The March Toward a 'New' Monogamy Should End in Somerville | Opinion

Given the disorienting speed of social change these days, it's entirely plausible that a confluence of forces will soon seek to revise the societal understanding of marriage as a strictly monogamous institution. The latest evidence comes courtesy of Somerville, Massachusetts, where city leaders last week unanimously approved an ordinance that permits more than one domestic partner. In other words, Somerville now recognizes polyamorous (or consensual non-monogamous) couplings, granting them rights similar to married couples.

Certainly, in some circumstances, domestic partnerships can help unmarried couples visit hospitalized loved ones or obtain health insurance benefits. Passing such ordinances is nothing new, even though the number of partners one can now have in Somerville is.

But this news shouldn't come as a surprise. The rejection of monogamy within marriage has long been identified as the next port in the journey of society's trend toward sexual libertarianism. Social science scholars have already called for the legal and cultural recognition of consensual non-monogamy, including the legalization of polyamorous group marriages. In his book, Legalizing Plural Marriage: The Next Frontier of Family Law, Emory law professor Mark Goldfeder presents the push for polyamory as something of an inevitability. And now, with the Somerville ordinance, lawyers and activists throughout the country will undoubtedly seek to pursue similar measures at local, state and federal levels.

But is a dash to cultural acceptance and legalization of consensual non-monogamous marital relationships a wise course to take?

Some will argue that this is simply a long-overdue gesture to accommodate America's increasingly diverse familial landscape. As a Somerville city councilor, Lance Davis, commented to the press: "When the government has tried to define a family in the past, that hasn't always gone very well." So, he concludes, "that's not a business we should be in."

This comment sounds well enough intentioned, but it also glibly skips over the many legitimate reasons why government is involved in defining and even incentivizing certain familial structures. At a minimum, such questions should be a matter of public debate. But no such discussion appears to have taken place during the Somerville City Council's deliberations. Indeed, if press reports are accurate, little thought—not to mention studied consideration—was given to this and other issues before the ordinance was unanimously passed.

Did anyone consult city attorneys about the potential concerns from insurance companies? Did they poll community members and employers? Did they consider the opinions of those who might raise concerns regarding the implications of non-monogamy for the well-being of both adults and children, or for the institution of marriage more generally?

For those of us who've spent time looking at the phenomenon of consensual non-monogamy, there are indeed reasonable concerns about the asymmetry of such relationships, the unknown impact of such arrangements on children, and what influence new marital arrangements might have on public norms. These questions should prompt greater reflection and investigation from lawmakers and social change agents before rubber-stamping a wave of new ordinances.

For starters, although advocates of modern American polyamory often call it "consensual," studies suggest that, in reality, asymmetries often exists in these relationships. How consensual is it, for example, when a primary-breadwinner spouse presents his/her partner with the option of consensual non-monogamy or divorce? One survey conducted by our colleagues at Brigham Young University's School of Family Life indicates that less than a majority of the women surveyed who had participated in a consensual non-monogamous relationship reported that the arrangement was desired equally among partners. Men, it turns out, "desired an open sexual relationship almost four times more than their female counterparts."

And, as author Esther Perel points out in her book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, for some couples, non-monogamy is "consensually" granted for one partner, but the other often remains monogamous. Non-monogamous couplings often divide into primary and secondary relationships, with differing levels of commitment, investment and satisfaction between the pairings. With practical barriers to equal levels of affection, Perel observes: "The collision of autonomies threatens every modern romance, but in polyamory it can become a multi-vehicle pileup."

And then there are the potential negative outcomes associated with non-monogamy for adults and children. Expanded couplings can be associated with the kind of instability and family churning that negatively impacts children. This is because, as Perel and others observe, consensual non-monogamous relationships resist restrictive corralling from already settled familial obligations. Although some have suggested that many loving hands around the house make easier work of childrearing, there may also be potential risks associated with adding non-biological parental arrangements. To be clear, we have limited data on the effects of consensual non-monogamous homes on children (in fact, the literature gives little attention at all to children). We assume that many, if not most, participants make for loving and caring parents, but given the consistent research that children living under the roof of a non-biologically intact parent are at a higher risk for experiencing various forms of abuse or neglect, there are reasons for researchers and policymakers to study these emerging familial forms before hastily advancing new laws.

Boston, Massachusetts skyline
Boston, Massachusetts skyline Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Beyond such questions is yet another: What will it mean for society if we gradually fence monogamy into just another "lifestyle choice," rather than a broad, time-tested societal virtue worthy of a special status? If we decide that monogamy in marriage is just one option, something to be negotiated according to personal preferences and circumstances, then we risk losing the virtuous role marital norms like commitment and sexual fidelity play in society. These concepts stabilize relationships and guard against untold social sorrows. They teach self-mastery over self-indulgence and cultivate presence over absenteeism.

Many proponents of consensual non-monogamy, however, see it differently. For them, the virtues of polyamory are actually superior to those of monogamy. Prominent sociologist Judith Stacey puts it bluntly in her book, Unhitched: "Monogamy is not natural or even possible for everyone. ...[S]exual variation, on the other hand, is natural and should be no cause for distress." Another scholar argues that fidelity in consensual non-monogamous relationships can be seen as a strong commitment to open, honest communication with partners, free disclosure about other sexual partners and preserving zones of specialness—usually through negotiated rules about what is and is not acceptable within outside relationships or encounters. But if couples exhibit the willpower to live up to such detailed rules and relationship expectations, why couldn't they also live up to marital norms regarding sexual exclusivity?

Ultimately, reimagining monogamy represents a direct threat to the foundational understanding of marriage. Indeed, monogamy—exclusive physical and emotional commitment to one's spouse—may be the most crucial defining element of family life, its symbolic heart and a key source of the personal and societal benefits that marriage helps produce. In an age of nearly unrestricted sexuality outside of marriage, it's even more meaningful to voluntarily step inside the bounds of a marriage and promise exclusivity. But if we make monogamy optional even within marriage—open to negotiations and subject to gender power dynamics and fleeting romantic feelings—it further guts the institution's power to guide us toward the enduring virtues of commitment, fidelity and familial stability.

Do we really think dismissing the normative power of monogamy won't affect others' choices, norms and relationship dynamics? If sexual infidelity is no longer off the table, you can bet that many more will indulge extra-dyadic sex more often and resist such thoughts less often. And with the moral opprobrium that normally checks such thoughts deflated, spouses wishing to maintain the monogamist status quo will find their pleas falling flat; they will push back without the benefit of moral suasion or even cultural expectation. Lamentably, we fear it will further disenfranchise those with the least power and means.

Sure, a few will have the skills, cultural cache or economic resources to push back or to make polyamory work—or, alternatively, to navigate any fallout when a non-monogamous coupling ends. But for those with lesser means and skills—the vast majority of us—it's not unreasonable to believe that it will cause many needless problems. As one thoughtful observer notes, "polyamory is the latest expression of sexual freedom championed by the affluent. They are in a better position to manage the complications of novel relationship arrangements. And if these relationships don't work out, they can recover thanks to their financial capability and social capital. The less fortunate suffer by adopting the beliefs of the upper class."

Civic representatives of the pleasant, upper-class community of Somerville Massachusetts fired the starting gun for efforts to legally recognize non-monogamous marriages. But we as a society should think carefully about whether that's truly the finish line we want.

Alan J. Hawkins is a professor of family life and director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University (BYU). Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family life at BYU and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.

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