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Midwit Monogamy

I had a great time on Will Jarvis’ Narrative Podcast recently. The episode is titled “Rationality with Jacob Falkovich” even though Rationality is almost the only topic we didn’t cover. Will asked me about various things I’ve written about over the years, from why China’s soccer team sucks to why Madden is the most underrated video game.

Will also asked me to “steelman polyamory”, and I asked him in jest if he wants to steelman monogamy first given its less-than-stellar recent record. I then covered in brief the Esther Perel-inspired argument I wrote about before, of how the contemporary model of monogamous marriage is set up to fail:

  • In the modern model, each partner is expected to meet a huge range of often contradictory demands (security, sexiness, emotional support, economic partnership, shared interests, adventure…) that are practically impossible for a single person to fulfill.
  • Despite the impossibility of the task, it’s verboten to even mention either a partner failing to fulfill any of those needs or a partner looking for any of them to be fulfilled elsewhere. Any mention of such is seen a strong signal that the relationship is failing and should perhaps be broken up.

At the time, I wrote about how this conundrum strongly suggests polyamory as a solution.

Since then, I’ve talked to a couple of friends who tried various flavors of non-exclusive relationships but realized that they value exclusivity a lot, that they need it from their partner and want to provide it as their primary expression of love. No longer taking it for granted, they are willing to accept not having some of the other needs met as long as they are granted the unique gift of exclusivity.

I believe that this works really well for people who are wired like that and who have a partner who feels the same. But I also believe that, at least in the educated urban contemporary culture I reside in, this is not the default. The default mindset is seeing exclusivity as a trivial entitlement of each partner who wants it, as opposed to a weighty and difficult sacrifice by the partner who keeps it.

I also believe that this unreflective approach to monogamy is crazy and a relationship killer. This is very much a midwit bell-curve meme, where thoughtful non-monogamy and committed exclusivity-as-priority are both much better than exclusivity-as-default-entitlement.

Imagine for example that Alex comes back from a work trip and their partner Pat says “I really wanted some sexy companionship while you were away but I managed to refrain from cheating”. Exclusivity-prioritizers might say that Alex should really thank Pat for their forebearance and be extra nice to thm. But midwit monogamists would justify Alex getting mad at the mere fact that Pat thought about cheating, and that Pat certainly doesn’t deserve a cookie for merely not acting on it.

Now imagine Alex comes back from said trip and Pat says “I had a difficult time keeping the home and taking care of the kids alone”. In this alternative, I don’t think many people would support Alex saying “well I had no trouble at all on my work trip, so how dare you complain!” I think the fact that exclusivity is presumed to be a symmetric obligation while work/housekeeping may be equally valuable but different is in part what makes people confused.

But of course, if Pat wanted companionship and didn’t pursee it out of obligation to Alex, that is a sacrifice they made for the sake of relationship just as cleaning the house was. They want this sacrifice to be met with gratitude and not with reprimand. People have a tendency to get resentful and furious when their sacrifices are reprimanded!

I’ve gotten a lot of hate over the years for talking about polyamory online, and I’ve noticed that almost none of it is coming from people who really value exclusivity and are in happy and secure exclusive relationships. The hate is coming from people who are doing midwit monogamy and it’s failing.

They’re not having their needs met and are angry at their partner, or they feel inadequate about their own inability to satisfy their partner and it threatens their identity. They assumed that they would stop being attracted to others after they got partnered but the opposite happened and they’re afraid that they’ll cheat. Or they’re afraid of being found out, or afraid that they’ll be cheated on, or afraid that it already happened. They imagine some “old times” when monogamy was easy by default and don’t understand why it all broke down for them. They lash out at all the things that have changed outwardly since these “old times”, whether it’s feminism or capitalism or porn or people talking openly about polyamory online.

I feel bad for these people. Both being polyamorous in a mostly monogamous society (as I am), or being devoutly exclusive after exposure to polyamory (as my friends are) forces you to think hard about what you really value in a relationship, what you’re willing to sacrifice for it, and how to meet a partner who is signing up for the same deal. That’s the only way to make relationships work at all. Many midwit monogamists, unfortunately, haven’t realized this yet.

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