“Monogamy is like using a 20-watt light bulb to read. It works, but it’s not enough.”
– Playwright John Patrick Shanley
I recently wrote a line in my newsletter that “nothing ruins a romance more than an effort to make it last”. And through heated debates and discussions with my friends, my belief in this solemn declaration has only deepened.
Yes, life is beautiful when there is love, and one should always be in love. Agreed. But that is the reason one should never marry, or indulge in long-term exclusive commitment.
Why, you ask? Perhaps because of the illusion of monogamy or exclusivity that pervades society’s notion of a marriage. Despite being a wonderful concept to most members of the civilised world, the idea of monogamy in its purest form is a cage – a ‘boundary’ of sorts for the happily-married. In the early stages of a relationship, this cage might feel like a beautiful hall of pillars. A hall where the pillars are crafted of flowers. But if Ned Stark has taught us one thing, it is that Winter will always find a way to visit. The flowers then wilt away, revealing the iron rods behind the façade. The iron rods that delineate the ‘lakshman rekhas’ you will want to cross for the rest of your life.
I hardly spew any newfound wisdom here. Like The Truman Show and The Matrix have shown us, humans can prosper in a cage only if they are unaware of it. Ignorance may be bliss, but time is the enemy of ignorance. With time, the illusion lifts and ignorance shatters. The truth that then lies exposed is rarely pristine, and hardly simple. Let me try and explain.
The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility
The law of diminishing marginal utility in Economics states that, with all things held constant, as consumption of a particular product increases, the satisfaction or happiness (utility) derived from it decreases. For instance, try and remember your favourite song from last summer when you could not stop listening to it. With time, you grew less and less satisfied with the song (even though you still liked it) – till it was replaced with another Billboard Top 50 track. Your utility from that Linkin Park song basically decreased with time.
Another example can be an all-you-eat-buffet. The satisfaction at the end of the meal is always miserly compared to the glee at the start of the buffet.
The same principle applies to relationships. The foundation of romance is its uncertainty. The risk of loss. The knowledge that like the wind, the tides of love can shift at any time. Hence, they demand our vigilance and effort (and if you are lucky, charm). A marriage within the confines of monogamy, however, ends this uncertainty to give way to indifference, nonchalance and jabs – the Bermuda Triangle of happy relationships. From being volatile and exciting like Bitcoin, romance suddenly becomes a safe bank FD. Reliable, sturdy and secure, but hardly earning any ‘interest’.
The ease of access to a thing only ruins its value. So, the question I ask is this: do you even love someone if you start treating them as ordinary after a few years? In the same breath, why love someone who treats you as if you’re ordinary? But isn’t it inevitable in our Age?
With time, the honeymoon period expires, and certainty steps in its place. Love splits through a prism to anger, neglect, lack of love and self-esteem, low commitment and need for variety and/or sexual desire, most often leading to secondary relationships with varying degrees of emotional investments. But that is the eventual outcome of any relationship in the forge of Time. It is just pure economics.
Please don’t get me wrong. I relish the idea of commitment to one person but the fact remains that the moment you sign the bond of marriage/long term relationship, you agree to the invisible clause that either of you will have the liberty to take the other for granted after the expiry of a certain period of time. And then the frustration simmers till either the relationship breaks (a desirable outcome, all things considered) or a partner cheats (undesirable outcome).
“We drove back to the hotel and said goodbye. How hypocritical to leave the man you want to be with for a man you don’t want, and then, in great excitement, have sex with the one you don’t want while pretending he’s the one you do. That’s monogamy.”
– Author Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973).
The only way people resist temptation is by yielding to it. When you fall in love, you start with deceiving yourself of an illusion, and end it with deceiving your partner. That is why it is not at all surprising how despite universal condemnation, cheating is a phenomenon that takes place with amazing regularity.
It makes sense, right? After the Law of Marginal Utility kicks in, invariably one or both partners in a relationship commit infidelity. I don’t think I can remember observing any contemporaneous relationship amongst friends, colleagues and acquaintances which was not touched by infidelity (in one form or the other) at least once.
And cheating sucks.
But not everyone cheats, you say. Not everyone is horny all the time. Fair enough. Utopia does exist. If your relationship is one of those few lucky ones (I don’t believe you), then I am really happy for you. But for the rest, let me try and pierce that veil of harmony a little with a few thoughts of my own as to why your relationship may not have been cursed with adultery yet:
- Perceived lack of options: Long-term exclusivity sometimes is simply the refuge of people who think they have no options outside the relationship, and not because they don’t want to step over the line. It is a question of supply, not demand. Anyone who lives within the means of an exclusive relationship well after the ‘certainty rot’ has set may suffer from a lack of imagination of seeing themselves be desired.
- Effort-Reward Ratio: Because the effort-reward+risk ratio does not feel worth it. Because you have grown old. Because putting yourself out there is scary and tough. Because you feel you have gained weight or you have grown bald or that your jokes are no longer funny, and now that you have the status of being in a relationship/married, your market value has plummeted. To bring it up would require gargantuan effort to shake up that inertia of rest. And without any assured returns, should you really go put yourself out there? Is porn, perhaps, an easier way out?
- Fear of society: Many naysayers will claim that not everyone is as ‘immoral’ as I am (my Dad certainly thinks so). But morality is nothing but the fear of society. We have been fed the Tully-ish notions of Family, Duty and Honour (at the cost of Sanity, Pleasure and Happiness) from childhood. But fear is not a good reason to stay in any relationship. The Simran ke Papas may disagree.
- Baby: Did you know many ancient Vedic texts recommend having a baby immediately after wedding to prevent or suspend spousal cheating? The logic is simple yet brilliant. A baby acts a common project between the partners, a constantly evolving and changing dynamic that somewhat manages to keep the partners (a) distracted, (b) busy, (c) un-bored (as opposed to excited). It is like a unicorn startup, and the parents are the co-founders.
At this juncture, many resort to citing the example of their parents as an example of long-lasting love. Adultery did exist even then if Mahesh Bhatt’s movies are any indication. And even if it did not, it was a different era.
- First, as I said, ignorance is bliss. The idea of cheating was absent from the collective imaginations of many a family back then. Unthinkable, if you will. Compromise was the key word of that period.
- Secondly, there was no internet then. No OYO rooms. Nothing that allowed orchestrating convenient clandestine meetings.
- Third, the generation of our parents were married off a lot earlier in life (early twenties). They adjusted with each other while their personalities were still being moulded. This is very unlike the present day – where people end up marrying well into their late 30s (which I would recommend), and are thus more rigid in their wants and desires.
But that does not mean I recommend blazing through orgies and threesomes without any heartfelt connection. I do not think a long-term relationship is bad. Could it not, however, be monogamish instead of monogamy?
It was relationship columnist Dan Savage who coined the term “monogamish” to describe ostensibly monogamous couples who accept occasional lapses. So, couples are not reprehensible if they have been married in a relationship for 20+ years, and each steps out only a few times. They’re actually very good at monogamy. For a monogamish agreement to work, both individuals must be honest about who they are and what they want sexually.
Many celebrity couples are thriving in such arrangements (Ethan Hawke, Emma Thompson, etc). Take Will Smith-Jada Pinkett-Smith for example, who are famous for their monogamish relationship. On Howard Stern, Jada said that she trusts her husband to do what’s right.
Here’s the deal with that, Howard, you’ve got to trust who you’re with. And at the end of the day, I’m not here to be anybody’s watcher. I’m not his watcher. He’s a grown man. Here’s what I trust — I trust that the man that Will is, is the man of integrity. So, he’s got all the freedom in the world. As long as Will can look himself in the mirror and be okay, I’m good.
“I think that we’re locked into certain ideas,” Emma Thompson said according to Daily Mail, “and certain romantic ideals that have shaped our thinking about relationships for some time. And I do sometimes wonder about whether there are alternatives, and about whether our fury and rage and disbelief and horror about infidelity is quite unrealistic.”
You put the cards on the table, negotiate a set of boundaries that work for you. You decide the level of involvement of ‘outside factors’ you are okay with. For some couples, online sex (porn, webcams and the like) work. In India, hundreds of exhibitionist couples use one Tango App to explore this side. For other couples, in-person sexuality (affairs, swing clubs) works. India has a very thriving swing culture operating in the shadows.
Or maybe you can experiment with rules like “never more than once with the same person”, or “no penetrative sex” or “has to involve both partners”. Studies have shown this has led to many couples to a healthy, happy and fulfilling monogamish arrangement. Instead of feeling suffocated and stifled, they are pushing traditional boundaries imposed on us by society to breathe a little out of their primary relationship. This nurtures emotional intimacy and trust rather than diminishes it.
Changing times and evolving dynamics of modern love might just require a monogamish solution.
What do you think?
Gourav Mohanty is a lawyer practicing in the Bombay High Court. He has five years of experience in dispute resolution, and is a gold medalist from Symbiosis Law School.