Western culture seems to aggressively preach the happily-ever-after fairytale of monogamy. We grow up watching movies in which the endings almost always include the male and female protagonists getting married—or the implication that they will be married and forever content with only one another. This is portrayed as a life goal to young children and, as they mature, the societal message remains fairly consistent.
If this is the lesson ingrained in us—as we’re absorbing it from such young ages—why is infidelity so rampant in committed monogamous relationships? I can’t help but question the cogency of the belief that exclusivity with a single partner is always the ideal arrangement.
My objective is not to condemn the institution of monogamy or marriage—I know many happy, faithful couples and I consider myself to be solely interested in such a model—I simply aim to express my concern about it being taught as the end-all-be-all structure of success. Furthermore, the idea that romance is necessarily crucial to any individual’s fulfillment in the first place is not entirely valid.
It appears though that society is developing an increasingly progressive and open-minded view about intimacy and commitment. Personally, I believe the Internet and reality television are two of the major influences on this emerging change. The Internet is an extraordinary tool that allows us to express ourselves anonymously, letting anyone and everyone voice their true desires and practices of infidelity without judgment or consequences.
Through reality television, we get glimpses into couples’ cheating issues—even if these reality shows are actually scripted, the public views them through the lens of reality and relates them to their own situations. With the Ashley Madison leak earlier this year, it became clear just how common cheating is—especially because Ashley Madison is only one of the countless resources people can use to become involved in such escapades.
I return to my original meditation: perhaps the tradition of monogamy as idyllic is naïve. Of course, couples can successfully engage in it and achieve the happily-ever-after, but it seems clear that the model does not work for everyone. Just as I am familiar with many couples living out that dream, I also know just as many couples—if not more—who have suffered heartbreak because the archetype proved itself to be unrealistic. It’s conceivable that if the expectation of monogamy had never existed as the only acceptable constitution, an honest conversation could have occurred and a bond of shared understanding of occasional, meaningless “cheating” could have been formed as a healthy tolerance of one another’s humanness.
Not all cultures practice monogamy or the concept of marriage, nor do most other species. In fact, evolutionary instincts would seem to point at exactly the opposite: mate with as many others in one’s community as possible, as frequently as possible.
Particularly with the recent phenomenon of hookup culture in Western society—mostly amongst young people—the notion of following the prescription of monogamy looks like it’s becoming outdated. I’ve noticed that rising generations are increasingly becoming more experimental in how they participate in intimacy and romance. In addition, many couples—monogamous or not—are choosing not to get married at all. Some people are even foregoing the concept of dating altogether, preferring sexual intimacy without labels.
There are endless configurations for how individuals can assemble their sex lives, dating lives, and marriages because even in marriage, some partners recognize that their physical desires may sometimes need to trickle outside the conventional bounds of matrimony.
Questioning socially-created standards for relationships is nothing new, but it is only just now becoming widely accepted and sometimes encouraged. Writing in the early 1800s, author Jane Austen subtly implied in most of her works that the traditional boy-meets-girl story was unreasonable—a risky position to voice during that era. Today, such sentiments are commonly expressed and seem to be attracting positive reactions and support.
My reflection on this topic leads me to conclude that accepting messages that preach monogamy as the only course relationships should take is not only unrealistic, but also damaging to those people grappling with conflicting desires. I believe Western culture's current transition toward approval of unconventional forms of intimacy and relationships is enlightened and should be nurtured.