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Monogamy is not the problem, expectations are
Has monogamy outlived its purpose? Would freedom from fidelity make us happier? Dr Meg Barker, a psychologist and researcher on non-conventional relationships, talks to TOI-CREST about the fate of exclusive relationships in a highly commercialised world that over-emphasises sex
Has monogamy put too much pressure on relationships/marriages?
Monogamy, as such, is not the problem, but rather the idea that one universal form of monogamy works for everybody: one where our romantic partner is seen as by far the most important person in our lives, other friendships and relationships are devalued, and we expect our romantic partner to fulfill all our needs.
Relationships and marriages are under pressure when we expect them to provide a happily-everafter and a perfect life, and when we look to them to meet our needs for security, self-validation, passion, support, companionship, and everything else.
Is it unrealistic to expect marriage to give us romance, a great sex life, children etc?
This is definitely a big part of the problem. In a world where people often move away from their communities, where religions are in decline, and where work is precarious, it seems like people are turning more and more to partners or spouses to give them all of those things. Also, in a very commercialised world, a lot of products are sold on the basis of idealised romantic relationships. Commercials suggest that if you buy this item you will be attractive enough to snare the perfect partner, or you will find yourself in the perfect relationship. We are bombarded with images of happy couples which increases the sense of pressure on such relationships.
Should we abandon monogamy altogether or does it still serve some purpose?
Again, it is not monogamy that should be abandoned, but rather this ideal of a perfect romantic relationship that can fulfill all our needs. A more realistic understanding is that we have many valuable relationships in our lives (including family, friends, colleagues, etc. ) and that all relationships have difficulties as well as their good points. We should also abandon the idea that one kind of relationship works for everybody and, instead, embrace the diversity of different kinds of relationships that are possible. People can have more or less exclusive versions of monogamy (for example, many have other close friends who they spend time with, go on holiday with, or turn to in a crisis). There are 'new monogamy' and 'monogam-ish' relationships which are open to flirtations and some physical contact outside the couple. Some prefer to stay single and have 'hookups' or 'friends-with-benefit' arrangements. Swingers and people in open relationships have sexual relationships outside their main partnership. And polyamorous people have multiple romantic relationships in all different kinds of arrangements.
The title of your book is 'Rewriting the Rules'. Can you tell us a few rules that couples need to rewrite?
Absolutely! One important one is that partners should never conflict. Actually, living up alongside somebody else is one of the most challenging things that we can do. They will see sides of us that we feel uncomfortable about, and vice versa. There is bound to be conflict. Instead of trying to avoid conflict at all costs, we can realise that conflict is something we can learn from - about our vulnerabilities - and actually become more intimate with our partners in the process. Another rule is that people must be having 'great sex' in order to have a good relationship. There is a huge pressure to be sexual in certain ways, and many
people are anxious about sex to the point of having 'sexual dysfunctions' and seeing sex therapists. Again, we need to abandon the idea that there is one 'right' way of being sexual, embrace the diversity of sexual practices that exist, and learn to communicate better about these in relationships. Also, there are many relationships which work very well without being sexual.
Which model is better - the European approach which is more forgiving of the occasional indiscretion or an open relationship/polyamory?
I am skeptical of any model that involves deceit, so my preference would be for people to communicate openly about their preferences around fidelity in all kinds of relationships. Certainly forgiveness is an important element of relationships, because people will make mistakes in all kinds of areas, but it is also important to open up the idea that we might be honest about the different relationships in our lives, rather than feeling that we have to hide them.
Does polyamory come with its own set of problems such as jealousy?
All forms of relationships come with problems. Just as there are problems if monogamous people think that they will meet 'the one' perfect partner, there are also problems if polyamorous people, or people in open relationships, believe that they can find some kind of perfect relationship set-up.
When it comes to jealousy, this certainly doesn't go away with polyamory. But many polyamorous people say that they don't find jealousy to be as big a problem as others might expect. When people are treated respectfully, and everyone is honest about what they are doing, it can often feel less overwhelming. Indeed, many people report feeling a warm positive feeling on seeing their partner happy with another partner, sometimes called 'compersion' or feeling 'frubbly'. Many polyamorous people report that time management is a bigger problem than jealousy!
How do you see the whole Petraeus affair? Should a man lose his job over infidelity?
I can't comment on a specific case, but if wider culture could allow people to be more open about having more than one sexual attraction, or relationship, then they might feel less of a need to keep these hidden, with all the suffering that frequently goes along with such secrecy.
Do only the rich and powerful cheat?
This isn't something that I have researched myself, but I imagine that cheating happens across all levels of society when the cultural rules are that people cannot have sexual or romantic relationships outside their main partnership (which must meet all their needs).
There is also a cultural over-emphasis on sex and sexual relationships which adds to their allure. Perhaps learning to appreciate all of the different connections we have with people, rather than privileging sexual connections so very highly, would also be a good direction to go in.
Meg Barker blogs at www. rewritingtherules. wordpress. com
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