What Is Monogamy?
And more importantly....what does it mean to you?
Words hold great power, but they do not hold this intrinsically. Their power comes from the intentions in our hearts when we choose to share them. The words chosen then, like the intentions that project them, can be used to help or to harm. Words can console and connect, bringing people together in acceptance and understanding. They can be employed to energise, educate, and inspire. However, they can also be used to criticise, crush, and condemn our relationships to ruins. Words used with no clear intention can create confusion and isolation, leaving each receiver to cobble together their own interpretation based on many life experiences and subconscious associations.
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With this awareness, I have realised that the teachers I most admire are those who apply dedicated discipline in choosing their words. They understand the privilege and responsibility of their position and take the time to test their words against the desires of their hearts. They also do not assume we are all automatically on the same page, so they take pains to define any terms where ambiguity could compromise communication. This process of explicit clarification and care for their words is a great act of kindness for their audience. It also provides the maximum potential for true connection.
And so, it is the purpose of this chapter to bring clarity to the words we use to describe the structure of our intimate relationships. It is done to bring greater awareness, understanding and clarity to our relationships and provide us with the words we need to express the desires of our hearts. In this chapter, I will begin to unravel the webs that bind us in confusion and present proposed terminology that may assist people in having full and frank conversations about the boundaries of their bonds. This journey will continue later in the book when we explore the many meanings behind the word love. As you will see, there is no longer any black-and-white world regarding monogamy. The best I can do is to bring to light all the shades of grey that comprise this social construct.
The definition of monogamy
As recognised by Gabriel Marcel, some words:
"become charged with passion and so acquire a taboo-value. The thinking which dares to infringe such taboos is considered, if not exactly as sacrilegious, at least as a kind of cheating, or even as something worse."
I feel monogamy, because of its close ties to morality, is one of these taboo words. Depending on the audience, any inquisitiveness or investigation may result in either lurid looks or suggestions of sedition. One only has to look at the list of synonyms for monogamy to understand its moral weight. Words such as decency, chasteness, devotion, honour, sinlessness and integrity are all viewed as interchangeable terms for monogamy, suggesting that even questioning this concept is akin to dirty, evil and disgraceful.
But how on earth are we to determine if we are monogamous if we don't clearly understand what the word implies, and more importantly, if our personal definition matches that of our partner? So, before I dive into the derivation and evolution of the meaning of the word, I would like to ask you:
What is your definition of monogamy?
Many centuries ago lives of citizens were ruled by religion, and the definition of monogamy was simple and inextricably intertwined with marriage. It was true to its Greek origin, where monos meant alone, and gamos meant marriage. Monogamy then was a legally binding marriage to a person of the opposite sex for life and predominantly for procreation and sharing resources.. Marriage was deemed a sacred institution, a sacrament, and a contract between the couple and God that could not be broken, even by death.
However, in the mid-1500s, Henry VIII introduced divorce into his new Church of England. Divorce allowed him to keep remarrying until he could get a male heir. With the growth of this new religion, divorce became more acceptable and widely available. Then, with the Age of Enlightenment in the 1700s, people began to question the authority of religion and instead turned to logic and science for guidance. The power of God was further eroded by the basic needs of people after centuries of plague. The loss of so many people of child-bearing age made it a necessity for people to be able to remarry to reproduce and sustain societies. These pressures resulted in the watering down of the definition of monogamy to remove the requirement that the commitment was for life. It was still bound by marriage, but a person could have more than one marriage in a lifetime and still be monogamous as long as the marriage was with one person at a time.
The reduced influence of religion has continued over the centuries, and today less than half of our citizens declare an affiliation with Christianity. With the rise of individualism and dispersed families, the actual institution of marriage is losing its importance. An increasing number of people are choosing not to get married at all. In 1970 9% of the adult population had never been married, but by 2018, this had jumped to 35%. Over one-third of adults now choose not to become legally bound by marriage. For those that do choose to marry, only one-quarter were celebrated as religious ceremonies.
Germaine Greer would suggest that the reducing rate of marriage displays logic at work, arguing that:
"It is absurd that people should pledge themselves for life when divorce is always possible."
Moreover, only a few decades ago, cohabitation without marriage was viewed as "living in sin", but now it is commonplace, with most couples living together before or instead of being married. A study in the UK conducted in 2016 found that the vast majority, 88% of couples, cohabited before marriage..
The expanded variety of our intimate relationships thus required a similar broadening of the definition of monogamy. Now, instead of it being designated as one marriage for life, the definition of monogamy is:
"the practice or state of having a sexual relationship with only one partner." (Oxford languages)
The definition of a sexual relationship
Why is it that a sexual relationship is the focus of monogamy? We will delve into this later in the book. Still, the simple answer, for now, is that historically sex gained its importance as the means of reproduction. Men needed to know that they were investing resources into their own children, so monogamy was a process of mating exclusivity to ensure assets were shared only with legitimate heirs.
Sexual relations then were defined by the scientific explanation of penis-in-vagina intercourse, where the man's reproductive organ enters the woman's reproductive organ. In our modern world, though, sex is increasingly becoming a function of pleasure rather than procreation. There are many ways children are created these days, with egg donors, sperm donors and adoption. This increased complexity has made previous ideals of monogamy based on the creation of shared offspring largely redundant. We now also celebrate the sexual relationships of the LGBTQI community, and this simple definition of copulation completely ignores the increased individuality of sexual relations in the modern world.
Still, there is an inherent need for humans to have something concrete and tangible to assess our relationships against, and sex, it can be argued, is the most intimate of physical acts. It is also when we are physically and emotionally at our most vulnerable, so it makes sense that sex has come to symbolise the highest level of trust and commitment to care for another. If it can no longer be that we breed together, then the next most substantial evidence of monogamy would have to be our exclusive sexual relations. However, sexual relationships are not that simple.
The following diagram is a model of sexuality I have developed. This model was motivated by the need to have full and frank conversations with my daughters about their comprehensive sexuality, its changing nature, and how they may choose to use it to connect with others. It shows various ways in which a person can share their sexuality with others. We can do this through talk, touch and the most intimate form of touch, sex.
This model helps illustrate how a lack of clarity around our personal definitions can create confusion and how words can be used to express the deceit in our hearts. Remember when Bill Clinton assured us that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman" (being Monica Lewinski)? Using the scientific definition of copulation, he may not have had sex, thus employing a trick of terminology that many of his predecessors used to explain away oral sex and avoid charges of adultery.
However, if we use the definition of sex above being:
The act of stimulating the sexual organs of another for pleasure and/or procreation
then even oral sex is seen as a form of sexual relationship, and he would not have been able to deny the connection did exist.
Sex is probably the first thing we think of when contemplating physical connection with others, but there are many more forms of bodily intimacy. There is also a touch of hands, lips and then greater body contact that may not involve the stimulation of the genitalia. And then what about sharing your deepest sexual desires and fears with another? This can also be construed as a form of vulnerability and exposure and intermingling of individual desire and pleasure.
There are also usually mental and emotional precursors that lead to people being together physically in the first place. There is generally a sense of attraction to the physical and personality characteristics of the other. Normally there is a desire to touch and be touched by the other person. And there is a sense of pleasure derived from being with the other person, predominantly based in the emotional realm and may or may not evolve into any physical connection.
So given the layers of sexual connection possible, when does monogamy begin and end? Is monogamy determined by a person's deeds or by their desires?
An enormous complexity is involved in defining exactly what monogamy is, so much so that in preparing this chapter, I began to understand why more authors have not dived into the murky waters. While there can be explicit vows that each person will not touch the reproductive organs of another, can the same restrictions be placed on another's words, thoughts, or emotions? How far do the demands of coupledom go into the sexual agency of each person? Where are the boundaries between monogamy and infidelity drawn? What is the perimeter that, once crossed, makes you a cheater?
When are you a cheater?
The label of cheater is a curious one and suggests the intentional breaking of rules to gain some advantage or avoid some misfortune. In monogamous relationships, this denotes that the cheater has sidestepped promises of sexual exclusivity to experience the pleasure they believe is not available in the relationship or to escape the ennui of everlasting love. Whatever the reason, being branded a cheater comes with much shame and disdain and is an indication of how wedded we are to the belief that monogamy is the only righteous relationship model. Over and above the societal judgement, however, by breaking a promise, the cheater has also broken the trust and the heart of someone they have declared to love. This is a heavy weight to bear and causes pain for both partners.
As we have heard, though, there are many progressive stages of sexual relationships. So, how do you know what the rules actually are in the first place, and when do you know that you have broken them?
Are you a cheater only if you have sex with another person outside the couple?
What about if you lie naked with them or if you masturbate together?
Have you been unfaithful if you kiss another person of the same sex?
What if you hold their hand?
How about giving or receiving a massage?
Are you a cheater if you are attracted to another person?
Or what if you desperately desire to be close to someone else but don't act on it?
When exactly have you broken the bounds of monogamy?
Monogamy is individual
After all of this analysis, we are left with the conclusion that monogamy, while touted as a set social specification, actually has the potential to be as individual as each of the relationships that bear its name. As noted by Adam Philips, humans are so desperate for a set of clear and simple rules that "we forget how different every couple is". We would love to think that everyone is doing the same thing and that the way we need to express our sexuality has to be the same as everyone else. This view, though, hands over power for forming our relationships to social convention and abdicates responsibility for creating our own lives.
Because what is right for one couple may be very different for another. More critically, what may be right for one person in the relationship, may not be aligned with the beliefs and values of the other. They will only know whether they play by the same rules if they discuss their explicit expectations.
Suppose you assume that you are both working from the same definition of monogamy. In that case, you may get a nasty surprise and may end up having a conversation that may go something like this:
"I only kissed her - it's not like I had sex or anything."
"It was only once – and I have no feelings for him– I promise."
"Yes, I am incredibly attracted to him – what's wrong with admiring beauty?"
"Honey I am so sorry, I was drunk, but it was only oral."
"You are right, I have deep feelings for him, but I won't ever act on them."
The reality is that while we would love to have clear and simple rules about what monogamy is and what constitutes infidelity, these need to be defined by and for each couple. Some people may be absolutely fine with their partner being attracted to another or even snogging someone on the dancefloor, believing that it doesn't matter where they get their appetite as long as they eat at home. Others may feel injured by the thought of their partner finding someone else desirable and fearful of what may eventuate and, inevitably, what they may lose. In this way, any rules of monogamy developed may be cunningly geared to fortify individual insecurities and vulnerabilities.
There are so many possible and recognised variations of monogamy these days. Reddit chat rooms on relationships are full of people experimenting with different forms and terms for their relationship arrangements. Some options I have encountered include the following:
Lifetime monogamy – where you only have one sexual partner for life. Traditionalists would argue that this is the only true form of monogamy.
Serial monogamy – where you only have one sexual partner at a time.
Social monogamy – where you may have sex with others but maintain a domestic and social arrangement with only one person.
Reproductive monogamy – where you have sex with others but agree to only breed with one other person.
Fluid monogamy – where prophylactics protect any sexual activity to prevent sharing bodily fluids. This is predominantly to prevent the spreading of sexually transmitted diseases.
Emotional monogamy – where you have sexual relations with others but agree to establish emotional bonds with only one person.
I find it so interesting that even arrangements that involve sex outside the couple still use the term monogamy to define the relationship. It indicates how deeply monogamy and morality are related in our society and the overwhelming yearning for couples to remain within the moral umbrella of monogamy. It suggests to me there is so much fear about straying from this gold moral standard that people are weaving words and concepts together to ensure they can still view their relationships as honourable and "normal". By including the word monogamy in the relationship description, they can still fit within the bounds of righteousness and rest at night, free from the fear of being judged and ostracised by the tribe.
The latter option, emotional monogamy, is the one that, while sounding most innocent, is, in my view, the most insidious. It seeks to impose constraints on what another person can feel, which is at its best ludicrous, and at its worst, could be described as oppression. Additionally, it can be asserted that the most satisfying of sex is drenched in emotion, and so 'allowing' your loved one to partake in sex outside of the couple but denying them the full experience of it seems like a concession based on control rather than genuine compassion and care for their vitality.
The reality of our world today is that there is very little influence from religious and legal authorities on how we construct our personal relationships. Each person and couple is free to determine what monogamy means. Therefore, it is essential to develop an individual and explicit definition of monogamy to have a shared understanding of what the container of coupledom comprises and how concrete the boundaries may be.
Monogamy is not a thing
In my recent (and very superficial) foray into quantum physics, I came across the notion that there are no solid "things" in existence. Everything we see and feel around us is a series of events. For example, a rock may appear solid and unchanging. Yet, it comprises a vast array of chemicals, energies and interactions holding it in place. While things may appear static and stable, they are, in actuality, in a constant state of flux. This description seemed to fit the concept of monogamy beautifully. Monogamy is not one solid social construct but, in fact, a continuous set of choices. As discussed in the following chapters, everything is changing, including ourselves. We are all (hopefully) growing, evolving beings moving towards our fullest potential. Who we were ten years ago is likely to be very different to who we are today. This also means that through successive experiments and experiences, our view of the intimate relationships that help us fulfil our potential may also have changed.
In this way, creating a static standard of devotion seems nonsensical. As outlined above, numerous people have already wrestled with this insanity. They are creating new definitions to suit their values and agendas. And sure, we can create one that makes sense to us now. But why would a definition of monogamy need to stay the same when the people within the confines of it are changing? Why can't the institution be expanded to incorporate alternative expressions of integrity? The barrier to this would be the participant's unwillingness to think beyond the secure bounds of social standards (more on this when we look at monogamy through the lens of maturity) and their need for certainty and stability. The natural laws suggest that, just as we have seen definitions change at the societal level over time, any definitions of monogamy created by a couple must flex as the individuals within them flux. This can only be enabled by high awareness, openness, communication, confidence and compassion within and between each person in the pair.
The definition of monogamy in this book
Now it appears you are about to witness my first act of hypocrisy. Well, I hope it is my first and I haven't missed another one. While I have just declared standard definitions of monogamy may be nonsensical, I am about to propose one. There is a reason for my duplicity, though, and that is the intention with which I started this chapter – to clarify the words that could compromise successful communication. So, despite acknowledging the quirks inherent in defining monogamy, we must use a shared definition to investigate it. To this end, in this book, monogamy is defined as:
"a dyadic and sexually exclusive relationship, where sex is defined as the act of stimulating the sexual organs of another for pleasure and/or procreation."
It may appear that with this definition, I have spent this chapter wandering around in a big circle, only to return to where I started. I can only hope that the journey has ended with some greater level of enlightenment and a new perspective on this relatively dull delineation of dedication. I hope it may have been an adventure that is a little less Alice in Wonderland:
"Sometimes we don’t like the ending. Sometimes we don’t understand it.” ~ Cheshire Cat
And a little more T.S. Eliot:
"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." ~ T.S. Eliot
We all now understand that monogamy is much more complex and individual than this simple definition suggests. So I will leave you now to consider again:
What is your definition of monogamy?
 Marcel, G. (2017). The Mystery of Being. Andesite Press.
 MONOGAMY Synonyms: 100 Synonyms & Antonyms for MONOGAMY | Thesaurus.com
 Brunning, L. (2020). Does Monogamy Work? A Primer for the 21st Century (The Big Idea Series) (1st ed.). Thames & Hudson.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Religious Affiliation in Australia, 04/07/2022
 The Share of Never-Married Americans Has Reached a New High. (2022). Institute for Family Studies. https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-share-of-never-married-americans-has-reached-a-new-high
 Greer, G. (2008). The Female Eunuch. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
 Office for National Statistics in the UK, as cited in 
 Phillips, A. (1999). Monogamy. Van Haren Publishing.
 Rovelli, C. (2019). The Order of Time (Reprint). Riverhead Books.
The Moral Dilemma of Monogamy is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.