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The Changing Terms of Fidelity

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When I was young, my mama sat me down and she said to me "son, when you're grown you'll meet a nice woman who'll bear you nice chil'ren"; well I turned out gay so that's buggered up Plan A.

Incidentally, I'm from Scotland, not Texas, but there is something about a Texas drawl (which I hope you had the pleasure of intimating from that above passage) which conveys the sense of an orthodox, and especially moral, path of life. But, no, none of us (including the Texans) live an unblemished life, though we might aspire to it. Next to fears of rejection, many LGBT people talk about the fact that they, in order to be true to themselves, may never develop that 'perfect family', whatever that might mean to an individual - usually, it means a man and a woman and, if you like, "white picket fences".

Why should this be considered an impossibility? I mean, goddamit, I can smile with my arm round a husband, and I trust myself with a paintbrush - to say that we aren't able to fulfill that image (goal? fantasy? illusion?) is, in a strict sense untrue. A vagina doesn't make a household. The reason, it is said, is because of a general disillusionment - sex, sexuality and relationships are changing in the West, and many people are taking a fresh look at old institutions and realising there are better ways, or at least: there might be.

It is, of course, marriage I speak of: one most notorious institution because it is as strongly held in esteem as a life goal as it is held in disrepute as a naive aspiration. Of course, marriage, for most, is a statement of monogamy - it is, often literally, a statement two people make in which they vow that the other is the one and only - "it's just you, baby" (note: if this is your partners wedding vow you've made a mistake). And when people dream of marriage, they are often dreaming of either (a) a big ol' wedding, or (b) that vow of commitment.

And why shouldn't we desire commitment? Don't many of us come from splintered families, or were bullied in high school, or simply find ourselves at several of life's junctions all alone? A prominent fear for many LGBT people. Indeed, many of us come out of that conversation with our parents while we're young ("get wife, get chil'ren") and have a conception of the world which tells us that monogamy is the perfect relationship template; furthermore, any betrayal of that ideal is a great betrayal to one's ideology, and so is difficult to tamper with.

So, these factors in some part define straight and queer people's attraction to monogamy and the institution of monogamy (though, of course, one partner has its upsides). But there are skeptics, and their numbers are rising. And rightly so! Let's play statistics: last year, about how the number of the people getting married were getting divorced (incidentally, civil partnerships had much better odds: one in twelve dissolutions in 2010; we'll come back to that later). Most cited reasons for divorce/dissolution was either "growing apart" or adultery. These results will turn heads, criticising both marriage and monogamy, and will turn them towards other options...

The other options are, mostly, treated with a more vigorous cynicism than even marriage (it's all a bit 'damned if you do, damned if don't, isn't it?). Non-monogamy is the branching term for relationship in which there is, usually, a central partner as well one, two or many other periphery partners. In most situations (there are a lot of niche groups), outside relationships are almost strictly sexual, and emotional needs are fulfilled by this one main person - the person who you love; you may even marry this person, or have a civil partnership. In fact, because of the modern nature and gloss of civil partnerships, fidelity isn't at all a necessary oath - its up for debate along with the presence of ugly chairs and kitchen ware. Of course, not all civil partnerships follow this formula, and even if they did they're might hundreds of reasons why a partnership fares better (e.g. the romantic allure of marriage is greater than that for civil partnerships).

"Why bother falling in love? Why get married if you aren't bonded to one person?", in a traditional sense, monogamy is tied to the concept of a relationship inextricably, and these questions will be asked, about how a "relationship" can function if each person can be romantically/sexually tied with others. And these questions are the junction that many of us are beginning to reach, or are at: what constitutes a relationship? Is it strictly emotional, or are sex and emotions a package - I recently had this question posed in a succint analysis: "Do I own my genitals, or do they?". Marriage has a time-honoured, quasi-religious following, but with change an everyday facet of life, the evolution of intimacy will happen quickly if it does at all.

In the LGBT community, the sense of change is strong because the dynamics of two people of the same gender trying to have a relationship are inevitably going to be different, and there is, therefore, not real expectation or tradition for homosexual relationships. No-one asks themselves "what is a good gay relationship?", we move with the times, barely constrained by tradition, and hopefully discover what's best for ourselves. In the light of the sexual revolution, people of all sexualities are beginning to see things anew, and evaluate freely what is right for them.

So... what is right? As in all avenues of life, we are shaped by our experiences: if you have seen a marriage fail, you may have less respect for it; if you see the damage of betrayal and infidelity, you might desire a centered, faithful partnership. These questions, for many have been answered: they know what they want, and hopefully they communicate that to their partner - for some, e.g. in a gay man's relationship, non-monogamous relationship are common (research suggests that 60-80% of gay men live in openly non-monogamous relationships), and there are so many reasons why this might be the case. This is hugely suggestive of the desires of men in general, although there are plenty who desire simple monogamy.

There are heaps and heaps of recycled arguments for why monogamy will or won't work, some of which are crucially true (there may be irreconcilable differences), others are only contextually relevant (e.g. religious belief), or even pseudo-science-y (humans biologically are unsuited to monogamy [this deserves a post to itself]). Perhaps it's enough to say "live and let live", but I think there comes a time when we all have to look at how we pick a mate, and what we do with him or her: 'till death? Free love? Its a question of what your heart (and genitals) want, and where the compromise with your partner is. It's an important one to ask.