). It means ‘many loves’, an idea that Wilby researched for her book in both its sexual and platonic sense.
The former required frequently pushing herself out of her comfort zone, from visiting a lesbian sauna party where she found herself feeling like a “monogamous prude” to performing a comedy routine at the start of a sex party. “It was a really happy audience because they were all off to have sex after the cabaret,” she says. “But when I was hanging around for a bit, there was a little part of me thinking, ‘Oh gosh, am I going to stay around for a bit? Join in with this?’”
The other form of polyamory Wilby discusses is the intimate relationships that we have with our friends, each of them probably meeting our different needs and desires. Maybe your old school friend is your trusted confidant, while your newest work mate is the best fun on a night out, for example – but each is important to you.
Stephanie Boland, 27, an academic and journalist who lives in London, talks to me about her friendships. She describes the deep emotional bonds she has with her three closest friends, who she met around six years ago while studying for a master's degree.
The commitment of those friendships is similar to that of a long-term relationship, or even a marriage. Mentioning her friend Alexi, she says: “He says, ‘If I’m 80 and I end up single, will you and our other friends still be around?’ I feel positive [our friendship] will be a lifelong relationship. Whether or not I’ve had a partner at the time, it’s always been a steadfast relationship in my life.”
In her book, Wilby writes that intimate friendships are important to our emotional wellbeing. She tells me: “I think those friendships can really support our primary relationships, our sexual ones.”
Rochelle White, a 31-year-old managing director from Milton Keynes agrees: “Having people outside of a relationship can sometimes help you see things better or understand your partner's side if you have a disagreement or argument.” She says her six closest friends, a mix of men and women, all of whom she’s known for at least 11 years, often give her a helpful perspective on romantic matters.
Wilby says friendships can follow a similar narrative to relationships. “[At the start of a friendship] I’ve felt this excitement of seeing this new person, even if it’s a friend who I know I’m not going to have sex with.” Wilby, who is gay, suggests that women in platonic friendships are especially close. “There’s something about finding out about that other person’s favourite music or films or food or movies or so on; I think there are some similarities [to dating].”
While Boland says she didn’t experience the first-date expectations of waiting for a text or invite when she first met her closest friends, she did feel the same kind of nerves you experience when first talking to someone you fancy. “[They were] slightly older, quite self-assured and both incredibly handsome as well, so I was slightly intimidated by them.”
She adds: “We do talk about how we first met in the terms that you would about first meeting a romantic partner there was kind of that meet-cute feeling about it.”
But while platonic friendships can follow a similar formula to romantic relationships, perhaps because there is less pressure on them to succeed than there is on a romantic relationship, they can survive without sticking to a particular course. Boland says one of her closest friends lives in Dublin, which takes more of an effort to stay in touch but doesn’t threaten the friendship.
“I think I’d find it far more daunting having a partner overseas," she says. “I think the stakes in terms of your ego are maybe slightly different with a friendship. We have so many cultural narratives about romantic rejection.”
Wilby talks about society’s expectations for relationship milestones. “You have to follow this very prescribed narrative in a relationship, sort of constantly moving forwards from dating to marriage to kids, through all these stages.” Friendships don’t come with the same weight of assumptions.
Wilby, who is now in a long-term monogamous relationship, explains her biggest learnings from working on her book, and her stand-up show of the same name: “There are no universalities about love, no binaries, even for one person as they go through a romantic life. Every relationship is unique and new boundaries need to be negotiated. Even within that relationship they will alter over time.”
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