"The Role Non-Monogamy Will Play in the Future of Marriage"
The Atlantic is one of America's old-line big-think magazines, up there with Harper's and The New Yorker. It's currently tackling the weighty subject of America's fast-changing relationship culture, in articles online and as the cover story of its November issue.
First, on The Atlantic's website is a long interview with author Pamela Haag. Excerpts:
Contrary to its "sanctity," marriage has changed over time in both perception and practice. Even the Bible was once suspicious of marriage -- it was seen as more holy to be celibate, and, in many cultures throughout time, polygamy is the preferred relationship model. Women have also been sold from father to husband. But perhaps most shockingly, monogamy hasn't always been central to American marriages as Pamela Haag, author of the book Marriage Confidential, explains in this interview about the institution's future -- and the role non-monogamy is already playing.
What are the "secretly transgressive" marriages you describe in your book?
If you're at a cocktail party with 20 married couples, chances are, one or two are in openly non-monogamous marriages. They're the marriage next door. They pay the bills, go to Little League games, recycle -- and maybe on the weekend go on swinging holidays.
Have the rules of monogamy in marriage always been so strict?
The 1950s -- a so-called golden era of "family values" -- was more tolerant of covert affairs than the 1980s. This was more true for husbands than for wives, but not entirely. Kinsey found in his research that a fair percentage of wives had affairs too.
In the 1950s there was a fair amount of "wink, wink" tolerance for a gap between the monogamy ideal and reality. The conservative 1980s were more about regulating behavior; religious social conservatives not only wanted us to act as if we were monogamous, they wanted us to be monogamous. Monogamy became a stricter social ethic.
But the reality is that a fair number of spouses cheat, and we forbid cheating. So, we end up with what I call the "shocking banality" of infidelity: It happens all the time and we're shocked by it all the time.
When did we begin to see an opening up of non-monogamy in marriage?
My argument is that in the 1970s free love and non-monogamy had a certain chic to them, but they didn't have solid foundations in demography, economy, or technology.
Today, the idea of openly non-monogamous marriages has no political chic to it, but it does have a more solid foundation in demography (we live longer and are healthier than ever), economy (women earn their own paycheck, and don't rely on the sexual contract in marriage for their meal ticket), and technology (we're connected to people more than ever).
So marital monogamy is under greater stress today. And I think it's being deliberately rethought and re-evaluated by a post-romantic generation that sees the main function of marriage as friendship, an establishment of a home base -- not sexual passion and fidelity, per se....
How are things different for younger generations, such as my own, who largely grew up in the '90s early '00s?
The younger generation that grew up in the 1990s is vastly more connected. It's my guess that your generation won't have the same expectation that a marriage should be the world to them. I think there will be more tolerance for having a range of intimate relationships and friendships, and a greater understanding that it's not a marital failure if you seek different things from different relationships. I also sensed that the younger generation has more pragmatic views of marriage, even more than my generation....
Read the whole interview (Oct. 3, 2011).
Next, the magazine's November cover story is impressively long at 12,000 words but is rambling and inconclusive. Some bits:
Read the whole article (November 2011 issue). And join the fast and furious comments, now more than 800. The commentary is both revealing and depressing.
All the Single Ladies
By Kate Bolick
Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the “romantic market” in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing). But this strange state of affairs also presents an opportunity: as the economy evolves, it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family — and to acknowledge the end of “traditional” marriage as society’s highest ideal.
...Today I am 39, with too many ex-boyfriends to count and, I am told, two grim-seeming options to face down: either stay single or settle for a “good enough” mate. At this point, certainly, falling in love and getting married may be less a matter of choice than a stroke of wild great luck. A decade ago, luck didn’t even cross my mind. I’d been in love before, and I’d be in love again. This wasn’t hubris so much as naïveté; I’d had serious, long-term boyfriends since my freshman year of high school, and simply couldn’t envision my life any differently.
...In the 1990s, Stephanie Coontz, a social historian at Evergreen State College in Washington, noticed an uptick in questions from reporters and audiences asking if the institution of marriage was falling apart. She didn’t think it was, and was struck by how everyone believed in some mythical Golden Age of Marriage and saw mounting divorce rates as evidence of the dissolution of this halcyon past. She decided to write a book discrediting the notion and proving that the ways in which we think about and construct the legal union between a man and a woman have always been in flux.
What Coontz found was even more interesting than she’d originally expected. In her fascinating Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, she surveys 5,000 years of human habits, from our days as hunters and gatherers up until the present, showing our social arrangements to be more complex and varied than could ever seem possible....
...No one has been hurt more by the arrival of the post-industrial economy than the stubbornly large pool of men without higher education. An analysis by Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT, reveals that, after accounting for inflation, male median wages have fallen by 32 percent since their peak in 1973, once you account for the men who have stopped working altogether. The Great Recession accelerated this imbalance....
The implications are extraordinary. If, in all sectors of society, women are on the ascent, and if gender parity is actually within reach, this means that a marriage regime based on men’s overwhelming economic dominance may be passing into extinction.
...In his book, Is Marriage for White People?, Ralph Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford, argues that the black experience of the past half century is a harbinger for society at large. “When you’re writing about black people, white people may assume it’s unconnected to them,” he told me when I got him on the phone. It might seem easy to dismiss Banks’s theory that what holds for blacks may hold for nonblacks, if only because no other group has endured such a long history of racism, and racism begets singular ills. But the reality is that what’s happened to the black family is already beginning to happen to the white family. In 1950, 64 percent of African American women were married — roughly the same percentage as white women. By 1965, African American marriage rates had declined precipitously, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan was famously declaring black families a “tangle of pathology.” Black marriage rates have fallen drastically in the years since — but then, so have white marriage rates. In 1965, when Moynihan wrote with such concern about the African American family, fewer than 25 percent of black children were born out of wedlock; in 2011, considerably more than 25 percent of white children are.
...Our cultural fixation on the couple is actually a relatively recent development. Though “pair-bonding” has been around for 3.5 million years, according to Helen Fisher, the hunters and gatherers evolved in egalitarian groups, with men and women sharing the labor equally. Both left the camp in the morning; both returned at day’s end with their bounty. Children were raised collaboratively. As a result, women and men were sexually and socially more or less equals; divorce (or its institution-of-marriage-preceding equivalent) was common. Indeed, Fisher sees the contemporary trend for marriage between equals as us “moving forward into deep history” — back to the social and sexual relationships of millions of years ago.
...Perhaps true to conservative fears, the rise of gay marriage has helped heterosexuals think more creatively about their own conventions. News stories about polyamory, “ethical nonmonogamy,” and the like pop up with increasing frequency. Gay men have traditionally had a more permissive attitude toward infidelity; how will this influence the straight world? Coontz points out that two of the hallmarks of contemporary marriage are demands for monogamy on an equal basis, and candor. “Throughout history, there was a fairly high tolerance of [men’s] extramarital flings, with women expected to look the other way,” she said. “Now we have to ask: Can we be more monogamous? Or understand that flings happen?” (She’s also noticed that an unexpected consequence of people’s marrying later is that they skip right over the cheating years.) If we’re ready to rethink, as individuals, the ways in which we structure our arrangements, are we ready to do this as a society?
In her new book, Unhitched, Judith Stacey, a sociologist at NYU, surveys a variety of unconventional arrangements, from gay parenthood to polygamy to — in a mesmerizing case study — the Mosuo people of southwest China, who eschew marriage and visit their lovers only under cover of night. “The sooner and better our society comes to terms with the inescapable variety of intimacy and kinship in the modern world, the fewer unhappy families it will generate,” she writes.
The matrilineal Mosuo are worth pausing on, as a reminder of how complex family systems can be, and how rigid ours are — and also as an example of women’s innate libidinousness, which is routinely squelched by patriarchal systems, as Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá point out in their own analysis of the Mosuo in their 2010 book, Sex at Dawn. For centuries, the Mosuo have lived in households that revolve around the women: the mothers preside over their children and grandchildren, and brothers take paternal responsibility for their sisters’ offspring.
Sexual relations are kept separate from family. At night, a Mosuo woman invites her lover to visit her babahuago (flower room); the assignation is called sese (walking). If she’d prefer he not sleep over, he’ll retire to an outer building (never home to his sisters). She can take another lover that night, or a different one the next, or sleep every single night with the same man for the rest of her life — there are no expectations or rules. As Cai Hua, a Chinese anthropologist, explains, these relationships, which are known as açia, are founded on each individual’s autonomy, and last only as long as each person is in the other’s company. Every goodbye is taken to be the end of the açia relationship, even if it resumes the following night. “There is no concept of açia that applies to the future,” Hua says.
America has a rich history of its own sexually alternative utopias, from the 19th-century Oneida Community (which encouraged postmenopausal women to introduce teenage males to sex) to the celibate Shakers, but real change can seldom take hold when economic forces remain static. The extraordinary economic flux we’re in is what makes this current moment so distinctive.
...“We are not designed, as a species, to raise children in nuclear families,” Christopher Ryan, one of the Sex at Dawn co-authors, told me over the telephone late last summer. Women who try to be “supermoms,” whether single or married, holding down a career and running a household simultaneously, are “swimming upstream.” Could we have a modernization of the Mosuo, Ryan mused, with several women and their children living together — perhaps in one of the nation’s many foreclosed and abandoned McMansions — bonding, sharing expenses, having a higher quality of life? “In every society where women have power — whether humans or primates — the key is female bonding,” he added....
The article "is a bit disappointing in its own way," remarks Bitsy, "because it doesn't take polyamory as a way of changing how one thinks about relationships seriously, despite getting to my poly-friendly thoughts by the end. Also, or maybe because, like many casual mentions it seems to dismiss [poly] as sex-focused."
Update: The Atlantic cover story, and its banality, continue to stir people up. A columnist in the U.K's Guardian echoes Bitsy above:
Referring to "couples upending norms and power structures," she describes a tall friend dating a short guy, and a woman with a younger man. With all due respect: yawn. Are these the relationship boundary-pushers we have as models of dissent? While she relies on black and white, most of us Generation Y-ers and Millennials are happily existing in the vast grey in-between. Many of us are already living and redefining these norms, from perpetual long-distance relationships to polyamorous ones.
Read the whole article: Women can be independent and intimate (Oct. 22, 2011).