Loving and free

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With same sex and gay marriage now law, and the first weddings due to take place early year, Rosie Wilby wonders whether monogamy is all it’s cracked up to be

It struck me as a bittersweet irony that just as many of my friends were recently celebrating the passage of the same-sex marriage bill through the House of Lords, I was in the midst of writing a new comedy show called Is Monogamy Dead? debunking the romantic fairytale of “the one”.

Of course, I’d supported all of the equal marriage campaigns yet couldn’t help feeling that we were buying into something of a broken institution. Who cares about being left “on the shelf” when the shelf is stocked with tempting goodies? Heterosexual couples hadn’t exactly succeeded at this commitment lark. Divorce rates are up at about one every three minutes, while “cheating” dating sites soar in popularity.

Many opponents of same sex marriage or couplings warned that the next step might be multiple marriages. Would that be such a terrible thing? Why are humans so uncomfortable with the fact that we can’t really satisfy our every need with one other?

Traditionally, gay men have always been less monogamous than lesbians yet many stay emotionally faithful, albeit within a negotiated open relationship. In a recent interview on my radio show, my friend and fellow performer Nick Field could only think of one long-term couple he knew who didn’t have such as arrangement. While the male gay scene admittedly does teeter dangerously towards a super-saturated hyper-sexuality that feeds potential addiction, part of me finds this honesty refreshing. Most of us enjoy sex, not always with our partner.

In fact, a recent book by Daniel Bergner revealed that women crave sexual novelty just as much as men and perhaps get even more of a chemical high from it. After my show in Edinburgh, I had conversations with many heterosexual and bisexual women who had surprisingly one-sided agreements with husbands who allowed them to sleep with other partners but didn’t want to do so themselves. These women seemed particularly glowing, revelling in having both freedom and security. Which begs the question: why are lesbians, broadly speaking, so monogamous? A US study of nearly 7000 people found that in the year 2000, sexual activity outside a relationship was down to 8% among gay women and 59% among gay men with heterosexuals around 14% (intriguingly after much higher stats across the board in the swinging 70s).

When I posed this question recently on Facebook, suggested theories ranged from “superiority complex – lesbians try to construct a perfect relationship even if it’s constrictive” to sheer apathy and the comfort of home versus having to go out on the scene.

When I asked my ex, now good friend, if she would ever have an open relationship she said, “No, I don’t think I could do that.” Then, after a pause and a smile, she added: “But what about love affair friendships?”

It occurred to me that perhaps we are all more polyamorous than we admit. Polyamory has been around since the free love movement of the 60s yet the word came into usage in 1990. I was fairly new to the concept and assumed it was similar to an open relationship. Yet instead I discovered a world of multiple consensual deep loving connections, not always sexual ones. So when we stay “friends” with an ex, maybe we need to admit that the relationship merely changed rather than ended. All that shared history renders it vastly different to a platonic friendship that has always been so.

The compromise most of my peer group tend towards is serial monogamy (with the occasional affair thrown in). I’ve always alternated between a “nice” partner who treats me well and a “naughty” partner who feels more exciting because she doesn’t – each one compensating for lingering frustrations from the previous relationship and fulfilling different chemical needs in my brain. Experiments have shown much higher dopamine peaks resulting from an unexpected reward. Constant presents and treats become too predictable. If you’re amazingly generous more sparingly, your partner will appreciate it more than if it becomes stiflingly routine. But too infrequently, and she’ll be insecure.

Perhaps a more realistic way to approach marriage would be to have a contract that expires every two years with the opportunity to positively choose your partner again if you want to. We tend to stay faithful to our mobile phone providers but would probably be horrified if they suggested a lifetime contract it’d be really traumatic and expensive to get out of. Pagan “handfasting” customs work a bit like this, with a trial marriage of a year and a day that you’re free to walk away from after that time if you want to.

If we are more honest with ourselves about the neuroscience of romantic love – passion dies, and there’s not much we can do about it – then maybe we can work out how to incorporate the heady fizzy thrill of new lovers while we have longer, happier relationships with our primary partner that we’ve built a home, a social group and a life with, instead of having to leave and lose all of this.

We are relatively lucky in this country that we have achieved many important milestones in heading towards full LGBT and gay equality. But there’s no point in then enforcing our own rules and judgements (or even adopting hetero normative ones) that make us miserable.

Let’s celebrate these new equal legal rights throughout our all myriad relationship styles – monogamous, open, polyamorous, single and, in some cases, happily celibate.

Rosie Wilby tours her show Is Monogamy Dead? this autumn. www.rosiewilby.com for details