Notes on Monogamy


Elizabeth Benedict

I think of it as one of those radioactive M-words, along with Mother, Money, Marriage, and Madness. Words that set off tripwires in our memories, that light up stories that are impossible to forget, the way a PET scan lights up cancer cells.

A word that is difficult to discuss in mixed company: people in relationships where monogamy is not a shared commodity. A word linked so intimately, so naturally, to the I-word, infidelity, that it can cut to the bone.

A word whose most salient property is its fragility.

If we believe it defines our marriages or committed relationships, all it takes is one illicit text, a sultry look, or a strange credit card charge to undo everything we believed was true about our lives.

Monogamy is the default narrative in the straight, much-married culture in which I live, having been in two long, committed relationships for the better part of the last thirty-five years. I have friends and colleagues who dwell in other cultures where it’s not the default, in 21st century versions of “open marriage,” and though I am not privy to the details, my middle- of-the-road monogamy is not on their menu. Other friends are in marriages with “arrangements” forged in fury and despair – understandings that there are or have been other lovers, but the operative word is “resigned” rather than “open.” Or some version of, “It would be too wrenching to end this and start over at our ages, with all we’ve invested.” But who knows? There might one day be a tipping point when the promise of another life outweighs the upheaval of divorce. In the meantime, they put on a show of happy coupledom for their children, their families, and sometimes themselves. Like Winnicott’s idea of the “good enough mother,” these “good enough marriages” do not appear to be in imminent danger of ending.

On and off over the years, I have kept their secrets, provided crisis counseling, and felt varying degrees of distress and guilt vis à vis their spouses. I am always more or less astonished that they carry on illicitly because I’m quite sure I would not do this any more than I would remain in a relationship in which I had real reason to worry about being cheated on. Or so I think from the comfortable, happily-married, monogamous perch from which I make this claim. Marriage, with its intricate layers of connection, routine, and dependence, calls on us to accept behavior from ourselves and others that we never imagined we would countenance, including leaving spouses when we know we are ripping them apart.

Your Cheatin’ Heart. Who’s Sorry Now? Runaround Sue. Take Another Little Piece of My Heart. You’re No Good. Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind? (If you can’t be with the one you love) Love the One You’re With. Maybellene (Why can’t you be true?). Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song. And perhaps one of the few songs that attempts to advise on how to avoid adultery: If You Wanna Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life (Never make a pretty woman your wife). Where would we be – and what would we sing about – without infidelity?

But back to monogamy – for a moment, anyway. The problem is that I can barely light on it before the I-word roars up, like a giraffe that was always lurking in the tall trees. In this way it resembles another of the M-words, marriage, which makes us think so quickly of “divorce” and of Voltaire’s delicious quip that divorce was invented shortly after marriage was.

When I do light on it, I wonder why it sounds so much like monotony, and why it can taste so often like medicine of the harshest kind. A word so full of ripples, ramifications, looping free associations, that it’s hard to know where to begin when considering it or how to actually stay with it because it has this habit of leaping away just when you think you have it cornered. In truth – in case truth has any validity in matters of sex – it gives me agita to think too hard about it. Monogamy, monotony, adultery, my ex-husband. But no, it wasn’t like that – my scoundrel ex. He was not the cheater. I was, sort of.

*  *  *

It is Adam Phillips’ elegant, provocative, and curious book, Monogamy, published in 1996, that gives rise to my own ruminations here – not that I haven’t thought about it before. I often thought before: I like infidelity better in books and movies than in real life. I often thought before: Would either of my two husbands become philanderers, like my philandering father? I often thought before: If you cheat on me, I’ll break your face.

Psychoanalyst Phillips has listened to enough stories like mine to want to move the monogamy conversation to a higher plane, which he does in this slender volume of 121 brief aperçus, some as short as a sentence. In tiny, elegant bursts, he holds forth as a psychoanalyst-philosopher on the puzzles and paradoxes of the word, moving from the obvious to the insightful and, too often, to comments as hard to unlock as Rubik’s Cube, no matter how many times you try. (“Most infidelities aren’t ugly, they just look as though they are.”) Now and then, perhaps in honor of Whitman and Emerson, he seems to flat-out contradict himself. Yet by the time he does, we see it’s not a failure of reasoning or a mistake but further evidence that the word is as slippery as an eel and that we are always talking about it to ourselves, wondering what might happen if we reconsidered monogamy or if our devoted partner reconsidered us.

Phillips is not writing an ordinary how-to book – how to survive monogamy, marriage, or infidelity – but a book on the dizzying issues at play here: the comforts and tedium of familiarity, the outlaw allure of illicit sex, “the secular grace that sustains our belief in frustration.” He’s interested in the ways monogamy connects to “virtually everything that matters,” and, in the book’s preface, he lists 43 things that matter, among them: honesty, murder, kindness, security, choice, revenge, children, ecstasy, money, peace, loneliness, humiliation, betrayal, intimacy, “and, of course, the family.” It is quite a list and quite a word, if you can focus on it with this degree of concentration. “Like a magnet that collects our virtues and vices, monogamy makes the larger abstractions real, as religion once did.”

Monogamy, he says, is “a kind of moral nexus, a keyhole through which we can spy on our preoccupations.” Yet I wonder, when he says that “For some of us—perhaps the fortunate, or at least, the affluent—monogamy is the only serious philosophical question,” whether that might have changed since 1996. Could the rise of global terrorism, tyrannies and the planet’s temperature – plus the persistence of a global pandemic – have collapsed some of the space between the affluent and the less affluent as everyone confronts mortality and scarcity in new ways – and might all of that have rearranged the primacy of monogamy?

That’s only one of the many questions his book inspires. Another set is much smaller and has to do with his decision to write the book entirely in aphorisms. It’s enchanting, seductive, and puzzling. Each number is a nugget of wisdom we are meant to ponder, a distillation of years of thinking, listening, life experience – Pascal’s Pensées, Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” But in staying with aphorisms, Phillips eschews stories, explanations, and – as was the practice for therapists writing 25 years ago – his own circumstances. Yet in their brevity, elusiveness, and lack of personal detail – about Phillips’ life or anyone else’s – they can feel incomplete, not quite filling enough for a meal. And in their leanness, I wonder what the author is not saying. Which makes me wonder what he might be hiding. Which makes me feel like a person wondering if her partner is cheating on her. Just what did you think you were flirting with on page 37?

“Suspicion,” he writes at one point,“is a philosophy of hope. It makes us believe that there is something to know and something worth knowing. It makes us believe there is something rather than nothing. In this sense, sexual jealousy is a form of optimism, if only for philosophers.”

Reading that gives me reason to hope he is hiding something – perhaps his own discontent – that would help me understand more of why he’s so captivated by the subject. He’s under no obligation to say anything, least of all to the reader, but he’s created a relationship with us, and he seems to be saying, “I will tell you this and nothing more.”

If Phillips is working through some of his own struggles in these bursts, it makes sense that he chose to write about the subject in such a tight container. On the other hand, even if you’re not singing “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” in the shower, monogamy is so hard to dig into that reducing his thoughts to tiny essays might have kept him from going mad.

Still, there is plenty to consider here that does not depend on knowing the details of Phillips’ personal life or his deepest motivations for the form of the enquiry. His movements through so many of the paradoxes emphasize the acute fragility of monogamy now that it’s no longer part of a package of religious and moral structures that kept us in check until what he marks as “the second half of the nineteenth century” or – my addition – until the invention of the birth control pill.

While he tosses out ideas that can seem more clever than useful – among them that infidelity is such a problem because monogamy is the norm, so perhaps we should make infidelity the norm – he can nail a notion that makes much else come into focus: “One reason monogamy is so important to us is that we are so terrorised by what we imagine are the alternatives to it.” And this: “Fidelity shouldn’t always be taken personally.” And although we don’t really need the thrill of novelty explained to us, his description has some of that illicit energy in it: “The outlaw, the femme fatale, the heretic, the double agent, the pun—infidelity gets all the action. It has the glamor of the bad secret and good lie. It travels because it has to — it believes in elsewhere. So what would we have to do to make monogamy glamorous? Or rather, what would we have to stop doing?”

Elsewhere in the volume, he has more than a few kind words to say about holy matrimony and monogamy – including the idea that “familiarity may increase our affection … but it rarely increases our desire.” Yet, he adds, in something of a twist, that particular dulling may be a good thing because “strangeness is exciting but it threatens to derange us.”

Part of his bearing down so hard on monogamy is that he sees evidence of it in places I hadn’t thought to look: “Our survival at the very beginning of our lives involves us in something like monogamy. Our growing up involves us in something like infidelity (we challenge our parents, we betray them, we let them down). So when we think about monogamy we think about it as though we are still children and not adults as well. We don’t know what adults think about monogamy.”

*  *  *

I haven’t taken a poll, but I think most people know what they think about monogamy, or at least they do after a marriage and a divorce or two, whether they practice it, whether their partners do, or whether it’s seen as hopelessly conventional, not worth the bother. In my own first marriage, which became increasingly unhappy for me, I ended the marriage before I “committed adultery,” though there was someone whose presence lured me to leave. Was that infidelity or just the ordinary, extraordinary mess of relationships ending?

When some of my friends were unfaithful, they did it without any intention of ending their marriages, with people they would never marry. The flings were spontaneous, impetuous, the stuff of bad movies. In one case, it was the soccer coach at the child’s school, the assignations on school grounds. I was dumbstruck by the audacity, the danger. For another couple, the husband’s brazen affair was an exit from a long, faithless marriage. He married the new woman right away, their faith in marriage – and probably monogamy – unshaken. In my own unhappy marriage, I did not have to resort to these dramas. I had the luxury, let us say, to leave. I was not trapped with dependent children and no way to make money. Still, it was the hardest thing I had ever done.

Monogamy and infidelity represent the poles of order and chaos in our intimate lives. Our choices always preclude other choices. Writing about it is a way of finding order or answers or solace, but maybe all we discover is that we’re all on a continuously moving train, not safely inside a secure building as we’d imagined. I can’t help but notice that Phillips’ Monogamy was first published in 1996, the year of my divorce. The world has turned upside down quite a few times since then, and my own life along with it, but monogamy and infidelity, I’m certain, are not going anywhere.